James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Evan Peters, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, Kodi Smit-McPhee
(20th Century Fox)
US theatrical: 27 May 2016 (General release)
UK theatrical: 18 May 2016 (General release)
Within the ever-evolving standards by which superhero movies are gauged, the X-men franchise has been on every end of the spectrum in terms of quality and relevance. This is fitting since, in many ways, the X-men launched the modern era of superhero movies in 2000. That first X-men movie acts as a bridge from the era of excessive camp in Batman and Robin to era of unshakable charm in Iron Man. For that reason, the X-men franchise will always have an important role in the history of superhero movies and cinema in general.
However, the standard that X-men sets in 2000 is not a standard that can apply to X-men: Apocalypse in 2016. Over a decade-and-a-half of maturation, evolution, and even regression at times makes a movie like this difficult to assess. On its own, it’s the capstone to a trilogy that began with X-men: First Class. In terms of the bigger picture, which encompasses the superhero genre as a whole, X-men: Apocalypse enters an era of cinema where the deck is stacked and the standards are exceedingly unfair. However, even within these circumstances, X-men: Apocalypse finds a way to succeed.
X-men: Apocalypse doesn’t attempt to reinvent the superhero movie. It doesn’t attempt to radically alter the formula for making a movie that entertains, inspires, and delights. It simply takes the formula, follows it to the letter, and lets the results speak for itself. Those results, even in a crowded market of heroes fighting heroes and villains acting as heroes, show in both the quality of the movie and the foundation it lays for the future.
Those who saw Captain America: Civil War and Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice will have a very different cinematic experience in X-men: Apocalypse. In 2016, it might be jarring because there are no heroes fighting each other and no Deadpool poking fun at overplayed superhero themes. In nearly any other year, going back to the Richard Donner era, this movie would check all the right boxes for a superhero movie and wouldn’t need to be graded on a curve. Even with such unreasonable standards, X-men: Apocalypse doesn’t shy away from the challenge.
It starts with a daunting threat in En Sabah Nur, the titular villain played by Oscar Isaac. On paper, he’s not a very complex villain. He doesn’t have the charisma of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki or Heath Ledger’s Joker. He’s basically the personification of Social Darwinism, the belief that the strong will survive and the weak must perish. It’s a simple personification and one that leaves precious little room for Isaac’s charisma, but it’s also perfectly consistent with every single iteration of Apocalypse, from the classic X-men comics to the ‘90s cartoon that inspired generations of X-men fans.
What X-men: Apocalypse does with its primary villain is the template for how the rest of this movie unfolds. It doesn’t try to reinvent Charles Xavier, Cyclops, or Jean Grey. At times, as is the case with Hugh Jackman’s brief cameo as Wolverine, it takes iconic moments right from the comics and brings them to life. These are moments presented in a way that has a distinct impact, even for those who have never read an X-men comic in their life.
It’s the complete opposite approach that Josh Trank used in the latest iteration of Fantastic Four. For X-men: Apocalypse, Director Bryan Singer and Producer Simon Kinberg focus on the elements of X-men that make it so iconic. It shows in everything from Apocalypse’s over-the-top personality to Jubilee’s sunglasses and yellow jacket. At times, X-men: Apocalypse feels like several episodes of the old ‘90s cartoon come to life. However, it manages to avoid falling into the same trap of excessive camp that destroyed Batman movies for a decade.
That’s not to say everything in X-men: Apocalypse stays true to the source material. Certain elements are entirely disconnected from the comics and have been since X-men: First Class. Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique and Evan Peters’ Quicksilver are nothing like their comic or cartoon counterparts. In fact, they’re so different that they might as well be different characters altogether. Remarkably though, this actually improves the tone and themes of the movie.
The past 16 years of superhero movies are fraught with instances where following the comics storylines doesn’t always work. Technically, Roger Corman’s maligned and unreleased Fantastic Four movie is quite true to the source material. However, there are just as many instances, if not more, where ignoring the source material is detrimental, as every Deadpool fan who saw Wolverine: Origins can attest. The key is knowing when to deviate and X-men: Apocalypse follows the same deviations that the previous two movies established.
This means that Mystique is a complex character with motivations that don’t involve tormenting the X-men for reasons she never even tries to justify. This means that Quicksilver is a fun, entertaining, and likable character without a false accent. This means that Quicksilver can follow up follow up his show-stealing, speed scene from X-men: Days of Future Past with another show-stopping spectacle in this movie. These are elements that are entirely absent from the source material, but they work in X-men: Apocalypse because they provide something that the X-men mythos needs, but isn’t present in other mediums.
