My estimable colleague Jono Winter recently posted a favourable – if tentatively favourable – review of X-Men: Apocalypse on this site. As a steadfast fan of (most) of the X-Men films, I found time in my overseas holiday to fit in a (Croatian-subtitled) screening of the film and, regrettably, I can’t concur with his positive review. In fact, despite being a vocal defender of the previous film in the franchise – Days of Future Past, also from director Bryan Singer – I can’t even agree with my fellow critics awarding the film begrudging two-and-a-half or three star ratings. To put it bluntly – X-Men: Apocalypse sucked. Rather than a conventional review – Jono’s already got that covered – let’s break down the various reasons why it sucks.
So, spoilers: all of these reasons are characters from the film. Also, there will be actual spoilers from here on out, so maybe close this window if you’re yet to see the film. Or, you know, just don’t bother.
I have some familiarity with the X-Men canon from reading a handful of prominent (pirated) comic series and watching the ‘90s cartoon in my youth. I can’t recall many specifics of the “Age of Apocalypse” comic storyline, but I do remember the shadow cast by Apocalypse. The “first mutant”, his near-omnipotent super powers, impressive physique and social-Darwinist made him the sort of supervillain who seemed iconic from the instant you heard about him.
In X-Men: Apocalypse, he’s a mopey, Ivan-Ooze-looking guy who smothers Oscar Isaac’s talents under a swathe of make-up and vocoder dialogue. A mishandled villain isn’t the end of the world (sorry); Peter Dinklage’s antagonist in the last film was comparatively underdeveloped yet served as an effective MacGuffin/foil for our protagonists and their conflicting viewpoints. But Apocalypse – whose name is in the freakin’ title, after all – is supposed to be the centre of the film and he’s barely a character.
It doesn’t hurt that the whole premise associated with Apocalypse – you know, the goddamn apocalypse – feels very dated in a 2016 superhero movie. When Singer first kicked off the X-Men franchise, the idea of truly global superhero movies felt exciting – new. Now, it’s played out. Marvel has already recognised this. Note how Civil War sidesteps apocalyptic threats and nebulously-defined villains for good, old-fashioned character conflict. Instead, Apocalypse and Apocalypse raise the stakes so high as to be utterly meaningless.
[Post-script: What was the deal with the nukes? If his plan is ‘restart’ the world or whatever, why not just nuke most of it to smithereens?]
The lofty heights of said stakes is largely the responsibility of this guy. Erik Lensherr. Magneto. When done right, one of the best-conceived characters in comic books. Here, he’s reduced to:
- working in a steel mill
- having a wife and daughter whose sole narrative purpose is to be victims
- parroting lines from the previous films
- destroying the world by tearing apart its metallic core or…something along those lines
The always-capable Fassbender goes a long way towards papering over the holes in the screenplay, but this once-magnificent character is reduced to a cliché. The complexity of his past as a Holocaust survivor is swept away in a CGI haze of dust and rock. The effort spent establishing the comradery and conflict between him and Xavier is twisted into simplistic point-counterpoint crap about ‘hope’ and the like.
Xavier, meanwhile, doesn’t even have the good fortune of a Fassebender-calibre actor to elevate the character. Oh, McAvoy isn’t terrible, but he’s ill-suited to a storyline that can’t seem to decide if it wants a reflective patriarch or – in his scenes with and related to Moira Mactaggert – a goofy schoolboy. That balance made sense some couple decades ago in First Class, but when Xavier is, presumably, intended to be in his forties, it just doesn’t work.
The centrality of Xavier to the storyline is mostly linked to his mutant powers (which Apocalypse intends to exploit to mentally enslave the entire planet … why, precisely, his horseman are going along with this plan remains a mystery) and his history with Erik. The latter might have worked, had any of the subtlety of the ideological/political rift between those two men on display in the previous two films (particularly Days of Future Past) been retained.
