By Abe Rose
There’s a moment about midway through this film, in which teenage mutants Jean Grey, Cyclops, Nightcrawler, and Jubilee go to see Return of the Jedi at the theater. In a film with a running length of about 2 and a half hours, the filmmakers have decided to pause the superhero fights, the city-wide destruction, and enough storylines tangled together like neglected Christmas lights in storage, all for this moment for teenagers to discuss movie sequels. “Number three is always the worst,” one of them quips.
Counting all X-Men spin-offs including Deadpool, this technically would be the 9th X-Men film, but the third in the prequel trilogy. Out of all the things to include in this overstuffed rumpus of mutant mayhem, why would they include this discussion of why the third in a film series is always the worst? I doubt it was meant as an apology for the failings of X-Men: Apocalypse, rather it is meant as a jab toward X-Men: The Last Stand in which Bryan Singer left the franchise and Brett Ratner took over. Being that Singer effectively erased the continuity of the franchise with the time travel of X-Men: Days of Future Past, it seems that each new film is not necessarily adding a new entry to the canon, but rather a new story draft. Trying to make sense of how all it all logically fits together with so many inconsistencies is like going over a politician’s stance changes on a polarizing issue over the course of twenty years.
Whether or not you enjoy X-Men: Apocalypse may largely depend on how much stake you puts in consistency. X-Men is a franchise in which you pick your preferred films à la carte to fit into whatever palatable established timeline you prefer. You don’t like X-Men: The Last Stand? Later movies agree with you! X-Men Origins: Wolverine leave you sore after what they did to Deadpool? Deadpool shares your profanity-laced rant! This is a series that seems to be constantly turning audience criticism into the next project. It’s like a capitalist t-shirt company that listens to its young demographic decry the evils of capitalism, so the next t-shirt the company sells is one with Che Guevara, all the while hoping that no one sees the irony that the shirt is being sold through the system which it claims to abhor.
That being said, future X-Men entries will likely apologize for X-Men: Apocalypse. The film is not as bad as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but it also isn’t as nearly ambitious. The X-Men movies have largely been about social commentary, about prejudice and fear, as Magneto and Professor X were originally inspired by Malcolm X, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., respectively. But in Apocalypse, you will find almost no insights of any kind. No social commentary of real substance is to be found anywhere in this wasteland of city-wide destruction. It’s kind of hard to have a real social commentary when the villain aspires to be a larger-than-life Power Rangers bad guy.
The villain this time around is Apocalypse, who is basically the god of the X-Men universe. The movie promised bigger, more widespread destruction with the arrival of this fan-favorite villain. Singer himself compared Apocalypse to the God of the Old Testament, “[Apocalypse is] kind of the opposite of Christ, actually… He’s kind of more the God of the Old Testament, the vengeful God who wants the world in a certain order and wants to be worshipped — but he’s also forgiving,” Singer told IGN. I think you got your theology a bit mixed up there, buddy. The God of the Old Testament is so powerful that no one can even see him and live (Exodus 33:20.) This Apocalypse on the other hand can be punched around like a ragdoll by an over-caffeinated teenager.
The social commentary is replaced with a poorly conceived religious commentary. In this film, Apocalypse wants to destroy weak human and mutant alike, leaving only the strongest to serve him. That… doesn’t at all fit with the God of the Old Testament. God in the Old Testament is constantly reminding everyone that he prefers helping the weak over the strong. God chooses the fewest of peoples to be his chosen people. God chooses David, the smallest of all his brothers to bring down Goliath with five stones and a sling. God chooses to bless Jacob instead of the older, stronger Esau who had the birthright. If Singer really is going to compare his angry Blue Meanie with the God of the Old Testament, he’s got to pay attention in Sunday School.
And frankly, this conflict of stopping the big bad guy who wants to destroy the world and create a better one just doesn’t have anything resembling emotional resonance in its main conflict. However, there is an emotional smaller story involving Michael Fassbender’s character, Magneto. It does add depth to his character, mostly in part due to the strength of Fassbender as an actor. But he’s one character, out of like a gazillion mutants who should have come equipped with character arcs. Jennifer Lawrence looks like she’s grateful for any scene in which she doesn’t have to don the blue paint. Newcomers Sophie Turner, Alexandra Shipp and Tye Sheridan just frankly don’t have the screen time to stretch and explore emotional depth to the younger versions of Jean Grey, Cyclops and Storm. The film is overstuffed.
X-Men: Apocalypse does have some moments of real joy, such as an extended sequence in which Quicksilver can run so fast that he can save dozens of people from an exploding building, all set to “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” by Eurythmics. But as a whole, it doesn’t work largely because the villain isn’t menacing. If this is supposed to be the end-all villain, where do you go after this? Given the franchise’s tendencies, the next film will probably resemble another apology tour.