I remember when the first X-MEN movie came out I went to it expecting something stupid but enjoyable, along the lines of MORTAL KOMBAT. Instead it was a fun super hero movie with a star-making performance by Hugh Jackman and a really appealing premise: super-powered mutants are a minority, feared and endangered by the government, and split between two factions led by old friends/bitter rivals (both played by older Shakespearean actors) who have philosophical disagreements about how to deal with that.
The sequels continued to mine this material in interesting ways. Part 2 had me talking about the USA PATRIOT Act in the review. Part 3, though widely hated, has the most interesting gimmick: a “cure” for mutants, so that each of them have to face whether they would be happier just fitting in and being “normal.” The prebootquels FIRST CLASS and DAYS OF FUTURE PAST delved deeper into the relationship and argument between Professor Xavier and Honorary Doctorate Magneto, and continued with what I really liked about the original trilogy, which was that the “bad guys” were always at least kind of right.
Now finally with part 6 we have that movie I originally thought I was going to see in 2000, where you just get to enjoy the people in crazy costumes punching and shooting beams at each other if you can get past how forehead-slappingly stupid the story is.
It’s hard to believe that Bryan Singer started this series 16 years ago – before anybody even thought there could possibly be such a thing as a Marvel Cinematic Universe, before Christopher Nolan ever did a Batman, before there had ever been a successful white Marvel Comics movie – and is still doing it. Back then he was the young director of a cool Oscar-winning indie crime movie, taking a swing at the big leagues. Times and movies and technology have changed and his series has been rebooted and spun off and yet here he is. And when it comes to the blockbuster business of special effects and big slick action scenes he has definitely grown.
But that shit was never the important part of X-pictures. The key to this one not being as good is the new bad guy who’s just a super-powered monster dude bent on world domination and what not. That rings hollow after the more interesting stories about threats to mutantkind and clashes between extremists and moderates. Oscar Isaac has no chance to use his subtlety or charisma under funny Ivan Ooze looking makeup as Apocalypse, “the first mutant” who was betrayed in Ancient Egypt but now is resurrected by cultists to cause an earthquake and recruit a posse of “Four Horsemen” and then use Professor X’s brain to fire all the world’s nuclear missiles. He doesn’t use them to destroy the world, though – he’s shooting them into space to get them out of the way so that he can then destroy the world by different means. We are clearly not working with a rocket scientist here. Or a guy who understand what rockets do.
Apocalypse is silly looking and everything but the real problem is he has no depth, he’s just a normal evil guy. He’s no Magneto. And then worse, he turns the actual Magneto (the younger one played by Michael Fassbender) into his unquestioning henchman for much of the movie.
Since he put on an evil purple helmet and demonstrated mutant powers to the world in DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, Magneto has changed his name and become a rugged, old-timey, wood-chopping, cabin-living husband with a beautiful wife and young daughter, working at a steel factory until he has to use his powers to rescue a co-worker from work-related injury and then (like MAN OF STEEL) everybody turns on him. It ends in tragedy, so when Apocalypse shows up and wants Magneto to just walk around with him and two younger mutants and do his bidding to destroy the world I guess he figures he has nothing better to do.
First they go to Auschwitz, which Magneto tears apart using his powers. I do admire the audacity of that scene. But the series’ most complex character spends most of this one just standing behind some other asshole like a character that Sven-Ole Thorsen or Professor Toru Tanaka would play. When he decides on a different agenda at the end it’s kind of a relief but feels unearned. Also I swear there was a part where Fassbender just started talking in his Steve Jobs voice.
There’s a new young version of Storm (Alexandra Shipp, who played Aaliyah in a 2014 TV movie). I like her mohawk, but she’s one of the other henchmen, so not much of a character yet. Same goes for Angel (Ben Hardy), who gets a big silly wing flapping cage fight scene, but none of the pathos that part 3 got across in just a few simple scenes with Ben Foster. They have more success introducing young versions of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner from Game of Thrones) and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, TREE OF LIFE, MUD). Cyclops is the most notable because the character was treated as kind of a chump in the original X-trilogy, the old boyfriend getting in Wolverine’s way. Here he’s a little more interesting.
