[Don’t worry. She’s normally that color.]
Leaving the theater, my disappointment with X-Men: Apocalypse felt very strange to me. In fact, I’ve never felt so simply weird about a superhero movie in my life. After some reflection, I finally realized why that was. Apocalypse is just like a comic book, and that’s why it sucks.
First and foremost, the dialogue is shockingly bad. I can’t remember a single line that didn’t fall into the category of A) a character explicitly stating their feelings, B) a character explicitly laying out the plot, or C) a character awkwardly prompting another character to explicitly state their feelings and/or lay out the plot. This “telling” rather than “showing” is pretty common in superhero comic books, which don’t have the benefit of prose or a dramatic performance to provide subtext, and often tend to cram more into an issue than they should to meet prescribed story arc per-issue quotas.
Then there is the issue of quantity. Team comics like the X-Men titles often suffer from having too many protagonists to know what to do with. It takes an incredibly skilled writer to prevent a team of even a half-dozen heroes from coming across as a peanut gallery in a story that they have little emotional stake in. As much as I agree with the criticism that previous X-films have been The Wolverine Show at the expense of the rest of the team, at least those films had a strong central perspective. And, despite their flaws, they always had a strong emotional and thematic core – centered around the complicated friendship of Erik Lehnsherr and Charles Xavier, and their Malcolm X vs Martin Luther King Jr. worldviews. Apocalypse is the first X-film that follows the comic by focusing on the team rather than a central protagonist. This would have been fantastic if the characters’ arcs were tied to one another so that they could grow together as the story progressed, (y’know… like a team). Unfortunately, that’s not what happens.
For Professor X, we should have gotten a meaningful arc about the heavy choice he makes to utilize violence when necessary and train his students to intervene as heroes. The story seems to consider focusing on that, but instead we get a shoehorned arc about the crush he had two movies ago on Moira MacTaggert. Moira shows up to deliver plot exposition and be something for Xavier to fawn over, and then just stands around, acting confused in every scene for the rest of the film. Cyclops shows up to seem irritated and insecure in his big brother Havok’s shadow. The most important moment of their arc is awkwardly tonally overshadowed by Quicksilver in the most entertaining and hilarious few minutes of the movie.
Quicksilver, Magneto’s long lost son, seems like he’s going to factor deeply into the film’s strongest arc. But then, at the last minute, the film decides to do nothing with it. Magneto has lived a life of tremendous pain, and the film comes very close to exploring the long-term repercussions of that, but as soon as Apocalypse enters the picture, Magneto goes on autopilot and becomes a mindless WMD. The resolution to this arc is rushed and unearned. Similar to Storm’s arc, and Jean Grey’s arc, and Mystique’s arc. Are you noticing a pattern here?
Wolverine is in this movie as well, for absolutely no reason whatsoever, and his appearance is not only unbearably forced, but also laughably bad. (Hugh Jackman has never looked so silly.) He has also fallen into the hands of Col. William Stryker and Weapon X, despite the end of Days of Future Past clearly indicating that Mystique had saved him from that fate. And this leads us to the next problem that Apocalypse shares with comic books… a big fat continuity mess.
A big reason for Apocalypse‘s bloated nature is its attempt to serve the existing continuity of the already hilariously out-of-whack X-Men universe. Full disclaimer: I LOVE continuity. I adore the idea of sprawling, interconnected epics weaving in and out of each other to create a massive narrative with implications beyond themselves. Despite the plot holes and incongruities leading into the dystopian era of Days of Future Past, I loved the whacked out, sci-fi, comic-booky premise and the crossover with the continuity of the new prequel cast. But with this additional wrinkle to the overall legend, dozens of new masters await to be served. The film answers the least important of these questions. How did Cyclops end up an X-Men? What was Jean Grey like as a teenager? And then ignores others that are incredibly important to the long form narrative. Why was Apocalypse awoken in this continuity and not the previous one? Why didn’t young Xavier use Cerebro to hunt down and save the 70’s Wolverine? And then it answers questions that just raise more questions. If Apocalypse is the reason that Xavier loses his hair, why was he bald in the original series? (Same question about Storm’s hair being white.) Is Jubilee perpetually a teenager!!?! See… it’s just as confusing as the comics.
So the dialogue, character development, and overarching plot are a mess… just like a comic book. But it turns out the action is a lot like a comic book too! While the climactic battle is as fragmented as the rest of the movie, Apocalypse has more kick-ass splash page action moments than any X-Men film to date. This is the first time Cyclops’ beams ever felt like they packed a punch! Nightcrawler “BAMF”s all over the freaking place, but with much more room to do so than in X2! We finally get to see Quicksilver unleash on another mutant! And Magneto finally gets a magnetic force field! There are still a number of mutants that get dramatically under-represented in cool combat moments (Beast, Storm, Mystique, Professor X), but the amount of epic moments that actually land are unusually high for a Brian Singer film.
Little known fact – Singer’s Director of Photography, Newton Thomas Sigel, was actually the one who proposed and directed the famous Quicksilver scene from Days of Future Past– inarguably the best moment of the film, and perhaps of the series. Singer had nothing to do with it, but seems to have received all the credit. My theory is that Singer just let Sigel and the VFX vendors do whatever they wanted on this film, which is why, for the first time in history, an X-film has more than one great action scene. (It would also explain why none of the camera-work seems motivated by the story.)
So what are we left with? X-Men: Apocalypse is the most ambitious X-film yet, but it feels like it bit off more than it could chew. Even with a 2.5 hour running time, it feels like every single plot element and character is under-served. Its A-list cast is embarrassed by a terrible script (only Fassbender gets out unscathed). The newcomer X-kids, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, and Kodi Smit-McPhee, are all utterly forgettable in their roles. And even Oscar Issac, whose casual coolness turned the one-note good-guy Poe Dameron into an instant Star Wars fan favorite, couldn’t save Apocalypse from being the most boring X-villain of all time. Neither his motivations, his plan, or his powers ever materialize into any tangible threat, despite the fact that clearly millions of people die (cleverly off-camera) because of his actions.
X-Men: Apocalypse isn’t a good film. It has enough fun parts to make it worth a watch, but films like this are the ones that concern me the most about the future viability of the superhero movie franchise. This is exactly the kind of loud, empty example that folks desperate to prove “superhero fatigue” will latch onto. It’s an even more damaging example than the obviously horrible Batman v Superman, because Singer has a reputation as the guy who kicked off the modern era of super-flicks with X-Men (2000). Comic fans can do worse than checking Apocalypse out, but mostly they should just be glad that Civil War exists to show how a crowded, but succinct, comic book narrative is done, and that Deadpool will now be around to endlessly ridicule the X-Men series’ disappointing legacy.