X-Men Apocalypse Review: What’s new is old again (spoilers!)

This movie had everything going for it.

I don’t want to make this whole review about how much better this story could have been had it been told by Disney/Marvel/Feige (the MCU). But that was the inescapable thought I had throughout the whole affair. I kept thinking how great this cast is and how cool it is that we get to see the three biggest baddest comic baddies on screen over the next few years (Thanos, Apocolypse, Darkseid) but in this, the first movie to feature those three (Thanos’ cameos in a few previous movies don’t count), it’s a swing and a miss.

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Let’s back up, though:

There are basically two opinions with regards to FOX’s X-Men franchise. There are those (A) who say that Fox is doing at least a fine enough job and that Disney/MCU has too many franchises already, so it’s good that FOX has X-Men. They are big enough and have enough great stories and characters to sustain their own universe anyway. Nonesense to that, I say. We’re going to get an X-Men movie anyway, I’d much prefer the stories be crafted by Marvel itself and not 20th Century Fox. X-Men bring a lot of characters, but having them in the MCU doesn’t mean they’d have to be featured in every Avengers movie or clog up side-stories in solo-films featuring Captain America or Dr. Strange. It just means that, when a story calls for it, Disney/Marvel would have access to use their whole roster of characters.

Which brings me to those (B) who say that Kevin Feige and Disney have proven themselves, not only able to craft amazing stories (with, to be honest, a very limited roster of characters, stories and especially villains), but to do so in a way that is breathtakingly faithful to the source material. Sure they update this and modernize that, but when it counts, they are translating the comics to the screen.

Case in point:

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(credit to moviepilot.com)

And why shouldn’t we expect Disney to give us faithful adaptations with the MCU? Disney isn’t just distributing Marvel movies, they own Marvel. Those movies are just an extension of the Marvel comics creative department. They have the team that makes the stories on the page and the team that makes the stories on the screen. It’s all made from the same love of the source material.

And then there’s FOX. They don’t own Marvel. They have no emotional attachment to the X-Men (and apparently even less so to the Fantastic Four) the way Kevin Feige and company do. They only bought the rights, use the rights and will never sell the rights (let’s be honest) because it’s a franchise that makes money. And I get it: That’s all of Hollywood. You think Disney would have made Civil War if they didn’t think it would have made a lot of money? Of course not. The difference is, Marvel cares enough on top of all the making money stuff, not only to make the movies, but to make them faithful to the source material.

And then there’s FOX.

Disney (yes, the biggest Hollywood empire of them all) has a team of artists painting on a cinematic canvas. FOX has a team of suits and focus-group minded hacks stitching together whatever they think is good enough while trying to adapt silly, embarrassing comic book stories because that’s the “in” thing right now. That’s how it feels watching these movies, and that’s certainly how it felt watching this one. Everyone seemed like they were either phoning it in, or were simply not given enough to work with to turn it into chicken salad. It’s hard to tell which. But what is obvious, and this was my biggest takeaway from seeing X-Men Apocalypse: Fox has a ceiling of quality with this franchise, and it is lower—much lower—than the ceiling for any of the Disney/MCU properties.

Everything hinges on the villain, so let’s focus on Apocalypse. First of all, this is the biggest villain there is to the X-Men. Other than Magneto, who is kind of a philosophical rival (he’s the Malcom X to Charles’ Martin Luther King), Apocalypse is the real big bad uber villain in the franchise.

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Oscar Isaac is exactly the kind of mesmerizing guy you cast when you want a villain who is basically a Svengali, who whispers Machiavellian soliloquies and leads a band of followers into a revolution to overthrow the world. That’s all fine and good and Isaac is great for that, but it just doesn’t work with Apocalypse. 

In the comics, Apocalypse is a massive hulk of a mutant. He was big and, more importantly, powerful enough to stand up against the full onslaught of an entire team of X-Men. His ambition and drive as a villains is basically “survival of the fittest.” To that end, he doesn’t care if you are mutant or not. If you aren’t strong you will die so that “only the strong survive.” He’s the quintessential X-Men villain in that respect. While Magneto is positioned on the opposite side of the chess board, arguing for a different way to “deal” with normal people, he agrees with Xavier that the end result should be the “betterment” of all of mutantkind. Apocalypse, on the other hand, is risen above the chess board. He says that even some mutants are inferior and need to be stamped out. This makes him the next logical evolution for an X-Men villain. The fact that he is the oldest recorded mutant, has a serious god-complex, and embodies dozens of different mutant abilities is just icing on the evil cake.

