Not counting this February’s unfathomably successful spin-off Deadpool, when we last left the increasingly messy (and probably nonsensical) timeline of the X-Men universe in Days of Future Past, it had just wiped the events of more than one of its movies out of existence, giving us a happy ending for the old cast, and resurrecting more than one dead character. Opting not to continue with the rewritten future timeline, X-Men: Apocalypse focuses instead entirely on the younger cast, being more of a sequel to First Class, the reboot that turned out not to be a reboot, than whatever the hell DoFP was.
Though it’s stylistically very similar, one might be forgiven for thinking that this latest entry in this long-running X-Men series had been made by a newly hired creative team who decided to throw away what they felt didn’t work before and concentrate on remixing what interested them. But you’d be wrong, this is by the same guy who directed the original two films, and the immediate predecessor to this, director Bryan Singer who originally left after X2. I say that because, the more you think about it, so much of this movie makes absolutely no fucking sense whatsoever. This franchise dropped any concerns regarding continuity long ago, but it’s mildly fascinating to see a director with such a brazen disregard for the events of his own movies.
A few obvious cases in point; this movie takes place in 1983, about a decade after DoFP, and just over 2 decades from First Class. Despite this, none of the characters appear to have aged much at all in the interim. Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Mystique, looked about 18/19 in First Class, here she looks about 25, but is she supposed to be what, 40? Similarly Michael Fassbender’s Magneto should be in his fifties now yet looks identical to how he did in First Class, as do James McAvoy and Rose Byrne. Then there’s the actor playing Havoc who looks about 5 years older than the one playing his younger brother, who wouldn’t have even been alive in First Class. I suppose that’s comic books for you.
Similarly, this film features the reappearances of several characters who’ve been in previous instalments such as Nightcrawler and Angel. Here they prominently interact with other characters who they were supposed to have met for the first time in movies that are set after this. I mean, Mystique and Nightcrawler have a memorable first encounter in X2, are they supposed to have just forgotten about their many adventures years previously? Or did DoFP‘s time-meddling erase all the future events we’d already seen? If so, why was Angel born much earlier in this re-jigged timeline? Honestly, I don’t know whether to respect this approach of powering forward to try and make something new without being tied to the events of previous movies or laugh at its shameless indifference to any kind of consistency.
Make no mistake though, this is not attempting to be a standalone movie either, it draws specifically from the climax of DoFP beginning with Magneto in exile and Mystique now looked up to as a hero among younger mutants. Meanwhile, CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) has been investigating a Cairo cult who worship the mysterious legendary figure of En Sabah Nur (aka Apocalypse, played by Oscar Isaac), He’s introduced in a an amusing Ancient Egypt-set prologue more than slightly reminiscent of The Mummy. Apocalypse is the first mutant, an extremely powerful being who’s absorbed the abilities of many other mutants throughout the years. He’s soon revived of course, and goes about recruiting his ‘four horsemen’, fellow mutants whose powers he will enhance to assist his mission, which naturally is the destruction of humanity.
Additionally, the movie is populated with an expansive cast of characters both returning from previous entries, (Nicolas Hoult’s Beast, Evan Peters’ Quicksilver) and a slew of new actors playing younger versions of characters we’ve seen in the earlier films. They’re a mixed bag; Tye Sheridan is fairly lifeless as the young Scott Summers, aka Cyclops, a character who’s never been particularly well-served by these movies. Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner has similar trouble as the new Jean Grey, never quite managing to convey the conflict she should being unsure about how to control her potentially dangerous powers, and only really coming though in the finale. On the other hand, Alexandra Shipp makes a decent impression as a young Storm, the first mutant Apocalypse encounters, and a completely unrecognizable Kodi Smit-McPhee (I had no idea it was him until the credits) is a blast as Nightcrawler, a fun character who’s abilities are always fun to see explored.
