Counting to X: Apocalypse

It’s the 1980s and the world is ending. En Sabah Nur, an impossibly old mutant buried beneath his pyramid in Ancient Egypt and asleep for thousands of years is waking up. He views himself as the Mutant Messiah, the father of them all. Aided by his four horsemen he plans to remake the world as the planetary temple to the strong he’s always dreamed of. And to do that he’ll need Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr.

Look, off the bat, Apocalypse is bad. Which is interesting and also, honestly, a little sad. The Last Stand has a good first act and falls apart with exuberance at least. Apocalypse just grumpily marches along for 2.5 hours until it’s time for it to stop. Every single one of the franchise’s long-standing problems are present and correct, in new hats, tap dancing for your entertainment and every single one of them has never been worse than they are here. There is some good news but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Cast wise, as usual, it’s stacked. It’s great to see Rose Byrne back as Moira MacTaggert but her plot is so sideswiped by the tragically badly realised nostalgia half hour in the middle that she doesn’t have anything to do but look worried. Lucas Till, back as Havok to introduce Tye Sheridan as younger brother Scott, dies in a manner that’s weirdly incompetent and even more weirdly unmourned. Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Nightcrawler is perpetually terrified until it’s time for him to competent. Oscar Isaac is absolutely lost under a ton of makeup, his Apocalypse aiming for Mephistopheles and landing somewhere around Skeletor. Make no mistake, none of these folks are phoning it in. The material they’re working with sure is though.

It gets worse too. Olivia Munn’s Psylocke is so emancipated by Apocalypse that she swaps practical combat gear for high heeled thigh highs and a crotch garroting leotard. Alexandra Shipp’s Storm fares a little better and actually has an arc even if its a largely silent one. Poor Ben Hardy as Angel gets to be mutilated, depressed, largely replaced by CGI and then punched in the face with the ground.  

But it’s the three main leads who are served the least well. Professor Xavier is required to do very little other than scream while wearing a helmet and debate ethics on a sound stage dressed to look like Egypt. Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique, the hero of the mutant race at this point, is reduced to a wide variety of boob-windowed spray on dresses, amazingly terrible hair and one halfway decent scene. But all of that pales in comparison to the startlingly terrible things the movie does with and to Magneto.

There’s a lovely moment in Dark Phoenix where Erik and Charles confront one another and Charles apologises. With the longest of long suffering sighs, Erik replies

‘You’re always sorry, Charles! And there’s always a speech!’

He’s not wrong either, but he’s also not without problems. Every single one of this second, loosest of trilogies, has Magneto drawn back to darkness. It maps the comics very well in that regard but it’s also, by this stage, dull. The moment you see his quiet little cottage and beloved wife and daughter you start a clock. That clock stops when he murders the policemen who try to arrest him and accidentally kill his daughter. The merry go round starts again, only this time he gets to say less and stand next to Oscar Isaac painted blue. Oh, not before a sequence which embodies very nearly every other problem the movie has.

Magneto is reborn at the concentration camp where his powers first manifested. In one of the very few moments where Isaac’s Apocalypse lands he talks Erik into full use of his powers. That leads to the camp being torn apart as Erik extends the Earth’s magnetic field and uses it to flatten the area. It looks CGI as all Hell but there’s some actual emotion to it, some actual muscle.

None of which matters because the camp is empty. Just like, when Cairo is transformed into Apocalypse’s new pyramid, there’s apparently no death toll. We see people fleeing, we see the land transformed into the pryamid but we don’t see anyone die. Likewise Magneto’s attempted destruction of human society. It’s the empty world problem the original movie had all over again. Just on a vastly inflated scale and bathed in beautiful and never once convincing CGI.

The weirdly teflon nature of the world is doubled down on by how non-period it is. It’s set in 1983 but other than a really poor gag about Return of the Jedi and third instalments being disappointing, it’s not exactly obvious. No one has aged in twenty years. Nothing has changed except some haircuts and here we go, yet again.

And speaking of ‘here we go again’ the film’s most egregious error is returning to Alkali Lake to relitigate the Wolverine story for the umpteenth time. Superficially this makes sense but the more you think about the scene the less it works. Why just bring them? Why keep them locked in a room and apathetically interrogate them? Why have this miserable series in the movie at all?

Because when Wolverine does show up, it’s in Weapon X mode. And we see him for the first time when Jean, Scott and Kurt release him as a distraction.

Or to put it another way, three of the X-Men condemn a couple of dozen minimum wage employees to death by knife handed feral human weapon. On the one hand, they probably had it coming. On the other, snikt.

What really irks about this scene though is how mechanical it is and how cynically it plays. Not only do half the cast literally stand around waiting for the plot to arrive while the other half enable murder, the whole thing is just there to give them uniforms and a jet. Well, it’s really just there for a cheap hit of Wolverine nostalgia but the uniforms and jet are the payoff. Massively tedious, endlessly self indulgent and really annoying it’s like an unwanted interval when the lights don’t go up and it kills any momentum the movie had.

I have busted on this movie for close to 800 words at this point and that’s not like me AT all. So, let’s end on some positives because even here there are some. Evan Peters’ Quicksilver comes back for a fun do over of his big scene last time and also for something much more fun. Peter has realized he’s Magneto’s son, and joins up to stop dad destroying the world. He can’t quite bring himself to say who he is though and the poignancy of that is beautifully played by Peters. It’s never paid off in the final movie, but what’s here is good and works. Likewise Alexandra Shipp works miracles with a nothing character, as do Sophie Turner and Tye Sheridan. Lawrence too, wrings the most interesting work she can from this weirdly underdeveloped version of Mystique. She feels, here especially, like she should be both far more dynamic and far more front and center and if these movies have a genuine asset, it’s her work across them. I only wish she’d been given more.

Plus like I say, the thing looks lovely. The design work is on point, the special effects look good even if they don’t look realistic and the closing fight is pleasingly close and burly. It’s all still pretty much one-on-ones mind you. Don’t want to mess with the house style.

Apocalypse is the low point of the series. It has none of the exuberance of The Last Stand and instead just methodically doles out scenes with little emotion, energy or drive. Singer’s last movie on the franchise is his worst by some considerable margin. There are still, barely, pearls to be uncovered here but honestly this is the one instance where I’d suggest you don’t bother. Dark Phoenix is way more fun, and engaged than this and doesn’t tie in at all (Despite a clear Phoenix pattern around Jean at one point). Skip to the end, come back to this one at your leisure. It’s not worth the wait, but it is worth waiting.

I’ve also reviewed Dark Phoenix over at my newsletter. Click through for the issue and here to subscribe.

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