Nutshell: strong start, strong finish, but a wobbly middle shored up by character shout outs for longtime fans, and a few fun surprises. Casual viewers may enjoy the mind-blowing FX, but fans will wish for more than a tip of the iceberg look at these characters. Grade: C+
“At least we can all agree; the third one’s always the worst.”
While I don’t agree with the character that dropped this bomb when it comes to her particular topic, I can’t rail against her either. Apocalypse, the third in the “Younger Mutants” series, isn’t the worst of the series. (That’d be Days of Future Past, which has grown on me but is still a mess.) But it’s not best either. (That’d be First Class, of course.) Apocalypse is not bad, but not great either. And in a year where we’ve already had Civil War break out, Deadpool get his freak on, and watched Batman kick Superman’s ass? Director Bryan Singer needed to step the hell up and make sure this movie didn’t get caught in the riptide of so many other blockbusters. Unfortunately, Apocalypse suffers from curse of the meh. How’d this film flounder? By focusing on action and battles, rather than honing in on the real meat of the story; the idea of a First Mutant, and how other mutants see the possibility of a New Mutant Order.
Here in Apocalypse, it’s 1985, and while the mutants we know and love from the first two films are off doing their own thing, an ancient mutant named Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac, under all the latex) comes up from the underground wreckage of Ancient Egypt and decides to rebuild the world. He seeks out the four strongest mutants he can find – his Four Horsemen – and unleashes their full potential. He wants all mutants to reach their full potential. Sounds good if you’re a mutant, right? Problem; he’s only interested in the best and brightest, the strongest powers. Everyone else can suck it, right along with the un-gifted populace. So let’s gather the troops and make with the destruction already!
Clocking in at just under two and a half hours, Apocalypse is longer than First Class and DoFP, and while I love watching mutants unleash as much as the next fangirl, there was a definite lack of clarity here. A certain je ne sais mutant that’s missing. Don’t get me wrong, there are moments of real brilliance; Eric trying to live life as a “normal” man with heartbreaking results, Cyclops discovering his powers, Mystique trying to save mutants in East Berlin fighting pits. (BTW, Jennifer Lawrence looks absolutely amazing as 80s Raven/Mystique. She should rock heavy metal hair and studded leather all the time.) It’s just that while there’s a lot going on, it’s just too messy. Apocalypse feels as if a sugared-up kid grabbed me by the hand and dragged me from scene to scene screaming “See? LOOKIT!” I see, I see. But I’d rather feel. And there’s the rub.
Screenwriter Simon Kinberg does excellent work breathing life into these characters, and the beginnings of friendships and bonds in Apocalypse feel authentic. (The actors, of course, share equal billing in this effort.) It’s obvious that Kinberg knows what he’s doing when it comes to character interaction, and there are times when the dialogue is absolutely brilliant. But overall there are too many mutants in the kitchen, and as with DoFP, it muddies the water, crushing the beautiful themes of loss, loneliness and family under the feet of a keeeee-wl baddie filmmakers wanna throw other mutants at.
Which brings me to the problem I had with Apocalypse the mutant; if he’s supposedly the first mutant, the one with THE power? Why have the Horsemen do his work for him? Why not just get with the world-changing already? But Apocalypse only scowls, threatens, and packs people into concrete. That’s a pity for fans of Oscar Isaacs, or anyone who wants to dig into this film. With no backstory for this character beyond “he was worshipped as a god in Ancient Egypt”, I had no idea what his ultimate power was, what his original power was, and how he used ‘em…beyond packing people in concrete. Only when the final throwdown arrives do we see how powerful this mutant is, and while it’s literally awesome, it’s almost too little too late. I lost respect for the character about an hour and a half back. (Though I did enjoy the back and forth when Apocalypse first meets Magneto, with its echoes of the Raiders of the Lost Ark whip vs. gun scene.)
Speaking of no idea, the Four Horsemen – Storm, Angel, Magneto and Psylocke – are cyphers. Why did they join – simply because they were at the right/wrong place at the time? What make them continue, or question, their choice? Considering two of the four become major players in the X-Men landscape, I’d like to hear more. But instead we get facial reactions, and very little talking after they meet the big guy.