Raven’s character in Days of Future Past caught a little flak from some critics for being reduced to a go-between for Erik and Xavier’s conflict. I didn’t buy this interpretation at all, to be honest; Raven had both agency and moral complexity lacking from those two very-set-in-their-way boys. Despite comparatively underpowered superpowers, she outmanoeuvred her enemies and friends to – as Apocalypse establishes – make a real difference to human-mutant relations.
In theory, the perpetually-neutral Mystique’s discomfort with the ‘hero’ tag foisted upon her in the wake of the previous film’s events would set up the opportunity for real, compelling character development. But while there are the occasional sparks of inspiration here, on the whole Mystique feels like the exact character those critics complained about last time. I mean, her role in the final conflict is to be strangled by the bad guy in order to test Magneto’s conscience. That is the culmination of her arc in the film! (More or less.) To squander an actor of Jennifer Lawrence’s standing on this sort of, yes, sexist shit is demeaning, and a betrayal of the (comparatively) nuanced characterisation evident in the two preceding films.
Oh, right, Moira was in this! Look, we all appreciate Rose Byrne getting work, but why waste her comedic talents on such a nothing, audience-surrogate role. Especially when her first scene – where she stumbles upon Apocalypse’s resurrection – is representative of the kind of sloppy writing on display throughout the first act. It’s rushed and very reliant on coincidence – problems the ‘90s-era special effects can’t convincingly conceal. Anyway, her main role here is to give Xavier a romantic pairing because apparently the film wasn’t overstuffed enough already.
Look, I don’t really want to talk about Wolverine’s actual appearance in the film, in the kind of transparent ‘setting up the next movie’ busywork we’ve had to become accustomed to in this era of cinematic universes and the like.
No, the real problem related to Wolverine is that his presence in the film is a prominent reminder of what X-Men: Apocalypse really lacks: a protagonist. While I appreciate the complaints of those who griped about Wolverine’s centrality to Days of Future Past (at the expense of Kitty Pryde), at least he gave the film a focus point about which to resolve its plot and character arcs! I’m happy for him to be sidelined here, but couldn’t you have picked someone whose motivations we’re invested in as an audience, rather than flitting from character to character restlessly every few minutes?
Oh, here’s another problem that’s less specifically related to Havok than what he represents in the film. If you’ll recall, Havok – or, if you prefer, Alex Summers – was a major character in First Class and made a brief appearance in Days of Future Past. He’s a minor character, which is fine, and in theory it’s nice to have him return here and set up his brother’s character (and set off a cataclysmic explosion, too, in a moment that weirdly resonated with Civil War’s Vision-mishap). But again, in theory.
So, this is just me griping here, but how old did Lucas Till look to you in Apocalypse. At a stretch, early-30s, maybe? (The actor is 25 years old.) How does that even make sense if he was in his late teens in First Class, set some two decades before Apocalypse? Look, I can forgive some shenanigans when it comes to actor’s ages – Robert DeNiro does not look in his twenties in Goodfellas early scenes, for instance – but this sort of timeline clumsiness is symptomatic of a franchise that feels the need to rush headlong into the next, yes, apocalyptic event without taking the time to slow down and put in real character development.
What if, instead of snapping forward a decade after Days of Future Past, necessitating all this timeline weirdness and unconvincing casting choices, we just hung out in the ‘70s a little bit longer? Maybe stage a far more minor villain than Apocalypse as an excuse to flesh out some of these characters. Explore Magneto’s excursion into the Polish wilderness, observe the development of the School for Gifted Youngsters, etc. I mean, I’m no screenwriter, but they’re already talking about setting the next film in the nineties. Just slow down, guys! Take a leaf from Marvel Studios’ book and give yourself the time to make these team-ups and conflicts more meaningful by not needing to rush every single narrative beat.
Here’s another character ill-served by the density and alacrity of the film. Jean Grey learning to grapple with her powers – and their dark, phoenix-y undercurrents – while flirting with Scott and repping some shoulderpads seems like a winner (even if Sophie Turner’s line readings might leave a little to be desired). But because you’ve got so many characters and backstory to establish, her storyline is truncated and what should have been this iconic, jaw-dropping moment – Jean unleashing her Dark Phoenix potential and obliterating Apocalypse – plays like an afterthought.
