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X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

apocalypseDIRECTOR: Bryan Singer

CAST: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Oscar Isaac, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Evan Peters, Lucas Till, Alexandra Shipp, Olivia Munn, Ben Hardy

REVIEW:

X-Men: Apocalypse is the fourth comic book superhero movie to arrive in theaters in the first five months of 2016 (preceded by Deadpool, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justiceand Captain America: Civil War).  With so many comic book movies churning out left and right these days, over-saturation is a growing concern, and Apocalypse doesn’t do anything to distinguish itself in a crowded field.  In fact, it’s a disappointingly generic and muddled effort that, despite its attempts to up the ante, is a marked step down from its immediate predecessors X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past, nor is it as good as the original live-action X-Men movie or X2: X-Men United.  It’s better than the prequel misfire X-Men Origins: Wolverine (no great accomplishment) but stands about even with X-Men: The Last Stand (though, in fairness, despite its ominous title, Apocalypse doesn’t massacre half the cast, so while as muddled and uneven as Last Stand, it’s not as aggravating).  With Days of Future Past, returning series helmsman Bryan Singer (who directed and co-wrote 1 & 2) kept the fresh rejuvenating life Matthew Vaughn breathed into First Class going strong, but here, the rebooted series’ reclaimed energy and freshness is sputtering in fits and starts.

First Class took us to the 1960s, with the first meeting between young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) against the historical backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Days of Future Past visited the 1970s (setting up a new alternate timeline along the way).  In keeping with this decade-jumping pattern, Apocalypse picks up in 1983, with new (but familiar) additions to Xavier’s school including young versions of Jean Grey (Game of Thrones‘ Sophie Turner) and Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), both of whom have yet to learn to control their powers (if there is anyone unfamiliar with them by now, Jean is telepathic and telekinetic and Cyclops shoots laser blasts from his eyes uncontrollably except when wearing special sunglasses or eventually his trademark visor).  Meanwhile in East Berlin, shapeshifting Raven Darkholme/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), now part of a black market underground railroad smuggling persecuted mutants to safety, rescues winged Angel (Ben Hardy) and teleporting German circus freak Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) from an illegal fight club.  Her old comrade-in-arms Magneto has taken a chance at a normal, peaceful life as an anonymous factory worker with a wife and young daughter in Poland, but this comes crashing down when he blows his cover in a moment of carelessness.  And in Cairo, Egypt, CIA agent Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne), while investigating a secret society, accidentally helps trigger the awakening of an ancient virtually all-powerful being, En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), reputed to be the world’s first mutant, who intends to live up to his alias, Apocalypse.  Disgusted to find that “his” world has been taken over by mere mortals, Apocalypse sets out to reshape the world in his own image.  To this end, he recruits his Four Horsemen: Magneto, Angel, weather-manipulating Egyptian pickpocket Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and energy blade-wielding Psylocke (Olivia Munn).  As with the “First Class” before them, this world-threatening menace forces Xavier’s fledgling schoolchildren to take the step from students….to X-Men.

By sending Wolverine back in time from an apocalyptic future to the 1970s to change the past, Days of Future Past basically served as a reboot within a reboot of the “young” X-Men prequel/origin series.  Like J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek films, Apocalypse exists in an alternate timeline that is not tied to previous established chronology (hence why Wolverine and Nightcrawler encounter the X-Men here far earlier than in the previous films) and, conceivably, anything goes.  Unfortunately, after taking the time to set up a convoluted alternate timeline, Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg don’t do much fresh or creative with it.  Plot elements feel recycled (as in First Class, fledgling new recruits are forced to undergo a baptism of fire into full-fledged X-Men to combat a megalomaniac intent on global destruction/domination).  As in Days of Future Past, the series tries to have its cake and eat it too by including both new and old characters, but throwing Jean Grey, Cyclops, Angel, Storm, Quicksilver, Nightcrawler, and Psylocke all into the mix, along with bringing back Moira MacTaggart and the young William Stryker (Josh Helman), makes the movie feel crowded.  Hugh Jackman’s glorified cameo as Wolverine, while surely a crowd-pleasing moment, feels shoehorned into the movie just to be doing it, the same kind of fan service as Wonder Woman in Batman v Superman or Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War (although he has less screentime than either of them).  The subplot in the first act involving Magneto’s newfound family lacks the impact it aims for, partly because it feels perfunctory and underdeveloped (his wife and daughter have “plot device” written all over them from the get-go), partly because it’s a repetitive plot element (Magneto tragically losing his family as a catalyst to drive him to the dark side, then wrestling with inner conflict).  It’s telling of the general lack of fresh ideas that a flashback of Magneto’s friendship with Xavier from First Class is more moving than most of the new material here.  Also irksome is the way Mystique goes further afield of the comics character with each installment, elevated to a central status she doesn’t warrant and here a full-fledged “hero” and de facto team leader of the young X-Men (as indignant comic fans will tell you, that’s Cyclops’ job).  Whether Mystique’s inflated role and “heroine” status is due to egotism on the part of Jennifer Lawrence, or the studio wanting the series’ “It Girl” front-and-center, or both, it’s mildly irritating and smacks of a character being shoehorned into a role that doesn’t suit it just because it’s played by a popular movie star (it’s also annoyingly conspicuous how much time Jennifer Lawrence spends looking exactly like Jennifer Lawrence, only donning the blue-skinned, red-haired, yellow-eyed makeup on few and far between occasions; by contrast, Rebecca Romijn went through three movies as Mystique and only got to look like herself in two brief scenes).  The pace is muddled and all the globe-trotting feels like a bit of aimless meandering.  A series veteran gets a thankless throwaway offscreen death.

