Some Thoughts on X-Men: Apocalypse

So I finally decided to write this essay, eight months after this movie was in theaters. Why now? Mainly for two reasons: (1) It’s my blog, so I write on my own schedule, when I feel like writing about a particular topic; (2) I finally watched my copy this past Friday night, nearly two months to the day that I picked it up from Best Buy on Black Friday.

The fact that it was still sealed in shrink-wrap up until the other night tells you all you need to know about my level of excitement to see this movie again (contrast this to Days of Future Past, the movie that made me decide to finally get a Blu-ray player). Or I can let a gag line by a teenage Jean Grey pretty much sum it up:

jean-grey-john-kenri

Ouch. Unfortunately, this cleaves too close to the truth to be really funny. Image courtesy of John Kenri (@johnkenri)

Ok, let’s do this. Oh yeah, spoilers ahead, but if you’d really wanted to see this movie, you would have by now, right?

Apocalypse feels bloated. It’s a long movie, but a movie can be lengthy as long as it’s good. It feels bloated because as cool as it is to see so many characters from the comic books brought to the big screen, cramming in too many is a disservice. The more characters there are, the less opportunity there is for character development. Besides their physical appearance and abilities, did Storm, Angel, and Psylocke have any defining characteristics or personality traits (you know, the things that make characters feel like actual CHARACTERS)? Did anyone even call Storm by name?

Of the characters who’ve had significant roles in the First Class Trilogy, which ones experienced significant change in Apocalypse? Are Charles and Hank any different by the end than they were at the beginning? Erik loses his wife and daughter, but the fact that he was married and had a kid comes as a complete surprise¹, and they barely have any time on screen before being killed off. Does this devastating experience do much to change Erik, make him different somehow? Raven experiences the most interesting character development in this movie, struggling to reconcile her role model status in the eyes of younger mutants with the way she perceives herself — definitely an interesting development for a character who was solidly in the villain category in the original X-Men movies.

Several times, it felt like Apocalypse was retreading themes and story elements from the last movie. Charles explicitly does this when he recalls a pivotal experience from the most emotionally powerful scene in DoFP . There’s nothing wrong with this, except that the reference just kind of sits there and isn’t used to build on for something else.

Quicksilver’s standout scene, despite being fairly awesome, is the worst offender here. His breakout scene in DoFP was was perfect. However, once you achieve perfection, any attempt to outdo it, no matter how well done, is a dangerous road to tread. Here, the scene is bigger, the stakes are higher, and everything about it tries to be even more spectacular, but it ends up mostly just feeling overdone.

Worse than rehashing familiar material though, is introducing new material that creates problems for the overall storyline of the franchise. DoFP remedied the worst missteps of the previous movies, particularly The Last Stand, and managed to plausibly merge the continuity of the original X-Men trilogy with the First Class TrilogyApocalypse, while not undoing this, creates new problems. Apocalypse includes the first encounter between the X-Men and Angel, Nightcrawler, and Wolverine — characters whose introductions and first meetings with the X-Men have already been established in the first three films. The worst thing about this is that none of this continuity-shredding was necessary — none of these characters had pivotal roles that required them to be in this film. Perhaps the intention behind this was to establish that the X-Men universe of the original trilogy and the universe of the First Class Trilogy are in fact separate, but that then begs the question: why?

The main villain and the overall plot lacked gravitas. Part of this has to do with the difficulty in portraying a character with near-godlike powers. Paradoxically, the closer a villain is to being an all-powerful being, the more difficult it is to portray them in a convincingly menacing way (after all, a villain with super-powers who uses them for world domination is just doing what he’s supposed to do), and the weaker they seem once they are finally defeated. Normal people who become powerful villains through a combination of intellect and force of personality, rather than brute force, are the most terrifying (consider Hannibal Lecter and Gus Fring). With regard to the plot, somehow, witnessing large scale destruction taking place somehow has less of an impact than the threat of global war (the third act of First Class) or seeing its after effects (the post-apocalyptic future depicted in DoFP).

Apocalypse does have its good points and some truly enjoyable moments. For one thing, it’s hard to conceive of a more perfect use for Metallica’s The Four Horsemen as background music. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 was also put to excellent use. James McAvoy, as always, is delightful to watch as Professor X. It was especially fun watching him revert to a flustered adolescent state during his meeting with Moira MacTaggert. His character development through the last two films was one of their strongest features, and in this film, he truly feels like a younger version of the Professor X we came to know in the original trilogy.

My overall reaction to Apocalypse is probably the worst possible one that anyone can have to a creative work: I found it boring. The action scenes and visual effects are well-done and have some creativity. But at their core, X-Men movies are about people with special powers. Powers are cool and allow for great action scenes and special effects, but it’s the characters, the people that make the stories and provide a framework for the action. X-Men movies work better when the focus is on characters. Think back to all of the best moments from all of the X-Men movies and I think you’ll find this to be true.

I realize that all of the movie reviews I’ve written so far come off as extremely critical. The truth is, I really do like the X-Men films as a whole, and the only reason I choose to write about them in the first place is because I care about them. As I’ve said in other places, I want every movie in a franchise I care about to be a great movie. Of course, I know this isn’t possible, and I don’t think that anyone who makes movies ever sets out to make a bad, or even a mediocre one (no one motivated at least partially by noble intentions, anyway). As harsh as I’ve been on Apocalypse, I believe that the filmmakers did their best to make the best movie they could, and I’ll give them credit for that. Even a misstep like including too many characters is probably a reflection of their love of the source material and their desire to see more of those characters come to life.

I’m sure I’ll watch Apocalypse again at some point, but probably in the way I tend to watch weaker entries in a movie series: more out of a sense of completion and a desire to experience the entire story, and not so much for its own sake, unfortunately.

  1. It seems more like a clumsy attempt to reconcile fraying continuities resulting from completely different character incarnations existing in different franchises than an effort at advancing Erik’s story arc. In case you’re even less knowledgeable about the X-Men mythology than I am, at some point in the comics, Magneto has two children, also mutants, known as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. In the Avengers film universe, both characters appeared in Age of Ultron. Quicksilver is killed, while Scarlet Witch survives and goes on to join the Avengers. Quicksilver is now an established character in the X-Men movies, so I can only presume that the death of Erik’s daughter was a way to balance things out on a cosmic scale, or at least on a franchise level. Side note: if your level of knowledge of the X-Men mythology is the same as mine, you might have assumed, as did I, that his daughter in Apocalypse is a version of the character known as Scarlet Witch, his daughter in the comics. And you’d be wrong. It turns out that Magneto had another daughter before Scarlet Witch, something I found out after writing the paragraph above.
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