X-Men: Apocalypse opened strong at the box office over Memorial Day weekend, but it fell short of expectations, both in terms of reviews and in terms of revenue. It was expected to make $82 million, but actually raked in $80 million, and it only got a 49 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
What went wrong? Two years ago, X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) opened to $110.5 million and scored a 91 on the film review site. Why did the sequel (or third installment of the new X-Men trilogy, or ninth installment of the X-Men franchise) fall on its head?
Here are the four failings of the Apocalypse, a spoiler-free review of an acceptable X-Men film which could have been much greater.
1. The lack of a compelling villain.
Apocalypse isn’t just a theme, he’s a person (Oscar Isaac), and is considered the world’s first mutant. He came to rule Ancient Egypt as a god, but was buried beneath rubble for five thousand years. Now, he emerges to transform the world.
Throughout the film, Apocalypse refers to “false gods, idols,” things such as capitalism, technology, democracy, and Communism. He denounces the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union as “blind leaders, false gods.” When he convinces a major figure in the X-Men to join his cause, he declares, “I’ve shown him a better way, a better world.”
Unfortunately, this is all the development we get. It’s an eschatology with no “New Heaven and New Earth,” an end of the world without the signs of the beginning of a new one. Apocalypse wants to rule, but he never gives a hint of what kind of world he wants to control. A viewer might assume he wants to bring the world back to the Bronze Age civilization of Ancient Egypt, but there’s no evidence for what his actual plans are.
Worse, we only get a taste of his powers as a mutant — Apocalypse enhances the power of other mutants, he is able to invade minds, and can even alter matter itself, causing walls to swallow people. This is pretty cool, and I wanted to see his powers in action. Nevertheless, it seems these are but a few of his powers, and we do not see more because he leaves all the hard work for his henchmen, or specifically one henchman, Magneto (Michael Fassbender).
Even maniacal, power-hungry villains often have compelling nuances and a real vision for the world they would like to rule. Oscar Isaac makes an imposing figure, but his acting is severely constrained by the overwhelming blue makeup. His character also proves more of a catalyst for other potential villains (Magneto) than an antagonist. The interesting development revolves around Magneto, but even that is sadly one-sided.
Next Page: The simple motivations of Magneto.
2. The simple motivations of Magneto.
Magneto is one of the most complicated figures in X-Men, and he provides a powerful alternative to Charles Xavier’s approach of peace and cooperation with non-mutant humans. His distrust of humanity is often rooted in abuses of humans, and his loyalty to mutant-kind means he’s never 100 percent a villain.
In this film, however, his motivations prove much more simple and less nuanced. Michael Fassbender plays an excellent, intense Magneto, but he is constrained by the weak storyline. At one point, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) tells Apocalypse, “you’ve just tapped into his rage and pain,” and this is entirely accurate.
Much of the story is compelling — an early loss rightly enrages him against specific people, but he takes his revenge on them rather quickly and easily. Apocalypse aids him in this quest, and enlists him to aid in the destruction of the world. Nevertheless, this is very clearly a huge leap, and Magneto has no real cause to help Apocalypse, except a vague rage at humanity.
One Magneto scene stands out in particular, as Apocalypse encourages him to visit a scene from his past, in order to release his anger. The event comes off as contrived, and it actually belittles the grave tragedy of the mutant’s past.
Magneto is instrumental to Apocalypse’s task of destruction, but he is only the last of the “four horsemen” assembled to arrange the end of the world. The other three are fascinating characters, but sadly squandered by the film.
Next Page: The wasted potential of the other “horsemen” of the Apocalypse.
3. The wasted potential of the other three “horsemen.”
In order to conquer the world, Apocalypse recruits four acolytes, the “four horsemen.” First, he recruits Storm (Alexandra Shipp), who really gets shafted in terms of character development. The two characters who get even less depth are also horsemen — the martial artist Psylocke (Olivia Munn) and the winged Archangel (Ben Hardy).
