Review: X-Men: Apocalypse (dir. Bryan Singer, 2016)

Review: X-Men: Apocalypse (dir. Bryan Singer, 2016) May 17, 2016

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Movie franchises are getting increasingly convoluted these days, and the X-Men series is no exception. So, to recap: X-Men: Apocalypse is the ninth film in the X-Men series (counting the Wolverine and Deadpool solo features), the seventh film to have the word “X-Men” in the title, the fourth film in the series to be directed by Bryan Singer (who got the whole thing started sixteen years ago), and the third film to feature the younger cast that was first introduced five years ago in X-Men: First Class.

That last numerical reckoning adds an ironic wrinkle to a scene in which four mutants come out of a theatre showing Return of the Jedi, and one of them says, “Well, at least we can all agree that the third one was the worst.” The line is apparently a dig at X-Men: The Last Stand, the first film in the series that Singer did not direct,1 but it comes back to haunt the new film, which turns out to be just as much of a letdown. The first half-hour of X-Men: Apocalypse gives us reason to believe that it just might be the most awesome superhero movie of the year — but things start to go wobbly once the story comes together, and by the end it’s all just one big dull mess.

Let’s start with the good stuff. The film begins in Egypt in 3600 BC, as a mutant named En Sabah Nur is about to undergo a ritual that will transfer his consciousness — and with it, the powers he has accumulated — to another mutant (played by Oscar Isaac) who has the ability to heal instantly, just like Wolverine and Deadpool. En Sabah Nur is accompanied by four other mutants who wear the masks of Egyptian gods (what a double bill with Gods of Egypt this prologue would make), and the ritual involves a sunlight-activated mechanism that sends little rivers of molten gold towards the old and new En Sabah Nur through panels that look like hieroglyphic circuit boards. With his new power, En Sabah Nur is assured of immortality — but then, before the ritual can be completed, he is betrayed by Egyptian commoners who send his pyramid sinking into the earth, thereby killing his accomplices and trapping him underground in a comatose state. The whole sequence is quite epic, and even thematically promising, as the non-mutants yell, “Death to the false god!”

Then we get the title sequence, which zips past a string of images letting us know how much time has gone by since then: at one point the camera lingers just a tad on Jesus carrying his cross, though we also see the Mona Lisa, the Nazi swastika, the Soviet hammer and sickle, and so on. And then, finally, we land in 1983 — the early days of the Reagan era, and a full decade after the existence of mutants became public knowledge thanks to the events of X-Men: Days of Future Past.

What have our protagonists been up to since the last movie? Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has his school, of course. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) — who was last seen hauling Wolverine’s body out of the Potomac while disguised as Major Stryker — is now wandering around Berlin, looking for mutants to liberate from cage matches and the like. Magneto (Michael Fassbender), whose attempt to assassinate Nixon was thwarted on live television in the last movie, has moved to Communist Poland and is now living incognito with a wife and daughter while he works at a metal forging factory. (Feel free to make your own “Magneto incognito” rhyme here.)

And then there are the “new” mutants — which is to say, the younger versions of mutants we met in earlier movies. Chief among these are: Scott Summers a.k.a. Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), whose eyes begin to shoot out powerful beams of destructive light while he is hiding in a public high-school bathroom; Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), whose telepathic abilities and dark visions of the future terrify her fellow teenaged mutants; and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the blue teleporting demonic-looking figure who is actually a devout Catholic — and who we first see being forced to battle a mutant with angelic wings in Germany.

These introductions are all reasonably interesting, and the scene in which Cyclops shows his power to Xavier for the first time is especially amusing, and endearing. In the first X-Men film, Scott and Jean were the adults who had to show kids like Rogue how to get used to their powers, but here we get to see them when they were the kids confused by their new abilities, and it’s fun to meet them at this earlier point in their journeys (even if the new actors look nothing like their older counterparts).

