The 1980s are back whether we like it or not. Like Zack Snyder's Watchmen before it, X-Men: Apocalypse adapts mainstream super hero comic book material from the eighties as taking place then. Like that film, it tries hard, but remains mostly inert. This follows the more satisfying 1970's-based X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), which followed Mathew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class, set in the early 1960s.
In true Marvel comic book fashion, the characters of Professor Xavier, Magneto, Beast and Mystique (played again by James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult and Jennifer Lawrence, her time spent in blue body makeup decreasing proportionately to her rising superstardom) maintain their baggage and increase their edginess while not visibly aging. Considering that the previous film was devoted to getting the series' hopelessly muddled timeline into shape, this move is an impressively quick scraping of that retro-continuity tidying. (Again, in true Marvel comic book fashion!)
Taking center stage are recast-ees Tye Sheridan as Cyclops, Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Nightcrawler, all of whom fit the bill. Their characters are good to have back. Also handy are Rose Byrne as Xavier's returning love interest Moira Mactaggert, Josh Helman as a young William Stryker and Lucas Till as Cyclop's brother, Havoc.
Olivia Munn sauntering around and not doing much in her skintight and surprisingly comics-accurate outfit is a predictably blank slate, but will get straight male approval, nonetheless. Perhaps the best bit of recasting is Alexandra Shipp as Storm, replacing Halle Berry who's never been good in the role nor seemingly happy to be there.
The 1980s on film is good for more than teased hair, primary colored clothing, and a Michael Jackson jacket or two, although Apocalypse doesn't skimp on those things. Thematically, the decade has proven to be a well of culturally self-reflective and self-indicting content. Even then, with films like Oliver Stone's Wall Street, we knew this. But in the western world we were too busy to listen properly, only hearing “Greed is good,” while valiantly pulling our own bootstraps all the way to the bank, mowing down anyone in our way. For maximum guilt-free eradication, we liked our adversaries reductive and “other.”
Tellingly, the decade served up numerous villains that were physical conglomerations of the great evils of human history, showing up to make a deadly stink before being eradicated in one fell swoop by whoever our heroes of the moment were. There was Serpentor on G.I. Joe and Mumm-Ra on ThunderCats, each physical manifestations of notorious great evils rolled into one and released upon the earth once more. Even Freddy Krueger was eventually revealed to be the sum of all nightmares throughout human history. These villains allowed us, at a time of rampant greed and corporate vice, to conveniently collect and defeat our own past sins in one fell swoop of butt-kicking satisfaction and denial.
In keeping, circa 1986, the X-Men comics served up Apocalypse. He was revealed to be the first mutant, and the true identity of so many pagan gods of of the past, the intimidating hulking mega-villain was technologically advanced via his ancient astronaut-esque roots. His rollout was humble by today's standards, merely debuting as a big-bad in the high-profile X-Men spin-off X-Factor, issue #6. Eventually he would become known as the biggest, bluest, nastiest threat of them all. A decade later, he would alter the very reality of the Marvel Universe itself with the popular storyline “Age of Apocalypse.”
The 1980's allegory that made the character relevant at the time is, of course, frighteningly back again. Some would say it's even worse. Time, and election results, will tell.
In the meantime, Apocalypse, both the character and the threatened end-of-days mayhem he's named for, is at the center of this sixth X-Men movie. Oscar Isaac is both kind of great and kind of wasted as the title titan. He is at once radiating hatred while looking like a glorified rubber-clad Power Rangers bad guy. His voice is deep, his every movement measured. He will settle for no less than total control over every living thing. His lack of stature is almost as intense as his deathly power plays. Apocalypse operates on a fantastical level unfathomable in the context of 2000's X-Men and 2002's X2. He's memorable as an opponent for the ever-shifting X-Men, even if he's nothing more than a very played-up villain-of-the-week.
The film is the fourth in this series from director Bryan Singer, and the third entry of this particular X-Men trilogy. That latter fact is then either overlooked or part of a self-effacing admission when the movie sees fit to take a veiled potshot at Brett Ratner's previous-trilogy-ending X-Men: The Last Stand with a throwaway barb about third movies always being the worst. Hmm, like they knew it when they were making this...
