Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

X-Men: Apocalypse

Grade : B+ Year : 2016 Director : Bryan Singer Running Time : 2hr 23min Genre : , , ,
Movie review score

I think I’m one of the few people that genuinely enjoys Bryan Singer’s original “X-Men” from 2000 (and has from the start), which started the wave of successful superhero films that continues to this day. I saw it again a couple of years ago, and the stories of Wolverine and Rogue still pack a powerful punch that make up for the brisk running time and not-terribly-strong character development of other mutants (**coughStormcough**). Given more freedom, Singer raised his game considerably with 2003’s “X2: X-Men United” before backing out of what became “X-Men: The Last Stand” to scratch his Man on Steel itch for “Superman Returns.” Fox brought in Brett Ratner to make “Last Stand,” and to beat “Returns” to theatres, and the result was a narrative mess that tried to do too much with too little time. After “Returns” proved to be one-and-done for Superman, Singer returned to the “X-Men” franchise to produce Matthew Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class,” taking the franchise back to the ’60s with a younger cast bringing Professor Charles Xavier, Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) and Raven (Mystique) to life to show the origins of the X-Men, and show the dynamics we saw in the first three forming from the beginning. Singer returned to the director’s chair for 2014’s “Days of Future Past,” and now brings that arc to a satisfying conclusion with “X-Men: Apocalypse.” While it may be satisfying, though, I don’t know that it’s the continuation this franchise deserved after the creative highs of “First Class” and “Days of Future Past.”

After “First Class” introduced the younger cast in the ’60s and “Days of Future Past” followed them in the ’70s, “Apocalypse” finds them in the 1980s, but the story Simon Kinberg’s screenplay tells starts about 6000 years prior in ancient Egypt. Back then, we see Egyptians looking on as their gold-strewn ruler enters the pyramid they have built for him. However, we catch glimpses of guards who are looking to defy someone who they see as a false god. When we get into the pyramid, we get our first glimpse at Apocalypse (Oscar Issac), better known to his subjects as
En Sabah Nur. He is a mutant, and he has four followers in whom he imbibes great strength and power. He is capable of many great powers, and he is using one of them to transfer his consciousness to a subject whose body heals itself when the guards’s plan goes into motion, and ends up trapping him in the ruins of his pyramid. Cut to 1983, and CIA agent Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne) is in Cairo investigating cults that worship mutants, and she finds one such group as they are in the middle of raising Apocalypse from his tomb, which leads to an earthquake felt around the globe. One person particularly jolted by it is Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), who is trying to control her telepathic powers at Xavier’s School for Gifted Children. Ten years after the events of “Days of Future Past,” mutants are out in the world, but they are feared, although Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) continues to hope for a peaceful cohabitation between mutants and humanity. When Jean wakes in a cold sweat (and literally heated room) to visions of the end-of-the-world, though, and he looks and finds Mactaggert at the epicenter of the earthquake, he must enter the fray just as En Sabah Nur is recruiting his new “horsemen,” and planning on upending the world to bring forth one he will rule with only the strongest surviving.

If you are trying to make heads and tails about how the events in the first three “X-Men” movies are shaped and configured into the “First Class” timeline, the best thing would be to simply not bother trying. Since everyone basically died the the end of “Last Stand,” only to be brought back for “Days of Future Past,” continuity is no longer something that matters between all of the X-Men films which, if you’ll recall, also includes two Wolverine movies (one of whom, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” already feels out-of-place in the narrative arc of the “X-Men” franchise) and now, one Deadpool film that also rights the wrongs of “X-Men Origins” with that character while casting the same actor in both incarnations. Trying to work through a streamline narrative with these films is like trying to do so with 50 years of comics- it can’t be done. Singer has embraced that, and with “Apocalypse,” is simply looking to tell a strong X-Men story with collaborators Simon Kinberg, Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris, narrative continuity be damned. We get a cameo by Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) when Raven, Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and Mactaggert are taken by Col. William Stryker (Josh Helman) that brings us familiar information about his backstory, but with a twist in interactions with young Jean Grey, Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) that will make a fan of the first three “X-Men” movies’s head explode. We get a hint of Jean’s Dark Phoenix abilities similar to what she was shown as able to do in “X2,” but without the tragic twist of that film that set up “Last Stand,” hopefully meaning Bryan Singer will be able to tell the Dark Phoenix story he set up in “X2” but was unable to do by not returning to “Last Stand.” And Raven (Mystique) is firmly in the group of Xavier’s X-Men as she comes to the School with news about Erik, who went into hiding in Poland after being on the “most-wanted” list following the events in Washington in 1973, but whom has resurfaced thanks to a cruel twist of fate that leads him into En Sabah Nur’s line of sight. The dynamic and continuation of the story of Charles, Erik, Raven and their shared experiences is what really brings “X-Men: Apocalypse” to the heights of the previous “X-Men” films (and McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence make every moment with these characters count), although unfortunately, they are unable to keep it there. That’s thanks to the villains in “Apocalypse” who, with the exception of Erik, are not terribly memorable beyond looks. As with Halle Berry’s Storm, Alexandra Shipp’s is given little in the way of development, and Olivia Munn’s Psylocke is the definition of gratuitous eye candy, not affecting the story at all. Ben Hardy’s Angel is given a bit more to do, but still not very compelling aside from look. As for Apocalypse himself, he has presence, to be sure, but Issac is stranded with a standard villain role that lacks much in the way of interest. He is simply a foe for the X-Men to face, much like Ultron was for the Avengers in the official MCU. The interest he brings to the film is how he influences the characters we have followed, and how they react to him, which is a laudable piece of storytelling, but when the villain lacks punch, you don’t feel the stakes for anyone within the film.

Even though he’s made solid efforts like “Jack the Giant Slayer,” “Valkyrie” and “Apt Pupil,” along with a classic in “The Usual Suspects,” over the years, Bryan Singer will always be linked with “X-Men” the way George Lucas is to “Star Wars.” It is obvious that “X-Men” is a pet project for Singer, and he’s grown as a filmmaker and storyteller through his continuing participation in the franchise. His technical skills have expanded dramatically over the years, as is best exemplified by the Quicksilver sequences in “Days of Future Past” and “Apocalypse,” and his ability to tell personal stories on large canvases has been one of the biggest strengths of the franchise, even if he’s just been a producer like he was on “First Class.” Yes, I feel like “Apocalypse” takes a step back from what came just before it because of it’s struggles to find a strong villain for it’s characters to combat, but the same can be said with plenty of superhero movies. The important thing is how the main characters are treated, and in that respect, “Apocalypse” is one of the strongest entries in this franchise yet. I’m looking forward to seeing where Singer (hopefully) takes us next.

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