Marvel’s merry mutants are back! Academy Award Winner Jennifer Lawrence and her amazingly lower-paid friends return for X-Men: Apocalypse, the ninth film in a cinematic universe that’s unwritten at least 3¾ previous installments out of its own continuity. Everything you thought you knew, every film you thought was worth saving, every character you thought was more important than other characters, you’re wrong. Shut up, go to the concession stand, and don’t come back until you agree to stop thinking so hard about any of this. Just be happy that director Bryan Singer is finally telling the one major story that You, the Viewers at Home, clearly demanded most: the secret origin of Professor X’s bald head.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Ten years after Our Heroes rewrote their own history in X-Men: Days of Future Past, it’s 1983 and human/mutant relations are no longer an allegory for today’s social issues. But the lives of all those happy young heroes-to-be are interrupted when awakens the grumpiest old man on Earth: En Sabah Nur, an ancient Egyptian tyrant whose powers are literally Whatever. Bearing the ambitious nickname Apocalypse, Nur arises from thousands of years of deep burial in the body of Oscar Isaac, costar of a few super-keen 2015 movies, but still buried under fifty pounds of movie makeup. He decides Earth is his lawn and all kids must go, except for four sidekicks chosen to fight for him when he’s not in the mood to kill people by wishing.
Leading the good guys is Mystique (Academy Award Winner Jennifer Lawrence), who’s become like a pop idol to other mutants, revered in hushed whispers after that time she saved President Nixon’s life, even though she also came thiiiis close to murdering Peter Dinklage. Can she and several other actors who featured less prominently in the ad campaign save the day without lots of snarking at Isaac’s expense about Power Rangers, Smurfs, the Kree, Cortana, Blue Man Group, and Avatar? Seriously, have we run that joke well dry yet? If we haven’t, am I too late to help?
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: The important thing is James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are back as Professor X and Magneto. Charles Xavier still strives for peaceful coexistence, while his old sparring buddy Erik Lensherr has his own attempted peace shattered once again by stupid humans. As long as those two are in the house, we got us an X-movie worth paying to see.
Also returning: Evan Peters as Quicksilver, again stealing any scenes not nailed down; Nicholas Hoult’s Beast; Lucas Till’s Havok (after skipping Future Past); Rose Byrne as the not-mutant Moira MacTaggert; Josh Helman (now on Wayward Pines) as that annoying young Colonel Stryker; and, as you may have noticed in the trailer, yes, that is Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, the Fonzie of the series. All the other great-looking new mutants we met in Future Past weren’t invited back because they needed too many CG effects, and/or were deleted from the timeline, and/or because Jennifer Lawrence said no.
Newcomers include young Cyclops (the main kid from Mud); young Jean Grey (Game of Thrones‘ Sansa Stark); young Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes); young Storm (Ice Cube’s wife in Straight Outta Compton); an Angel (some guy from EastEnders) with a different backstory from the Angel we saw in X-Men: The Last Stand who no longer matters; and Attack of the Show‘s Olivia Munn as a Psylocke action figure.
Tiny portions of screen time are doled out to Jubilee, whose part is whittled down to two scenes, neither of which bothers to mention her by name; ’80s legend Ally Sheedy as Cyclops’ schoolteacher; utility bureaucrat character actor Zeljko Ivanek (Homicide, Revolution, zillions of other things) as a Pentagon thinker; and Stan Lee and his wife Joan (in her Marvel movie debut) as a frightened couple watching the end of the world. Also, bonus points to the filmmakers for bringing Caliban out of the comics for one scene, curiously as a charismatic wheeler-‘n’-dealer instead of as a Horseman.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? The only theme I could detect besides “Evil = Bad” and “Yay teamwork!” is the recurring representation of bad forms of empowerment. Millennia ago, Apocalypse was born with the mutant ability to Do All the Things and came to believe he was therefore obviously a god, should be deified and obeyed accordingly, and should treat all organisms as bugs to squash if they don’t benefit him. Some of Our Heroes went through iterations of this line of thought in past films, learning the principle that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.
Because he is not 100% without mercy (maybe 97%, tops), and because of whims ultimately selfish, Apocalypse decides to bestow his blessings upon four hard-luck mutants, easily lured into a life of power-tripping servitude from their weakened positions. Would-be Presidential assassin Magneto has just ended a ten-year fugitive run in heart-rending tragedy and yearns to lash out at a world that keeps thwarting his every attempt at happiness. Storm is an African street rat who’s not great at stealing and wants to stand tall and fit in somewhere. Angel is a Fight Club hobo with nowhere to go but up. And Psylocke is a bodyguard who’s happy in her work but wants more lines. Apocalypse’s promises of ruling-class awesomeness and guaranteed screen time are temptations they can’t resist. Unless someone can give them better reasons to resist.
Meanwhile at Xavier’s school, Cyclops and Jean Grey are learning to cope with the new abilities that are making them increasingly more dangerous to others around them. Theirs were more of a curse than a blessing, but they don’t have the option to say no. Somehow they have to learn to live and to do good anyway.
