The current landscape of superhero cinema could aptly be described as an embarrassment of riches.
The multiplex has become an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of superhero cinema that comes in a variety of flavours for a variety of palates. Some of it might not be to your tastes, it may even be an acquired taste (see Batman V Superman). For me, superhero cinema has always been like pizza. When it’s good it’s very, very good (see Captain America: Civil War) but when it’s bad it’s still pretty good.
X-Men Apocalypse is a good film.
X-Men Apocalypse is a good X-Men film.
But it’s not Captain America: Civil War and it seems reviewers and audiences are using the comparison as a stick with which to beat the film.
To return to the food analogy, a ripe nectarine is undoubtedly sweet, but if you bite into one right after consuming a whole peach cobbler, it’s going to seem disproportionately bitter.
The film may not be a universal crowd pleaser like Marvel Studios’ latest entry but it’s a darned solid entry into the X-Canon and superhero cinema in general. Dusting off his X-Men action figures for the fourth time, director Bryan Singer seems a lot more comfortable throwing away what no longer works and embracing new and / or different elements of the continuity.
After X-Men Days of Future Past (2014) effectively reset the series’ extremely convoluted time-line there’s a real feeling of top-down reorganisation of the franchise, introducing a lot of new elements while presenting familiar characters in new ways.
For the most part it works.
No longer being beholden to the beleaguered 2000 -2009 continuity allows Singer to take another pass at characters like Scott Summers / Cyclops, Kurt Wagner / Nightcrawler and (to a lesser extent) Ororo Munroe who have been thus far woefully under developed. Some of the dead wood from X-Men First Class (2011) has been cleared away as well resulting in a feeling of “…. and we’re back” by the time the credits roll.
The film begins in ancient Egypt where we see the deification of the immortal En-Sabah-Nur (Apocalypse) and his mutant acolytes The Four Horsemen, mutants gifted with extra powers and abilities to better serve the blue uber-mutant. I’ve always loved the idea of an ancient mutant flying in the face of the ‘children of the atom’ notion that human mutation was a relatively recent phenomenon. It’s also interesting to see how a civilisation as cultish as the ancient Egyptians would react to a creature like En_Sabah-Nur and it put me in mind of the first Thor (2011) which established that the Asgardians were essentially aliens that the Vikings worshipped as deities.
Anyway, it seems that Apocalypse is not as beloved by the people as he’d care to admit when an act of mass rebellion imprisons him deep underground in his tomb for millennia. In his absence, however, he is still venerated and indeed worshipped by the cult The Clan Akkaba.
Awoken from his centuries long slumber he searches the world for mutants to take up his cause which is (wouldn’t you know it), the complete destruction of our world.
Staying with the titular antagonist, the phenomenal Oscar Isaac does a fine job portraying the characters ethereal charisma, dealing out tenderness and ruthlessness as he travels the world in search of followers. Some have criticised the casting as a waste of one of the greatest actors of his generation, especially with his handsome and expressive features completely covered in prosthetics. While I can see why some might have wanted more in terms of subtlety and nuance the character of Apocalypse can only ever work as a brutal force of nature. Sure, his motivations are sparse and maybe the concept of looking at our violent and chaotic history and deciding that humanity is probably a write-off is looking a bit tired after Avengers: Age of Ultron (2014) did exactly the same thing but the execution was deft and enjoyable enough for me not to mind.
As has always been the case with these films, much of the drama comes from the ongoing adversarial friendship between Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr / Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Suffice to say, neither has been better and the film represents a great turning point for both characters, especially Magneto who has some of his finest moments of Shakespearean tragedy in the first act. It’s interesting, actually, to plot the characters trajectory across the three ‘prequel’ films and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if certain elements from this film were carried over from the aborted Magneto origin film.
As for Xavier it’s great to see him back to doing what he does best, mentoring and nurturing talented young mutants. The moping around from the previous film was one of the few aspects of it that jarred with me.
To a certain extent every X-Men film is an exercise in spinning plates and Apocalypse does just about enough to keep them all in the air, though I’d be lying if I said some characters weren’t short changed. Olivia Munn’s Psylocke and Ben Hardy’s Archangel are just kind of there and while they look pretty and do a lot of cool stuff I didn’t have enough investment in their characters to care all that much.
If you’ve listened to the podcast you’ll know that Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique became something of a sticking point for me as the actress’ fame grew. I’ve oft voiced my disapproval at the fact that the character has turned into ‘Blue Katniss’ and now not only has the character fallen into the unlikely and uncomfortable role of leader and icon, but she’s very rarely even blue. While the film offers some explanation for this, it’s far more likely either that the studio wanted their star to have as much face time as possible and / or Ms Lawrence didn’t want to spend any more time in the uncomfortable prosthetics than necessary. That said, she does a damn fine job in the role and nobody in their right mind could fault her acting or her commitment to the role.
Oh, and fans of Evan Peters’ Quicksilver will be pleased to know that the filmmakers have pulled off the seemingly impossible and given the character an even cooler super-speed sequence than the one in the previous film.
The phrase ‘questionable fan service’ has become fashionable in sniffy reviews for superhero films but there are several moments in the film that any X-Men fan worth their salt (even casual fans like myself who learned everything they know from the 90s animated series) will get a huge kick out of.
While the film has some minor issues with pacing and character juggling its still a most worthy entry into the series and I’ll be damned if it hasn’t fanned my waning desire to see more X-Men films and for that alone it should be judged a success.