Speaking of afterthoughts…
Look, I like Tye Sheridan. He proved himself as a capable young actor in the likes of Mud and Joe. But his lackadaisical Southern charisma is ill-suited to Cyclops, particularly when the screenplay (the real biggest problem with Apocalypse) can’t decide if he’s a smug jerk/jock, an ungainly nerd or a scared teenager grappling with his powers. (Yes, these three things could co-exist, but not in a film this overstuffed.)
For a while it seems like Cyclops might be that fated protagonist the film so desperately needs, as we follow him into the thriving School for Gifted Youngsters. And it’s tempting to imagine a film where that’s the case – where you follow Scott on their trip to the mall, when you see the stakes mount through his eyes – but, like so many of the cast, he’s sidelined in favour of montages of the Sydney Opera House disintegrating. But, hey – we get to look forward to him pretending to be in his late 20s in a few years, I guess. Hooray?
Embarrassing, to be honest. Like Sheridan, Smit-McPhee is ill-suited to the role, but ‘role’ is maybe generous. Nightcrawler serves as unfunny comic relief and a convenient plot device to zap our characters to where they need to be. Just remembering the quality of Alan Cumming’s take on the character makes me sad. Let’s move on.
The X-Men franchise has a long-documented problem with diversity; its attempts to include people of colour in the cast tend to end with them getting murdered. But you don’t get any brownie points for incorporating an Asian-American character like Jubilee and then rendering her a glorified extra. Thumbs down.
For those statistical sticklers among you, these are three separate reasons I’m choosing to tackle in one section. Okay? Okay.
Look, the problem with these three characters is mostly linked to the first reason: Apocalypse. I understand that if you’re going to include Apocalypse in your film, you’re going to want his four Horseman as well. Now, Magneto as one of those four Horsemen makes a lot of sense, even its execution leaves a bit to be desired. But couldn’t you at least make one of the other Horsemen a previously established character? It might have helped if you hadn’t have killed off all of Magneto’s Brotherhood (save himself and Mystique) from the first film.
Instead, we’re left with these three, all of whom are well-cast and well-costumed but given no plausible characterisation whatsoever. Why do they go along with Apocalypse’s plan? Who knows. Why does Storm end up on the side of good by the end of the film? Who knows. Why did they ditch Angel’s awesome ‘80s get up – that Jason Donovan hairstyle! – for a knock-off action figure look? Whoooo knooooows. Olivia Munn gets the shortest straw, though, showing off her impressive legs in a very-Rob-Liefeld outfit but given no actual characterisation to go with them.
Let’s finish with best thing about Days of Future Past and maybe the worst thing about Apocalypse: Quicksilver.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Evan Peters carries over the same charm and pizazz that made his brief DOFP appearance so memorable. It’s less charming when he’s supposed to be in his late-twenties not his teens, granted, but the film acknowledges as much (in a piece of dialogue that’s initially funny but flails when it keeps going. “I’m a loser,” wins the prize for the film’s most superfluous piece of dialogue). And while I felt the “Sweet Dreams” bit was too similar to DOFP’s “Time in a Bottle” sequence, he did get to smack Apocalypse around for a while.
The real problem with Quicksilver is emblematic of the film’s biggest problems – rushed, truncated characterisation. Giving Quicksilver the motivation of wanting to get to know his dad (Magneto) is smart, but the film handles it so clumsily that I couldn’t help but role my eyes every time it resurfaced. Again, had there been an adjoining film between DOFP and Apocalypse this might’ve been convincing, but instead it’s representative of a film where every character gets an ‘arc’ – no matter how briefly or poorly handled – because that’s what modern screenwriting demands.
[Post-script: It only now occurs to me I’ve omitted Beast. Obviously a memorable character in the movie, then.]