I’m not the sort to bemoan the role of comic book films in the current cinema landscape. I don’t feel as though they are the great scourge that some would have you believe, and have to think that if it wasn’t them, it would be something else (action blow-em-up’s, overblown musicals, disaster films, take your pick).
However, just as I don’t believe that a comic book reader would get what they want from every title, I likewise believe that comic movie fans won’t get what they want from every franchise…and eventually time comes to pick and choose.
For me, that time has come.
In ancient Egypt, a god named Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) reigned supreme. Transferring his consciousness from body-to-body, he was able to live forever, until a coup finally sealed him into the temple he’d erected in his own honour. There he lay, undisturbed for millenia, until an excavation by descendants in the 1980’s reawakens him.
Upon his return, he believes that humanity has lost his way, and that he needs to bring us all back to the path.
In the meantime, mutants on earth are somewhat scattered. Some are still learning to harness their gifts at the Xavier Academy under the tutelage of Professor X (James McAvoy) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult). Others are struggling to find their way alone, such as Scott “Cyclops” Summers (Tye Sheridan) and “The Nightcrawler” Kurt Wagner (Kodi Smit-McPhee). These sorts are brought into the fold by heroes like Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) in the hopes of atoning for past sins.
Others still remain susceptible to Apocalypse’s corruption – especially Magneto (Michael Fassbender) who has struggled with his near-immeasurable power from the start.
The stage is set for our heroes to attempt to stop an apocalypse; both figuratively and literally speaking.
Before sitting down to write about this film, I did something I never do: I looked back at something I wrote before. I remembered being left wanting after DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, but couldn’t remember specifically why. When I glanced back, I remembered that it was because we’d spent five films repeating the mutant mantra of “fight together, or die alone”. I wanted something new – anything new.
With APOCALYPSE now behind me, I realize I should have been clearer. “Anything new” didn’t mean a half-baked, meaningless mess like this.
Let’s start with the obvious problem that Fox and its hive mind have had ever since unleashing the first X-MEN film on us sixteen years ago: the challenge of balance. Every X-MEN films is a juggling act involving seven to ten core characters. The franchise producers seem incapable or unwilling to unveil a film that does not involve at least Xavier, Magneto, Mystique, and Wolverine…to say nothing of also usually factoring-in Storm, Cyclops, Jean Grey, and lately Beast.
When employing that many core players, someone is bound to get the short end of the stick. When every instalment involves a character getting the short end of the stick, one begins to wonder why they’re there in the first place. Heroes and villains alike, it always feels like The X-Men films have more characters than they know what to do with, and after a while, that shortcoming begins to get really annoying.
If a character like Angel enters a story to have an important conversation with another character and then disappears, we’d be fine with it. However, to see a character like that stand in the background of every scene and do next to nothing of importance, all it does is muddy the waters.
That brings us to our villain. If we take Magneto out of the equation, we realize that this is a franchise that has never had a compelling villain, so at first blush, the idea of a god squaring-off against our mutants seems like it could hold promise. However, I dare suggest I have never heard of a simpler-minded god than Apocalypse.
At the outset, he seems fascinated by the weapons we have developed over the millennia since he walked among us. He seems to understand that we have channelled the destructive powers of gods and put it into the hands of the mortals we dub our leaders. There’s an inherent contradiction there that we refuse to admit, so watching Apocalypse disarm the planet in one fell swoop feels like a douse with cold water.
But then what?
What did Apocalypse learn through centuries of immortality that we and our champions don’t know? What does Apocalypse believe we could achieve in servitude that we haven’t already as free souls? Why does he need lesser villains like Angel, Psylocke, and Storm to fill his horseman ranks and pull-off his dastardly plan?
These questions go unanswered, and what we get is another baddie consumed with destroying this planet and presumably ruling over rubble.
Such problems would be enough for me to shake my head at this film and move along. Unfortunately, we’re in a place where some storytelling decisions are so dumb, I had to ask myself why I still care about any of these characters.
There is the issue that two of the four female mutants have nothing to do except stand around and brood, and one of them is Storm which brings the scoreboard to five films where the filmmakers haven’t been able to figure out what to do with her. This is especially a pity when one considers how prominent a role Jean Grey plays this time around.
There is the issue that the very best scene in the whole film is a direct rehash of the very best scene in the film before. “Second verse, same as the first” is what keeps me from comedy sequels; I don’t want it in my action franchises.
There is the issue that the whole damned story needs to be bent to a compound in Northern Canada just to shoehorn in a Wolverine rampage. It serves no purpose, and fleshes out nothing. It is only brought about to invite Hugh Jackman into the reindeer games and slow down the response by our heroes.
Finally, in a moment that seems like nitpicking, but ultimately feels emblematic of how silly this series has become, there’s an absurd moment in the late-going. Two of our heroes are trying to intervene with Magneto. One hero says “It’s no use, I can’t get past the energy field.” The other responds by calling out “Hey, Eric!” Magneto turns and his redemption begins.
It’s the superhero equivalent of turning the system off and then on again.
This is not a question of Marvel-versus-DC, or of believing this franchise is better than that franchise. This is the realization that the people at Fox – and Bryan Singer specifically – have stopped caring about telling stories. No character has been well-developed after all this time, no lessons have been learned. This group isn’t going on emotional journeys so much as they are crossing paths and hitting each other.
These films have become action figure fights where the same characters always win. They are Ocean’s Eleven movies without the clever heist. They have become more about recruiting players than they have been about running meaningful plays, and I’ve finally had enough. Unless Fox loses the property, or Singer steps away, I’m done.
It’s been real X-Men, but I gotta go.