Sunday. June 5, 2016. Revised Tuesday, June 7, with the editorial advice of Oliver Mannion.
Oscar Isaac in an all too typical moment of mighty frowning as the supervillain Apocalypse with Jennifer Lawrence in an untypical moment of blueness as the heroic shape-shifting mutant Mystique in Bryan Singer’s disappointing X-Men: Apocalypse.
I hadn’t heard promising things about X-Men: Apocalypse going in, but I didn’t expect to spend time watching it thinking, “You know, Batman v Superman wasn’t so bad.”
Hold your four horsemen! I’m not about to make the case that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice wasn’t bad or that X-Men: Apocalypse is anywhere near as bad. X-Men: Apocalypse isn’t bad, but it isn’t very good either. And it was more of a disappointment not just because I expected far more of it going in than I did of Batman v Superman.
Batman v Superman is what it was going to be and about all it could have been given that Zack Snyder was directing it and given Snyder’s ambivalence towards superheroes in general and Batman and Superman in particular. Snyder’s not interested in his characters except as symbols of his own problematic relationship with the whole idea of heroism and the story he wants to tell is an allegory of his feelings on the matter, and his movie is unremittingly grim, gloomy, and dull. But that results in a kind of perverse aesthetic and narrative consistency. It’s not fun movie storytelling but it is storytelling.
X-Men: Apocalypse’s director Bryan Singer is interested in his heroes as characters and treats them with real affection. He just keeps losing track of them.
And it’s not clear what story he’s interested in telling or that he even has one in mind to tell. There are a number of interesting storylines he starts and lets drop in order to focus on his plot: the world’s first mutant (played by Oscar Isaac), an immortal and nearly all-powerful supervillain who’s named En Sabah Nur but who’s known by what’s essentially his job description, Apocalypse, is resurrected after five and a half millennia of suspended animation under the collapsed ruins of an unearthed pyramid in Egypt. Apocalypse, eager to make up lost time as a self-proclaimed god, immediately sets out to destroy the world and remake it in his own image, a task that doesn’t require him to break a sweat but does involve lots of screen time devoted to images of buildings disintegrating, bridges collapsing, holes opening up in the earth, crowds of people staring bug-eyed and open-mouthed at the sky, and dust and debris flying around and about everywhere and obscuring the views of building disintegrating, bridges collapsing, holes opening up, people screaming, and, oh, by the way, the X-Men coming to the rescue.
None of that is interesting or makes for good movie storytelling.
X-Men: Apocalypse is the third installment in a series that I guess is serving both as a set of prequels to the X-Men trilogy of the last decade and a reboot of the franchise. It’s set in 1983, ten years after X-Men: Days of Future Past, which was set ten years after X-Men: First Class.
One of my disappointments with X-Men: Apocalypse, besides its not being as good as either Days of Future Past or First Class, is that while many references and allusions to events and pop culture highlights of the 1980s are scattered throughout the movie---for instance, there's a way too short scene of the teenaged Scott Summers, the future Cyclops, leading his School for the Gifted classmates Jean Gray, Nightcrawler, and Jubilee on a young X-men apprentices’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off which unfortunately doesn’t include a cutaway to one of the teachers back at the school calling the roll and repeating “Summers? Summers?”---none of them figure significantly in the plot or even make it in as fully-developed jokes.
The Cold War undergirds the plot of X-Men: First Class and the 60s are invoked stylistically and thematically throughout the movie. The 70s matter in Days of Future Past as the target of commentary on the nightmare that was Nixon’s America and as an annoyance to Wolverine who’s forced to relive his least-favorite decade of his long life. In X-Men: Apocalypse the 80s are just background noise. Singer doesn’t even pause for a second to highlight the irony of Apocalypse setting out to make himself a god in the eyes of 20th Century humans by ending the Cold War at the moment the Cold War was actually ending.
Or maybe he does and I just missed it amid all the noise and computer-generated visual chaos and confusion. I think there was a muddled line or two in which Apocalypse suggests that one of the things he really doesn’t like about the 21st Century is that humans seem to have created a world in which gods like him are unnecessary.
