MOVIE REVIEW: X-Men: Apocalypse
"X-MEN: APOCALYPSE"-- 3 STARS
After two movies of turn-back-the-clock course correction, it is fair to rank the "X-Men" series right next to "The Fast and Furious" as a film franchise that was derailed, left for dead, and since rescued with a filmmaking resurgence. Matthew Vaughn's "X-Men: First Class" introduced new youthful vigor and was followed by the return of original franchise steward Bryan Singer for the slate-wiping "X-Men: Days of Future Past." The latter film grossed more than double any of its franchise predecessors and enabled the series to pass the torch from the seniors (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan) to the juniors (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender). Flush with success, good graces, and a new lease on life, "X-Men: Apocalypse" arrives with the goal to top everything that's been done in 20th Century Fox's offshoot shingle of a Marvel universe.
With everything set in place for continued success, the flashy product is a confused flurry of highs and lows. On one end, "X-Men: Apocalypse" goes for broke and doubles down on the mayhem to call upon the most ominous villain from its comic canonical roots. On the other, the film executes that goal in so many haphazard directions that you might ask yourself if Bryan Singer just made all of the same mistakes fans chastised Brett Ratner for doing a decade ago with "X-Men: The Last Stand," the much-maligned sequel that created the need to reboot this whole mess in the first place.
"X-Men: Apocalypse" boldly continues the history-be-damned route of revisionist world-building started by "X-Men: First Class" and "X-Men: Days of Future Past." We've moved up from mutant causes behind the Cuban missile crisis, the Kennedy assassination, and the Nixon administration to rewritten legends of civilization formation, pre-Christ Egypt, and the Cold War 1980s. The titular villain is En Saban Nur, the world's first mutant of nearly unlimited power.
Dubbed Apocalypse, Nur reigns over the people of ancient Egypt in 3600 B.C., commanding four "Horsemen" followers imbued with their own mutant powers. During a solar-powered ritual to transfer his power to a new vessel body (Oscar Isaac), his worshipers betray him and entomb his unfinished form for centuries. Apocalypse is discovered and mistakenly reawakened in 1983 to observe a world he sees to be weak. His goal becomes to purge this world and start a new one where the strong, namely the mutants, survive. Apocalypse begins to globe-hop to recruit new Horsemen in the form of the weather-controlling street thief Ororo Monroe (Alexandra Shipp), the winged Angel (Ben Hardy), and the lethal bladed fighter Psylocke (Olivia Munn) and amplifies their undeveloped powers to new peak levels.
Meanwhile, it has been ten years since the catastrophic actions of Erik "Magneto" Lehnsherr (Fassbender) and Raven "Mystique" Darkholme (Jennifer Lawrence) from "Days of Future Past" introduced mutants to the public consciousness. Erik has assumed a new alias in seclusion, gaining a wife and daughter, while Raven is heralded as the heroic face of the pro-mutant movement for stopping him. The shape-shifter eschews that role entirely and lets Charles Xavier (McAvoy) handle the virtuous route with his New York school for gifted mutants. Xavier, Alex Summers (Lucas Till), and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) are integrating new students like Alex's optically destructive brother Scott (Tye Sheridan) and the powerful mental psychic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner).
Apocalypse enlists Magneto as his fourth and final Horsemen and disarms all superpower nations of their nuclear arsenals, announcing his threatening presence to the world. Growing more powerful, he captures Xavier to become his next host body. Mystique rallies her old flame Hank, CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), Magneto's speedy son Peter "Quicksilver" Maximoff (Evan Peters), the rescued teleporter Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and Charles's two remaining students, Scott and Jean, for a battle of long odds versus powerful foes to rescue their headmaster and, of course, the entire world.
