The previous X-films have established that Bryan Singer doesn’t particularly care for the X-Men as comic book characters; over the course of his films he has misused, underutilized or bizarrely mutilated characters and storylines from the comics. But with X-Men: Apocalypse Singer proves he doesn’t even care for the other X-Men movies, as evidenced by his shockingly cavalier attitude towards the most basic continuity with the last film… which he directed!
At the end of the last movie we left Mystique standing mutant and proud… and yet here she is once again hiding her true form at every opportunity. And at the end of the last film we saw Wolverine being picked up by Stryker, the guy who originally made him feral, took away his memories and gave him adamantium on his bones. Except - and this was major - it was Mystique pretending to be Stryker! The timeline had been changed… until it turns out in Apocalypse that Wolverine is, in fact, captured by Stryker. How does a filmmaker forget a detail like that from his own previous film? It isn’t even like Singer was directing a Jack and the Beanstalk sequel between these movies!
It’s quite clear that Singer just doesn’t give a shit. Never before has that been as evident as it is in Apocalypse where, amid the big action and the more colorful costumes and weirder characters (all clearly trying to ape the success of the Marvel movies), the story flounders, the character arcs are flat and the stakes get raised to ridiculous, civilization-destroying levels and then are ignored. It isn’t that X-Men: Apocalypse is a bad adaptation of the X-Men comics or that it’s a bad X-Men movie sequel, it’s just a bad movie altogether.
There is essentially no story in this film - it’s just a premise, played out straight. Apocalypse, an ancient mutant with an unlimited and undefined power set, is awakened in the modern world after a pre-credits sequence that looks like it comes from a Stephen Sommers movie. In the modern world Apocalypse decides to destroy humanity (because why not, a villain has to have an incoherent scheme) and then spends about 90 minutes gathering powerful mutants (and also Angel) to be his Four Horsemen. Meanwhile, the X-Men putz around and then they have a fight with Apocalypse and the movie ends.
You might think I’m kidding, but I’m not. There’s a small diversion when some of the X-Men (just the characters Bryan Singer cares about) get kidnapped by Stryker in order to work a Wolverine cameo into the movie, but the “story” is otherwise a straight line. Professor X and friends get all of Apocalypse’s history info dumped on them very early, and so there’s no discovery, no sense of learning what is happening. There’s a lot of wheel spinning for sure - the entire Weapon X sequence is a massive waste of time - but there’s no point to any of it. It’s all filling time.
Within that straight line “story” (again, if you consider ‘bad guy wants to destroy the world, good guys fight him so he can’t’ an actual story) there are no themes. Nothing has a larger meaning, despite lots of lines about false gods and other stuff. Further, almost none of the characters have arcs. Nobody learns anything, nobody walks out the other side of the movie all that changed from where they started at the beginning. Some characters may now live in the X-Mansion, some may be dead (trust me, you won’t care about those who died), Professor X may be bald (in the most dramatic enbaldening ever seen on screen) but everybody else is pretty much where they started, having moved nowhere as people. Even Magneto, who by the end of the film is guilty of global destruction on an unprecedented scale, just walks off happy when it's all finished.
Apocalypse is, for reasons no one will ever be able to articulate, set ten years after the last one, which was set ten years after the one before that. Which means that there are characters in this movie who are twenty years older than in the first one but barely look any older at all. Lucas Till’s Havok is probably about 40 in this film, but the actor barely even looks his real life 25. The ten year gaps have no bearing on story - Quicksilver is still in the exact same place we left him in the last movie, and there seems to have been no mutant action in the preceding decade. The only reason this movie is set in 1983 is for a handful of music cues, a couple of outfits (I think Jubilee’s outfit is anachronistic, but whatever) and a joke about Return of the Jedi not being that good (which is a helluva thing for a movie as bad as this to say). I would actually say that the ten year gaps drain urgency from the franchise - this is a world where the X-Men mostly just hang out and do their own thing, having zero adventures. What a fun concept!