As the X-Men saga has stubbornly persisted in theaters, growing and growing in scope and stature in order to compete with other such films from rival studios, it's interesting to note the corresponding diminishment of Singer as a director, once proclaimed for spearheading this series as the single biggest and most highly visible gay allegory in cinema history. Before that, based upon his crafty masterpiece The Usual Suspects, he was regularly lumped in with promising auteurs of the day such as Tarantino and Soderbergh. Most of that former acclaim, if not all of it, is annihilated with this loud, jam-packed, animated CGI bake-off. Don't go looking for that once cool Bryan Singer. He is gone.
X-Men: Apocalypse, while not actually awful, is a ploddingly scary film that, like its predecessor, X-Men: Days of Future Past, is too "dark and murdery" for children. In the opening prologue alone, depicting Apocalypse at his ancient times peak, people are crushed, burned to death in close-up, impaled, incinerated, and just generally wiped out en masse. In the United States, this would be what we call “a very hard PG-13.”
Like it's predecessor, this film sees fit to abruptly shift tonal gears to showcase the character of Quicksilver, played by Evan Peters. Once again, we get a high-speed sequence that is at once too clever and too funny for the movie that it's a part of. It's wildly entertaining, a bit that's far more at home in a Joss Whedon Avengers movie than a Bryan Singer X-Men film. Yet, here it is. This high-speed comedic moment of nuttiness is at least double the length and double the stakes of the “Time in a Bottle” sequence last go-round. Yet at its core, it has all of the desperate charm of a little kid whom upon realizing that he's told a funny joke, then beats it into the ground, telling it again and again, louder and more self-satisfied each time. It's the same joke! The Same Joke!! THE SAME JOKE!!! Get it??!?
Then again, this is the sixth entry of a franchise – hearing the same things over again but bigger and louder are qualities we've come to expect. Step up to the ticket window, kids.
In this time of what many critics call the age of superhero fatigue, it's important to take a step back and consider this film in the context of the box office landscape that it's being released in. Closely following the air-sucking badness of Batman v Superman and the crackling satisfaction of Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse arrives squarely in-between the two in terms of success and watchability. It's an overly dark and violent trudge, but at least the franchise has earned it, if only by virtue of longevity. After all, without the success of Singer's early X-Men films, this whole paragraph, and the comparisons its obligated to present, wouldn't be possible. (Armchair historians of the modern super-hero sub-genre are a dime a dozen, so in the spirit of the X-Men franchise, I'm opting to simply plow forward.)
In a series awash in retro continuity, recasting and resetting, character recognition and story engagement are more important than ever. In this series, unfortunately, neither of those can be leaned upon heavily. Things shift too much and too often, yet the space between sequels is sometimes too great. (Does anyone really remember X-Men: The Last Stand? Or care??). Additionally, the once-pioneering gay allegory theme has, quite frankly become a bit passé in the last decade.
That leaves the zeitgeist connection of 1980s-style bigness, power-thirst, and greed as the great latch to grab onto for anyone seeking anything resembling subtext in this film. But any such zeitgeist-iness is muted by the sheer volume of visual effects artifice and super hero juggling. The cast is constantly hopping the globe and staring down distant time periods like mad, yet, as we look at it all through our 3-D glasses, where the layers of reality are visibly removed one from another, we are subconsciously reminded that nobody actually went any further than the studio green screen.
It's frustratingly true that this series has always been wily-nilly in it's respect to its long-running source material comic books, paying lip service to certain attributes while jettisoning and freely altering everything else. Therefore it's interesting that only now is Singer and company interested in resembling that material in a way that might be considered respectful to long time fans. Yet, the movie is the least of its bunch. Even to a long-standing fan of the comic books such as myself. Whatever the case, I maintain an annoying soft spot for this series.
X-Men: Apocalypse, For all its commitments to its franchise, ultimately feels like another big murky blockbuster to be sat through. And sit through it we will. Just like we did in the 80's.