Movie Review: X-Men: Apocalypse
By Ben Gruchow
May 31, 2016
This one got away from them somehow. The most recent entry in this franchise, 2014’s Days of Future Past, was a big hit and a solid chapter of the X-Men series, deftly blending two disparate storylines while being a pretty decent continuation of the franchise’s primary themes. The same creative team returns here, and X-Men: Apocalypse begins with promise. It’s able to sustain that promise roughly as long as it takes for the villain and his plot to remain hidden; what follows are two hours that retread and rehash familiar character notes and story beats, with visual cacophony and ear-splitting volume working hard to compensate for a curious lack of energy, tension, or momentum.
About that beginning: It takes place in ancient Egypt, with thousands of slaves and citizens prostrating themselves before a mysterious, withered figure known as En Sabah Nur. We saw him at the very end of the last film; here, he’s led into a massive pyramidal temple and prepared for a ritual that will transfer his soul into the body of a younger man, or mutant, which will prepare him for immortality in some vague fashion (specificity is not this movie’s priority or strong suit). A cabal of nonbelievers, though, has rigged the temple to collapse with a neat use of masonry and tunnels; they intend to seal En Sabah Nur inside for eternity. What’s their motivation? We’re never told. I say they do it so he can escape later and give modern audiences this film. Sealed inside he is, in a virtuoso sequence of falling rocks and various force fields. Then we enter the opening credits, with John Ottman’s kinetic series theme still proving to be the best and most memorable of the contemporary superhero films (quick, hum the Avengers theme), and I was feeling optimistic.
We pick up little pieces of various X-Men whereabouts since the last film’s conclusion ten years prior; Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) has dreams of his school becoming a collegiate campus for all people, mutant and non-mutant alike; Magneto (Michael Fassbender) has been holed up in rural Poland, with a wife and daughter, hiding from the authorities and working at one of those industrial factories that seems to produce mostly smoke and fire and grease. There are roughly, oh, 458 named mutant characters in the film, and we get glancing introductions to each one; the movie cheats on its introductions and mostly gets away with it, because we’ve seen these characters in at least three prior films in greater detail, and we’re familiar with their powers.
For example, early on we are introduced to the character Storm, played by Halle Berry in earlier films and by Alexandra Shipp here. She is never addressed by that name or any other during the film, but we know who she is because the first thing we see her do is cause a minor dust storm. We get more screen time with Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), who gets introduced as a high schooler to Xavier’s school for the first time, and scores a good laugh during a demonstration of his capabilities. And we see welcome continuity glimmers with character psychology in Xavier’s interaction with Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). Five years ago, he acted as surrogate big brother to Mystique (played here as then by Jennifer Lawrence); now that she’s gone off on her own, he’s taking the same tack with another powerful and confused mutant. Again, the movie cheats and gets away with it; there is no explication within this film in and of itself as to any special relationship between the two; we get the significance primarily because we’re shorthanding the interactions and doing the film’s work for it.