X-Men: Apocalypse is not a terrible film but it’s a terrible waste of the talents of its director and cast.
There’s a variation of a particular line that always suggests to me that the writer of a sci-fi blockbuster isn’t over-endowed with the ability to craft original dialogue. In Terminator: Genysis (sic) the skynet hijacked John Connor tells Arnie’s nearly destroyed T-800 “you cannot defeat me” and Arnie replies “no – not alone”, at which point Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese burst in and save the day. In the truly awful, Fantastic Four Reed Richards tells the rest of the quartet that Dr Doom “is stronger than any of us but not stronger than all of us”. And in X-Men: Apocalypse Professor Xavier tells the titular villain that he will lose because “you’re alone and I’m not”.
Sadly this is the very generic place the X-Men franchise finds itself. Once a great innovator that largely created the blueprint for modern superhero genre, it now appears unable to vary that blueprint in any especially interesting ways.
Director Bryan Singer, the guy behind the Usual Suspects, is one of the few people able to make large amounts of CGI work. And he uses that talent to deliver some cool set pieces. In particular, and once again, Quicksilver’s big moment.
But this only goes part way towards mitigating the disappointment of the rest of the film. That’s largely a product of an uninspiring and unsatisfying script. As I’ve already the dialogue it contains is lazy and pedestrian. It also manages to both drag and feel rushed. Apocalypse is two and half hours long and large chunks of that run time are ponderous. Yet the film is so cluttered with characters and subplots that no single element has the space to develop satisfactorily. No character’s arc ever engages because it’s hard to tell what you are supposed to be investing in.
To make matters worse for Fox, they will inevitably face (unflattering) comparisons with Marvel. The obvious reference point is the recently released Captain America: Civil War, which is substantially better. But perhaps more striking is that the current run of Agents of SHIELD which more or less the same story as Apocalypse is also superior. The first mutant yells and relies on brute power but the first inhuman is a quieter and more insidious threat. The pain he causes the heroes feels more real and his actions are less predictable. Now we have moved on from the days when TV was considered necessarily the inferior to film. And I would argue that SHIELD is underrated and would cite as evidence for that the fact that Rolling Stone just put it on a list of the greatest sci-fi shows of all time. Nonetheless, nobody thinks SHIELD is Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones. It has a decent sized fan base but basically zero cultural resonance outside of it. If a studio spends north of $200 million and hires the guy who made the Usual Suspects, it presumably wants something a cut above a third-tier Marvel project. Certainly if you’ve made Oscar Isaac’s less compelling than Brett Dalton you’re doing something wrong.
Indeed the weakness of the titular villain is one of the most striking aspects of the film. One area in which Fox has had an edge over Marvel is in its villains. Where the Avengers would – Loki aside – face some blue guy yelling about destroying this or taking over that, the X-Men have always confronted psychologically complex characters with real depth. Sadly Apocalypse could easily be a Marvel villain: he’s a blue guy yelling about destroying this and taking over that. He may be massively powerful but that just confirms that more is not always better.
Isaacs is not alone in being wasted. Apocalypse has a seriously impressive cast. Not good in superhero terms, good in any terms. Like, there are Spielberg films with worse casts. Between them, Lawrence and Fassbender have six Oscar nominations and one win. McAvoy, Isaacs and Byrne each have BAFTAs, Golden Globes and Emmys. Munn, Hoult and Turner while not huge stars are clearly bankable supporting actors, who are good at what they do. Given all this it’s not surprising that the acting in Apocalypse is good but it is not applied to anything with that justifies such an assembly of talents. Characters just show up, do their thing and get placed in position for the next film. Professor X is bald – check. Storm is now an X-men – check. The potentially apocalyptic nature of Jean Grey’s powers have been hinted at – check. Magneto has been shown, despite his myriad homicides, to actually be a decent bloke – check. What’s particularly strange about moving all these characters around the franchises chessboard is that Apocalypse is supposed to be the endgame. It’s the culmination of the current trilogy and while there are Wolverine and Deadpool films lined up, the fate of the X-men films themselves appears unclear. It’s not obvious that Fassbender, Lawrence or McAvoy will be back and without those characters it’s hard to see it continuing successfully. Thus the all too common feeling in franchises that the quality of the film you are currently watching is being sacrificed for the sake of some future instalment is compounded by the sense that it might all be in vain.
Let us return momentarily to discussing Isaacs. One of my (female) viewing companions complained that his good looks hidden under prosthetics and CGI. From my (male) point of view Apocalypse seems vulnerable to an equal and opposite criticism. Why does Olivia Munn’s Psylocke fight in what is essentially a bathing suit? Ok that’s a rhetorical question, I mean I get that it’s so the audience – presumed to be mostly men and (especially) teenage boys – can ogle her. But that seems disrespectful to character, actress and audience alike. Perhaps instead Psylocke’s inclusion could have been justified by actually giving her something of significance to the narrative to do.
That’s a fairly minor gripe. Had I really bought into what else was happening in the film, I’d have barely noticed. But while X-Men: Apocalypse is not as sloppy as Batman v Superman nor as obnoxious as Deadpool, it’s still deeply underwhelming. Which is kind of odd because on a certain level it’s spectacular. The visuals are stunning and unusually for a superhero film it actually gains momentum when it moves into a climax full of obscene amounts of CGI. But that mostly underlines how weirdly inert the rest of the film is. There’s little point marrying such a talented director and cast with a script that is so flat and uninteresting.