As for the returnees, one does get the impression that some of them, particularly the ones who’ve become much more famous since signing a three film contract, are only there out of obligation, but that doesn’t mean they do bad work. As with DoFP, I do wonder if Mystique would be so front-and-centre had Jennifer Lawrence not become a huge star, but she does a serviceable job. I’m sure Michael Fassbender would rather be doing something serious and respectable, but he still delivers a great performance and anchors one of the more striking scenes in this series’ history. James McAvoy tries his hardest, but feels a little less well served by Simon Kinberg’s script.
And then there’s Apocalypse himself. Oscar Isaac is barely recognizable under a pile of ugly blue prosthetics, but he hams it up to the extreme. Here’s an actor we know is capable of brilliance delivering a ridiculously cartoonish performance who manages to be threatening yet also silly and fun (he has some inventive ways of dispatching people). I’m still not quite sure what to make of him, or whether Isaac might look back on this as an embarrassment in a decade’s time, but still, his over-the-top delivery mostly works here, even if the make-up doesn’t so much. Plus I can’t help but find it hilarious that the movie that brought together Oscar Isaac and Michael Fassbender, two of the most acclaimed actors to have emerged in the last ten years is X-Men: Apocalypse.
So I imagine this movie is sounding like a bloated disaster to many at this point, but here’s the surprising thing; it isn’t! I’ll admit I kept thinking that it was all going to fall apart at any moment, that it might descend it to a series of overblown, repetitive and dull CGI-filled set-pieces, but it doesn’t. I’m not actually sure if there’s much of a story here, and I’ve already gone on about the messed-up timeline. But I accepted early on that this wouldn’t really relate to the originals much, and I guess it just didn’t really bother me in the moment. If there had been a strict timeline up to this point it would have been a whole different matter, but we all know there hasn’t. Maybe it’ll collapse with a rewatch, but I was quite happy with it. It’s two and a half hour running time breezed by and there wasn’t a moment when I felt bored.
There are a host of great individual scenes throughout this movie. Angel and Nightcrawler are both introduced as part of an underground fighting club, where mutants are kidnapped and forced to fight one another in an electrified cage under threat of execution. It’s an alarming sequence and deftly illustrates the treatment some mutants are forced to endure in their society. Hugh Jackman gets a thrilling and surprisingly brutal corridor fight scene for his obligatory Wolverine cameo. Pretty much everything involving Magneto in the first half is great, and there are two scenes in particular when I was quite taken aback that the film was willing to actually go there; I won’t spoil them but one involves nuclear missiles and the other Magneto’s return to Auschwitz. And then there’s the awesome Quicksilver rescue sequence. True, it performs basically the exact same function that the show stealing one in DoFP did, but also succeeds in one-upping it at every turn.
The actors do have to contend with some creaky dialogue at times, it can be very on-the-nose and there’s an attempt at self-aware humour that fails spectacularly. It does feature a bit of the big CGI-filled city destruction that’s become so ingrained in superhero movies, but the final battle is a sequence I mostly appreciated. I think this is because unlike Iron Man or Captain America the X-Men all have specific individual powers that can be faced off against one-another more dynamically. It’s by no means a perfect superhero action set-piece; Psylocke (who has the film’s most ridiculous costume) , Angel and Mystique aren’t especially well handled, but it’s good enough with the other characters to work as a whole, particularly in how they work together, and incorporate metal abilities into the moment that turns the tables.
I’m not sure where the X-Men franchise is going to be headed from here, as this film appears to be servicing as both the closing chapter on the arc that started with First Class, and the establishment of new core team. I do hope they attempt to pay-off one of the more audacious sequences in this film if there’s to be an immediate follow-up. There have been times when I’ve written about a film very soon after seeing it and a few weeks later felt that I was perhaps a bit too generous, and I fear that might be the case with this film but in the cinema I enjoyed this big silly film pretty much all the way through. Of the three massive superhero team movies we’ve gotten this year, I did not think that the one I’d be saying I liked the most was X-Men: Apocalypse, but there you go.