X-Men Apocalypse

May 19, 2016
Tye Sheridan in 'X-Men: Apocalypse' (2016)
Tye Sheridan in 'X-Men: Apocalypse' (2016)

Not having bothered to watch the past seven – or is it eight? – X-Men films, I feel at a disadvantage when it comes to reviewing this latest installment in a long-running franchise. I didn’t avoid the previous films for any special reason, merely a lack of interest in the overblown superhero genre that has become an obsession with the Hollywood studios – a highly lucrative obsession that declares a movie a flop if it nets only US$200 million. The previous X-Men movie of 2014 allegedly raked in US$747 million.

A quick scan of the early notices suggests X-Men Apocalypse has been a big disappointment for more knowledgable reviewers. One wonders what they expected? Every superhero film is relentlessly formulaic, featuring hours of CGI, fights and explosions; along with pitiful moments when characters reveal their sensitive sides, or brood over the dark secrets of their past. Oh yes, they also save the world from some impossible threat and are misunderstood by ungrateful humanity.

That pretty much describes the new X-Men movie, although I’m surprised to say I enjoyed this flick more than most of the superhero sagas. While all the standard plot devices are in place, director, Bryan Singer, doesn’t dwell on the characters’ psychological hang-ups. Instead, he has his hands full just setting the scene and introducing the players. The set-up occupies about half the movie, as we meet one mutant after another and start assembling a jigsaw puzzle that has been accumulating pieces since the first X-Men film in 2000.

The plot is less complicated than the cast list. It begins 3,600 years ago in ancient Egypt, which is ruled by En Sabah Nur, AKA. Apocalypse, a pharaoh who is also a powerful mutant. When Nur’s attempts to transfer his consciousness to a new body are sabotaged, he is buried under a collapsed pyramid for a few thousand years, to be resurrected in the year 1983. Upon awakening, a quick squizz at the TV is enough to convince him that the world is a tasteless mess that must be destroyed and remoulded into a more congenial shape.

This mega-villain bears a passing resemblance to the Golem in Peter Wegener’s 1915 silent classic of that name. It’s hard to believe it’s Oscar Isaac under all that gunk. They could have put Miley Cyrus in the suit and it would’ve looked exactly the same. Nur quickly surrounds himself with a mutant entourage of Storm (Alexandra Shipp) – who appreciates his hairdressing skills; Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and Angel (Ben Hardy). The star recruit is veteran X-Men adversary, Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who has been slumming it in a Polish factory town until his true identity is discovered.

The other side of the story introduces us to Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), whose school for “gifted” children is a haven for young mutants. Here we meet a range of characters, including Hank, AKA. Beast (Nicholas Hoult); Scott, AKA. Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), who is learning to control his laser beam vision; and Jean (Sophie Turner), who has a whole showbag of psychic powers. Then there’s Mystique, played by Jennifer Lawrence – sometimes in a shade of shocking blue – who has become an unofficial scout for stray mutants. She rescues a dark blue fellow called Kurt, AKA. Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), from a tricky situation in Berlin and brings him to the school. Later they will be joined by Peter, AKA. Quicksilver (Evan Peters), whose super speed defies all understanding.

As you can see, it takes ages just to list these characters. There’s not much scope for plot development, let alone morbid introspection. The chief subplot pits Professor X’s desire to reconcile mutants with humans against Magneto’s bitterness and disenchantment, which leads to a more aggressive – indeed murderous – approach. Apparently one popular line of interpretation is to compare Professor X to Martin Luther King and Magneto to Malcolm X.

Nur is quickly on the job, wreaking havoc on a global scale, and Professor X and his crew must get to grips with a villain who styles himself a messiah of darkness but sounds like a DJ from Classic FM. The only things we know for certain are that the good guys must win against overwhelming odds; and the ground must be laid for a sequel.

The endless scene-setting ensures that the action scoots along so quickly one hardly notices the movie’s 144 minutes. It’s a procession of characters with outlandish superpowers, and a plot that requires a major suspension of disbelief. With the film subtitled Apocalypse there was always going to be portentous religious symbolism, but nothing so ghastly as Zac Snyder’s heavy-handed attempts to brand Superman as a new Jesus in Batman V. Superman.

There’s much about this movie that tests one’s credulity. The quantity of mutants roaming the world in the 1980s is the first hurdle. The second is the range of superpowers these mutants possess, which make a mockery of most of the plot lines. For instance, how could anyone ever capture Nightcrawler when he can transfer himself from one place to the next in a puff of smoke? How could anyone defeat a villain who draws into himself the powers of all the other mutants he encounters? How many people must Magneto kill before Professor X stops talking about the “good” in him?

It’s breathtaking when one pauses to consider the casual way people are annihilated, or the sheer scale of destruction that occurs when Nur razes a city with his eyeballs and rebuilds it in a style of Egyptian retro-chic. Singer’s attitude to mass murder is so casual it’s almost psychopathic. We claim to be appalled by the bloodthirsty nature of the ancient Romans, but the cinema that shows these blockbuster movies is our own Colosseum.

X-Men Apocalypse
Directed by Bryan Singer
Screenplay by Simon Kinberg, after a story by Bryan Singer, Simon Kinberg, Michael Dougherty & Sam Harris
Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Evan Peters, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Lucas Til, Ben Hardy, Alexandra Shipp, Olivia Munn, Hugh Jackman
USA, rated M, 144 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 21st May, 2016.