With X-Men: Apocalypse the second X-Men trilogy reaches its closure and, under the creative control of director/producer Bryan Singer who had helped kick off the Marvel superhero craze way back in the day with X-Men and X2: X-Men United, what had seemed to start out as a simple prequel has grown to become a complete franchise reboot.
With the Matthew Vaughan helmed X-Men: First Class the series jumped back to 1962 and revealed the early days of Professor Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters as they faced down the Hellfire Club. Bryan Singer, who hadn’t directed an X-film since X2 despite producing and receiving a story credit for First Class, stepped behind the camera once more and delivered the stunning X-Men: Days of Future Past, which managed to not only continue the original and prequel storylines, but also wound up cleaning up continuity by deleting every X-film made before First Class. Hideous mid-range entries like X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine ceased to exist. It was as if Singer had created a winking cinematic apology for bailing on the original trilogy before helming its crucial third installment which had been meant to introduce Dark Phoenix (and managed to do so under director Brett Ratner, though with Ratner at the helm the resulting film was so bad in so many ways it eclipses even Spider-Man 3 as one of the most notoriously terrible third acts any superhero film franchise has ever seen).
Now, with none of the pre-First Class films to weight anything down, Singer unleashes a full force assault of the storytelling abandon Days of Future Past hinted at with its use of Sentinels and time travel as X-Men: Apocalypse unspools across screens worldwide. Given the relatively long life of this franchise, Apocalypse will more than likely prove to be a film that will fracture its long-term fanbase into love-it-or-hate-it camps more than any other.
The first two X-Men films were cornerstone films for the current wave of comic book adaptations flooding cinemas. While they were properties adapted from the comics, they were sincere, serious adaptations with some stellar talent both behind and in front of the cameras. But, while paying a certain homage to the origin properties and locking in certain themes and characters, the film franchise is a very different aesthetic beast than the comics that spawned it. The comics are pure angst-riddled superhero freneticism. Clad in yellow and black spandex, the Uncanny X-Men might battle alien invasions from a friendly army’s spaceship one month and wind up trying to survive a massive murderous funhouse full of traps the next. Enemies like Sentinels and Magneto would turn up from time to time, of course, but, in the glorious years when Claremont, Cockrum, and Byrne ruled the book, the X-Men careened wildly in all sorts of insane, though clever and always fun, directions. Yes, the graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills – which pits the X-Men against an anti-mutant televangelist using his pulpit to convince his sizable following that mutants are abominations in the eyes of God – is an absolute masterpiece. It was also released on the heels of a run in Uncanny X-Men where, after helping the interstellar Shi’ar empire defeat an invasion attempt, the X-Men find they’ve been infected by a lethal, consciousness absorbing alien species, and travel to said species’ homeworld in a giant spacewhale starship to hopefully save not just their lives but their souls.
This storyline, while waaaay wilder than the down-to-earthGod Loves, Man Kills, is also a masterpiece, and is far more typical of X-Men stories of the period.
By and large, the films have always eschewed the super hero histrionics in favor of a sci-fi lite sort of approach equivalating far closer to stories like God Loves, which itself served as a major inspiration behind X2. There are no masks, the spandex is replaced with black kevlar and leather, and the battle usually comes down to anti-mutant human elements (Stryker, X2), anti-human mutant elements (any iteration of Magneto; Sebastian Shaw and the Hellfire Club in First Class) and the X-Men caught in the middle trying to save their own skins while attempting to save the world as well.
In this light, X-Men: Apocalypse breaks series formula in that, while a continuation of the two films that came before it, it’s the first film in the series that seems to want to leave its sci-fi/adventure trappings behind and become a full bore comic book experience.
With its use of time travel and Sentinel robots, Day of Future Past shows the beginnings of this evolution to incorporate the crazier elements of the X-Men comics into the film universe. The decision to utilize a villain the caliber of Apocalypse, though – an immortal, near-omnipotent being from the dawn of humanity itself – is ambition on a whole new scale. Yes, he’s yet another mutant seeking the end of humanity, but his power set is so absurdly out of the scale of anything the X-Men cinematic universe has presented so far that to even make the attempt is applause worthy in and of itself.
No, the kevlar isn’t gone, but, oh wait, what’s Psylocke wearing? Why, that’s the same hideous swimsuit thing she wore during the Claremont/Jim Lee years! Storm has a mohawk!
And, speaking of Storm, while she wasn’t one of Apocalypse’s four horsemen in the comic, again Singer and crew’s motivations to up the stakes become apparent. In the films Storm has never been as dramatically powerful as she was in the comics, likely because of the limits of budget and technology. By revising her as one of the horsemen, Apocalypse amplifies her powers to the sort of level that would equivalate far closer to comic book Storm. Meanwhile, Magneto, who in previous entries has been shown to max his powers by doing things like turning massive radar dishes and lifting sports arenas with great effort, is destroying buildings on a global scale through manipulation of the entire planet’s magnetic field, the sort of trick readers of the comic have seen before.
The previous films have all seemed to make a strong attempt to establish a sort of identifiable real-world notion, even if it was artificial in a way. Apocalypse answers to almost no such notion. Storm and Archangel strike epic poses against CGI backdrop skies while tossing lightning bolts and feather blades. Buildings along coastal cities dissolve into nothingness, their material used to build a huge, alien pyramid in the center of a near-obliterated Cairo. Xavier engages in psychic warfare in a fluid virtual reality constructed by his own consciousness. Qucksilver gets not one but two slo-mo/high speed sequences, the first of which making the one from Days of Future Past seem like child’s play.
As for the long-rumored Wolverine appearance… well, not to spoil anything, but fans of the comics are more than likely to be floored by Hugh Jackman’s appearance this time out. It’s a sequence most of us have wanted to see at some point one way or the other and, though it loses some edge due to the film’s PG-13 rating, it still remains immensely satisfying to see come to life onscreen.
As for the cast and characters, well, if you’ve seen the previous films you know most of these people and they aren’t deviating much from what came before, though Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven/Mystique loses some of the importance she’s had in the previous entries as Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and Quicksilver (Evan Peters) come into their own. As a fan it’s particularly satisfying to see a real, serious interpretation of Cyclops finally show up in the franchise, and Nightcrawler’s return to the franchise is more than welcome.
Where this new more comic-ish approach really hurts the film is in its lack of humanity versus scale. Devastation in this outing occurs on a global scale and, while visually and thematically it does mirror the sort of thing we see in the source material (remember the destruction of New York City in the finale of Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men?) there’s little sense of a human cost of all this destruction. It’s the polar opposite of, say, Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel, which spends long minutes on the destruction and hapless victims. Between Apocalypse and Man of Steel there has to be a satisfying way to relate this sort of emotional impact that doesn’t feel either empty or near fetishistic, and after Apocalypse I’d guess the answer is probably somewhere near the border on Snyder’s side of the fence. The destruction can’t just be an awesome CGI image, it has to mean something, and to mean something it has to be presented in a human context.
For those who’ve like the series previous, less absurdly over the top entries, Apocalypse is likely to seem too simplistic, too over the top, and too spectacle driven. For those able to accept this new pulp grandiosity or who would prefer a more literal comic-to-screen representation of the comic’s usual freneticism, Apocalypse will likely prove to be a real breath of fresh air in this long-running franchise. Either way, Singer and crew should certainly be applauded for their ambition in attempting an X-Men film that’s so absolutely audacious.