“You don’t have to be an X-Men fan to like it, but it helps.”
The above adage perfectly describes the first few X-Men films. While nominally aimed at comic book enthusiasts, the franchise wisely dispensed with dense backstories, superfluous characters and silly costumes in favour of the bare, leather-clad essentials. They were deliberately accessible to the mainstream and all the better for it.
Fast-forward to X-Men: Apocalypse and things have changed. Now, it’s: “If you’re not a diehard X-Men fan, GTFO!”
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
When it comes to sprawling super hero franchises such as X-Men, most people tend to dip in and out. They’ve seen most of the origin movies, maybe one or two of the sequels and all of the tent-pole team-ups. But much like Wolverine, there are plenty of gaps in their knowledge.
A super hero movie’s strength lies in its ability to win over these casual viewers. There needs to be a satisfying. standalone movie within a larger multi-part saga. The Avengers did this amazingly. So did Guardians Of The Galaxy and The Dark Knight. X-Men: Apocalypse... Not so much.
Even if you’ve seen all of the previous X-Men movies, Apocalypse is a tough flick to wrap your head around. There are simply too many second-tier characters, carried-over plot threads and half-remembered flashbacks to tell a cohesive story. This is particularly evident in the first act which seesaws wildly between plots and continents as the many (too many) protagonists embark on disconnected quests and errands. It’s like watching three movies in one; and not in a good way.
Things begin to settle down once the good guys converge -- but your enjoyment will mainly come down to your level of fandom. Are you excited by the prospect of watching teenage Scott Sommers trade verbal barbs with classmate Jean Gray? Or Beast versus Psylocke versus Quicksilver versus Storm? Or Professor Xavier losing his hair? If none of this means anything to you, the movie will likely leave you cold. For everyone else, it’s still a sprawling, unsatisfying movie, but peppered with fan service to make you crack a half-smile.
So what’s it all about? We’ll try our best to break down the plot without going into major spoilers. The film takes place around 10 years after the events depicted in Days of Future Past: Professor Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters is up and running, Mystique has become a mutant-rescuing vigilante and Magneto is living incognito as a Polish metal worker (incidentally, these latter moments are probably the best section of the movie). Oh and there’s also Rose Byrne doing her CIA thing and a bunch of new mutants doing mutanty stuff.
But before all this, we’re treated to a grandiose, CGI-laden prologue set in ancient Egypt. It turns out that mutants have always living been among us and were responsible for building the pyramids. Or something.
It’s here that we first meet the aptly named Apocalypse; a mutant-cum-Egyptian god hell-bent on world domination. Luckily, things don’t go according to plan and he ends up getting buried alive for 6000 years. His inevitable resurrection from the rubble triggers the events in the movie and it’s up to Xavier’s ragtag bunch of mutants to stop him.
We should point out that Apocalypse is a hilariously goofy villain. He reminded me of the brother from Everybody Loves Raymond with clown makeup slapped on his face. It’s obvious they were going for something different, but his dour, sleepwalking performance isn’t particularly menacing.
"Another gift for Raymond!"
His trio of new henchmen – including future X-Men member Storm/Ororo Munroe – suffer from the opposite problem: they’re way too colourful and outlandish to take seriously. They all look like Skeletor’s B-team henchmen from He-Man: Masters Of The Universe.
This would normally be fine for a comic book movie, but X-Men: Apocalypse frequently seeks to be portentous. For example, there’s a scene where these ultra-cartoony, lycra-clad villains are hanging out in the ruins of Auschwitz. This is all kinds of wrong.
X-Men: Apocalypse also borrows too heavily from its superior predecessors. There’s another scene of Magneto denouncing humanity in the face of a personal tragedy, another power play from the mutant-hating Colonel Stryker, another Quicksilver slow-mo pop music sequence, another unexpected attack on the Xavier Institute and another cameo from a certain Weapon X.
Hell, they even trot out that flashback of kid-Magneto tussling with Nazis while bending gates again. By our count, this scene has now appeared in the X-Men movies four times.
There’s arguably nothing wrong with delivering more of what audiences want – after all, it works for James Bond, Fast & Furious and The Avengers. With that said, you have to give us something fresh. This just feels like the same movie as its direct predecessor but with more CGI. Ironically given its subject matter, the X-Men franchise has refused to evolve.
X-Men Apocalypse is in theaters nationally from today.