Storm, Psylocke, and Archangel seem rather useless when compared to the incredibly powerful Apocalypse and his pumped-up right hand man Magneto. Sure, these three can fight off X-Men when they arrive to stop the evil boss’s plan, but that’s all they are good for. Magneto, on the other hand, gets all the action, as his control over metal allows him to manipulate the Earth’s core, causing earthquakes across the world and destroying modern landmarks.
The violence and havoc wreaked by these minions is little more than eye candy for the audience, and a small but rather meaningless homage to the biblical apocalypse. If each of the four could be connected with conquest, war, famine, and death, that would have been neat, and might have given more weight to the characters.
This was especially bad considering Storm, a major figure in the X-Men comics, who is usually overlooked in the film franchise. Although she finds Apocalypse and helps him understand the modern world, her role is rather slight, and almost entirely revolves around two other characters.
Next Page: It tried to be something it wasn’t.
4. Is this more Avengers than X-Men?
Rightly or wrongly, Apocalypse is judged by comparison with a newer superhero franchise, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ironically, X-Men is technically part of that universe, but the X-Men films have a different feel than the Avengers films, and for good reason.
The original film, X-Men (2000) focused on a few characters, built up the tension within the mutant community, and launched a franchise around those themes. It was Magneto verses Xavier, with Wolverine playing a prominent role. This theme dominated the first three X-Men films, and provided a winning formula.
Then came the spin-offs, X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), X-Men: First Class (2011), and The Wolverine (2013). The Wolverine films were fun action romps, focused on Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), with little to add to the universe. First Class, however, introduced the younger generation of X-Men, and produced the sequels Days of Future Past and Apocalypse. Deadpool, which came out earlier this year, stands alone.
First Class, like the original films and Days of Future Past, rooted the plot in historical events and in the deep themes of X-Men. The struggle was less good verses evil and more Xavier verses Magneto — a peaceful coexistence with humans verses direct hostility.
Apocalypse, by contrast, feels more like an Avengers film. The conflict is from an otherworldly source. While Apocalypse is technically a mutant, he does not frame his conquest in terms of mutants verses humans, but in terms of gods. His mythic backstory is more reminiscent of Gods of Egypt or even Thor than it is of Magneto in earlier films. The basic plot also mimics the classic Avengers (2012) storyline: subtle villain manipulates heroes to fight each other, and the end-game is also similar.
Furthermore, Apocalypse dials up the destruction with little sense of the real tragedy behind what is going on. It shows city after city being leveled, but does not show the human cost. This is in marked contrast to the earlier X-Men films, where Xavier clearly values human life and mourns the loss even of his enemies. In Apocalypse, Xavier is distracted by a direct struggle with the villain, but even so, the film could have dwelt on the human losses, even in a brief scene closer to the end.
Next Page: What the film actually gets right.
Despite these many shortcomings, Apocalypse is a solid, entertaining film. It builds on the X-Men universe, and has many redeeming moments.
One of the big weaknesses of the first trilogy was the weak character development given to Cyclops/Scott Summers (James Marsen). Cyclops was the husband of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who served as Wolverine’s love interest. Cyclops was cool, but he was given short shrift as the films focused on the tension between Wolverine and Jean.
By contrast, Apocalypse reverses this entirely. Tye Sheridan plays an insecure teenage Cyclops, wooing Sophie Turner as Jean Grey. The film gives Scott Summers the backstory he deserves, and the training to become an asset in the battle against the titular villain. It also hints at Jean Grey’s astonishing powers by having her see a vision of the future destruction.
The latest X-Men film also brings back Quicksilver (Evan Peters), with a long slow-motion rescue which proves both hilarious and deep — just like his sequence in Days of Future Past. This makes for some riveting film, and a moment audiences won’t be quick to forget.
X-Men: Apocalypse is a very enjoyable action film, fitting the X-Men franchise and introducing new elements to the universe. While it has many shortcomings, it is still a very fun movie.
Check out the trailer on the last page.