In the year 2000, the first entry in a new franchise gave audiences in the past a taste of what the future, which is now the current, holds for us in our current future, and beyond. If that past/future talk confuses you, then you’ll get a sense of what this franchise eventually turned into – a hulking, Cronenbergian monster, drooling new timelines and alternate universes like some kind of quantum-physics meatball. That movie, called Mister Man’s Mutant Party – later retitled to X-Men – was the start of a new era of comic-book movies: the previous decade was ruled by the progressively dumber and dumber Batman movies, which started as moody, Tim Burton-helmed commentaries on social status and mental health, and eventually tuned into goofy, Joel Schumacher-helmed toy commercials with a healthy helping of art deco splooge coating Every. Goddamn. Thing. When the last real comic-book movie of the 90s is something the director eventually apologized for years later, you know that the genre as a whole was in dire straits.
So, like a fiercely independent black woman with the ability to harness the power of god himself, the X-Men series blew into the theaters, creating a hurricane of feelings that can only be expressed as “I can’t think of more weather puns.” Gone were the days of Batman’s nipples pointing at the camera, one for each eye, as if laughing at you and your hard-earned money; we were in an era where the first scene of your movie about super-people took place in fucking Auschwitz. The concentration-camp aspect gave you great pity for the film’s main villain; the present-day plight of our heroes as they try to convince a clawed newcomer with the powers of what some cultures call “skunk bear” and the name of a high-school basketball team struck a nerve, as well. The general allegory the movie drew between mutants and homosexuals was subtle enough to be gripping, but not too subtle as to have it completely fly over your head. If it weren’t for X-Men (and its superior cousin, 2002’s Spider-Man) we may have found ourselves in a 2016 without the fantastic comic-book pictures we have. Comic-book movies have aged like people: the Chris Nolan era of Batman movies that followed the success of those early-2000s forays were akin to a gloomy teenage phase, and the current era we find ourselves in – the shared universe era – is one in which movie studios have fully embraced the comic books that originated all of these ideas. the 2000 X–Men and its first sequel showed what comic-book movies could be: engaging both to audiences who cared about the source material, and their parents who dragged them there to see partially-clothed movie stars fight each other on top of the Statue of Liberty complemented by what was top-notch (now laughable) computer animation.
We find ourselves 16 years and 9 movies later, with the X-Men franchise still going strong – and by “going strong,” I mean the exact opposite of “going strong.” The momentum has been lost due to a change from one shitty director to an even more shitty directors then back to the original shitty director, constantly-changing timelines, an obsession with black leather, and no real character advancement. The new film, Apocalypse, is now in the unenviable position of being a loss for 20th Century Fox: at the time of writing this, it’s taken in less than its predecessor, and is being lamented as a box-office failure. Is this bad? For the talented actors, set designers, animators, etc. this is certainly bad. But for the franchise, it’s hopefully a kick in the chest that the series needs: Apocalypse represents the titular state of the franchise where it stands today: the end of days, and the end of being able to milk the early-2000s sensibilities that catapulted this franchise into the limelight.
The movie has a lot going for it: our lead villain, for some odd reason named “Apocalypse,” is resurrected into the world of the 1980s by his followers and begins his hunt for total domination. He sees a world, as literally every villain in this franchise has to some extent, where his people are the only ones left. Purging the planet of all non-mutants (let’s call them “normies”) will allow the next step in the planet’s evolution to take place: he sees himself as the comet who has come to rid Earth of its dinosaur problem. But the real problem isn’t humans, it’s how goddamn tired this theme is as a central element to this franchise. Since the first movie came out, the core conflict has been humans fearing mutants, and mutants fearing what humans will do to them. This movie may be called Apocalypse, but it seems that the apocalypse comes dangerously close to happening in all of these movies.
As Apocalypse (played to very little effect by Oscar Isaac, who’s usually great) gathers his 4 followers who are lacking horses or even mutant horse-powers, we shift focus to the other mutants in the world, who all seem to hang out at Professor Xavier’s mansion/boarding school/sportsplex. While new kids like Cyclops (because he has two eyes) introduce themselves to others, we focus on Charles Xavier’s attempts to gather information on what he suspects, through a psychic vision, are the approaching End of Days. The movie doesn’t really ruin any of these characters necessarily – actually, it improves on them, to an extent. In the 2000 movie, for example, Cyclops was an absolute dickhead with an extreme distrust of the new guy (which seems to go against the whole point of the X-Men in the first place?); this movie gives us a vulnerable teen Cyclops who’s just getting used his powers. Jean “Mean Bean Machine” Grey went from serving mainly as a love interest to Wolverine to now being a vulnerable teen who’s just getting used to her powers. And who could forget Jubilee? She never had a role in these movies (other than a quick cameo in the original), and now…well, she still doesn’t really do anything. But is she a vulnerable teen who’s just getting used to her powers? Maybe! She never uses them!
All this vulnerability is making me vulnerable. Let’s take a moment to escape the doldrums of “Degrassi Mutant High” and visit Michael Fassbender – my favorite actor in this entire franchise – as Magneto, living his life in solitude after coming to terms with his mutant/Jewish history. Oh, he has a wife and daughter now? And someone at the steel mill saw him save someone with his powers? Now the police are asking him to come with them? Oh, his wife AND daughter were killed by the same arrow, shot by an easily-spooked cop who was scared of a bird? Great! I was hoping that the most complex character in this franchise, who has had the most growth and the most opportunity for advancement, would be completely put back in his place as an unwilling servant to narrative spoon-feeding. As he clutches his wife and daughter, screaming at god about some nonsense, I couldn’t help but laugh in my theater. How many times does he have to lose someone he loves? How many times does his faith in mankind have to be tested?
