Bryan Singer and Fox had a lot to live up to after the success that was X-Men: Days of Future Past (DOFP), which still stands as the best X-Men team-up movie to this day (as far as X-Men movies in general go, Deadpool takes that prize). Their answer to that movie’s success was this year’s X-Men: Apocalypse.
Warning: This article contains SPOILERS.
[pullquote]Leaving the theatre after having viewed X-Men: Apocalypse, however, I couldn’t have been be more surprised by how pleasantly good it was. It’s not “Days of Future Past” great, but definitely not “The Last Stand” bad.[/pullquote]
I think Singer and co knew that it was going to be difficult to beat what DOFP had done. It had the benefit of combining the First Class reboot/prequel cast with the cast of the original trilogy, who made their last appearance in the franchise eight years prior in 2006’s The Last Stand. It also had their franchise darling, Wolverine, front and center. It had great word of mouth, everyone was, and still is, raving about Quicksilver’s “Time in a Bottle” sequence, it was personal, well-acted and most importantly; it was thoroughly enjoyable. So it comes as no surprise that Apocalypse is facing an uphill battle with critics, who is branding it as the “worst X-Men movie since X-Men Origins: Wolverine”. As Jean Grey says to Scott, Jubilee and Nightcrawler as they exit the theatre after having viewed Return of the Jedi, “At least we know the third movie is always the worst.” This is basically Singer saying: “If this isn’t Empire Strikes Back, at least we tried.” It is also a cute nod to their very own mishap with The Last Stand.
I usually have low expectations for superhero movies when the reviews aren’t going as great as I would have wanted them to go. It prepares me for the worst and lessens the heartbreak by a mile, although not even a 0% score could have prepared me for last year’s Fantastic Four reboot. X-Men: Apocalypse’s Rotten Tomato score stood at 52% at my time of viewing, so my X-pectations (eh) were rather low going in. The problem is that when I left the theatre after Fantastic Four or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, I quietly accepted that the review score was accurate, went home and cried myself to sleep. Leaving the theatre after having viewed X-Men: Apocalypse, however, I couldn’t have been more surprised by how pleasantly good it was. It’s not “Days of Future Past” great, but definitely not “The Last Stand” bad.
So why is it having such a difficult time with the critics? The answer is simple: Nitpicking. It is true that it could have been better and more linear and focused like its predecessor but just because it isn’t, doesn’t make it a bad movie. It is true that there are flawed plot elements, wasted opportunities, and some shallow characterizations, but there is also greatness and hope (I’m trying out my Xavier persona). For a franchise that’s so deep into sequels, this trilogy-closer could have been far worse. I did not read any negative reviews prior to writing this article because I really wanted to break this down in an unbiased, deeply personal way. I love the X-Men franchise and I only have high hopes for it, but for the purpose of this article I have to break out my inner critic. Below is my list of everything I had a problem with in the movie and why it can and should be forgiven for the sake of upping X-Men: Apocalypse’s Rotten Tomatoes score.
- Magneto’s Arc
The nitpick: Magneto has had a deeply emotional arc in these movies. The very start of the trilogy showcases his time as a child in Auschwitz, forced to watch his mother being killed to unlock his mutant powers and then experimented on. Throughout First Class, he was portrayed as a broken individual who has had terrible things done to him. He steps into his villain shoes more in DOFP, but even then his character has a clear driving force. He seeks to avenge his fallen brothers and sister mutants. Say what you want about Magneto, but he has always been more of a tragic villain than a straight up “kill everyone” villain. It is for this reason that I felt it was unnecessary to add even more tragedy to the character. In the movie, we see Magneto lose his wife and daughter (!) after revealing his mutant powers to save a coworker. The town’s local police descend upon his house and his wife and daughter get killed in the crossfire. Magneto has had a wonderful arc and it would have been nice to see him happy for a change, but the movie needed to give him push back into his villainy ways in order for his allegiance to Apocalypse to make sense. After this, he becomes somewhat of a henchman for Apocalypse. A villain who was once a tragic individual with an innate driving force is turned into a disciple who takes orders from a mutant who wants to kill not only humans but mutants as well. Protecting mutants were his thing in all of the previous movies so it kind of took the punch out of what made the character relatable. I felt sorry for him in the first two movies and didn’t need to feel even sorrier for him in this one.