If you followed all of that muddled mess without needing to look up any names or people, you win a gold star already. Longtime franchise screenwriter Simon Kinberg throws dozens of spicy ideas and new characters into the screen story cauldron to see what marries together to form a rich stew. From a coherency standpoint of that cooking, the answer is less than necessary. This is not an entry-level "X-Men" film. New fans will be perplexed. Bryan Singer's "X-Men" films have always been the weakest and loosest adapters of their comic sources in the entire comic film genre, changing and modifying all sorts of details for arguably little cinematic gain. Here, where we are supposed to be witnessing a new trail being blazed. Instead, Singer and company recycle too many bits, tropes, and melodramatic romances from the other "X-Men" films.
Two damning examples stand out, among many that could have been cited. First, a near-carbon copy of the elaborate Quicksilver slow-motion speed scene set to a kitschy period tune you loved in "Days of Future Past" gets recycled, lowering its thrill factor. Second, thanks to stardom and trying to sell tickets, the filmmakers still try any and every possible way to give Mystique, a complete bit player in the comics, more uncharacteristically monumental things to do solely because she's played by top-billed Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence. It's like Seth Rogen with the shaking dice roll in "Knocked Up." Singer can't resist using the only dance moves he has. Those faults reek of laziness and negligence. There is so much untapped potential.
Film and comic fans alike drooled at the idea of "X-Men" finally unleashing its biggest baddie of the pack and what do they give you? Disordered modifications and a sterilized Oscar Isaac in terrible makeup and costumes, that's what. Isaac is too electric of an actor to be dragged down by a silly and nonthreatening look for the most fantastical character the films have ever attempted. This is a rare occasion where, as surprising at it sounds, performance capture technology could have done wonders over a physical actor to better animate this imposing villain to the proper level. His lackeys and the newer, younger heroes all resonate with even less intimidation, attraction, or interest for that matter. Good or evil, they are simply there to show off some powers in action sequences. Their character arcs are flimsy.
That said, a few entertaining and worthwhile elements save "X-Men: Apocalypse" from being a disaster. The entertainment and wow factor is indeed raised by the imaginative CGI special effects used to manifest everyone's mutant powers to their full glory. Watch 2000's first "X-Men" and you will see how long it has taken to reach this beaming pinnacle of fantasy for the big screen. Seeing those talents come to life, even if its a repeated Quicksilver gag, will always look cool, if not extraordinary.
The most worthwhile redemption on a dramatic level is the weighty character work of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. Never mind another flaw where, according to the calendar, these two characters should be in their sixties and look 35, the two veteran actors are given the real meat of the conflict. Fassbender, in particular, immediately out-classes everything and everyone else they share the screen with in this film. The dichotomy between Xavier and Magneto will always be the core of this universe. Their combined austerity can elevate "X-Men: Apocalypse" over the flaws perpetrated by the treatment of Isaac, the weak supporting characters, and the over-inflation of Lawrence. When the focus is on them, they stand tall to give this spectacle some much-needed pedigree.
LESSON #1: LEAVE BURIED AND UNDISTURBED THINGS BURIED AND UNDISTURBED-- Dammit, Moira MacTaggert! You just had to wake up a sleeping and nearly unbeatable titan, didn't you? You're a spy. Be more mindful and inconspicuous.
LESSON #2: POSSESSING MENTAL TOUGHNESS-- Honestly, pick any one of these 80 figurative quotes on mental toughness and then add a literal component with the mighty telepathic powers present within Charles Xavier and Jean Grey. Their literal strength adds to the growing figurative determination within the younger heroes learning on the job to step into this prophetic fray and potentially save the day.
LESSON #3: THE DEFINITION OF BEING THE BETTER MAN-- This first lesson is a repeat from "X-Men: First Class" because Charles and Erik have come full circle in their divisive methods and opinions. Xavier hit his low point and has elevated his noble road of betterment to be the leader and teacher he was destined to become. Erik tumbled from his defeat into hiding but is now granted the immense power to dominate with his sense of superiority. Twenty years later, both men still feel their method is the better way.