Quicksilver (Evan Peters, NEVER BACK DOWN 1–2) stole the last movie (and killed the AVENGERS-Universe Quicksilver) so he’s back with a bigger part and another bullet time type showstopper. He’s still funny, he doesn’t overdo it, although he’s a little bit betrayed by the script’s attempt at giving him an emotional arc. I guess in the comics this character is Magneto’s son, so they had a throwaway joke about it in the last movie. This time he knows it for sure and his motive is to meet his father… then he doesn’t tell him, for unconvincing reasons.
Jennifer Lawrence is a great actress and seems like a cool person, but if she doesn’t want to wear the Mystique makeup maybe she should tell them to get someone else. A prime factor of why Mystique was the coolest character in the Rebecca Romijn days was that she was proud of being a mutant and would strut around in her spooky blue skin even though she had the ability to fit in. In this movie she finally feels that way in about the last 10 or 15 minutes of the movie. And I do believe she already learned that lesson in the other two prequels. Wear clothes, that’s fine, but you gotta have the blue skin, otherwise what’s the point? None of this whitewashing. (This goes for Nicholas Hoult as Beast also. You don’t see Kodi Smit-McPhee [THE ROAD, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, PARANORMAN] as young Nightcrawler using pills that make him look like a normal dude. That’s a righteous blue man right there.)
I got a laugh from the scene where Mystique travels to the X-Mansion and reunites with her childhood best friend Xavier (James McAvoy, THE POOL) in order to tell him that “Erik has resurfaced.” Somehow this is the first he’s heard of it, even though in an earlier scene we saw Quicksilver (and presumably the whole world) watch breathless news coverage of it. Nobody at that school thought to tell Professor Xavier that his long time friend/enemy has been on TV all day for destroying Auschwitz? There must be some serious communication problems going on with that staff.
Another funny one is with the CIA agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne, INSIDIOUS). Xavier erased her memory at the end of FIRST CLASS, but now they wanted to use the character again, so everybody acts confused why she doesn’t remember anything. Then at the end he gives her her memories back and apologizes, so we’re back at square one, with nothing gained.
FIRST CLASS took place in the ’60s, DAYS OF FUTURE PAST in the ’70s, and this one in the ’80s. Just imagine what they could do with that. A soundtrack with Tangerine Dream or Harold Faltermeyer or Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” or some Miami Vice shit. Breakdancers. A Warriors type gang. A Russian villain and the X-Men wearing red white and blue uniforms. Or only by teaming with Magneto can they stop a Cabbage Patch Kid riot. I don’t know. Maybe there’s not that much good stuff they could do with it, come to think of it, but they don’t seem to be trying too hard. You see footage of Reagan. Quicksilver plays Ms. Pac-Man, watches Knight Rider, moonwalks in one part. Nightcrawler wears a Thriller jacket, The best ’80s nods are:
three) Quicksilver’s big scene is set to “Sweet Dreams” by Eurythmics
two) Cyclops’s first goggles are made out of Ray Bans
one) Nightcrawler wears a Thriller jacket for a while
But I wish it felt more like a period piece.
Looking at this as a prequel brings nothing but pain. It’s 10 years after DAYS OF FUTURE PAST but Quicksilver still looks college age. If I’d remembered Havok (Lucas Till) from FIRST CLASS I would’ve wondered why he still looked young and had a brother who had to be 20+ years younger than him because he’s in high school. McTaggert also looks the same as 20 years ago. Fassbender does not look 20 years away from Ian McKellan, or after young McKellan from the flashback in X3. I guess that’s because there was time travel and now the future is in flux. That’s why in X3 Xavier was already bald before he was in a wheelchair, and Moira McTaggert was a thirty-something doctor and not an elderly retired CIA agent. That’s the butterfly effect right there. If they keep making these (which I only question because I don’t know what they’ll do when Jackman leaves) I hope they rededicate themselves to this being its own thing and don’t worry about matching up with anything that happened in the earlier movies that take place later.