Not just unnecessary but basically a nuisance.
The storylines and subplots featuring Singer’s other stars beside Oscar Isaac---Michael Fassbender as Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto, James McAvoy as Charles Xavier/Professor X, Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy/Beast, Evan Peters as Quicksilver, all returning from the previous installments of the series, along with Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, and Alexandra Shipp making their first appearances as Scott Summers, Jean Gray, and Ororo Munroe, the future leaders of the real X-Men, Cyclops, Phoenix, and Storm---are interesting but like I said, Singer keeps dropping their storylines and losing track of their characters.
Eric Lehnsherr/Mangeto is working as a steelworker in Poland where he’s established a life as a normal family man with a wife and daughter, a good neighbor, and friend to all, secretly using his superpowers to do small good deeds, but mainly enjoying being an ordinary man and learning not just to tolerate non-mutants but to like them. That’s interesting. And since he’s essentially living out a subplot of Man of Iron, the 1982 Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language film, which is set in the shipyards of Gdansk during the rise Solidarity’s challenge to Poland’s Soviet-puppet regime, the possibility is there that he’s taking part in the movement and has met Lech Walesa and that’s very interesting.
Charles Xavier/Professor X is happily running his school for “gifted” students---that is, for young mutants who need to be educated on how to control their superpowers and use them for good because with great power etc---which isn’t all that interesting, it’s simply required exposition. What is interesting and funny is watching him making a lovable goof of himself as he awkwardly tries to rekindle his romance with CIA Agent Moira Mactaggert without resorting to restoring the memories of their love affair he took from her at the end of X-Men: First Class for the usual stupid superhero’s reason for sabotaging his personal happiness, to protect her.
Mystique seems to be running an underground railroad for mutants, rescuing them from various troubles and perils and putting them on the route to someplace where mutants can live unthreatened and unexploited by humans. Mystique needs to keep a low profile so she has to go around continually shape-shifted into looking like Jennifer Lawrence which means Lawrence gets to spend less time naked and blue and more time in a black motorcycle jacket and Doc Martens, looking like she’s just finished a late-night gig at CGBGs. That’s neither interesting nor uninteresting but was probably a relief to Lawrence. The Doc Martens website, by the way, boasts of their boots’ popularity among punk rockers and skinheads and that’s interesting as in WTF? but beside the point here. Mystique’s adventures bring her into contact with a fixer and mutant mafiosi of sorts named Caliban, a strange and unnerving character who looks more like an extraterrestrial than he does like any mutant we’ve seen so far. He’s interesting.
Storm is a street rat in Cairo using her still far from developed weather controlling powers to help her steal food from street vendors, and that’s interesting.
Quicksilver is still living in his mom’s basement ten years after we last saw him in Days of Future Past but apparently, having gotten a taste of being a superhero, he’s been zipping out from time to time to fight crime on the QT, and that’s interesting.
Just as he did in Days of Future Past, Evan Peters runs away with the movie. That’s not a bad joke. Well, it is, but it’s also an accurate description of what happens.
Jean Gray/Phoenix and Scott Summers/Cyclops are introduced to us and each other, finally bringing together the core of the original X-Men from the comic books and the rebooted storyline near to the point where the first set of X-Men movies began way back in 2000. That’s probably interesting to fans of the comics and those movies. I’m not among either. But I recognize that’s me. The X-men left me cold when I was a comic-book reading kid in the 60s and when I got interested in them later, for a brief time in the late 70s, it was the group centered around Storm, Banshee, Nightcrawler, Colossus, and Wolverine. Cyclops was just sort of there, the nominal leader, but really along for the ride, and Jean Gray was mostly offstage busy being sort of dead. But Nightcrawler is in X-Men:Apocalypse and that’s interesting because he’s interesting as a character and as he’s played by Kodi Smit-McPhee. I’m not interested in any more X-Men movies but I would be interested in a stand-alone that featured Nightcrawler and Quicksilver teaming up as a pair of not typically heroic superheroes who are essentially invisible when at work for secret and comedic crime-fighting adventures.
