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Review: X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

Directed by: Bryan Singer

Premise: About a decade after the events of X-Men: Days of Future Past, the world is threatened by the reemergence an ancient mutant (Oscar Isaac) who intends to bring about the end of human civilization.

What Works: One of the impressive aspects of contemporary comic book films has been the casting and the X-Men series has led the way on this. In former days, the comic book genre and sci-fi and fantasy movies in general did not always attract great actors but the X-Men series has done that and often benefitted from players who treat the material with respect. In X-Men: Apocalypse, Michael Fassbender shines as Magneto. He is a morally ambiguous character who hovers around the line between right and wrong. Magneto is given the best dramatic moments in Apocalypse, especially in the first half of the film, which makes the character’s moral confusion credible, and Fassbender delivers as good a performance here as anything he’s done.

What Doesn’t: X-Men: Apocalypse is a case study in the mistakes of contemporary tent pole and superhero moviemaking. The flaws of Apocalypse are rooted in its script. The movie takes forever to get going; the story doesn’t really kick off until about halfway through the picture. The ironic flaw of Apocalypse is that it is simultaneously overstuffed and yet empty. The movie has a lot of characters doing a lot of different things, pulling the movie in a lot of different directions. There are many returning characters but their stories aren’t advanced and the new characters aren’t put to good use. That’s most obvious in the four allies that En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse enlists to help him. With the exception of Magneto, nobody really does anything, especially Psylocke, played by Olivia Munn, who spends the whole movie posing like she’s in a 1980s music video. Perhaps sensing the wobbliness of the story, the filmmakers go for a grandiose climax and herein they make another major mistake of big budget filmmaking: confusing mass destruction with dramatic stakes. Today’s audience is way past a time when the spectacle of a city getting destroyed could disguise an inept script. And that leads to another signature problem of X-Men: Apocalypse, the spectacle is so grandiose that it’s intangible and boring. That there are stakes is undeniable–humanity faces extermination—but it doesn’t mean anything to the audience. By comparison, X-Men: First Class and Days of Future Past also had world ending scenarios but those conflicts played out among characters who were well established and had complex relationships. The fighting was connected to those relationships, giving the conflict emotional gravitas. In Apocalypse the action is all a lot of noise and in a movie marketplace that includes The Avengers, Man of Steel, and the Transformers movies, it’s old hat. The design and direction of X-Men: Apocalypse also illustrate the problems of live action superhero movies. Images that worked on a comic book page do not necessarily translate to live action. The title character of Apocalypse is awkward and unthreatening. Despite admirable efforts by actor Oscar Isaac, En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse often comes off silly when he’s supposed to be serious and the outfit worn by Psylocke probably looked great on the page but it’s goofy when it’s made literal. Apocalypse is a period picture, taking place in the early 1980s, but the time period isn’t put to much use except for a few pop culture references directed at Generation X moviegoers. These errors distract the viewer because there is so little in this picture to hold our attention. X-Men: Apocalypse is not a coherent or cohesive piece of work; it feels like a movie made by committee, a run-through of the superhero checklist but with little worry if those pieces make any sense. 

Bottom Line: The X-Men series has had dramatic highs and lows over its sixteen year saga and Apocalypse ranks toward the bottom of the heap. Instead of marshaling the accumulated characters and ideas into a provocative story, X-Men Apocalypse is generic and devoid of the elements that distinguished the best entries in this series.

Episode: #597 (June 5, 2016)