Here’s a tip if you’d like to enjoy the latest X-Men flick currently playing in cinemas: pretend that the first three films didn’t exist.
This isn’t a knock on Bryan Singer’s first couple of X-Men films (although it a knock is on Brett Ratner’s), but if you were to try to make sense of X-Men: Apocalypse in the context of the events that took place in the first three films, you’d go cross-eyed.
Rather, X-Men: Apocalypse – even though it features characters and actors from the first trilogy – is part of the film franchise’s healing process that began with X-Men: First Class. In this universe, Mystique grew up with Professor Xavier, Beast is way older than Cyclops and Wolverine was a feature on the X-Mens’ radar before he pitched up at Xavier’s School For The Gifted. Got all that? Great!
With that one caveat out of the way, there’s a lot to enjoy from Singer’s latest yarn concerning Marvel’s gang of mutants. It’s by no means perfect and there are one or two aspects that may niggle at some viewers, but X-Men: Apocalypse is pretty solid throughout.
The film kicks off in ancient Egypt, which is ruled by the film’s titular antagonist. In a pyramid tomb replete with gilded splendor and rather swoon-worthy CGI, Apocalypse plans to transfer his consciousness into a new body, thus extending his lifespan. The Egyptian population, who are rather fed up with being ruled by a homicidal mutant tyrant, bury him and his cohorts alive, and then the action fast-forwards to 1983.
Not all is well in this time; thanks to the events that took place in X-Men: Days Of Future Past, the world at large is terrified of mutants and governments have produced nuclear weapons at such an alarming rate that the Doom’s Day Clock is approaching midnight. Charles Xavier is still overseeing his school, Mystique is running a kind of underground railroad for abused mutants and Magneto is in hiding, since after the events that ended the last film, the authorities would like a quiet word.
It’s into this world Apocalypse awakens – thanks to some premier league bungling by Moira MacTaggert – and he’s none to pleased with what he sees. He decides the earth is in need a decent purge and the planet’s governments should be replaced with him, so he starts rounding up the most powerful mutants he can find to help him turn all of humankind into a pile of cadavers. Hilarity ensues.
X-Men: Apocalypse benefits from some rather decent shock and awe set pieces and its rather compelling antagonist (played with palpable menace by Oscar Isaac). The narrative essentially sees Apocalypse and his ‘Horsemen’ on a collision course with the X-Men, with the latter hoping to save mankind while being hopelessly out-powered and out-gunned, as well as being targeted by the authorities.
In the run-up to the final showdown, Singer throws multiple storylines featuring a rather large cast of characters at his audience, in an attempt to give each mutant equal billing as the end of the world approaches. The problem X-Men: Apocalypse has is that Singer has so many narrative balls in the air that he can’t help but drop a few.
In the win column are the mutants from Xavier’s School For The Gifted. X-Men: Apocalypse sees the introduction of Jean Grey and Cyclops, and their tentative first steps towards one of the most longstanding relationships in comic books are quite warming to watch. Beast and Xavier are at friendly loggerheads, since the latter’s approach to training mutant kids is too touchy-feely for the former’s liking. Mystique arrives to give Chuck a dose of reality, and Quicksilver provides a welcome sardonic touch – as well one of the movie’s best set-pieces.
Apocalypse isn’t decidedly in the loss column, but his horsemen certainly are. Aside from Angel – who Apocalypse has to rehabilitate after a horde of lousy humans crippled him – and Magneto – who is angered by a devastating personal loss – there’s little explanation as to why the likes of Storm and Psylocke would team up with a someone who is obviously a genocidal madman.
Magneto also suffers somewhat from having to share the stage with the film’s new villain. After proving to be such a complex and engaging character in the previous two films – played with note perfection by Michael Fassbender – he’s given little to do except brood and yell.
The narrative juggling isn’t the hot mess that Avengers: Age Of Ultron was, but certain storylines are just more engrossing than others and the problem the film has is that just as the audience starts to become involved in one mini-plot, the action snaps to another. It’s like tucking in to a rather delicious meal, only to have your plate whipped away as you really start to enjoy it.
Perhaps the biggest problem X-Men: Apocalypse has is that competition for the hearts and wallets of superhero film fans is way stronger than it was when Singer helmed the first movie. In short, they’re used to better than this. Films boasting teams of superheroes are always tricky from a narrative standpoint but as Marvel has shown with The Avengers, Guardians Of The Galaxy and the recently-released Captain America: Civil War, it’s possible to produce a multi-stranded story without making it look like soup.
X-Men: Apocalypse is far from a bad film – it’s not as subpar as Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice – but it’s not within firing range of the best examples in this genre. Maybe it’s time 20th Century Fox relinquished its hold on the IP; a Marvel-helmed X-Men film would likely be mind-blowing.
Verdict: A solid X-Men flick, but only if you forget all about the first three movies. 6/10