Why it’s okay: Michael Fassbender. Except for Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, the castings in these movies has been perfect and Fassbender as Magneto is no exception. He portrays Magneto as a hero and a villain at the same time. His portrayal is heavy with pain and guilt. There is always a sense of sadness and tyranny in his voice and he showcases the different layers of Magneto in every scene he is in. In X-Men: Apocalypse, he delivers that performance and then some. The scene where he holds his wife and daughter after their deaths is one of the most heartbreaking, gut punching scenes in any superhero movie ever. Also, the same thing has happened to Magneto in the comics. He’s lost his family which leads him to go on the usual revenge spree. So the movie should get points for drawing inspiration from the comics. Most importantly, as much as I want Magneto to be a hero, he is a villain first and foremost and seeing him come so close to causing global Galactus-sized destruction does give me the geek-tingles. Even though he becomes a mindless follower of Apocalypse, he still has a depth to him that sets him apart from the other Horseman and he showcases his megalomaniacal personality in full. It is important to remember that although this is the last film in the trilogy, these characters will continue into the next trilogy so we are not done with Fassbender’s Magneto yet. I am excited to see where the character goes after this and whether Xavier and Magneto’s relationship will end up as it has in DOFP, where they agree that all their bickering was a complete waste of time.
- No Wolverine
[pullquote]Wolverine has a small cameo in the movie and it is absolutely glorious.[/pullquote]
The nitpick: I was okay with the movie giving the other X-Men a chance to shine and giving the audiences a chance to come to terms with the fact that Hugh Jackman’s time as our favorite mutant is almost up by having an almost Wolverine-less plot. Wolverine has been featured prominently in every X-Men movie thus far (except for First Class) and I wasn’t sure what the result would be without the charm, intensity and humor that Hugh Jackman always praises these movies with. What I wasn’t okay with was that the marketing and trailers made it look like they wanted to make Mystique the new Wolverine. Jennifer Lawrence’s shapeshifter has been featured front and center in almost all the trailers and banners. Mystique makes a much better villain, an okay X-Men but she would be horrible in the leadership role. I’m not saying she’s a bad leader, I’m just saying that she doesn’t belong in Wolverine’s shoes from a comic-accurate point of view.
Why it’s okay: Weapon X!! Wolverine has a small cameo in the movie and it is absolutely glorious. It features him in his Weapon X garb and full berserker rage mode. His scene in this movie is maybe the best Wolverine action sequence ever put to film and it delivers a better origin story than the entire X-Men Origins: Wolverine. His absence throughout the rest of the movie was hardly noticeable. The new cast held their own perfectly without him thanks to the great acting talent and a fast moving plot. As far as Mystique goes, I was surprised by how little she actually featured in the movie. She is given a semi-leadership position, but only towards the end of the film and her arc that brings her to this position feels natural where it could have felt forced. She is not given the spotlight as I had previously thought. Instead, every X-Men is given equal time to showcase their strengths, leadership, and Wolverine-isms. Even Cyclops, who has been a rather dull presence in the previous films, is given more to do here than Mystique.
[pullquote]Seeing Apocalypse bring the, ahem, Apocalypse, is truly mesmerizing if you ignore the fact that we’ve seen it countless times before.
The nitpick: Most critics agree that Apocalypse has been somewhat of a letdown in comparison to previous X-Men villains such as Magneto and William Stryker. With them, the fight has always been a personal one and Apocalypse just kind of removes the weight of the conflict between these characters. Most people also agree that his masterplan is rather cliché at this point. We have seen the whole “it’s time to reformat and reboot the Earth” plan multiple times before at this point and Apocalypse doesn’t add anything new to it. Also, most of his screen time is spent finding and selecting his Horseman and supplying them with new outfits, because you know, those Horsemen need to look bitching. There is also a number of plot holes in his eventual attempt to destroy humanity, like why he didn’t just do it himself instead of asking Magneto to do it or why he had to transfer his consciousness to Xavier at the exact same time as when Magneto begins the destruction process. Couldn’t he have done it earlier?
