Let slip the dogs of war, and just cry, Havok
by Thom Yee
Sometimes I still can’t believe what a genius thing that early ‘90s X-Men cartoon wound up being. It’s not like it was all that good (in fact it was laughably bad on a regular basis) but it ended up being an unexpectedly strong introduction to many of the bigger, crazier concepts and tropes of superhero comicbooks, and for a generation of ‘90s kids (like me), it was the key gateway to all the time-bending, cosmos-spanning stories that comicbooks, and the X-Men especially, specialize in. In many ways it laid the foundation for the superhero movies we’ve, by and large, enjoyed in the 21st century. Plus, that theme song:
I kind of hate that old show, though. Y’know, not in an aggressive, proactive, leading-riots-against-it sort of way, but even watching it as a kid my sense of wonder at finally seeing comicbook characters and stories come to [cartoon] life was heavily tempered against just how bad that show really was. I don’t just mean in that everything-we-loved-as-kids-was-crap way, I’m talking about clearly horrible animation, outrageously terrible acting, and stories that were ultimately pale shadows of their better comicbook counterparts. In many ways, I feel the same way about the X-Men movies.
In truth, we superhero movie fans do owe a lot to the early X-Men movies (though they owe a lot to the unexpected success of the first Blade movie from 1998), but they’re still very much a product of their time as some of the first entries in the modern age of superhero movies, and even back then, years before the superhero movie renaissance we now live in, I could tell the producers of those early movies were being very careful not to throw moviegoers into the deep end of the superhero story pool. You can’t, after all, release something like Avengers: Age of Ultron — with a team full of wildly different superheroes with origins that range from World-War-II-era super-science to super-tech armour to Norse mythology fighting an artificial intelligence of their own creation — without first spending years setting a story like that up. Hell, you couldn’t even do that last year, fifteen years after the release of the first X-Men, and expect audiences to keep up. That’s not their fault, like I said, they’re products of their time, and at least those first two (of three) are still competently done pieces. But that doesn’t mean I have to like them (especially not The Last Stand). In fact, it’s not until 2011’s X-Men: First Class that the franchise was able to turn out anything close to a movie that went beyond the most basic elements of the original concept (while trampling all over [and I mean ALL OVER] the comicbook continuity), so it was actually kind of an anomaly that 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past turned out to be such a great (and well-received) movie. Now X-Men: Apocalypse is here to complete this second, so far, much stronger X-Men movie trilogy, and I’m here to tell you that it… well, it’s definitely a movie.
What’s it about?
It’s been ten years since Magneto (Michael Fassbender) nearly murdered the President of the United States on live television for his approval of the mutant-hunting Sentinel program. Though he was defeated by a group of mutants led by Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), a powerful telepath and a former ally of Magneto, and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), a shapeshifter and perhaps Magneto’s closest confidante, this highly public event exposed the existence of mutants to the public, and while the world has grown reluctantly accustomed to the presence of mutants in society, they are still far from accepted. Today (well, 1983, the time period in which this movie takes place), Professor Xavier teaches young mutants to use their power in peaceful ways, Mystique has become a symbol of mutant liberation, and Magneto has gone into hiding, but when Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), an ancient and powerful mutant, is revived from his centuries-long slumber and begins gathering mutants to cleanse the Earth of the weakness that is humanity, Professor X and Mystique must once again come together to defeat this seemingly all-powerful foe by assembling a new group of X-Men.
Though the X-Men ruled the comicbook landscape through most of the ‘90s and were the first Marvel superheroes to really gain mainstream movie success, today’s comicbook movies are dominated by Marvel Studios and its Avengers-related movies, a development that’s sort of forced the X-Men movies into the position of red-headed stepchild, particularly as they’re produced separate from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe by rival studio Fox. The success of today’s blockbuster superhero movies are often measured in billions of dollars rather than millions (Batman v Superman’s 871 million dollar total box office grosses are considered a failure in some circles), and where Marvel’s Iron Man 3 earned $1.2 billion in 2014, Avengers: Age of Ultron earned $1.4 billion in 2015, and this year’s Captain America: Civil War has, thus far, earned $1.1 billion, no X-Men movie has ever made more than $750 million. In fact, Deadpool, an X-Men movie offshoot, is actually the highest grossing movie in the entire franchise so far (and was, ironically, the least costly to produce).
