There’s never been a more exciting time to like comic book movies. Audiences have been spoilt rotten in the past decade with top notch adaptations of both popular and obscure superhero stories, and as it turns out, superheroes beget superheroes, such that we have been presented with release schedules by Marvel and DC for well into the next decade. If you turned around in 2004 and said the subsequent 15 years would see the creation of one of cinema’s most ambitious and extensive interconnected film universes, you would have been scoffed at.
Notably, the successful X-Men film franchise predates the Marvel Cinematic Universe by some 8 years and has now been going for 16. This latest instalment, the sixth in the series (not counting the two Wolverine films and Deadpool) tells the story of a crisis over 5000 years in the making. The evil mutant, Apocalypse, is sent into hibernation in 3600BC, underneath what would become modern day Cairo. When he is awoken by a cult of followers in 1983, he sets about assembling a posse of four mutant misfits to help him cleanse the world of imperfection. This crew includes a young Storm, Psylocke, Archangel, and Magneto.
The film forms the final instalment in a loose trilogy that began with First Class and continued with Days of Future Past. We’ve watched as the fledgling X-Men prevent the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and marvelled as in 1973 they prevented making the future suck for mutants in Days of Future Past. Both those films really milked their period settings, especially First Class, and I was looking forward to more of the same from the 1983-set Apocalypse, but there was very little really to suggest the 1980s except CIA agent Moira Mactaggert’s blousy fashions and large glasses. The presence of Eurythmics on the soundtrack and an Arabic cover of “I Ran” by A Flock of Seagulls used diegetically of course do remind us that it’s the ’80s, and Ronald Reagan appears on TV. There’s a feeble attempt to use the heightened Cold War tensions of the early 1980s to heighten the drama, but this boils down to “Whoa, everyone has nukes, and so I, Apocalypse, will take them away.” But really, the film could have been set at any time in the past 40 years and it wouldn’t have mattered. For a prequel/reboot series which is so much about showing the early days of the X-Men and how the milieu of the time affected their actions, there’s hardly even a glance in that direction.
Character wise there’s plenty to love here. James McAvoy has really grown into the role of Xavier, and we see him becoming the thoughtful and considerate man Patrick Stewart brought to life 16 years ago. He’s a delight to watch, and it’s good to see him finally be the Xavier we know and love after so much sleaze and self-indulgence in the previous two instalments.
Michael Fassbender as Magneto continues to prove that he should be playing James Bond, and honestly he is wasted on this film. The character development stuff that Magneto goes through in this film is pithy and without depth; his new family is killed and of course he goes off the deep end. This is obviously awful, but what’s more its unnecessary from a plotting perspective. The fact of Magneto is he is a bad guy, and we know he is, and that’s when he’s most enjoyable. Fassbender can chew scenery with the best of them, and so making his character go through yet more emotional trauma (thereby also making it much harder to hate him as the evil villain he is) and then reducing him to one of Apocalypse’s sidekicks is quite disappointing.
The supporting X-Men are generally enjoyable. Quicksilver gets his sequence to shine, which is a real highlight of the film which had me grinning all over my face, and the teen Jean Grey and Scott Summers are both a delight. Of particular note is the debut of Nightcrawler in the new universe. Rescued by Mystique from a cage fighting competition, he becomes one of the key players in the film’s second and third acts, with his teleport power being very handy. Speaking of Mystique, it’s nice to see her grow and assume a leadership position in the X-Men; this makes me wonder what will me written in future to send her over to Team Magneto.
As for Apocalypse and friends, it’s enjoyable watching him amass his team and also the cheap persuasion he uses to convince them to come on board. His temptations are pathetic really, just appealing to ego, but they work wonders for him and he ends up with four dedicated followers. But his team (the Four Horsemen) are essentially henchmen, and get their asses royally handed to them in the final battle. Magneto of course comes round to the side of good, as he always does in this new universe, which leaves Apocalypse high and dry.
Having talked about all this, it leaves the big problem of the film to discuss. Maybe it’s just franchise fatigue, but I am sick to death of world-destroying stories. Almost all the superhero films out lately have had some sort of huge, no-concern-for-collateral-damage super-destruction battles to close the film, and it’s just boring. I find myself looking at my watch more and more as another computer generated iteration of New York bites the dust. You can only see so many cities fall over before you’ve seen enough. And the good guys always win so it’s not like there’s even that concern. And of course, you can say, “Well, the filmmakers are addressing this; look how bad Tony Stark feels about the deaths of innocents in Captain America: Civil War!“ Of course he should feel bad, but this isn’t the point. The destructo-plot is becoming repetitive, and this is why films like Ant Man are refreshing because they return to the small scale consequences and focus on character.
X-Men films are at their best when the world isn’t getting destroyed. The smaller scale, medium-level evil of Magneto in X-Men is refreshing when compared to the soulless spectacle of the Sydney Opera House flaking into nothingness. The character-driven thrills of X-Men 2, or even Spiderman 2 are what makes that those films stand out of the ever-growing crowd of superhero films even now.
The sad thing about X-Men: Apocalypse is that it is an enjoyable film. But it’s also only a serviceable one. It doesn’t aim high, and it strikes all the expected notes. But after two phenomenally good films before this one, audiences expect more. A cameo from Wolverine is not enough to save it. There’s plenty more I could talk about too. Wait for it to come out on video.