Why it’s okay: It really isn’t the movie’s fault for feeling clichéd at this point. One fantastic article I read pointed out that Apocalypse came out 10 years too late. Back then, audiences weren’t used to movies being able to showcase world ending catastrophes with reliable CGI. Filmmakers were forced to keep the climax of a superhero movie grounded because of the technological limits of the time. Since The Avengers came out in 2012, there has been no limit to what can be accomplished in these films and Apocalypse is no exception. Seeing Apocalypse bring the, ahem, Apocalypse, is truly mesmerizing if you ignore the fact that we’ve seen it countless times before. I would also be remiss not to mention what Oscar Isaac brings to the table as the titular villain. There have been too many complaints about Apocalypse’s look, size, color, and voice. Basically, fanboys are always going to fan. While I would have enjoyed a more comic book accurate Apocalypse, Oscar Isaac brings a certain menace to the character that sets him apart from his comic book counterpart. He doesn’t need size or brute strength to be a force to be reckoned with. His voice is also different in the film than from what we have heard in the trailers. He finishes his sentences with a demonic shout, adequately sending shivers throughout the theatre and rendering anyone opposing him wishing they wore their brown pants. He holds his own against the likes of James McAvoy’s Xavier and Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique, who has had three movies to really grow into their roles. There is always a sense of foreboding in his eyes and even after his twelfth tyrannical speech he still manages to add something extra every time, which effectively makes him feel less repetitive and more sinister. It is also refreshing to see a big bad that is practical for a change as opposed to all CGI such as Ultron or Doomsday.
- Blunt secondary characters
The Nitpick: Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean ALL the characters. Franchise veterans such as Beast, Cyclops, Jean, Nightcrawler and Quicksilver all get their time to shine. Newly introduced characters such as Psylocke, Archangel, Jubilee and even Storm, however, are given far less to do here and basically serve as marketing material and representations of what’s to come in further installments. Psylocke is rather one note and literally just walks out of the story without further mention. Archangel only serves as a foil for Beast in the big climactic battle and Storm, while far more interesting than Halle Berry’s take on the character, leaves audiences wanting more out of the character. The four horsemen have been featured strongly in the promotional material but they do not feature as strongly as the posters would have let audiences to believe.
Why it’s okay: This movie has a huge arsenal of characters. It is nearly impossible to give everyone enough screen time without having to sacrifice a few lines of dialogue and key origin sequences such as how Storm suddenly has a change of heart or what drives Psylocke to turn to villainy the way she does. The movie also does a far better job than previous X-Men films showcasing the various characters and their abilities. We all remember Ben Foster’s Angel from The Last Stand, who was also heavily featured in all the promotional material and even wearing his X-Man uniform but spends about 2 minutes in the movie literally flying in and out of a scene. Even though not all the characters get their due this time around, they do leave the audiences excited to see more of them. The youthfulness and colorfulness of Storm, Angel and Psylocke adds vibrancy to the screen and they deserve to be accepted by audiences for being the visual pleasures which they are.
- The Costumes
The Nitpick: Now I have always had a problem with the X-Men uniforms in these movies. They are rarely comic book accurate and while that can be forgiven, there is no excuse for removing the colorfulness that sets the X-Men apart from other heroes and injecting them with an all-black façade. It also didn’t make sense why Mystique would don an armored outfit seeing as that would render her shape-shifting powers useless.
Why it’s okay: The X-Men actually get their comic book accurate outfits at the end of this movie. Cyclops has his trademark yellow lining on his suite and a visor that doesn’t look like a prop from the Robocop set. Nightcrawler is blessed with his classic red triangular shaped torso piece and Mystique is supplied with her trademark white top. The black armored suits actually make sense plot-wise and is only really featured during the climax battle. What is even better is that the villains showcase their colorful costumes throughout the movie. Psylocke could have easily stepped right out of a page of the comic book and Quicksilver, although in pedestrian clothes for much of the movie, rocks the 80’s look with his now trademark silver leather jacket and a Rush T-shirt. As far as visuals go, throw in the Weapon X outfit for Wolverine, a bald Xavier and Jean’s Phoenix powers and you have the most comic book accurate X-Men movie thus far.
- Out of time
The Nitpick: X-Men: First Class and Days of Future Past has done a wonderful job of incorporating the timely events of the decade in which it plays out into their plots. First Class dealt with the Cuban Missile Crisis while DOFP incorporated the Kennedy Assassination and then president Richard Nixon into its plot. It also featured other elements that set the 60’s and 70’s apart. In First Class, the technology genuinely feels dated. The outfits are groovy and the dialogue is full of phrases that could have only be heard during the sixties. In DOFP, there is A LOT of button pushing, dial turning and the seventies equivalent of online hacking, frequency meddling. It features dated cars, television spots and the truly effective cuts to 8mm footage during scenes where the press is present. X-Men: Apocalypse features none of those. Much of the scenes are spent isolated from the real world, so we only get to see the Xavier mansion filled with students wearing eighties garb and the various set pieces that are either indoors, in cities not bothered by popular culture or CGI wastelands. There is also no incorporation of real world issues as in the previous films. The technology has advanced significantly since the last X-Men film. The X-Men’s Jet now looks the same as it did in the original X-Men film, Cerebro looks more advanced than ever before and the suits look like they could have been 3D printed. Unlike the previous two films, this one could have been set in any decade and no one would have noticed.