A lot of what makes Apocalypse such a great character is translated into Isaac’s portrayal and Simon Kinberg’s screenplay, but the overall package drops the ball. Instead of an intimidating figure, we have Isaac, who is 5’9 and there’s no trickery done to make the character appear larger than life (other than one scene which takes place in Xavier’s mind). He just looks so…unintimidating. At one point he gets knocked around by Quicksilver, and even though in the end he wins the fight with the speedster, those initial few seconds just totally neuter the mystique (no pun intended) the movie had worked so hard building for him.

It doesn’t help either that his outfit looks ridiculous. I mean if you’re not going to translate the comic-look then you better come up with something that works. At least if you translate from the comics and it looks silly you can always fall back on “yeah but that’s how he looks on the page.” Here you just have a silly looking character with this weird pale blue armor that is the same color of his skin and skullcap that makes it hard to tell where the hat ends and his face begins. Also, instead of booming and monstrous, you have Isaac’s soft-spoken delivery. He’s not menacing, he’s…whispering.

Again, I see what they are going for, from the casting to the execution, and usually I am the first to say “don’t criticize a movie for what it isn’t; criticize it for what it is” but in this case, when you’re dealing with a character that is supposed to be translated from page to screen, there are natural expectations that go along with that. Apocalypse as a character was not allowed to meet those expectations. Also he spends 2/3 of the movie just kind of roaming around, not doing much of anything before all the action happens at the tail end of the movie. The character is wasted.

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And speaking of: Nothing happens in this movie until the final third. It’s one thing to have set-up, build-up and pre-climax character development, but here the pace is just so slow you feel every bit of the hour and a half before the “action” actually happens. There are little scenes here and there (such as a moment at Stryker’s Alkali Lake Research Facility) where things pick up, but even then the editing (which might just be the movie’s biggest misstep) just prevents things from feeling like we’ve moved from first gear (opening act) into second gear (middle act) into third gear (final act). Everything sort of stalls at a low speed until the climax when it all rushes to the ending.

As negative as this review is (and I concede a lot of it is based on frustration that this is a movie made by FOX and not Marvel, who I know would have treated the characters with more TLC) the film isn’t a terrible one. But it is one of the weaker installments in the series and it is certainly the weakest of the three “new cast” movies. There’s an unfunny, very forced, not just wink but practically break the fourth wall and scream “see what I did there” joke to the audience early in the movie, when a few students go see Return of the Jedi and comment that “the third movie always sucks.” Ha ha you suck Bret Ratner. You suck X3: The Last Stand. You suck…uh…Fox? for firing Bryan Singer when he wanted to go to Warner Bros. to make Superman Returns before bringing him back and pretending like it never happened…

The last movie, Days of Future Past, based its entire premise around erasing X3: The Last Stand from existence as a giant middle finger to that turd of a movie. But the joke ends up turning back on Singer, whose third installment in this X-Men trilogy is also a letdown (not as big as Ratner’s though, let’s not go crazy).

QUICK HITS

1) Several new characters are introduced but there is little attention given to making them three-dimensional characters. The three henchmen of Apocalypse (Psylocke, Storm and Archangel) have plenty of screen time but no character development. They are mostly there to look cool and give the heroes someone to shoot at/punch. Even Psylocke, the one new character of the bunch, isn’t even allowed an explanation of her powers. Compare that to how perfectly Civil War juggled all their characters, including a new Spider-Man and an all-new Black Panther.

2) The idea to jump a decade in time with each movie is clever, and it allows for variety in terms of aesthetic and character-selection, but it stretches believability when you are forced to accept that James McAvoy has only five years of age on him (from his appearance in 2011’s First Class) but is supposed to be twenty years older than the events of his first movie. Then again, Patrick Stewart has looked exactly 60 years old for the past thirty years so maybe it’s not worth quibbling over.

3) Speaking of quibbles: Lookit, if Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t want to be blue because she is allergic to the makeup, that’s one thing. At least CG-it so that she looks like Mystique. And I understand the corporate (FOX) need to push an academy award winning actress into center stage but really you’re just alienating a large portion of the X-Men fanbase who are tired to seeing Mystique treated like she was one of the most important mutants in the history of the world. She’s not and never was. Her best contribution to X-Men lore involve mothering Nightcrawler and fostering Rogue, neither of which are explored in FOX’s universe.