All that is interesting and could have been more interesting if Singer had given his supervillain an interesting story of his own and used it to weave his superheroes’ storylines together or, even better, been content to tell those stories without a superpowered villain and instead come up with a villain like Bolivar Trask in Days of Future Past who actually had to do things to demonstrate his evil genius beside wreak computer-generated havoc. But Apocalypse’s part of the movie is only plot and special effects and those storylines are just devices to bring the X-Men into that plot and then beat them up with the special effects. And Apocalypse himself isn’t the least bit interesting.
Unlike Lawrence, Oscar Isaac spends the whole movie not naked but blue. I couldn’t tell how much of what we see of him is makeup and prosthetics and costume and how much is CGI, but for all the acting he has to do and for all it matters that it’s Isaac doing the acting, Apocalypse might as well be entirely computer generated.
Isaac isn’t called upon to do much more than frown mightily or grin malevolently as he watches buildings disintegrate, bridges collapse, holes open up, etc. His dialog is mainly variations on the theme that it’s time for humans to learn their place and bow to him or die and he has to deliver most of his lines at the top of his voice in order to be heard over the din of buildings disintegrating etc. Apocalypse has no wit, charm, no verbal style. He doesn’t talk intelligently or even coherently about what he’s up to or what motivates him, probably because, as far as we can tell, he possesses no intelligence, not even of the movie evil genius kind, and doesn’t think at all, never mind think coherently. He fumes, rages, and sneers, but he doesn’t monologue like a good movie villain. He says that the power he wants most of all is the power to look into the minds of every human being at once but the one he really needs is the power to hold a simple conversation. In short, he’s boring.
In the comic books, Apocalypse has been continuously active interfering destructively in human affairs and trying to bring about the end of the world since he came into existence centuries upon centuries ago. This could have given Isaac something interesting to work with. Apocalypse could have amused himself and us monologuing about how much fun he had bringing about the Fall of Rome and guiding Cortes to Tenochtitlan and about his frustration at seeing his last chance to ignite a nuclear Armageddon slip away as the Soviet Union collapses.
Not having gone that way, however, Singer then could have spent time showing us an Apocalypse who, having gone to sleep in Pharaohic Egypt and woken up in an automobile traffic-snarled Cairo where the street vendors listen to Metallica on their boom boxes, struggles to figure out how to make himself a god relevant to life in the 20th Century.
But Singer has Apocalypse solve that problem for himself in a single quick scene. While visiting Storm’s apartment, Apocalypse picks up all the information he thinks he needs to navigate life in 1983 by absorbing everything being broadcast on her portable TV, which includes a rerun of an episode of the original Star Trek. The episode happens to be “Who Mourns for Adonais” in which Kirk and his crew are captured by the Greek god Apollo who is feeling lonely and bored after centuries of self-imposed exile on an uncharted planet the Enterprise bumps into while seeking out new life and new civilizations. Like Apocalypse, Apollo is looking to get back to work at that divine job of being worshipped by all of humanity. Apocalypse learns how to speak perfect 20th Century American English from that episode but he fails to pick up on its lesson: that the most powerful deities are no match for plucky humans who don’t need gods to rule them anymore, not even benevolent gods like Apollo, never mind malevolent ones like Apocalypse.
What Singer fails to pick up from his own inside-joke is what could have been a good plot for his movie that allowed for the development of his villain’s character in a way that might have made him interesting and even sympathetic.
Apollo is defeated when he’s forced to face the fact of his irrelevance. The realization and the implicit rejection by the humans he genuinely loves as his children breaks his heart.
X-Men: Apocalypse, directed by Bryan Singer, screenplay by Simon Kinberg. Starring Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, and Oscar Isaac. With Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Evan Peters, Olivia Munn, Alexandra Shipp, and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Rated PG-13. Now in theaters.