Which brings me to the team in general, and both teams (good guys and bad) in particular. With so many mutants in the picture, it’s tough to give them all a moment in the sun. So a lot of them get short shrift. So short in fact, that I could have played Psylocke, and nobody would have even noticed. Because other than Olivia Munn’s S&M vinyl outfit, there’s very little of her onscreen. I think she has about 4 lines. And anyone who’s seen Newsroom knows that’s a waste of good talent. (SPOILER: hopefully, with her whereabouts unknown at the end of Apocalypse, we’ll see her in Netflix’ Daredevil as a part of the Hand?)
What’s good? Well:
- Great opening credits sequence, as we travel through a Doctor Who-esque tunnel that shows the eras between Ancient Egypt and present day…or, in terms of the film, 1985.
- Costuming. They didn’t go over-the-top with 80s nostalgia, but there are plenty of puffy sleeves, side-ponytails, and other faddish duds to make things fun. (And I loved Nightcrawler in his Michael Jackson jacket.)
- Another Stan the Man cameo; this time blink and you’ll miss him. Bonus points for having Mrs. Stan the Man get in on the fun.
- All-in performances by James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Evan Peters and Sophie Turner. While the first four have been delivering the goods throughout this series, getting more Peters-as-Quicksilver is always a treat. McPhee as a wide-eyed kid who happens to be fully in charge of his powers is adorable and kickass. And Turner as a young, out-of-control Jean Grey is doing an excellent job of stepping into Famke Janssen’s psychic shoes. Bonus: Alexandra Shipp as Storm. WHOA.
- Quicksilver in general. We get more info on the speedster; he’s quite the greyhound (literally, if you take his hair into account) with two speeds, complete rocket or total inertia. His basement-dwelling slacker with daddy issues vibe, and the love the character received in DoFP, has equated to a larger part in the team. And that’s good news for the new group of X-Men. Don’t worry, Quick fans – he’s got another awesome speed-view scene in Apocalypse, to the tune of the Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”, and it’s just as much fun as “Time in a Bottle”. Hey, it’s the 80s, music’s gotta keep up.
- The visual effects are astounding. The trailer hints at destruction, but there’s a whole lot more of it onscreen during the film. Yet the overall cinematography doesn’t suffer one bit. Everything is crystal clear, and with the on-point sound editing, on-screen timing is perfection.
- Wolverine! Oh stop; you’ve seen the trailer with his *snik*. It’s being called an “extended cameo”, but it’s cool as hell. And also, very, very bloody.
Which brings me to the Yoo-hoo Kiddies section of my review: while I love me some mayhem, bloodshed and horror, Apocalypse amps up the ol’ ultraviolence to levels we haven’t seen in earlier X-Men films. Folks who assume things will be relatively low on the red stuff may be in for a shock. No, we’re not talking Dead Alive here – this film is PG-13 so we’re talking either killing on camera or blood on screen, never both at the same time – but humans get dropped by the dozens. It serves the plot, and it’s exactly what should happen considering the scenes in question and the characters in ’em. Again, shouldn’t be surprising, as the trailer shows Apocalypse himself beheading three humans. But FYI. Bear in mind that with the success of R-rated Deadpool, and an rated-R Wolverine film in the works, Marvel seems to be amping up the body count.
So, should you see it? As long as you potty-break before watching 2.5 hours of special effects bombast, folks who just want to see mayhem will get a bang out of Apocalypse. Fans with lowered expectations and who just want to see their heroes kick ass and throw the occasional bon-mot will also find plenty to love. But if you’re looking for a new, exciting chapter in the X-Men universe? Well, it’s new. It’s exciting. But it’s not compelling. And that’s too bad.
PS: scenes for the next film at the tail end of this one? (Apparently next time it’ll be the 90s…) No post-credits sneak in Apocalypse, or at least there wasn’t one during the press screen. So feel free to bolt once the names start rolling. Or maybe stretch before you stand; you’ve been sitting a long time.