X-Men: Apocalypse marks the third film in Fox’s X-Men soft reboot franchise. And since Bryan Singer produced First Class, it stands as his triumvirate return to the mythology after his ill-advised departure which resulted in the loathsome defeasance of X-Men: The Last Stand, directed by the man with so apropos a name (Brett Ratner) you’d think we were actually living in a comic book universe any time his name enters a conversation.
If douchiness were a superpower, any image of him would work as projectiles like Gambit’s cards.
The film begins in Egypt in the deep past, picking up where the end credit teaser for X-Men: Days Of Future Past left off. The immortal mutant, notably the world’s first mutant, En Sabah Nur, played by Oscar Isaac, is prepared to transfer from an aging body and into a new one when the ritual is sabotaged by a rebellion of slaves and Nur finds himself, in his new body, trapped underground indefinitely, until generations later when he is awakened via an unwitting excavation.
And thus kicks off the start of the ninth film in Fox’s X-Men series.
It’s been a bumpy ride for the X-Men at Fox, from a troubled though welcome start in the introduction of off-canon costumes – a trend that, for better or worse, would prevail in the genre – and a host of untested actors, to a dark age that gave us Ratner’s abomination and the ill-advised X-Men Origins debacle that followed to twist the knife and shove a few more in the contusion like a truly dedicated sous chef turned serial killer.
“Wait til Logan tries THIS steak!”
The characterizations in Apocalypse, from the four horsemen to the titular character himself, are keen in the spirit of their comic book counterparts, which one can count as a thing Singer has done well with his handling of the brand; transplanting the central ethos of the source mythology and depicting the characters and their conflicts in full, unapologetic dramatic light. Some have argued that Singer’s emphasis on the drama, in fact, has fallen out of balance with the fun escapism of, let’s face it, comics by definition. But I’d argue that Singer’s choice, and how the branches of said choice have held up across the narrative trajectory, was a wise and decidedly cinematic one. Indeed, a story which allegorically represents human rights struggles in the real world is not only timeless but sacred, and should be handled with a specific perspicacity.
The year is 1983 when En Sabah Nur is awakened, and he proceeds immediately to recruit his four lieutenants, better known as the four horsemen (of the Apocalypse, of course, the backdrop no shy allegory itself for Judeo-Christian mythology). Oscar Isaac’s choice to portray Apocalypse as a docile and deceptively charismatic deity captures the false god aspect of his comic book counterpart’s hubris and scope in ambition, and it contrasts well with the historical record of real world political leaders and despots who have ruled with an iron fist all the while coaxing the masses with strategic double talk and spin, spouting half truths and exploiting tragedy and circumstance for their own nefarious purposes. It’s been argued that Isaac was too short for the role of Apocalypse, which reminds of the still existing albeit unearned and unfounded complaints (petty gripes? You betcha) against Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine despite the man’s fine work in the part, but said argument rings just as hollow when weighed not only against general audience reception but also in context of the film’s narrative. Long story short, Isaac nails it. He’s found tearing up the fucking dance floor again like he did just last year in Ex-Machina.
“You are all my children, and you’re lost because you follow blind leaders. No more false gods. I’m here now.”
The four mutants that make up the horsemen are Angel, played by Ben Hardy, Storm, at first a young shoplifter found in the streets of Cairo, portrayed in a welcome turn by newcomer Alexandra Shipp, Psylocke, bodyguard turned psionic powered mercenary impressively realized by Olivia Munn yet sadly underused, and, most notable, Magneto, with Michael Fassbender returning to give us one of the film’s most compelling story arcs. As we find him, he is in Poland with a wife and daughter, who both get brutally murdered within minutes of their introduction. It’s a portrait of life, in these moments, wherein happiness is presented as an interlude; a mere commercial break from the drama being played out for the enjoyment of cold and brutal gods, as Erik Lehnsherr not only comes full circle with the grief that spawned his powers but is invited back into conflict as Magneto at the red carpet of his family’s spilt blood.
James McAvoy reprises his role a Charles Xavier, leader of the X-Men and founder of the Xavier School for Gifted Youth, a real school and yet also a cover for their fortified headquarters. There is a new set of students/warriors in training; Jubilee (Lana Condor), Scott (Tye Sheridan), Jean (Sophie Turner), and Kurt Wagner (Kodi Smit-McPhee). All familiar characters to anyone bearing a cursory knowledge of the comic, or, with the exception of Jubilee, anyone who has followed Fox’s X-Men catalogue this far. Evan Peters is back as Quicksilver, and has a speed sequence to match and top that great scene from Days Of Future Past, this time around rescuing a house full of people while it is exploding.
Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel with the assistance of art director Michele Laliberte and her team Ravi Bansal and Veronique Meunier, can be thanked for the fantastic look of it, and forgiven for some departures from physiques. After all, any real world armchair deGrasse argument about breaches in science on display can be disintegrated about as fast as any real human body would if it were free moving at the speeds that Quicksilver can run, so we’ll just ask those arguments to have a seat and hope they go quietly.
What is missed however is En Sabah Nur’s back story as it is written in the comic. Of course, changes to the source material are inevitable in the translation to film, but one is sorry to see such a rich origin stripped of its meat. Especially when we’re talking prime cuts!…
…Submitted for your approval, briefly, if you will, the back story of En Sabah Nur.
He was not the first organism to exist with the mutant X gene, but he was the first to have an expression of it active in his DNA, which resulted in him being born with gray skin and blue lips. He is abandoned as an infant for this appearance, but grows to become a man heralded by prophesy, a man both hunted and worshipped. It bears mention that the full extent of his mutant power doesn’t manifest until he experiences a life changes heartbreak and betrayal. That alone, though grossly protracted, would have served as a compelling thesis for his hatred of human emotions, and his classification of them as weakness, as shown in the film. Instead it’s thrown on Isaac’s shoulders, him expected to convey all this by crafting the tragedy of a Don Quixote born into power instead of peasantry, doomed to reflect in himself the failings of the subjects he condemns.
I enjoyed the acting of the cast across the board. I enjoyed Hugh Jackman’s cameo, but won’t spoil it’s significance. I enjoyed the megalomaniac point making much more than I did Snyder’s fetishizattions. I like the suggestion of old testament vengefulness, the righteous anger of Apocalypse in the huge climactic set piece, indeed, the same sequence the now infamous billboard of him choking Mystique is from.
Is there any truth to the claims of sexism leveled against the film or its marketing? Is there any narrative evidence of a make up dispute Jennifer Lawrence was having that resulted in a lukewarm turn from her as the ass kicking mutant? I am happy to report a resounding NO to both questions. And in addendum: there is more female empowerment showcased in this film than all other superhero releases this year combined, so enough of the first complaint. As for Lawrence, beg pardon, but haters gonna hate.