Watching X-Men: Apocalypse is quite exhausting; it’s as if the goal was to make a superhero film with every negative stereotype in mind. The film can be described in two parts: moments driven by the sheer force of large spectacles and then, the quiet moments of downtime in between that are reserved for characterization and exposition. At this point, I worry that I’ve become a parrot in reviewing these blockbusters, but I find that criticisms for one superhero film are easy applicable to others. It seems that the style of film-making across these films just isn’t evolving.
The film begins with a flashback in Ancient Egypt. The citizens are ruled by a god-like figure known as En Sabah Nur also known as the first mutant: Apocalypse. Suffering from old age, En Sabah Nur is in the process of transferring his consciousness into a new body—a ritual that leaves him vulnerable. It is during the ceremony that a few citizens decide to enact out a coup, one that proves successful, consequently killing En Sabah Nur’s followers and burying the deity under rubble.
The narrative then picks up to the 1980s, and splits into four directions. The first is the re-awakening of Apocalypse and his quest to build a team of four horsemen. The second is the re-introduction of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his new team of teenage X-Men students. The third is the life of Magneto (Michael Fassbender) who has assumed a new identity in Poland, where he leads a quiet life with a new family. Finally, the adventures of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) who is travelling the world and saving mutants who are being abused by humans. Suffice to say, after much exposition, the four narratives tie together and eventually becomes about the X-Men fighting Apocalypse.
In my review of Civil War, I critiqued the film for not taking any risks, thematically or creatively, and the same is true for Apocalypse. There is a key difference, however; Civil War abided by a set of standards that simply made it a conventional film. For all its worth, there are better moments of style, and as I said in my review, it perhaps might be due to Civil War’s roots in the political thriller genre. Apocalypse on the other hand, expresses a lack of creativity and recycles the “us versus them” theme we’ve seen countless times and believe it or not, even that isn’t done justice and even comes off as tasteless.
Here, I am referring to a sub-plot involving the character of Magneto. To give a brief history of Magneto’s character, he is a holocaust survivor. A good portion of First-Class–the first film in the series–is dedicated to Magneto hunting down Nazis who fled into hiding following their defeat in WWII. Fassbender’s acting as an undercover assassin seem like something out of James Bond, and the lack of spandex and grandiosity in exchange for a smaller, more personal narrative gave First-Class a humanistic, moving touch.
With his background established, we understand that Magneto has a past that haunts him but following Days of Future Past–the second film–he has evolved beyond a thirst for vengeance. This is why then the beginning of Magneto’s story in Apocalypse is the most touching aspect of the film. It showcases a man who has been able to live past his tragedy and finally find a moment of peace. Fassbender who is currently one of the most talented actors, commands a sense of compassion and hope, making these scenes all the more endearing.
Without spoiling too much, tragedy strikes and somehow Magneto ends up at Auschwitz with Apocalypse. Fueled by his anger, Auschwitz is literally wrenched from the ground and destroyed. The moment is tasteless, and the destruction caused by Magneto turns that personal narrative of hardship into a spectacle, a spectacle of the Holocaust no less.
Being that Apocalypse is essentially re-creating the X-Men franchise, the film also brings along a new cast of younger X-Men and for the better. The old guard here, especially Jennifer Lawrence, seem tired; in a film that’s partly about a lone warrior becoming a leader, there’s a distinct lack of charisma on her part. Lawrence is not an un-talented actress, so it may just be the exhaustiveness of working in these tired blockbusters.
In terms of newer cast members, praise must be given to Evan Peters in his reprisal as Quick Silver. Gifted with the power of super speed, Peters’ scenes are the most fun to watch, because they express the most creativity. When he moves, the world freezes and becomes susceptible to his touch. To that end, Quick Silver uses his powers to save people in ingenious ways that also prove comedic.
It’s not just that Singer finds a moment of gold between the camera and script, but that Peters also breathes life into his character and the atmosphere of his scenes; it’s in his inflection, facial expression, and bodily expression. The man is a funny actor.
I’d also like to shortly mention another scene that stands out. As I said, the film takes place in the 80’s, and in Eastern Berlin, mutants are captured and forced to fight in cage matches for entertainment. The fight scene here encompasses risk, because the mutants must fight to the death. In their eyes they express fear and confusion, emotions that are further heightened by the chants of the audience.
Apocalypse is almost worth watching for the three scenes that are able to express emotional pathos in an otherwise bland film: magneto’s introduction, quicksilver’s comedic display, and the terrifying cage match. These are the moments with vitality, because they either express cinematic creativity, or in the case of Magneto, are carried by their acting and a focus on a more humanistic story.
Otherwise, Apocalypse isn’t a very good film. It’s not that we’ve seen this movie already—although given the plot surrounding the awakening of an ancient evil, we have—but that very little is done well.