Why it’s okay: One word: Eurythmics. As soon as Quicksilver’s Nikes appears in the frame and he calmly continues to adjust his Walkman headphones while “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” by the Eurythmics are playing, I forgave the film for everything else. It is the best song to accompany the sequence (more on that later) and also thrusts eighties nostalgia down your throat. Even though the real world events of the eighties aren’t featured or they didn’t make use of other visual cues to let the audience know that the film takes place in the decade of innocence lost, there are still tidbits that remind you that these characters are about 50 years old by now. Elements such as Jubilee’s costume, the props in Quicksilver’s mom’s basement, having the students go to the screening of Return of the Jedi, the music and lack of all things the internet and mobile devices does give the movie a dated feel that should evoke even the smallest bit of nostalgia in anyone old enough to remember the Rock of Ages.
- The Plot
[pullquote]The biggest apparent flaw, here, is the Quicksilver scene that presumably comes out of nowhere.[/pullquote]
The Nitpick: Now this one wasn’t a big problem for me, personally. I just felt that I needed to include it as this is the one that all the critics are going after. The general consensus is that the plot is less linear than its predecessor and that it is uneven in tone. As I said before, it was always going to be an uphill battle against the greatness that was Days of Future Past. But you need to ask yourself the question, was there really any other way to do it? This movie does some major fan service. It introduces beloved characters, includes awesome cameos, sets up future plotlines which everyone wants to see and had the impossible mission of setting up the biggest villain in the entire X-Men universe while progressing the personal stories of Xavier, Magneto and all the other X-Men who gets their new start in this movie. It’s a rare feat to balance so many things at once and the only other films to do it entirely effectively is The Avengers and Captain America: Civil War. It is necessary for a plot that focuses on global consequences to jumping around. I never felt strained or struggled to invest in the plot, which is more than can be said for Batman v Superman. I could follow the story with ease and I was invested in every scene. Another complaint about the film is its uneven tone. The biggest apparent flaw, here, is the Quicksilver scene that presumably comes out of nowhere. It is preceded by a very emotional set piece and is followed by an extremely emotional second act. Here is the thing: Leave Quicksilver’s scenes alone! It could have been placed between two scenes depicting the Third Reich and an ISIS video and I couldn’t have cared less. The “Time in a Bottle” sequence from DOFP is the best X-Men related scene of the decade and this one only improves everything that made the first one great. If it was inserted just for the sake of fan service, you may consider me serviced. The ‘Sweet Dreams” sequence did not remove the emotional punch that preceded it. It only gave it some much-needed levity and we can all just be grateful that it exists.
That’s about it. There is really no lack of things that make X-Men: Apocalypse good. Its review score currently stands at 49% over at Rotten Tomatoes. X-Men Origins: Wolverine currently sits on 38%, The Last Stand on 58%, 2013’s The Wolverine on 70% and Days of Future Past takes the top spot with a tremendous 91%. So saying that X-Men: Apocalypse is the worst X-Men film since The Last Stand couldn’t be further from the truth. The RT score proves that Origins is far worse and I will personally never understand how The Wolverine managed 70% as it is by far the most forgettable X-Men movie ever released. Days of Future Past’s 91% ranks higher than even the best of superhero movies. Now I’m not saying that an RT score demonstrates the quality of a movie accurately. There have been many occasions where I couldn’t have disagreed more with a RT score. It also does not mean that DOFP is the best superhero movie ever. It merely states whether critics found more things wrong with a film or more things right. If X-Men: Apocalypse lands on 49% it would mean that it is 1% more than The Last Stand. Two things: There is no way that this film is as bad as The Last Stand and there is no way that it is 49% good and 51% bad. I get it that this is all just my opinion, but it has never been clearer that a film is suffering from bad reviews solely based on the fact that it was unfortunate enough to compete against a very strong predecessor and against a time in which there is no lack of other great superhero films. The one thing that X-Men: Apocalypse has in common with DOFP is also the most important: It is thoroughly enjoyable. No one ever says Return of the Jedi is the worst of the original trilogy. They merely say that Empire Strikes Back is the best. That should not and will not affect how people feel about Return of the Jedi. Let’s keep that in mind when discussing this film in 20 years.
X-Men: Apocalypse isn’t the worst film in the new trilogy. Days of Future Past is merely the best. And that’s okay.