Director Bryan Singer basically started the era of comic book superhero movies 16 years ago with X-Men. He showed that these kinds of films could be done — and done well — by taking the material seriously, creating characters that viewers would care about, casting those roles with good actors, and being faithful enough to the source material to win over the hardcore comic book fans.
It would be far too harsh to say that Singer has set back the same superhero movie genre he helped establish with X-Men: Apocalypse 16 years later. The movie isn’t that bad. (Though it’s currently drawing a 48 percent positive rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes.) However, it is disappointing, failing to follow through on the promise of its storyline, an impressive cast, and the resources now available to make a movie like this exceptional.
What a waste. X-Men: Apocalypse features a cast led by Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender and Oscar Issac, three of the best, most compelling actors in films today. The storyline involves worldwide destruction and potential annihilation. Oh, and the entire venture is loaded with superpowered beings, some of whom have been the most popular characters in comic book and pop culture over the past 30 years. With so much going for it, how can such a project be boring?
I wonder if the X-Men movie mythology has become too big for Singer (and screenwriter Simon Kinberg) to handle. Of the six group X-Men films that have been made (not including the solo Wolverine movies or Deadpool), Singer has directed four of them — which are arguably the best of the bunch. (If I ranked them, 2003’s X2: X-Men United would top my list. Many fans like Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class most, which I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with. But to me, X2 packs the most dramatic punch and serves its characters best.)
At their best, the X-Men films have been rather insular with their stories, depicting conflict within the mutant community, but also the intrusion of the human population — notably the government — trying to control or eliminate something they don’t understand. The clash was an analogy for the civil rights movement (with Magneto standing in for Malcolm X, and Charles Xavier filling the Martin Luther King role) and the LGBT struggle (most notably depicted in X2, when Bobby Drake “comes out” to his family). While there was plenty of action and spectacle, the narrative ultimately came down to a new species trying to peacefully co-exist with humanity.
That central theme is woven into X-Men: Apocalypse, as the world’s first mutant — En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac) — awakens after 5,000 years to find that the superior, more powerful species hasn’t taken over the planet, but lives in the shadows. Naturally, that perplexes and offends this god-like figure, who wants to see mutantkind take its proper place in the world and sets about empowering those who have been persecuted and marginalized. But for a character that’s supposed to be unto a god, En Sabah Nur never quite has an overpowering presence in the film.
Part of that has to do with the design of the film. The villain should have been made more imposing through digital effects (he’s an enormous, Hulk-like figure in the comics), rather than just a guy standing with the other mutants (and in some cases, is literally shorter). But the real issue is that Isaac is lost underneath prosthetics and make-up. He’s a compelling, charismatic actor, yet just recites mustache-twirling, megalomanical dialogue about taking power and crushing humanity throughout the film. Most of the time, Isaac is simply talking to the mutants he’s enlisted as his underlings, or standing with his arms raised while digital effects buzz around or behind him. It’s a waste of a fine actor and an important character in X-Men mythology.
That applies to the other characters in the film as well. There is far too much of actors posing in front of green screens while digital effects fill in the background behind them with buildings crumbling, objects hurtling through the air or extraordinary energy crackling. That sort of imagery works in a comic book, where everything is a pose and a splash-page spectacle full of illustrated detail. But in a moving picture, it’s boring.
Playing Magneto for the third time, poor Michael Fassbender spends most of this movie suspended in the air, waving his arms around to depict him moving around objects with his control over magnetism. He gets a more down-to-earth storyline earlier in the film that adds to the layers of tragedy ingrained in his character. But once the story opens up, he’s not required to do much more than look strained and conflicted.
However, there is one encouraging aspect to this film, which is the younger cast filling the roles of the heroes we know will grow up to be the core X-Men.
Sophie Turner (Game of Thrones) is a standout as Jean Grey, whose telepathic power keeps her at a distance from everyone because she can read their minds. But she’s enormously powerful and reluctant to unleash those abilities, for fear that she’ll be unable to control them. That provides something to build on for future films, and is far more convincing than the portrayal of Grey in the previous X-Men films. (I always felt Famke Janssen was miscast in that role.) Tye Sheridan (Mud) also adds more depth to Scott Summers, depicting him as distrustful of those willing to help him, rather than a do-gooder who follows orders well. (James Marsden played that version of the character really well, however.)
Hopefully, these younger versions of the X-Men are able to grow into the fully formed heroes we’re familiar with. That’s certainly the ambition Fox has, and the reason producers went with the prequel/reboot route in the first place. But in trying to use this film to set up future movies and the X-Men franchise for years to come, X-Men: Apocalypse feels more like a lead-in than a satisfying standalone story. The narrative also feels like it’s checking off a list of bullet points that have already been covered in the previous films.
Even the entrance of Evan Peters’ Quicksilver (who’s once again a refreshing addition to the cast) feels similar to his breakout in X-Men: Days of Future Past. While it’s entertaining, the scene doesn’t really add anything new and feels like it prevents the movie from moving forward.
Has superhero fatigue set in? For some viewers, that might be the case. X-Men: Apocalypse is the fourth big superhero movie to hit theaters this year, following Deadpool, Batman v Superman and Captain America: Civil War. We’re just about at the end of May on the 2016 calendar, so that’s a lot of superpowered blockbuster to contend with. Previously, we might get one or two of these movies per year. Obviously, we live in a far different era now as the popularity of superhero movies (and cinematic universes) has exploded.
Having grown up as a sheltered comic book nerd who still sometimes sits back in amazement at how the characters and stories that were once ridiculed as kid’s stuff have become accepted mainstream pop culture, the idea that we may now have too many superhero movies, with stories and on-screen spectacle that sometimes feels as if it’s all been seen before, makes me shake my head.
I don’t think it’s that movie studios are making too many of these movies. It’s more that in the rush to constantly churn out product and create multi-film universes with serialized storylines that resemble the source comic book material, writers, directors and producers are overlooking the importance of creating a good story that convinces audiences to invest in these characters. Instead, the objective has become setting up the next film and constantly teasing viewers that more is coming.
The last thing that these movies should do is leave the audience feeling unsatisfied as the credits roll. Yet that’s exactly what X-Men: Apocalypse — has accomplished or not accomplished.
If this movie is remembered years from now, it will be for introducing Turner’s version of Jean Grey and laying the foundation for more X-Men films that probably follow the comic book storylines that so many fans loved and collected throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Unfortunately, it won’t be remembered for its own merits as a film, for giving stars like Lawrence and Isaac roles that will stand out on their résumés. They’re more likely to hope that we don’t remember these roles amongst their better work. And the mediocrity of this latest X-Men film makes it all too easy to move on to whatever comes next.