While box office earnings are by no means an indication of a movie’s quality, they do tell you which franchises are healthy and likely to continue on an upward trajectory and which may soon find themselves undergoing heavy retooling. Just in terms of comicbook movie opening weekends from this past year, Deadpool opened to $132 million, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice opened to $166 million, and Captain America: Civil War opened to $179 million. X-Men: Apocalypse? $65 million. Oh, and just for the sake of comparison, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 — the movie that derailed Sony’s plans for its own Spider-Man franchise, causing its producers to go to Marvel Studios for creative help and allowing Spider-Man to officially become part of the MCU — opened to $91 million.
Is it any good?
If there’s one moment that’s stayed hard and bright and brilliant in my mind from Days of Future Past (X-Men: Apocalypse’s direct predecessor) it would be its opening title. Unlike most modern superhero movies, the X-Men movies have always made use of highly operatic opening sequences, and as cheesy and out of favour as those types of openings have become, in the case of Days of Future Past, it worked. After 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand almost destroyed the franchise both by being a bad movie and by critically damaging the long-term story potential of many of the central characters, it wasn’t until the soft reboot that was 2011’s X-Men: First Class that the series could be resuscitated, and so it was with 2014’s Days of Future Past, after many years and many disappointing previous installments, that the series would finally be able to move forward into the next stage of its cinematic life. Finally, that epic, sweeping music, that level of energy, majesty and drama, that bombastic theatricality felt earned, and what we got with Days of Future Past was not only the best X-Men movie, but one of the stronger superhero movies in general, one whose time-travelling plot would fully reboot the timeline and completely reset the table for better X-Men movies to follow.
With Days of Future Past, for the first time in an X-Men movie, it wasn’t just WOLVERINE and the X-Men, for the first time, we saw the harsh consequences that were possible if the X-Men failed, and for the first time, the characters felt real and their relationships had a real effect on the outcome of the story. The funny thing with X-Men: Apocalypse is that I can say all of the same things, but none of those same things added up to a good movie.
Ever since James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender emerged as the young Professor X and Magneto in X-Men: First Class, the relationship between the two characters has taken centre stage of the X-Men movie universe, but here in Apocalypse, it’s a relationship that’s somewhat sidelined by everything else going on, especially with Magneto’s new family providing surprisingly empty motivations. Though what happens with Magneto’s family makes sense as a motivating factor in a factual sense, I never once felt attached to his wife or daughter and I actually felt relief when the movie moved away from them because they were so boring and typical. Combined with how uninvolved Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Mystique felt in this movie as the character who’s supposed to be at the centre of the philosophical divide between Professor X and Magneto, and with how easily Magneto falls to the dark side with the [incredibly timely] arrival of Apocalypse, the primary emotion of these movies feels missing. It could have been a welcome relief from the norm of the X-Men movies’ Professor X v Magneto debate to see the two characters more concerned with a bigger threat for once, but Apocalypse still tries to keep this conflict at the centre of the movie while introducing an all-new villain, and the result is that neither story is served well.
Though the mechanism that introduces Apocalypse as a mutant who’s become immortal and all-powerful by transplanting his consciousness into the bodies of other mutants and adopting their powers is a break from the comicbook version of the character, but it’s actually sensible for a character whose powers are, basically, having all the powers, and there are some very cool (and occasionally chilling) displays of these powers. It’s interesting to think of immortal characters like Apocalypse being the inspiration for some of the mythic (and in this case Biblical) figures that have influenced our culture, and when Apocalypse first encounters Storm, it’s handled in such a way that it doesn’t seem odd that he would gain her as a follower. Storm (Alexandra Shipp), for her part, is also much stronger in this movie than she ever was as portrayed by Halle Berry.
