By James Hancock May 26th, 2016
***no spoilers for first 2 paragraphs***
I was one month shy of my tenth birthday when I first encountered Apocalypse in the pages of X-Factor #5 (1986) although his mysterious appearance at the time had little impact on me. He caught my attention a few issues later when he began recruiting his four horsemen during the chaos of the now legendary Mutant Massacre, an event that crossed over between the pages of Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor, Thor even Power Pack. But Apocalypse was only a minor footnote during that massive company-wide crossover, one with enormous impact from Nightcrawler ending up in a coma to Angel being crippled and maimed to the point where his wings would gangrene and be amputated a few issues later. Stripped of his gift, Angel appeared to have committed suicide until he reappeared during the Fall of the Mutants crossover in X-Factor #24 (1988) as Apocalypse’s fourth horseman, Death. At that moment I realized that Apocalypse was bound to become one of the major villains of the Marvel Universe and I can’t overemphasize what an impact this storyline had on me as a young comic book fan. My obsession with any X-Men related book was at a feverish all-time high and Death, later known as Archangel, rapidly became one of my favorite characters at Marvel. I tell you all this only to emphasize how excited I was in 2014 when I first heard that Bryan Singer planned to follow up his superb X-Men: Days of Future Past with a film about Apocalypse. I still feel that X-Men: Days of Future Past did a brilliant job of acknowledging all the X-Men films that had come before while simultaneously giving the franchise a soft reboot that would allow the franchise to rebuild and grow without being bound to the mistakes made in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009). Well now X-Men: Apocalypse is here, and while it does not compare favorably with Captain America: Civil War there remains plenty about the film to enjoy for hardcore fans as well as many missed opportunities that might have made for a stronger movie.
In today’s binary internet culture, everyone seems to react to every film with either overflowing love and devotion or complete disgust (along with some robust hatred for all who disagree with them), but for me X-Men: Apocalypse does not fall into either category. Like most comic fans who have been reading X-Men comics on and off throughout their life, I have my own idea of the perfect X-Men tone and style for the franchise. The reality is that no film will ever satisfy perfectly the hordes of opinionated fans, most of whom straddle many different generations. These fans have embraced a wide variety of different creative directions from the various writers and artists who have worked on the comics for the last 53 years to the filmmakers who have worked on these movies for the last 16. For my money, Chris Claremont’s run on the X-Men from the mid-Seventies to early Nineties is the heart and soul of the series and there have been many glimpses of his style in the films especially in director Tim Miller’s approach to Colossus and the depiction of Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters seen in Deadpool. What’s surprising is how a movie that Fox did not even want to make became the best movie yet set in the X-Men cinematic continuity. Perhaps Fox should bear this in mind in the future before they strangle the life out of beloved comic book franchises like we saw last summer with Fantastic Four. Director Bryan Singer is an industry pro and knows how to navigate creative battles on large scale productions, but there are some signs in X-Men: Apocalypse that the franchise may be getting a little stale and stagnant almost as if Fox has failed to account for or appreciate the evolution of the superhero genre over the last ten years. If a film like this had come out in 2006, it would have been hailed as the greatest superhero movie ever made. But in a year where we’ve already seen the hysterical Deadpool and my new favorite superhero movie, Captain America: Civil War, the expectations of fans continue to climb exponentially higher.