Nitpicking? Don’t try to unravel the timeline. Just don’t. Days of Future Past undid all of The Last Stand except for the part where the Beast grows up to be Frasier Crane. This one goes even further, starting with Wolverine and Nightcrawler each meeting the X-Men for their respective first times much earlier than they did in their previous lives. A few effects in the final battle hint that Jean Grey’s timeline may have accelerated. No one really cares if the two Angels are reconcilable, or about the female Angel from First Class. And don’t get me started on how some of these characters have aged ridiculously gracefully in the twenty years since First Class. Also, Jubilee was somehow born 20-30 years earlier. The X-films are more than ready for their own version of Crisis on Infinite Earths in which every actor from all the X-films is tossed at each other in one sprawling arena battle and the winners get to choose everyone else’s one true backstories for them.
The X-films have also become one of those ensemble saga that’s gone on for so long that their characters’ relationships are experiencing new imbalances determined by the actors’ rising or falling Hollywood statuses rather than by the needs of the ensemble or the story. Fame and clout can be written around and accommodated, but it’s distracting when it becomes forced.
My largest problem going into this: as a former reader of X-Men comics, I’ve never cared for Apocalypse. I didn’t think much of him during his original X-Factor arcs, and I’d walked away from most X-books by the time “Age of Apocalypse” came around. His assorted writers tended to give him whatever powers struck their fancy, making him the kind of nigh-omnipotent villain I tend to find really boring. He’s like a chaotic evil AD&D player character run through years of Monty Haul campaigns by a pushover of a Dungeon Master. He’s made of winning and can’t be stopped until some shortcomings are contrived later, but he shouldn’t have any shortcomings because he can essentially control every molecule ever. If he was really serious about laying waste to all he surveys, he’d just fly around the globe several dozen times, point at everything, and POOF Earth’s entire surface area back to ashes and dust. As a one-man magic arsenal, why does he even bother with his redundant lackeys? For their scintillating conversation? Because he hopes they’ll be his best friends? As his platonic consorts?
The final battle, in the grand super-hero movie tradition, ends with large portions of a major city torn to pieces, blown to smithereens, 9/11’d into oblivion, and DC-movie’d into crumbled CG set dressing. Thousands of innocent lives easily lost in the ensuing melee without so much as a somber news report or mass funeral on TV later. And at least two of the accomplices who aided and abetted in the senseless deaths and destruction are forgiven and released back into the wild with happy smiles and high hopes for future heroic hijinks with those uncannily magnanimous X-Men. Um, no.
So what’s to like? After First Class and Days of Future Past went to tremendous lengths to endow the X-universe with more thoughtfulness and gravitas — largely in the complex relationships among their leads — Apocalypse is an unapologetic regression to a more primitive popcorn-film state. But here’s the thing: not every super-hero comic is a major event or an aspiration to high art. Most of the time, a super-hero story is just a super-hero story. It’s only logical that super-hero films might stop straining to be major events unto themselves, and sooner or later get back to the necessary business of ordinary yet entertaining fights between good and evil. After nearly forty years of comics fandom, I’m not as easily wowed by basic super-fighting and I’ve stopped caring about evaluating the visual effects involved (watching a lot of Doctor Who, you learn to roll with anything north of Sharknado-level), but I recognize that other audiences ought to have the chance to find out what that’s like and enjoy for all they’re worth.
The best among the X-bits, then: Quicksilver’s new musical number, this time with a tighter deadline adding some suspense that the Future Past “Time in a Bottle” scene didn’t have. We get a great moment of psychic warfare. Oscar Isaac’s awakening and observing the 21st century sees some pleasing nuances till he eventually escalates to “BURN EVERYTHING” bellowing. The new Nightcrawler is no Alan Cumming and oddly lacks his comics’ power limitations, but he’s fun in his own way, less angst-ridden and mopey than those two young, unconvincing, star-crossed X-lovers tagging along with him. Hugh Jackman is given a different angle to play in his short appearance, boosted by a heaping helping of classic X-comics nostalgia. One scene kindasorta brings one of my favorite Avengers-related characters to the big screen for the first time. And I came away wishing we could have more Havok.
If you’re fine with colorful super-heroics on a Silver Age/Bronze Age level of amusement-park diversion, X-Men: Apocalypse fits the bill as long as you avoid analyzing it for as long as possible and resist the urge to compare it to its predecessors. If we must, well…regardless of my own muted reaction to it, I’d rank it at least above X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Last Stand. Then again, I’d rank a lot of things above The Last Stand, so that’s not saying much.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a scene after the X-Men: Apocalypse end credits. If you haven’t seen the film, a description of the epilogue may ruin a thing or two. For those who fled the theater prematurely and really want to know without seeing it a second time…
[insert space for courtesy mild spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship]
…we return to Stryker’s military lair, where janitorial staff are mopping up blood and vacuuming thousands of bullet casings spent in the wake of Weapon X’s frenzied escape. Men in black arrive at the lab and pop a test tube of Logan’s blood into a briefcase ominously labeled ESSEX CORP. In comics this is the evil company run by the villainous Mister Sinister, and eventually that blood would be used to create the female Wolverine clone called X-23. In the current Marvel universe she’s inherited the Wolverine mantle from Logan and starring in the series by that name, so it’s possible Fox and Singer are setting up a successor for Jackman after he finishes that one last job. But I double-dog-dare them to find an actor who can look at the camera and say with a straight face, “Men call me…Mister Sinister!” I can’t even type that with a straight face.