So far this spring, two different superhero team-up blockbusters – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War – have acknowledged the devastation that follows whenever super-powered goodies and baddies get together to compare capes. But the third one, X-Men: Apocalypse, ignores this topic completely. The series’ favourite villain, Magneto (Michael Fassbender), uses his metal manipulation to levitate and disintegrate famous buildings all over the world, presumably killing thousands of innocents in the process. But when the two-and-a-half-hour film eventually reaches its happy ending, no one mentions the destruction or the slaughter. The supposedly noble Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) even parts from Magneto with a jovial cry of, “Goodbye, old friend.” The little matter of civilisation being flattened is given less emphasis than Xavier going bald.
Maybe it’s a mistake to take such a daft film so seriously, but the X-Men series has, up until now, led the way in intertwining superheroic fisticuffs with real-world issues. The groundbreaking first film, X-Men (2000), established that mutants were a feared and oppressed minority, thus allowing it to ponder questions of social cohesion and violent resistance well before Captain America got around to them.
The series ran out of steam with its third instalment, X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), but X-Men: First Class (2011) revived it cleverly by jumping back to the founding of Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters in the 1960s. And then the franchise hit its high point with the time-warping X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), which deftly linked the original trilogy to the civil-rights battles of the 1970s. It was exciting, then, when the director and writer of Days of Future Past, Bryan Singer and Simon Kinberg, reunited for Apocalypse. But in their senseless and uninvolving new sequel, the series’ former wit, resonance and internal logic seem to have been lost in all the swirling clouds of computer-generated dust.
The series’ former wit, resonance and internal logic seem to have been lost
It’s the kind of film which makes you feel sorry for the many, many actors it squeezes in. Jennifer Lawrence, as the increasingly Katniss Everdeen-like Mystique, is glum from start to finish, but Oscar Isaac has a right to be even gloomier. Weighed down by prosthetic make-up and rubber armour, he looks as if he couldn’t decide between dressing up as Star Wars’ Emperor and Doctor Who’s Davros, so he put on both costumes at once.
Isaac plays the shuffling, snarling Apocalypse, a mutant megalomaniac who was on the verge of ruling the world in 3600BC when he was buried under a pyramid by the people of ancient Egypt. When he finally digs his way out of the rubble in 1984, his resurrection is witnessed by the CIA’s Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), so she is able to brief her old flame, Professor Xavier. Apocalypse, she tells him, has been around since time immemorial. Whenever he pops up, he always has four helpers – four horsemen, if you will – and he always causes a major disaster.
Olivia Munn’s superpower is to stand around in a leotard and thigh boots while the men do the talking
Considering that Apocalypse has been underground for the past five-and-a-half millennia, you may wonder which earlier disasters he could have been responsible for, and how MacTaggert could possibly know about them, but perhaps she is an expert in Neolithic history as well as a crack CIA agent. The point is that he is up and about again, and he has decided, on a whim, to rid the planet of everything that was built while he was out of action.
Before that, however, he has to gather his latest quartet of mutant sidekicks, although why he doesn’t opt for a different number is never explained. Co-incidentally, he meets his first candidate almost as soon as he surfaces: Storm (Alexandra Shipp), the weather controller played by Halle Berry in the original X-Men trilogy. In her younger 1980s incarnation, Storm is a teenaged urchin who can nonetheless discuss sociology in three languages. “You can’t go around killing people,” she warns Apocalypse, shortly before agreeing to work for him, anyway. “There are systems in place for that kind of thing.” (Amazingly, those aren’t the worst lines of dialogue in the film.)
Next, there is Psylocke (Olivia Munn), whose superpower is to stand around in a leotard and thigh boots while the men do the talking. Horseman number three is the winged Angel (Ben Hardy), who has even less to contribute. And number four is Magneto, who has been living incognito in Poland since the events of Days of Future Past, and has now settled down with a wife and daughter. You can probably guess what happens to them.
Apocalypse’s globe-trotting recruitment drive takes an inordinate amount of time, but he isn’t the only character in the film who is intent on meeting new people. Mystique rescues the teleporting Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) from a Berlin cage-fighting club. Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), aka Cyclops, enrolls in Xavier’s school, where he bumps into the psychic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). And so it goes on. A recurring weakness of recent superhero films is that the plots keep being interrupted so that yet more characters can be introduced. X-Men: Apocalypse takes things a step further. For much of its running time, there is no plot to interrupt: all it has to offer are introductions to more and more characters, which is why so few of them make any impression. Cutting between Cairo, Berlin and Xavier’s school, most of the film feels like a prologue – a “previously-on-the-X-Men” recap that you have to sit through before you get to the story.
The characters do some jumping and flying, while looking suspiciously as if they are hanging from digitally-erased wire
There are two sustained action sequences, though. One is a blatant retread of the Days of Future Past set piece in which Quicksilver (Evan Peters) zips around so speedily that the rest of the world freezes – but how exactly can he shove people through windows at 1000-mph without turning their bones to powder? The other sequence has Colonel Stryker (Josh Helman) capturing various X-Men (while leaving behind various others), an interlude that is included solely to shoehorn in Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). But maybe it isn’t Wolverine at all. In the other X-Men films, the character was a super-strong brawler with miraculous healing abilities, but in this one he is invulnerable: soldiers fire hundreds of bullets at him at point-blank range, and he isn’t even scratched.
There is a lot of this nonsense to endure before you get to the inevitable fight between Team Apocalypse and Team Xavier, and when you do, it’s hardly worth the wait. The characters do some jumping and flying, while looking suspiciously as if they are hanging from digitally-erased wires. Some of those characters switch allegiance at the last minute, just as their counterparts did in Avengers: Age of Ultron. The clouds of computer-generated dust keep swirling. And, ultimately, the fight is won not by the team which is bravest or most cunning, but the one which has the deadliest powers at its disposal. It’s not the most edifying of messages.
Back at the School for Gifted Youngsters, the Youngsters use their telekinetic gifts to repair some damage that’s been done to the school. But what about Tower Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge and the other landmarks which have been disintegrated by Xavier’s mass-murdering buddy Magneto? Apparently, they’re humanity’s problem – and no X-Men film has been less interested in humanity than this one.
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