Posted on Tuesday, May 31st, 2016 by Jacob Hall
Here’s a sentence I never thought I would write: X-Men: Apocalypse may be a worse movie than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a film that I haven’t been shy about disliking in a public setting. And yet, the latest film in the increasingly convoluted X-Men series forced me to consider a big question – do I prefer the awful movie that shoots for big ideas and belly flops on the pavement or the awful movie that tries nothing, risks nothing, and is content to just exist without even trying to try something special? I have an answer.
A Broken Timeline
In the modern comic books, the history of the Marvel universe exists in a continuously shifting decade. No matter how much time has passed in the real world, the history of these characters always happened within the past ten years or so. It doesn’t hold up to scrutiny (and it shouldn’t), but it’s an elegant solution that allows characters to never age, to remain static even as they move forward. A storyline from thirty years ago may be referenced, but within the context of the story, it was a far more recent event.
Some may see the ageless characters in X-Men: Apocalypse and think this is a deliberate reference to how these characters never grow old, but unlike the comics, the timeline here never shifts. X-Men: First Class took place in 1962. X-Men: Days of Future Past took place in 1973. And now, X-Men: Apocalypse takes place in 1983. This means twenty one years have passed for these characters. This passage of time is referenced time and time again in this movie. The history the X-Men and their enemies and allies have shared is vital to the plot. The passage of time informs countless decisions and more than a few character arcs.
So why does everyone look exactly the same? If Magneto was a ten-year old boy at Auschwitz, why doesn’t Michael Fassbender have grey hair or show any sign of aging? If Havok was was a teenager during the events of First Class, he would be in his late-thirties during Apocalypse, but Lucas Till still looks impossibly baby-faced. Why has Quicksilver not changed in the slightest in the past decade, with the scene-stealing speedster still living in his mom’s basement and still wearing the same clothes and looking and acting like he did a decade previously. There has literally been no effort to showcase wear and tear on these characters. There are no wrinkles and no white hairs. Nobody has changed in two decades and no number of cheeky references to characters looking good after all these years can make up for how weightless this all feels because of it. X-Men: Apocalypse constantly references the events that have taken place over twenty years, but it refuses to let its characters change from those experiences. It hits the rest button with the start of each film. It gives us the deliberate impression that nothing in these movies actually matters.
It ultimately feels like director Bryan Singer simply doesn’t care about the world he has helped build. Even when you take Days of Future Past’s timeline-altering climax into account, Apocalypse deliberately ignores the continuity of previous movies in ways that are frustrating and confusing. The X-Men movies don’t have to follow Marvel Studios’ path and build a complex, interconnected universe where the events of one movie always affect another, but it would be nice if there was some consistency to this world. How are we supposed to care about the journey of the X-Men when the people actually making the movies seem to care so little for there previous film they made?
X-Men: Apocalypse does introduce a whole bunch of new (and newly re-invented) characters into the mix, but the results are thoroughly mixed. Some, like Kodi Smit-McPhee‘s Nightcrawler, make solid first impressions, but it’s hard to judge the character or a performance when he gets so very little to do. Others, like Tye Sheridan‘s Cyclops, feel like they’re going to be important, like they are actually going to have an arc, but simply get lost entirely in the mayhem of the final act. Of the new heroes, Sophie Turner‘s Jean Grey suffers the most. Turner (consistently one of the strongest players on Game of Thrones) seems uncomfortable with her American accent and never gets a handle on this young version Jean.
However, Turner fares far better than Oliva Munn, whose Psylocke has maybe three lines of dialogue and contributes nothing to the film beyond wearing a ninja swimsuit to Auschwitz. Ben Hardy‘s Angel fares only slightly better, but he’s reduced to one-note muscle within a scene or two and unceremoniously dispatched during the grand finale. Only Alexandra Shipp‘s Storm leaves an impression, but her character feels like a built-in teaser trailer for the sequel instead of a proper character.
X-Men: Apocalypse is full of new characters, many of them played by strong actors, but they are never supplied with moments that allow us to like them or fear them. The film seems to think we’ll be satisfied by their mere presence, rather than them actually earning our affection.
…and Familiar Faces
The returning characters fare better overall, but this is one of those cases where you can see seams. You can actually see these talented men and women struggle to care about the material they’re given.
Of the main players, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender fare the best. McAvoy still seems to be having a ball playing a superhero and his Charles Xavier, playful and brave and empathetic at every turn, is as good as Patrick Stewart‘s interpretation. Fassbender, an actor who is literally incapable of giving a bad performance, weathers some truly awful material and manages to bring a great deal of nobility to Magneto. None of this changes the fact that Magneto and Professor X face the exact same dilemma and have the exact same conversations and literally replay the dynamic we’ve seen in five previous movies, but both actors share enough chemistry to weather the storm.
Meanwhile, Beast and Mystique have nothing of interest to do in this movie and Nicholas Hoult and Jennifer Lawrence know it. These are the two most disinterested performances either actor has ever given and it’s hard to blame them for their apathy. The screenplay struggles to find anything for them to do and so many of the early seeds fail to blossom. Sure, they’re running a fresh young team of X-Men when the credits roll, but that journey never feels complete. The film never gives them a chance to truly rise to the occasion and prove themselves as worthy leaders. Their lack of leadership during the final fight is especially frustrating. Apocalypse being defeated by a deus ex phoenix doubly so.
Watching Hoult and Lawrence drown in this material while McAvoy and Fassbender do their damnedest to elevate it is a fascinating study in contrasts. You feels bad for the former and strangely proud of the latter.