But then something happens: CIA agent Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne), whose memories of working with Xavier and the others during the Cuban Missile Crisis were erased by the professor back then, is snooping around Cairo when she comes across a cult that has found En Sabah Nur’s resting place and now gathers underground to worship him. McTaggart accidentally exposes the underground burial spot to a shaft of sunlight, and the mechanism that worked on En Sabah Nur thousands of years ago suddenly starts up again — and within minutes, the ancient mutant has woken up, an act that sends tremors around the world.

And it is right after this that the film begins to lose me.

The tremors are felt everywhere, though they don’t seem to affect Cairo much. En Sabah Nur, also known as Apocalypse, walks around and observes the modern world before setting his sights on a weather-controlling thief who we will come to know as Storm (Alexandra Shipp); Apocalypse needs four new accomplices — collectively known as the “four horsemen” — and Storm is his first recruit.

Meanwhile, in America, Xavier decides to use Cerebro, the machine that amplifies his telepathic abilities, to scan the Cairo area looking for information about the tremor he just felt — and he pretty much abandons the search the moment he notices that Moira is there. Really? He just misses the fact that there is a hyper-powered mutant in the area? He stops looking for information about this most unusual earthquake once he stumbles across a woman he hasn’t seen in over 20 years? (“She hasn’t aged a day,” says Xavier, in what could be a sort of meta-joke regarding the fact that Apocalypse is set two decades after the events of First Class but the actors don’t even try to hide the fact that they’re only five years older.)2

So while Xavier goes about rekindling an old flame, Apocalypse goes about rounding up his horsemen and preparing for the destruction of the world. (In case you’re wondering, Apocalypse learns the English language and many other things about our world by touching a TV for a few minutes, though you have to wonder how much information — how many channels — there could have been in Cairo in 1983.)

As befits a film with the word “Apocalypse” in its title, there is a lot of religious terminology and symbolism here, though I’m not sure it adds up to much.

Apocalypse, when recruiting Magneto to join his horsemen, claims to have been known as “Elohim, Shin, Ra” — which, incidentally, is a different set of names than he used in the trailer — though you can’t help wondering how Apocalypse even knows the biblical name “Elohim” (or how he would have known “Yahweh”) given that he’d been in a coma for over a millennium before Abraham was born. Apocalypse also tells Magneto to “come and see” — a phrase with strong biblical overtones.

Apocalypse also makes a really interesting allusion to the story of Nimrod shooting arrows at God from the Tower of Babel3 — though he inverts it in ways that I can’t get into here for fear of spoilers. And one of his horsemen, a winged mutant named Angel (Ben Hardy), is first introduced as “the angel of death”. (Incidentally, is this supposed to be the same Angel that we saw in X-Men: The Last Stand? That Angel seemed so young that he wouldn’t have been born yet when this film takes place.)

But the most persistent theme, by far, is that of “false gods” — and different characters apply the term to different people and things. As noted, Apocalypse is first sent into his coma when some Egyptians rebel against him, denouncing him as a “false god”. Xavier himself will eventually denounce Apocalypse as a “false god” too. But Apocalypse claims that it is our own political and military systems — what we refer to as the “superpowers” of the world — that have become our “false gods”, and he might have a point. (It’s amusing to think that this story might be driven in part by a superpowered mutant who thinks it’s blasphemy to refer to anything non-mutant as a “superpower”.) Also worth noting: Singer is a big Star Trek fan, and in one scene he plays a clip from a classic episode in which the Greek god Apollo is exposed as a mere alien — another “false god”. (Last year I speculated that this film would expose Apocalypse as a “false deity” similar to the outer-space “God” in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. I had no idea the film would make its own Star Trek analogy!)

The film also introduces the concept of prayer, but in a way that — with one key exception — seems kind of tacked on near the end. There’s a disconnect between the film’s mythological symbolism (the mythological claims of Apocalypse are never really opposed on a symbolic or mythological level) and the way certain characters — some of whom are pretty peripheral to the story — say their prayers have been answered even though there is no evidence of divine intervention within the film itself.

To put this another way: this film had the opportunity to do something interesting by pitting Apocalypse, who makes all kinds of religious claims about himself, against Nightcrawler, who is a devout Catholic — and it doesn’t.

