'X-Men: Apocalypse' Is Dazzlingly Spectacular When It Doesn't Stick To Formula
If director Bryan Singer were running as an elected official, his platform slogan could be "Make Superheroes Weird Again." What has separated Singer's four X-Men movies from the other genre counterparts is the clear dorkiness he indulges when constructing these fantasy tales of super-powered mutants. And while X-Men: Apocalypse is too long, has too many characters and too many overloaded thematic conversations, at least it uses the mythology of its characters to make something ridiculous and occasionally sublime.
Apocalypse gets its title from its main baddie, an ancient Egyptian god-like humanoid covered in a dark purple exoskeleton and played by Force Awakens and Inside Llewyn Davis star Oscar Isaac. Isaac has made a career out of lightweight renegades, so casting him as a ridiculously serious cartoon of a man who doesn't once crack a smile seems like a bit of a mistake. But Apocalypse is a fitting retro-style villain when he awakes after four millennia in 1983, rising from the depths of Egypt and declaring a desire for ultimate power and wasting away all the nuclear weapons of the "false superpowers" of the Cold War. And thus, the X-Men must once again unite once again to fight.
Like its predecessor, the 70s-set Days of Future Past (also written by Simon Kinberg), Apocalypse rarely hand-holds its audience to catch itself on the story so far. The telekinetic mentor Professor X, played by James MacAvoy (who has brought needed charm and emotion to the character), still leads the story, while Jennifer Lawrence returns as the mutating Mystique (though by my account, she uses her powers exactly twice in the movie). Much of the film is turned over to newcomers—popular heroes like Jean Gray, Cyclops, and Nightcrawler (Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Kodi Smit-McPhee) are now played as teenagers who have yet to fully control their powers.
And of course there's Magneto (the steely-eyed Michael Fassbender), who has settled down with a wife and child in a small Polish town until the inevitable occurs in a quiet, muted color sequence in a forest. That anger is then spurred into something quite literally out of this world, as Apocalypse takes the metal-melding mutant under his wing and travels with him to what birthed his trauma—losing his mother in Auschwitz—allowing him to crush the abandoned gas chambers into a floating metallic spectacle. What seems like an utterly idiotic idea somehow works due to Singer's use of quiet close-ups and Fassbender's emotional gravitas paralleled with the CGI destruction.
If Marvel's brand of superhero entertainment has constantly attempted to ground itself in the real world, Singer has gone the complete opposite direction. While his first films back in the early 2000s attempted to update the originally Civil Rights-era series for the gay rights era, Apocalypse has abandoned its real-world analogies in favor of pop spectacle. It might not make the films resonate for The Way We Live Now™, but the imagery feels delightfully cartoonish that reflects the tonal whiplash of deadly seriousness and wonky comedy. An opening sequence in ancient Egypt fills a pyramid's walls with gold and blue colors, the Professor's visits to his global tracking machine Cerebro creates a dazzling laser light show, and the time-slowing mutant Quicksilver returns for a re-staging of the "Time In A Bottle" sequence with comic adroitness. Even if the end is simply a big bombastic destruction (with very awkward cutbacks to generic government officials looking concerned), Singer shows off the powers with shot choices that emphasize the awe, making use of VFX supervisor John Dykstra's creativity to try and make CGI feel truly fantastic.
One then wishes that the film made more of an effort to engage its cast in compelling narratives. The film feels surprisingly brisk despite a 143 minute runtime, perhaps because each new character feels underserved in terms of their arc. Even with Singer's predilections, the film ultimately serves a tired formula, and the needless ties to wrap up the connections to the other films are utterly unnecessary. Apocalypse may have the honors of being the best kind of film of its kind—operatically silly and genuinely weird—but one still wishes there was some way to completely break this model.
X-Men: Apocalypse opens everywhere tonight.
Peter Labuza is a freelance film critic, whose work has appeared in Variety, Sight & Sound, and The A.V. Club. Follow him on Twitter.