apocalypse3Perhaps the movie’s biggest flaw is its title character, Apocalypse himself.  We’re meant to be awed by his godlike powers, but however technically powerful he might be, Apocalypse has a black hole for a personality and comes across like the equally bland and generic brother of Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Ronan or Thor: The Dark World‘s Malekith.  Like Lee Pace and Christopher Eccleston before him, Oscar Isaac is saddled with the thankless role of being buried unrecognizably beneath excessive makeup and prosthetics that have the unfortunate effect of making him look like Ivan Ooze from the Power Rangers movie and being given nothing to do besides ponderous speechifying (at least he’s still got Star Wars).  Quite frankly, Apocalypse himself is boring, and one of the X-Men comics’ biggest villains being brought to screen unimpressively is both disappointing and drags the whole movie down.  In fact, Apocalypse often seems to be getting in the way of more interesting characters and scenes around him.  Guardians of the Galaxy was so enjoyable (and Ronan’s screentime limited enough) that it succeeded in spite of a weak villain.  Here, Apocalypse’s deficiencies are not so easily brushed aside, partly because he is a more central part of the movie, partly because the movie around him isn’t quite good enough to overcome him.

On the plus side, there is some entertaining stuff, usually when the movie gets away from its Big Bad or even the main plotline.  The budding group dynamic among young Jean Grey, Cyclops, and Nightcrawler is enjoyable.  Lightning-fast Quicksilver (Evan Peters) gets an expanded role, and once again gets the most show-stopping moment in the movie, this time even more impressive than the kitchen sequence in Days of Future Past, as he zips around rescuing dozens of students from the exploding mansion.  While the lengthy climactic battle pitting the fledgling X-Men against Apocalypse’s Four Horsemen verges on the same excessive whiz-bang CGI-fest of Batman v Superman, Xavier’s “mind palace” duel with Apocalypse, and Jean unleashing her full Phoenix powers, is at least more interesting than CGI figures flipping around blasting lasers and lightning at each other (too much of this kind of stuff gets old).

apocalypse2The returning series veterans are what we’d expect from them, with James McAvoy’s Xavier settling a bit more into his professorial mentor role (and going bald) and Michael Fassbender’s Magneto continuing to veer back-and-forth between friend and foe.  Despite a couple meaty scenes, Fassbender doesn’t command the screen to the extent he achieved in both First Class and Days of Future Past, maybe because here he’s been relegated to serving as the henchman of a far less interesting villain and it’s getting a little tiresomely repetitive to spend three movies with Magneto undergoing the same arc of vacillating between hero and villain.  Rose Byrne returns as Moira (although Xavier’s mind-wipe the last time they met means they’re basically meeting for the first time all over again, at least as far as she knows).  Sophie Turner (one of the weaker cast members of Game of Thrones) is a bit wooden as Jean Grey, but Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Nightcrawler are good; in fact, Sheridan’s Cyclops is arguably more likable than James Marsden’s ever was, and between the extensive makeup job and affected German accent, Smit-McPhee’s Nightcrawler flows easily with Alan Cumming’s older version.  Their presences serve as an obvious passing of the torch; one wonders if they’re poised to take more leading roles in the upcoming next installment, set in the 1990s.  Storm, Angel, and Psylocke fall into the usual pitfall of henchmen in this series; they’re onhand for their powers, not their nonexistent personalities.

As standard-issue comic book superhero summer escapism, Apocalypse is moderately entertaining, but it’s not nearly as fresh as First Class or as innovative as Days of Future Past, and it’s not a game-changer that dares to do something different like Deadpool.  And even among more standard-issue superhero movies, I was not as impressed with Captain America: Civil War (also still currently playing in theaters) as some reviewers, but it was a more consistently engaging and entertaining ride than this.  It’s better than X-Men Origins: Wolverine or this year’s Batman v Superman, but that’s damning with faint praise.  Fans may still enjoy themselves, but it’s unlikely to draw any new converts into the fold, and even some fans are likely to find it underwhelming.  It’s “just another comic book movie”, and in a movie landscape increasingly crowded with them, that’s no longer good enough.

* * 1/2

 

 

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