Speaking of those, there’s a groaner of an in-joke where the X-Teens are seen coming out of a movie theater playing RETURN OF THE JEDI and grousing that it’s “not as good as EMPIRE.” It’s annoying not only because they’re talking like modern, joyless nerds, but because of Jean Grey saying “At least we can all agree that the third one is always the worst,” an incorrect statement about Star Wars trilogies meant as a meta-jab at Brett Ratner’s X-MEN: THE LAST STAND. (Or I suppose self effacement by Simon Kinberg, who wrote this one and co-wrote 3 with Zak Penn.)
Since they brought it up, it’s worth considering how this stacks up to X3. I guess I’m not the best person to do it, because I’ve always liked X3, and I’m still a little confused by its universal vilification. I know part of it has to do with expectations from the comics: this isn’t as good as the Dark Phoenix comic, you can’t kill Cyclops and Xavier, etc. But I’m sure there must be other objections. Anyway, here are a couple important reasons I like X3 better:
1. Part 3’s conflict is infinitely more interesting. The major threat to the X-Men is not even a villainous plot, it’s a pharmaceutical company making a “cure” for mutants. And their reason isn’t even intentionally nefarious, but based in prejudice, as the head of the company’s own son is a mutant, forced to cut off his wings to hide his shame. There’s a ton of drama here that’s entirely different from other super hero movies, full of grey area and disagreement and parallels to our own world.
2. It builds off the ongoing character drama better. When we see Xavier and Magneto working together in a flashback it’s new, something we’ve heard about in the series but not seen until now. The love triangle between Cyclops, Jean Grey and Wolverine goes off in new directions, with more than one tragic result. Magneto repays Mystique by breaking her out of prison just like she did to him, but when she’s forcibly “cured” he abandons her for no longer being a mutant, and it’s heartbreaking! Similarly, I find it moving when Magneto tries and fails to stop Jean from killing Xavier, when he defends Xavier’s name from dipshit Pyro, when he is “cured” and you see him realize that now he’s just a fragile old man.
APOCALYPSE is more impressive as spectacle though, and I’ll give it this: usually movies like this turn into total bores when they devolve into a bunch of screaming, punching, exploding and lasers. Not the case here. The big fight between Apocalypse and everybody else is really cool. Singer’s movies have always been good at setting up what the different abilities of the characters are and then using them in the battles, and this is no exception. They take turns throwing everything they have at him, or teaming up in different combinations, failing over and over again, but they keep getting back up. And meanwhile Xavier battles Apocalypse on the mental plane, almost like fighting Freddy in the dream world.
The new character Psylocke (Olivia Munn), who I’d guess has less than 10 words in the movie and has only been standing behind Apocalypse doing nothing, suddenly turns cool when she starts jumping around chopping up shit with laser swords. It would’ve been good to have a build up where we could tell there was something up with here and were waiting for her to bust loose like that, but we can’t have everything I guess. Storm has one of her only character moments in this part as well, when she sees Mystique and we can infer that she was inspired by seeing her on TV so seeing her fight Apocalypse makes her think. But she takes laughably long to act on this change of heart.
I guess that’s the ancient evil of Apocalypse: he interrupts the world of the X-Men and makes us wait around for various characters to become interesting again (or for the first time in the case of Psylocke). But at the end Magneto is Magneto, Storm is Storm, Psylocke is somebody, Beast and Mystique are blue, and incidentally Xavier is finally bald. I figured McAvoy must’ve looked bad bald like Timothy Olyphant in HITMAN, otherwise they wouldn’t be dragging it out this long, but no, he looks good.
So I don’t think APOCALYPSE is the end of the world. X-mankind can come back from this.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.