And so, in his state of complete fucking vulnerability, because now everyone has to be a big bowl of emotion pudding in these movies, he takes Apocalypse up on his offer to become one of his four horsepeople. “How does Apocalypse do this?” you ask? Let me tell you: Apocalypse takes him to Auschwitz. He literally takes him to the abandoned concentration camp that Magneto was a prisoner of – something he will never forget, something that drives his very character to its core – and he reminds him of the cruelty of man. This is the kind of shit that makes me think Bryan Singer is a fucking hack. Taking something as easily exploitative as a Holocaust concentration camp and using it as the central pivoting point for your villain on more than one occasion is just lazy, lazy writing. This is the man who, in the director’s cut of Days of Future Past, chose to linger on a shot of the still-standing World Trade Towers for 3 Mississippis. It’s not even just lazy, it’s offensive in its laziness. He’s an auteur who peaked in the 2000s, and – like Matthew McConaughey in Dazed & Confused – refuses to leave the era behind. Only in the early 2000s were S&M-style black leather superhero suits cool, because studios didn’t know if audiences wanted the outlandish outfits seen in comics. It’s 2016, and we have a Guardians of the Galaxy movie that was one of the most massive box offices successes of the decade so far. So we can at least move away from the outfits, can’t we?
Apocalypse dresses up his horsemen in black, leathery outfits that accentuate just how ready to rave these guys are, because of course not. His followers – Storm, Magneto, Angel (a dude with angel wings, what can I say) and Olivia Munn as “Phoning It In” – all help him break into the X-Mansion to try to control a giant machine that Xavier has access to which can help control anyone’s mind. Apocalypse succeeds, and does something completely non-villainous, which is launch every nuclear missile owned by every superpower into space. He’s a hero! We should be thanking him! After he does this, he kidnaps Xavier and escapes, and what follows are probably the worst 30 minutes of any movie I’ve seen this year.
Somehow, by mistake, one of the X-Men blows up the mansion. Complete accident. Oops! If it makes it any better, that guy gets blowed the hell up. So what of every other teen in the building? If you’ve seen the last movie, you’ll know a big show-stopper sequence was the Quicksilver sequence, wherein the titular superhero slows time to near-stopping it, and runs around while listening to music and enjoying himself. So the mansion’s been blown up, a lead character’s been burnt to a painful crisp, and “Sweet Dreams” by the Eurythmics starts playing in a scene that’s so tonally off the mark, it seems like Bryan Singer gave the reigns to a different director that day. After everyone is safely rescued from the slowly-exploding mansion, a key villain from the other movies shows up – after having nothing to do with this movie so far, mind you – and kidnaps a bunch of the kids to take them to his secret military base. Some of the other kids manage to sneak on the helicopter, and – while in this secret base – free Hugh Jackman from a cage to do a 2-minute cameo as Wolverine, who then runs away. They escape the compound, and go to rescue Xavier.
The issue with this entire sequence, especially from the point of the military guy showing up onward, is that it’s completely useless. The entire scene could have been cut and it would have made literally – I mean literally in the Merriam-Webster sense, literally – no impact on the rest of the movie. While in the compound, Xavier telepathically communicates with Jean Grey to let her know where he is. That could have been done in a different way; the entire scene is to give audiences a Wolverine cameo, as if that’s something people really pine for in these movies. I love Hugh Jackman as much as the next straight man who’s comfortable enough with his own sexuality to admit such a thing, but the character of Wolverine is another product of the early Bryan Singer-era shit that just doesn’t stick anymore. At least Wolverine, and by extension Mystique, are relegated to smaller roles here.
Speaking of Mystique, it’s important to note that despite marketing – which has been a misstep, considering how so many ads creepily focus solely on her getting choked out – has lied about her presence in this movie. She’s barely in it, compared to the Hunger Games-inspired role she had in the last movie; this is perfectly fine, as I’ve always contended that she’s a terrible actress who just got lucky, and if you think I’m wrong, watch any of her performances and tell me if she ever expresses anything with her eyebrows. She doesn’t! She’s mannequin-faced in everything. The Mystique thing works doubly well, considering this franchise’s new obsession with jumping through time periods the way it jumps through the hoops of basic-ass storytelling. Two movies ago we were in the 1960s, the last movie took place in the 1970s, and in this one we’re in the 1980s. It’s ridiculous that they’d expect anyone to buy that these characters barely age a day over the span of 30 years, and that is only exacerbated by Jennifer Lawrence, still in her mid-twenties.
I won’t even get into the final battle. The world starts to end, the bad guys start to win, and they’re edged out of a victory at the last second by a deus ex machina that almost rivals the literal deus ex machina in the third Matrix movie. It’s all become so rote at this point, it’s hard to see how a studio can see the box office returns and still want to make more of these. This is, however, the same studio that allowed Fantastic 4 to be released in theaters. They had a very lucky success with Deadpool this year, and hopefully that will be the beginning of the righting of a ship that has gone wildly off course.
All in all, Apocalypse is the low point in a series that has X-Men Origins: Wolverine in its repertoire. The acting is hammy, the jokes and general levity are tonally mismatched, and the writing is ham-fisted while it thinks it’s saying some truly revolutionary shit, which makes it even worse. Bryan Singer has solidified himself as a director who not just has trouble keeping up with the times and trends, he flat-out refuses to.
There’s an all-too brief scene in the movie where Cyclops, Jean Grey and Jubilee sneak out of the mansion and go to a mall to just be teenagers. The scene in the mall is literally one shot of them walking out of a screening of Return of the Jedi, and one of the characters quips that “The third one is always the worst.” Bryan Singer may have thought he was taking a shot at the rightfully-hated third film in the series, but he seems to forget that this is the third film in this particular trilogy of the Macavoy/Fassbender era. Maybe it’s time to get a new director who can be a little less out of touch.