Have you seen X-Men Apocalyse? Liam Thomson and Simon Tubey think you need to… like now.
I’ve read a fair amount of mixed reviews from X-Men Apocalypse, director Bryan Singer’s latest installment in Fox’s X-Men comic book adaptations. Some good, some bad, some just meh. The overwhelming consensus has been: “mutants are alone and reviled, wah wah, we get it” and “the world has had enough of Magneto doing the same thing in every movie” (yet how many 007 films are out there now?) Let me be frank; professional film critics are mostly idiots. Their opinions are skewed after too many Cannes Film Festival/Lars von Trier movies. X-Men is not Nymphomaniac, guys. We get it, you like arthouse cinema…
Moving on. Apocalypse is easily the best X-Men film (and by that I mean the ones that don’t just focus on Hugh Jackman’s sideburns) to date, more so even than the much lauded Days of Future Past. Here’s why.
This is the first movie to really hone in on the crux of the X-Men universe; that is the relationship between Charles Xavier (a finally bald James MacAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender). The series has always revolved around their complicated frenemy-ship, though another mutant has usually been the title character; Wolverine or in recent films Mystique. The plot in Apocalypse (which to be fair is kind of paper thin) takes a bit of a backseat to the development of the two most important figures in the X-Men universe.
Charles and Erik are two sides of the same coin. Their upbringings are polar opposites, their powers are at the extreme ends of the spectrum, purely mental vs. raw physical, Magneto always on the side of ‘the best defence is a strong offence’ where Charles always embodies the shield-like protector. They are the ying and yang of Marvel’s mutant genetics down to their very souls. In Apocalypse we see them finally trade places. Without spoiling the film, we see Professor X embracing Magneto’s rage and Erik realising the flipside of his unending quest to exterminate humans. By the end of the film, long-suffering audiences of their constant struggle will finally feel that Charles and Erik may have made peace.
The down side of this almost microscopic focus on Charles and Erik, is that many of the other X-Men get a little side-lined, especially the villain, Oscar Isaac’s unrecognisable Apocalypse. Hampered by a gross amount of makeup and a lack of character development, Isaac is not able to shine as he has in previous work (Ex-Machina). Still, he presents an unyielding foe and a dominating presence around other characters, even if only on a physical level.
Singer does his best to develop other mutants, especially Mystique (a very un-mutant looking Jennifer Lawrence), Jean Grey (in a standout performance by Sophie Turner taking over from Famke Janssen), and Cyclops (new face Tye Sheridan), however, I was left wanting more of them after the film ended. Admittedly, this isn’t the last X-Men film and I can guarantee we will see more of Cyclops and Phoenix in movies to come. Mystique has had the benefit of a strong story arc and character development in two preceding films and to Lawrence’s credit, she’s played the role of the enigmatic shape-shifter eloquently from angry, misguided rebel, to vengeful assassin, to freedom fighter and, finally, to leader of the X-Men.
Apocalypse solidifies Jean Grey as the most powerful and limitless mutant in history, even more than the titular villain. The radiant Sophie Turner begins the film plagued by nightmares (presumably symptoms of repeated abuse at the hands of Joffrey Baratheon and Ramsay Bolton) and very timid, much like her incarnation as Sansa Stark. An ever-encouraging Charles Xavier attempts to coax her into letting go of her fear and embracing her power, however, it takes a pivotal moment in the film for the Phoenix to fully realise her potential. Turner brings credibility to Jean’s fear and apprehension at her own ability. I’m excited for her future as one of the X-Men.
The film itself is strong in it’s power/gender relations. There is no one dominant sex; each character, male or female, has their own strengths, weaknesses and fears. On the down side it was a shame to be subjugated to the cliché and somewhat uncomfortable use of a western woman (agent Moira MacTaggart played by Rose Byrne) using a burqa to infiltrate a secret temple. We’ve all seen Homeland / Jewel of the Nile / Indiana Jones etc.
Apocalypse’s metaphoric treatment of Humanity’s pursuit of power fits well within the context of the Cold War.
The film tackles themes of family, identity, overcoming fear and the strong defending the weak. It also features what may be the most hilarious use of Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams’ in cinema history and Wolverine’s inevitable cameo is enough to give you goosebumps. In general, Apocalypse surprisingly contains a good bit of humour, reminiscent of Deadpool in it’s self-deprecation of previous films.
All in all, X-Men Apocalypse is a strong, worthy addition to the mutant family. Whilst not completely original in it’s plot, and containing an opening sequence eerily similar to Stargate, it will undoubtedly sit well with both fans of the series and newcomers. If Singer can move on from focusing solely on Wolverine/Mystique/Prof X/Magneto, and devote more time to new characters, especially Jean Grey, Cyclops and Olivia Munn’s mysterious Psylocke (who is clearly being built up as a key character in the next few movies and is one of the most recognisable characters in the franchise), then X-Men has a bright future.