***mild spoilers ahead***
So let me start with things that I loved about the movie. Michael Fassbender continues to be a damn fine Magneto. His love/hate relationship with Charles Xavier is the beating heart of this new iteration of the franchise and the films continue to mine their political differences for superb dramatic payoffs. John Ottman’s theme music which is now 16 years old still manages to give me a giddy thrill every time I hear it. As often as some people credit Blade (1998) with igniting the modern day superhero renaissance, for me Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) was the real beginning and Ottman’s score will always make me feel sentimental for that period. Hugh Jackman also makes a nice cameo wearing the full Weapon X regalia made famous by artist Barry Windsor-Smith. But the real showstopper which makes the entire movie worth seeing is Quicksilver’s arrival at the mansion to the tune of ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’ by the Eurythmics. I won’t spoil the scene, but the entire theater roared with approval throughout the entire sequence. Then there are a variety of subtle details that I loved from the perfect rendering of Psylocke’s awe inspiringly sexy costume to the final shots of the movie which seem to leave the franchise in a place very similar in tone to Chris Claremont and Jim Lee’s fan favorite stories from the early 1990s. There’s enough to like that I will look forward to seeing the movie again but I can’t wrap up this review without calling attention to the movie’s many flaws. In my estimation we’re not quite in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice territory, but it would not surprise me if many fans find X-Men: Apocalypse to be the weaker of the two.
***massive spoilers ahead***
As much as I thought Jennifer Lawrence hit a complete home run with her depiction of Mystique in X-Men: Days of Future Past it is abundantly clear in this movie that she has lost all interest in the character. She swings back and forth between complete boredom or sounding just like Katniss. Clearly sick of lengthy makeup sessions for the character and ready to throw her A-list movie star weight around, screenwriter Simon Kinberg even wrote in a ridiculous explanation as to why Mystique almost never appears like her true self. Lawrence has all the talent in the world, but it is time for her to move on. But the main problem with this film is the sense that too many ideas and characters were stuffed into the story for fan service alone without exploiting these concepts to their full potential. I am a massive fan of the characters Storm, Psylocke & Archangel but they might as well not have even been included in the film. The actors literally have nothing to work with apart from appearing in a few lackluster action scenes. Unlike Captain America: Civil War where every character got to have an amazing hero moment even if their time on screen was limited, X-Men: Apocalypse completely squanders these classic characters. Also, after 16 years of awful costumes, can the X-Men franchise finally get rid of the whole body armor aesthetic that has been making X-Men fans feel ill? The characters have some of the best costumes in comic book history, use them.The one costume that looks great, Psylocke’s, is a carbon copy from the comics. But the real missed opportunity was with the villain Apocalypse, a character that Singer claims is one of his favorites. I can’t imagine how that is possible. The film utterly ignores Apocalypse’s obsession with survival of the fittest and tends to play fast and loose with his actual power set. What drives Apocalypse in the comics is engineering scenarios that test mutants, forging them into a more powerful species. This film chooses instead to embrace the stereotypical “I want to destroy and rule the planet, blah, blah, blah” approach. As far as compelling villains are concerned, he is not remotely on the same level as Peter Dinklage’s Dr. Bolivar Trask, a character that for me ranks among the best villains in any superhero movie ever.
So where does this film rank alongside the rest of the franchise? For me, from bottom to top they go X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), X-Men (2000), The Wolverine (2013), X2 (2003, which I love but it is dated), X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), X-Men: First Class (2011), X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), with the #1 slot going to Deadpool (2016). It might be time for some more fresh perspectives like that that of director Tim Miller or better still would be for writer/producer Simon Kinberg to convince Fox that they need to collaborate with Disney/Marvel Studios the way Sony is now doing with the Spider-Man franchise. There is no reason whatsoever for the X-Men to have their own private little continuity when for half a century they have been playing in the same sandbox with the rest of the Marvel characters. Kevin Feige’s track record is the best in the business. Every studio should just invent a position called “Kevin Feige” with a creative mastermind to oversee their major franchises. Some will do it better than others, but these shared continuity movie empires need a unifying vision to work. I enjoyed this movie but I’m not busting at the seams to see another film with this approach even though the post-credits teaser suggests that one of my all-time favorite villains, Mr. Sinister, might be entering the fold. So there you have it. I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it. I was just a little disappointed. The X-Men have many of the greatest characters and story lines in the history of comics and there is no reason on earth why this franchise should not be the biggest and best movie franchise ever conceived by mankind. I’m crossing my fingers that one day we’ll get there. As always, Make Mine Marvel.
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