Again, if Singer were using the 80s for any good reason - whether it be visually or thematically, somehow tying the story into the Cold War - I would give it a pass. But there’s no reason at all, and the movie doesn’t even read as the 80s on screen most of the time. Of course that’s because the movie reads as ‘weightless green screen garbage’ most of the time; I am sure that this film cost a ton of money and yet it looks so cheap and ugly that I assume most of that cash was used for the big Quicksilver sequence which contains the four minutes of this two and a half hour film that people will use in a futile attempt to claim it’s good. Outside of that scene it’s all drab, shitty FX (most of which are particle/sand FX that would have wowed us in 2002) or egregiously bad background replacements.
Maybe the green screen explains why the camera work is so bad. Singer is back with longtime DP Newton Thomas Sigel, and they have once again created a bland and indifferent look for their movie, but this time Singer has upped the ante by seemingly placing the camera in a random spot for every shot. Maybe he thought he would rearrange the frame in post? Maybe he just wanted to get to lunch? Whatever the reasoning, Apocalypse is full of shots that have no meaning or weight and that tell no story at all. They’re just establishing shots half the time. When a decent shot kicks in it’s an FX shot, which probably means a pre-viz guy somewhere down the pipeline blocked it.
But you know what? A movie isn’t just the story and the cinematography - it’s also the alchemy of the actors, the magic and passion they bring to the screen. In the case of X-Men: Apocalypse the assembled cast of excellent thespians brings the burning hot energy of embarrassment felt by a kid whose mom walked in on him masturbating. It’s a movie where everyone on screen is clearly ashamed of what they’re doing, and with good reason.
No one takes it worse than Oscar Isaac. He’s only human for about ten seconds, and he spends the entire movie in one of the worst make-up jobs I have ever seen in a major motion picture. The design is ugly but the execution is even worse; in a year where The Vision manages to be both unearthly and yet human why does Apocalypse look this ridiculous? Beneath that make-up Isaac is giving the performance of Tommy Wiseau’s life. There’s a scene where, after Apocalpse is awoken from his millennia-long slumber, he puts his hand on a TV. “What are you doing?” Storm asks him, and he hisses, long and slow, “Leaaaaarrrrrnnnnnnnning” and at that point I was like, oh we are FUCKED. This is one of the best actors of his generation and he’s been shoved into some kind of sub-Dick Tracy cartoon villain role. This is a guy whose performance in Inside Llewyn Davis is a high water mark for the craft of acting, and here he is mugging through six layers of blue latex. This is a travesty.
Also blue and giving a toxic performance: Jennifer Lawrence. Mystique has no reason to be in this film (honestly, she has just about nothing to do in the movie) and you can tell Lawrence knows it. She’s sleepwalking through the role, and you can tell that her eyes in any given scene are always pointed at craft services. She knows there’s a cup of tea or a snack waiting for her if she can just power through the next poorly written, incompetently blocked scene. Every now and again there is life in her eyes, and you realize that her phone buzzed in her pocket alerting her that her paycheck has been deposited.
If Lawrence is sleep walking Sophie Turner, playing young Jean Gray, is the walking dead. Never before has an actress whose skill I have seen employed in the past give as empty a performance as Turner does here. She’s a good actor! It’s frustrating to see these actors who can do the work being given direction and scripts that sap everything from them. Opposite her is Tye Sheridan as Cyclops, a character that Bryan Singer has hated from the beginning. Cyke fares no better here than in previous films, and neither does Sheridan, who is given absolutely nothing to do except take off his sunglasses and grimace a few times. Even a quick trip to the mall, which seemed to presage the start of a “Cyclops becoming a leader” arc fizzles out and the character, like everyone who isn’t Mystique, Professor X, Magneto, Quicksilver and Apocalypse, gets totally sidelined.
