To say that the timeline of the X-Men film franchise makes no sense is to make an understatement on par with describing the theory of evolution as “pretty complicated”.
Quite frankly, when director Bryan Singer tinkered with the series’ continuity in 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past as part of an effort to smooth out any inconsistencies that had cropped up across the previous five movies (not to mention correct several perceived missteps made in X-Men: The Last Stand), he actually made things a lot worse.
A direct offshoot of this is that X-Men: Apocalypse, the latest film featuring Marvel’s Merry Mutants, spins a tale that seems completely at odds with the previous films it’s intended to bridge together – and sadly this isn’t even the major problem for flick that arrives overstuffed with characters and spectacle and light on actual emotional heft.
Kicking off in ancient Egypt, Apocalypse introduces us to En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), the world’s first mutant who rules under the decidedly harsh ethos of “survival of the fittest”.
Betrayed by his own followers and entombed alive in an ageless sleep, our bad guy is finally woken in the 1980s, where he becomes so disgusted by the society he encounters that he decides to destroy human civilisation and remake it according to his own brutal design.
To help him out with this rather extreme course of action, Nur recruits and augments the powers of four mutants, whom he dubs his Four Horsemen: Angel (Ben Hardy), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who is at his most bitter thanks to a tragically failed attempt at redemption.
As you’d expect, when Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) and his X-Men – including Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) – get wind of what’s about to transpire, they leap into action.
But even with the help of former ally Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), the team might finally have met its match, and the end of the world seems nigh…
Like I warned earlier, don’t come into this movie expecting what you see to jibe with the events of X-Men and X2.
The timeline and world established in those movies simply does not correlate with what goes down in Apocalypse, and while I’m certainly not an advocate of adhering to continuity over telling an entertaining story, it is a little frustrating to watch a movie so heavily reliant on the franchise’s history run roughshod over it.
That’s not the only issue with the storytelling either. Whilst Captain America: Civil War showed us earlier this month that more can indeed be more, Apocalypse reminds us that more often than not, it amounts to considerably less.
It’s not that the script doesn’t have its moments, but scribe Simon Kinberg gets too bogged down trying to shoehorn into the story as many fan-favourite characters as possible.
This is the central flaw at the heart of Apocalypse: the lack of breathing room in the script.
What this means is that the new characters are barely given enough room to be properly introduced and develop, and our returning players struggle to properly make their mark because they’re too busy sacrificing their own screentime to squeeze in the newcomers.
For this reason, many of the emotional beats of the story fall flat, as we simply aren’t given enough time to explore what anyone is feeling in any real depth before we’re whisked off to the next big set piece.
But what set pieces they are. By their nature, superhero flicks generally feature a fair amount of worldwide destruction and landmark smashing, but Apocalypse is the first true attempt to do the superhero film as a disaster movie.
On this score, the visual VFX team outdoes themselves in delivering some of the most ambitious large scale devastation ever seen on film, even if in other places the CG work is occasionally less than convincing.
If the effects work deserves praise, so to does the efforts of the cast bravely plying their craft amidst what I can only imagine was a sea of green screens.
McAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence and Hoult are all dependably strong in their third outing as their respective characters, while Sheridan, Turner and Smitt-McPhee are the stand-outs of the new cast, particularly Smitt-McPhee who along with Evan Peters – who returns as audience favourite Quicksilver – injects some much needed humour into the otherwise often po-faced proceedings.
Speaking of po-faces, as the film’s big bad, Isaac proves a bit hit and miss.
It’s not really his fault – Isaac is a fine actor and he handles En Sabah Nur’s more subdued scenes effectively. But whenever our villain goes “full Skeletor” (to quote Singer himself), the end result is rarely as impressive as intended.
Perhaps it’s because of the generic, “evil mastermind” dialogue he’s spouting. Perhaps it’s the bizarre booming tone his voice takes on when he spouts it.
Or perhaps it’s his somewhat ridiculous costume which – whilst not as bad as its Internet detractors would have you think – makes him a little hard to take seriously.
Whatever the reason, it’s fair to say that this aspect of the storytelling falls flat, which is a shame, as so much of Apocalypse‘s message is tied directly into the contrast between our heroes and their enemy.
Look out! Spoilers!
See, at it’s heart, Apocalypse is ultimately a movie about togetherness – about the connections we make with our real and adopted families, and the need for all of us to support one another.
More importantly, it’s about how true strength comes not from standing alone, but side by side one another to tackle problems together.
It’s why in many ways En Sabah Nur is the ultimate X-Men villain, as – despite the Four Horseman he surrounds himself with – he is essentially a rather lonely creature.
After all, he intentionally places himself above all others, and seeks to rule those he deems worthy and eradicate those he brands as weak.
In this sense, he’s the true opposite of Charles, who believes that the strong have an obligation to protect the weak, and that those with power should use it constructively to build a non-segregated society.
He even stands in contrast to Magneto, who for all his destructive actions, has ultimately devoted much of his life to uniting his fellow mutants as a brotherhood (even if it is one that dominates the human race).
This is why, in the end, En Sabah Nur is not defeated by any one mutant – although Jean certainly does much of the heavy lifting! – but by the combined efforts of several, really hammering home that “stronger as one” theme.
It’s stirring stuff, so it’s a bit of a shame that this theme isn’t better woven throughout the earlier scenes of the film in order to ensure a bigger emotional pay-off when it lands, which again can be chalked up to how over-busy the film really is, that it can’t even find the time to properly set up its major throughline.
The spoilers! They’re…they’re gone!
Despite the generally mixed to negative tone of this review, X-Men: Apocalypse is far from a bad film. Despite several rather glaring flaws, it’s actually pretty entertaining and it’s still a kick to watch these characters on the big screen.
Look at it this way: is Apocalypse a perfectly solid way to kill a couple of hours? Absolutely. But does it reach the same heights as the best entries in the franchise? Not by a long shot.
There will of course be another sequel on the way (word is this one will be set in the ’90s). Here’s hoping that the next time around, Singer and his crew are able to keep the roster of characters under control, and tell a story that is as packed full of emotion as it is spectacle.
That’s a wrap for this review– now it’s your chance to sound off! Agree? Disagree?