Or, to put this yet another way: There is a scene in this film in which Moira explains to Xavier that there has been a rise in cults that see mutants as “some sort of Second Coming.” But the film doesn’t engage with this premise at all. Does Nightcrawler see himself as a “Second Coming”? I doubt it, but the film never bothers to ask. Does Nightcrawler ever encounter a non-mutant who reveres him or his fellow mutants as a sort of “Second Coming”? Not in this film; quite the opposite, in fact. The “cults” to which Moira refers seem to exist in this film only as a plot device, to explain how Moira accidentally wakes Apocalypse up in the first place. Apocalypse himself — despite his integration into the ancient Egyptian religious system — shows no interest in followers of any sort beyond his four horsemen, once he has woken up.

The one prayer that does seem kind of integrated into the story is a cry of anguish uttered by Magneto after his story takes a predictably tragic and murderous turn. “Is this what you want from me?” he shouts at the sky. “Is this what I am?” The arrival of Apocalypse — and his call for Magneto to join the horsemen — is like a dark answer to that prayer: yes, if Apocalypse is the god that Magneto follows (and Magneto does address Apocalypse as though he were God, asking him where he was when Magneto’s parents were killed), then Magneto’s god wants him to keep on killing.

Religious elements aside, the film is an awkward mix of things, much of it tainted by fan service. Stan Lee makes his first cameo in an X-Men movie since The Last Stand, and it pops up at a moment that is so solemn it takes you right out of the movie. Quicksilver (Evan Peters) gets another super-speed rescue sequence like the one he had in Days of Future Past, but it comes out of nowhere — it’s practically a deus ex machina — and it feels more show-off-y as a result. (It, too, feels like a comic intrusion on an otherwise rather serious moment.) Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) pops out of nowhere, just so they can set up his next solo movie I guess, but it brings back unhappy memories of X-Men Origins: Wolverine and they never explain how he got from his final scene in the previous film to his first scene in this one.

And as for the climax to the movie… let’s just say it was reminiscent of the somewhat arbitrary and dramatically inert climax to Singer’s first X-Men movie.

Singer deserves a lot of credit for what he has done with the X-Men franchise. The first film kicked off the modern comic-book-movie trend and showed that you didn’t need to base your film on a single iconic hero like Superman or Batman in order to have a success; with its ensemble cast and its socially-aware themes, it also paved the way for the interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe films and the overtly political Dark Knight films. Singer then went on to direct two of the best, most popular films in the franchise, with X2: X-Men United and X-Men: Days of Future Past.

But X-Men: Apocalypse simply isn’t up to their level. At times, it feels like a retread (of both the good X-Men movies and the bad ones); at others, it feels like a jumble of ideas that never cohered. If this is the third film in the series-within-the-series that began with X-Men: First Class, then yes, it really is the worst of the bunch.

1. Not only does the joke backfire, but it’s not even necessarily accurate. I believe the consensus right now is that it is actually the fourth movie, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, that is the worst of the series.

Meanwhile: one question this movie never addresses is how the special-effects movies of the early 1980s might have looked different, if they had been made in a world where mutants were known to exist.

2. There is a similar meta-joke in Captain America: Civil War, when Tony Stark meets Aunt May and says she seems too attractive to be an aunt — to which Aunt May replies that aunts come in all shapes and sizes. Thus the film takes one of the criticisms of the upcoming Spider-Man reboot — that it has traded in the old woman of the comics for a younger, hotter model — and turns it into a blow for diversity. Sort of.

Incidentally, the fact that so many of these characters are technically 21 years older than they were in X-Men: First Class means that 25-year-old Jennifer Lawrence is, once again, playing someone much older than herself (see also: American Hustle, Joy, etc.). But at least she’s not alone in that, this time.

3. The story about Nimrod shooting arrows at God from the Tower of Babel does not appear in the Bible, but it has been dramatized in John Huston’s The Bible: In the Beginning… and the Iranian film Abraham, the Friend of God, and there is also a nod to this legend in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah when Tubal-Cain — the film’s Nimrod-figure — fires a projectile at the sky before giving a speech with Babel overtones.

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