James McAvoy, bless his little heart, does his best. He has a lot of scenes where his eyes - always so wet he looks like he’s on the verge of crying - have to stare into a psychic distance while he grits his teeth and hisses some shitty dialogue. He really throws himself into it here, and if Professor X’s arc is a total fucking embarrassment (his story is about how he comes to realize wiping Moira McTaggart’s memories in First Class was a mistake, but nobody actually cares about his mind rape and they all just laugh about it at the end), at least McAvoy is giving it his all. And Michael Fassbender is congenitally unable to deliver a bad performance. Even when he’s hanging on poorly rigged wires in front of a green screen (seriously, he just sags in a weird way during his flying scenes), Fassbender is bringing the goods. Even when he has to CGI destroy Auschwitz while standing next to Olivia Munn in a very revealing bikini, he’s doing real acting.
Olivia Munn, by the way, may not have been aware that the camera was rolling in any of her scenes.
I would talk about the rest of the actors, but so few of them have anything to do or any scenes of note that I’ve already forgotten they’re in the film. Once again Singer jams his movie full of characters he cannot service; in the wake of Captain America: Civil War, where a dozen characters all had arcs and moments, his inability to juggle his cast rankles all the more. This is his fourth X-movie - by this point he should be able to do this better. And it’s worth noting, by the way, that he did a better job of handling an ensemble 21 fucking years ago in The Usual Suspects. What happened to the guy who directed that movie?
All of this could sound like Apocalypse, with its over-the-top blue villain and terrible performances all around, is a hoot. It isn’t. The first hour and a half of the movie is Apocalypse traveling the globe via Boom Tube giving mutants new costumes and tattoos, and there’s just no suspense or forward momentum. I was stunned by how BORING the movie is. And then, when we get to the big final battle, it’s all boring again. The shoddy FX work certainly hurts, but Singer also cannot create a good ebb and flow in his fight. It’s a bummer that this has to follow Civil War because the airport fight set such a gold standard for how big brawls should work.
How bad is the final fight? The Four Horsemen are barely utilized in it (and if anyone can tell me why in this movie Apocalypse even needs Four Horsemen - or even just why he needs Angel, specifically - I’m all ears). There’s no sense of geography. The final battle is just everybody pouring energy powers on a CGI Oscar Isaac. A character who can fly is killed in a plane crash. Mystique spends half the fight leaning against a wall, watching. It’s paced like an assembly edit, as if Singer thought someone else was going to come in and trim it down into something thrilling and fun. None of the FX have any weight, so characters just float around the screen like they’re in a video game where the gravity has been turned off. And the film’s stakes are so broadly cartoonish that they have no meaning, rendering the whole battle kinda perfunctory.
To say I hated X-Men: Apocalypse would be only hinting at my level of disdain for this movie, disdain that truly bubbled over in the post-credits sequence where I involuntarily exclaimed “OH GO FUCK YOURSELF” at the screen. This franchise has always been varying degrees of bad, with only X-Men: First Class being any sort of bright spot (and I know many of you will disagree, but eventually the scales will fall from your eyes and you will see X2 as the slog it truly is), but Apocalypse is perhaps the nadir of it all. It’s the splashiest and the most comic book-y, but it approaches those elements like 90s movies did, with a real air of shitty camp and condescension. All of Bryan Singer’s worst instincts and tics are on full display here, but none of his older filmmaking skill is present. And worst of all - even worse than the absolute pantsing this movie gives to the beloved Oscar Isaac - is that Apocalypse is DULL. It’s a boring movie, one that doesn’t need to be two and a half hours long and that fails at being amusing or interesting for any length of time. Again, the Quicksilver scene is good, but it’s four minutes in a Gehenna of a motion picture.
Someone save the X-Men. Someone storm Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters and depose Bryan Singer. Someone end this madness once and for all. All of a sudden I find myself understanding Apocalypse’s motivation of ‘Let’s just blow it all up.’