Thankfully, all of the new X-Men cast members handle themselves well, and that’s especially good since they’ll probably be sticking around rather than becoming the pure cannon fodder that most of the First Class X-Men would become. Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) gets an acknowledgement of his origins that makes his slight jerkiness understandable and he’s set up with motivations that make it easy to believe that he would one day grow to be the X-Men’s most prominent leader, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is a little underwritten but is still much more interesting than she was as played by Famke Janssen in the originals, Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is reasonably endearing as highly kinetic teleporter of the group, and Evan Peters’ Quicksilver, at least as a character, is even better than he was in Days of Future Past. When he talks about Magneto as his father (Magneto being entirely unaware of their relationship), there’s a pathos that’s real but not overbearing and it still fits with the much-needed levity the character brings when he describes himself to the team as basically a loser who, ten years after Days of Future Past, still lives in his mom’s basement. For me as a comicbook fan, it’s just kind of nice to see this character who’s only ever been tangentially linked to the X-Men be embraced as a full member of the team. If anything, I think the superiority of some of this movie’s primary cast simply reflects an age very different from the early 2000s when serious actors would never take on these kinds of roles.
What both unites and distinguishes X-Men: Apocalypse and the latter-day X-Men movies with and against their earlier counterparts is a single line, “I feel a great swell of pity for the poor soul that comes to my school looking for trouble,” both times spoken by Professor X to Magneto, but this time said in a very different situation from the first, and for those for whom the line resonates, it represents an interesting evolution of the series where a lot has changed from the first time around. Unfortunately, unlike the first (First Class) and second (Days of Future Past) installments in this later 2010’s trilogy, X-Men: Apocalypse feels more like a regression than a continuing evolution, a movie much more at home with the X-Men movies of the 2000s than now. Where First Class celebrated the comicbook roots of the series with colourful outfits and outlandish technology, Apocalypse returns to the dark, generic costumes of the first X-Men, and once again, it introduces these elements without wonder, trading stirring introductions and open acknowledgements of the wonder of this world for a scene where the characters simply happen upon their costumes and their high-speed plane while in the course of running through a drab, boring government compound. And once again, instead of showing the extent of the X-Men’s abilities with action scenes that use their different powers in unique ways in that compound, they just let Wolverine loose and let him kill everyone.
Apocalypse himself could have been an interesting (though probably an inevitably one-note) villain, but his actions in the movie are slightly confusing, his plans reliant on strangely coincidental circumstances, and his world-threatening vision for the Earth is incredibly unimaginative. That’s not entirely unexpected, but this is Oscar Isaac, an actor who could make a fundamentally underdeveloped character like Poe Dameron a fan favourite and the man who gave us one of the most weirdly horrifying scenes of villainy in movie history:
Honestly, if no one told you he was being played by Oscar Isaac, you would never know, and that’s a huge waste.
In terms of action, the Quicksilver superspeed scene that was made so famous in Days of Future Past is done technically better here, but it misses the essential ingredient that made that scene so good the first time: Surprise. It’s a retread, and what’s worse is that, where it’s placed in the movie, it treads all over the emotionality of the scene it immediately follows. Here’s where we get into a bit of spoiler territory, something I usually like to avoid, but it’s one of the things that most bothered me with the movie.
In the process of saving Xavier’s students from the school’s explosion (something that happens all the time in the comics), Quicksilver fails to notice Havok, who was closest to the blast, and so he dies in the explosion. I’ll admit that I’ve always had an unusual attachment to your basic blaster characters like Havok and Cyclops, and I’ll even admit that Havok’s death provides strong motivation for Cyclops (Havok, in this continuity, is Cyclops’ older brother [he’s the younger brother in the comics]), but, for me, basically writing Havok out of the rest of these movies is a waste and the final nail in the coffin of the First Class, almost all of whom have now died. I actually spent a lot of Apocalypse dreading the inevitability of Havok’s eventual death, something I assumed was bound to happen if only because of the character’s near-total absence from the movie’s trailers.
It’s hard to walk out of X-Men: Apocalypse without having some serious, serious problems with what some of these characters end up doing or not doing . Magneto ends up killing a lot of people in this movie and he’s never called on it, and it’s a turn for the character that feels highly irresponsible. Magneto’s killed people in the past, but most of them have been incredibly guilty people, many of them war criminals, and it used to be the kind of thing Professor X would have a big problem with. Remember this?
