As of this writing, nearly 16 years have passed since 20th Century Fox adapted one of Marvel Comics’ iconic and – at the time, leading – superhero franchises to the big screen.
X-Men film came out July 2000, wowed critics and audiences, earned oodles of money and made superhero flicks cool again. The passing of years saw the rise of other big-budget extravaganzas, most of them featuring characters from the vibrant and varied Marvel stable.
Ultimately this culminated in Marvel itself taking charge with its own in-house production studio and crafting a record-breaking multi-title film universe starring the other characters they have kept the movie rights to. And all the while Fox, and Singer when schedules permitted, built up the X-Men film series with a number of sequels and spin-offs; yet it seemed as if the story and characters seemed to be losing luster compared to their competition. Singer sought to revitalize the franchise by triggering a continuity reboot with 2014’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past”; now we get to “X-Men Apocalypse” the first X-Men flick set in the new timeline replacing the events of the first three films in the line. And despite having seen “Captain America: Civil War” mere weeks ago, I was still totally blown away.
Taking place story-wise some 10 years after the past events of “Future Past” (sounds complicated but bear with me), it is now the 1980’s and, at least on the surface, the super-powered mutants of the world now seem to have a chance at living together and getting along with ordinary humans that used to hate and fear them. This is thanks to the heroism displayed on national television by the blue-skinned shape-changing Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) who not only called off her own assassination attempt on anti-mutant government officials but protected President Nixon against the mutant supremacist and terrorist Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Wheelchair-ridden mutant telepath Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has been able to reopen his school for the gifted – mutants – where he enjoys happily teaching his mutant pupils how to master their powers and be responsible people. But discord still lingers in the shadows, and a chain of events in Egypt awaken an ancient multi-powered body-snatching mutant with a god complex, En Sabah Nur (Oscar Issac). Having ruled the world eons ago, he is very unimpressed with the world of that time with its superpower nations and nuclear weapons etc., so he sets in motion a plan to destroy the world and recreate it according to his wishes, a place where only the strongest survive.
It is in this background that the storyline drives itself forward. Lawrence’s character of Raven travels the world protecting discretely persecuted mutants, but due to the notoriety of her natural form is constantly going about as a hot blonde – serving the dual purpose of banking on J-Law’s star power by constantly showing her real-life face, and minimizing the time she spent in the blue makeup and scaly bodysuit which she has confided in interviews to be uncomfortable. Whatever the reason, it does work as Lawrence gets emotions across better without the constricting facial prostheses, though comic book fans may raise eyebrows, along with how divergently heroic she is compared to the comics and even the original film trilogy (where she did go through with her assassination plan and eventually became the monstrous Mystique played by Rebecca Romjin-Stamos). Fassbender’s Magneto tried to go low-profile and even start a family, but a tragic consequence of using his powers to help others quickly revert him to a violent and vengeful misanthrope, the perfect pawn for En Sabah Nur to turn into one of his four lieutenants in destroying and remaking the world. This includes weather-controlling Cairo thief Ororo (Alexandra Shipp), winged fight clubber Warren/Angel (Ben Hardy) and psychic-telekinetic bodyguard Psylocke (Olivia Munn). These three are mostly there to provide muscle for their overlord Nur and while portrayed competently enough are pretty much relegated to elite mooks for the heroes to fight.
Fassbender meanwhile plays his character with the tempered fury of one who seems to find himself forced into and stuck in a fixed role of being a bad guy to the audience. There’s even a scene where he uses his supercharged magnetic powers to destroy the Auschwitz death camp where he suffered as a boy in past film flashbacks, serving as a taste of what he’s set to be doing in the movie’s climax.
Set to oppose these would-be harbingers of the Apocalypse are McAvoy’s Xavier, who finds his optimism for the future broken again by Nur’s plan and the involvement of both his old friend and ideological counterpart, as well as his foster sister who once took his frenemy’s side against him.
Here is where the film sort of stumbles: this has happened before. The struggle of ideals between Xavier and Magneto has been happening since 2000. Every X-film has touched on it, with the added wrinkle of Raven/Mystique’s involvement since the 2011 distant prequel “X-Men: First Class” and “Future Past”.
Every time it has been a rehash of their conflicting views and even here, where En Sabah Nur is supposed to be the main villain the old argument seems to steal the spotlight. It’s to the film’s good fortune that it never does, completely. Subplots abound with the various student mutants caught up in the battle. Tye Sheridan plays a younger version of another iconic X-Man, Cyclops. This time he is no “boy-scout” leader as in the comics and the original trilogy, but a rebellious teen slacker. Kodi Smit-McPhee is the demonic-looking teleporter Nightcrawler who comes off more as a sweet kid. Evan Peters reprises his one-scene wonder from “Future Past” as the super-fast Quicksilver (with an effects-driven action sequence here that is both awesome and hilarious). Rounding the cast are Lucas Till, Nicholas Hoult and Rose Byrne who, at times, were just there for the sake of being “there”.
But perhaps the most compelling performance comes from Sophie Turner – aka. Sansa Stark from “Game of Thrones” – as the young telepath Jean Grey, who has yet to reach the maturity portrayed in past films by Famke Janssen and is therefore still deathly afraid of losing control of her powers. She gets something of a kindred soul in Cyclops who also has problems with his non-stop eye beams, and thankfully Professor Xavier is avoiding the mistakes he made in the original movie timeline by encouraging her as she goes. Her development while not the focus is a significant portion of the movie’s best parts, and plays off magnificently in the final battle of the story, a truly global calamity unlike anything seen before in the film franchise, with fantastic visuals and fight choreography. This certainly proves that Fox and Singer can still tangle effectively with the Marvel Cinematic Universe juggernaut. X-fans ought to be rightly pleased.
Clocking more than two hours, “X-Men Apocalypse” is jam-packed with events yet does not feel lengthy or dragged-out. It hits all the appropriate emotional buttons at one point or another and gives audiences the kind of comic-book superhero fights they’ll enjoy. Fox and Singer may have retread some familiar ground once more to tie things up, but at least they were able to make it interesting. The X-Men film franchise is still up and running so stay tuned for the follow-up to the post-credits scene next year in the third “Wolverine” movie. Speaking of which, the Hugh Jackman appearance was a highlight. Almost forgot about that.