Singer and Kinberg pick and choose the elements of the source material to highlight and the elements to reject and overall, they choose wisely. The cast in X-men: Apocalypse is much richer than previous X-men movies. It doesn’t rely heavily on more obscure characters like Azazel, Darwin, or Angel Salvador. It reintroduces the X-men’s heavy hitters in Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Nightcrawler, who are given fresh life thanks to the acting talents of Tye Sherriden, Sophie Turner, and Kodi Smit-McPhee.
These are core characters to the X-men mythos. Without them, the X-men are missing a vital piece of their soul. Their presence and their portrayal help give X-men: Apocalypse the sense that it’s a complete X-men movie, not lacking in necessary elements nor trying to make up for them in other ways. It has all the ingredients and it makes use of them.
These ingredients include the continued dichotomy between Charles Xavier and Magneto, which retains the same complexity and constantly-shifting depth that began with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen back in 2000. Both men have a vision for the mutant race. Both get opportunities to realize parts of that vision with Apocalypse acting as a catalyst. The clash of those visions, which forms the core of nearly every X-men movie that doesn’t involve Deadpool, brings out the core of what makes X-men work.
This core, along with the characters and themes around it, comprise only half the ingredients, though. The rest of X-men: Apocalypse succeeds or fails based on how those ingredients mesh in a plot. In this respect, the movie succeeds in every necessary way, but those looking for more advanced forms of success are just setting unreasonable expectations for a movie that doesn’t try to be more complex than it needs to be.
Apocalypse is the very antithesis of cunning and subtle. He doesn’t try to infiltrate or subvert his enemies. He’s the oldest, most powerful mutant who ever lived. He doesn’t have to resort to the tactics utilized by Hydra, Loki, or the Joker. He only has to use his power to influence and manipulate on a terrifying level that manifests in a massive spectacle that simply cannot be matched by civil wars or superhero brawls.
There is destruction. There is devastation. There is a conflict that consumes the entire planet, not just some airport in Germany or one generic American city. It’s over-the-top and excessive at times, but it’s also entirely appropriate for Apocalypse. What makes it work are the details behind the destruction. The way the young X-men get caught up in this conflict, the way Charles Xavier and Magneto’s visions clash, and the way the final confrontation unfolds all forge a plot that is concise, quick-paced, and coherent.
Not a frame is wasted. Every scene has a purpose. Every moment aids in the progression of the story. While that progression is rushed at times, the plot never gets derailed or chaotic. It never becomes overly elaborate or excessively dense. In a superhero movie built around destruction and spectacle, this is both an accomplishment and a necessity.
That’s not to say there aren’t some elements that slip through the cracks. X-men: Apocalypse employs a long list of iconic X-men characters. Not all of them get a chance to shine, but even those who don’t, such as Psylocke and Angel, don’t have their potential wasted or nullified. For these characters, X-men: Apocalypse is a teaser of sorts, showing off what they can do. For the brief moments they have, they do it well and leave the door open for future opportunities in other X-men movies.
It’s because of these elements that X-men: Apocalypse is unique in that it will confirm the bias of anyone who sees it with a specific intent. Those who are eager to hate it or are burned out on superhero movies can find a reason to not enjoy it. Those who are eager to embrace its excessive fan service and over-the-top spectacle will be able to do so. However, to hate X-men: Apocalypse requires a certain amount of short-sightedness.
What makes X-men: Apocalypse a landmark accomplishment for the X-men franchise has little to do with how it puts together a story and more to do with avoiding mistakes. When assessing the movie in this respect, there’s a certain context to consider when comparing it to other movies in the franchise. Those considerations include the following:
Does this movie callously kill off major characters off-panel and never mention them again? No, it doesn’t.
Does this movie include plot details that are wholly inconsistent with the timeline established by other movies? No, it doesn’t.
Does this movie make egregious changes to a character, such as sewing Deadpool’s mouth shut? No, it doesn’t.
Does this movie completely undermine iconic moments in the X-men mythos, such as Rogue choosing to cure her mutation or Jean Grey forcing someone to kill her instead of making a heroic sacrifice? No, it doesn’t.
Does this movie attempt to hide the more colorful visuals of the mythos by making things more real and gritty? No, it doesn’t.
While the lack of flaws don’t necessarily make a movie great, they certainly give a movie a level of polish when seen in the context of its predecessors. X-men: Apocalypse has a level of polish that no X-men movie has achieved to date. It tells a concise, complete story with beloved, iconic characters through a cast of talented, charismatic actors. It checks all the right boxes and even includes a few bonuses, despite leaving a few holes for the cynical to exploit.
Even without the context of other X-men movies, X-men: Apocalypse stands as a complete, concise superhero movie. Singer and Kinberg finally assemble all the right ingredients and cook them in all the right ways. It’s fitting that a franchise built on the concept of mutation must undergo the chaotic and unforgiving process of natural selection to find something that works. X-men: Apocalypse, both as a superhero movie and a cinematic spectacle, works in ways that even the most ardent Social Darwinist cannot deny.