In his quest for vengeance in X-Men: Apocalypse, Magneto kills quite a few largely innocent people, and though he eventually sees the light and renounces his anti-human tirade, that’s not bringing those people back, and neither Professor X, nor Mystique, nor society at large ever brings him to task for it. There’s also a painful lack of growth for Beast (Nicholas Hoult) in this movie (and really the whole series). Of the surviving First Class X-Men he’s easily been one of the most overlooked, but what really bugged me in Apocalypse is the point when Cyclops thanks Beast for developing the glasses that give him a degree of control over his optic blasts, calling him professor and Beast assures him that he’s not a professor. It was that one moment that reminded me that Beast, the brilliant Hank McCoy, once young and now in his thirties, never made himself into anything over the last ten and twenty years between movies, skulking around the school, with no major accreditation or achievements, no prestigious position in the school, still romantically pining over Mystique, who’s long since moved on from him. Like I said, he’s been overlooked in these movies and is far from my favourite character, but this lack of development points to a lack of thought put into who these characters are.
The one character most affected by the rise of Apocalypse in the comics is Angel, but in the movie he’s just a largely silent Horseman who doesn’t do much and isn’t fundamentally affected by what he goes through. I know this isn’t Angel’s movie but the way he’s used is indicative of and a reminder of how little the producers of these movies ignore these characters’ backstories in favour of haphazardly using them for whatever story the movie is trying to tell. The same can be said of Psylocke, a character in the movie who’s probably most notable for not really doing anything outside of the final fight. Neither Angel nor Psylocke is changed by their experiences, they’re not even developed and only barely acknowledged, and it really bothers me when these characters have such minimal impact and are so minimally impacted. Every character is somebody’s favourite, and if you’re not going to use them right or do much of anything with them then why even bother using them? The movie takes on too many characters and eventually it becomes more concerned with how to write them out because it has no idea what to do with them. I mean, they went to the point of casting Jubilee and featuring her in the viral marketing, but they skip right over the mall scene that could’ve been the whole point of the character.
So should I see it?
Right now when we talk about superhero movies, we’re really talking about two different things: Marvel Studios’ movies and everything else. Under Fox, the original X-Men movies weren’t great (and the third was a scorched-Earth mess), but they get a pass because they were some of the first of their kind. With X-Men: Apocalypse, though, it feels like Fox and its producers have learned nothing from all of the great superhero movies we’ve had since those early days, including two of their own in First Class and Days of Future Past. We live in a post-Avengers world, but in X-Men: Apocalypse, the action scenes aren’t as exciting or as well choreographed as the Marvel Studios movies, the characters aren’t as well realized or as true to the comics as the Marvel Studios movies, and the producers just aren’t as careful with and don’t seem as respectful of the source material as in the Marvel Studios movies.
I’ve complained a lot about this movie (way more than I had originally planned to) on a point-by-point basis, but most of those points could be ignored or at least somewhat forgiven if Apocalypse at least felt like it was trying to be good, but ultimately it just doesn’t feel that way. I can’t tell you that X-Men: Apocalypse is an outright bad movie, just like I can’t tell you that there are no parts of it that you’ll enjoy or that it’s shockingly bad in any significant way. I don’t hate it, I enjoyed some very significant parts of it, and you might even wind up loving it. What I can tell you is that there’s a lot to complain about and a lot of wasted opportunities, and what I will definitely tell you that it is not the sequel that Days of Future Past promised us.
Thom’s X-Men: Apocalypse final score
On the Edge
- So if Scott is a teenager in the ‘80s and Alex was a teenager in the ‘60s, that means their parents decided to have them twenty-or-so years apart? And we’re just supposed to ignore that?
- Even with the power to control the weather, Storm was a pretty sh*tty thief.
- I hope they eventually explain Nightcrawler’s “Thriller” jacket in the deleted scenes.
- I never really thought about it until now, but as cool as metal wings look, they don’t seem like they’d be very good for flying.
- Wonder if the mutant-power-cancelling tech they used on the X-Men in that military bunker would have worked on Apocalypse.
- Deadpool is now a young man in the present day when he was a young man in the ‘80s in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Angel was a teenager in the 2000s in The Last Stand and now he’s a teenager in the ‘80s as of Apocalypse. Going back and changing the timeline in Days of Future Past shouldn’t have changed when people were born.
- So I guess Darwin’s never coming back. I really thought there was a chance that his “adapt to survive” power would eventually allow him to… y’know, survive… and show back up again.
You Might Also Like…