4) The biggest knock on these movies is the numerous continuity problems that the rebooted trilogy started. Everyone points to Days of Future past as the instigator but First Class introduced us to the Xavier/Mystique dynamic which was clearly not there in the original three movies. And yes, the ending to Days of Future past really screwed everything up (even Deadpool can’t keep his Professors straight) but it was excused because everyone agreed The Last Stand was a horrible, horrible movie. Forget that, though: These movies can’t even keep continuity going from story to story. Remember the end of Days of Future Past? Not the part where Wolverine wakes up and everyone is alive and happy. I mean the part set in the 70’s, when he’s pulled out of the water by Stryker. We assume he’s being taken to begin the Weapon X program, but nope: Stryker is revealed to by Mystique in disguise.

According to screenwriter (of both that and this movie) Simon Kinsberg…

 “I wanted Wolverine to end up with Stryker at the end of the film, but when we got down the line on that, it felt like such a downer ending, and there wasn’t any ripple in time. It was the same – the location where Stryker grabbed Logan was different, but Logan’s fate was very much the same. I felt like we hadn’t made enough of a ripple.

So from there we thought about who else it could be. I was thinking of having other people on the boat – he could be fished out by Charles and Hank – but we set this thing up where Mystique is masquerading as a military character saving mutants from going into some sort of experimental program in Saigon early on, so there’s a really nice symmetry there at the end.”

Okay…but in this movie none of that happened. Stryker–the real one–has Logan and has made him Weapon X. As far as this movie is concerned, Mystique never had anything to do with him, making the scene at the end of the previous movie, not just pointless, but an actual plot hole. I’m not going to say “Kevin Feige plans out his movies years in advance…stupid FOX is winging it.” I’m not going to say it.

5) Fox still refuses to just translate the look of the comics from page to screen. It’s one thing to make a spandex joke in 2000 during the first X-Men movie. Back then comic book movies weren’t a thing and in fact X-Men was the first one to show that CGI technology had reached the point where big budget comic book movies were finally feasible. Having the heroes don black jumpsuits was an annoyance in those days (I remember those days) but most assumed it was the price to pay to see the characters on the big screen. Now, fifteen years later, comic book movies are the biggest franchises in Hollywood and most all of them have come around to faithfully adapting the look of the franchises. Other than Psylocke (and Olivia Munn refused to do the movie unless they let her wear the iconic costume), everyone in this movie is given drab outfits and often are filmed so that we are never given a proper look at any of their suits, almost as if they are embarrassed of them.

I mean, this is the X-Men many of us grew up either reading or watching on the sublime 90’s cartoon show:

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And this is what they look like here:

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Even at the end, when the characters get actual “costumes,” it’s still a muted, half-hearted look (cyclops in particular) that is afraid of bold colors. But FOX simply doesn’t think it will translate. They think the people won’t buy all that color,  and silliness and faithfulness.

It’s not like nostalgia or staying true to the source material or giving fans what they want has ever worked in the past.

This is Thanos in the comics. He’s purple with gold armor and a weird crown.

This is Thanos in the MCU.

This is Apocolypse in the comics. He’s grey-skinned with weird lips, with silver and blue armor.

This is Apocolypse in the FOX universe.

sigh.

6) It’s interesting to parallel the two X-Men trilogies now that they are finished. The first one was a little hokey and unsure of itself but it introduced the world, focused on Xavier and Magneto, and had a great cast. That’s basically First Class too. The second one adapted a beloved storyline and did a great job at it, leaving a lot of room for growth in the future. That’s also Days of Future Past. The third one was a misstep. It tried to adapt a major X-Men event and bring in a big character but it wasn’t able to stick the landing. And even though Apocalypse wasn’t nearly as disastrous as Last Stand, it’s still a misstep and failed to live up to the previous film. But of course this isn’t the end of the X-Men. Not when there’s money to be made (and the need to make more or lose the rights).

As for the next movie, set in the 90’s? I expect Quicksilver to listen to Nirvana and rock a NO FEAR t-shirt.  We know the villain will be Mr. Sinister (a perfect villain for the 90’s-setting since he was a memorable baddie in the 90’s TV show)…

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…but we can be sure FOX will never let him look like that.

FINAL VERDICT:

7/10 – If you’re an X-Men fan, you’re going to see it in theaters, regardless. If you’re not, but you’re a comics fan, I’d wait for home video. If you are just in the mood for a fun adventure movie…pass.

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