It’s possible we may owe Brett Ratner a big apology.
I recognize that quality in these superhero outings are often a game of inches. Sometimes we forgive the somewhat ramshackle plotting of one because of its focus on warmer characterization, or we zero-in on the visceral nature of another because of how much more explicitly it presents the actions and ramifications of its four-color titans. So when I tell you that X-Men: Apocalypse, the fourth Bryan Singer-helmed go with Marvel’s mutants, is a disaster of fairly seismic proportions, please note that it takes a special kind of awful to stand-out from the pack. This isn’t just a matter of tone or alternate takes on characters not jibing with its source material, this is a film that is fundamentally flawed from the ground up. I figured Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was as bad as one of these movies would get this year. How could I have been so mistaken?
One of the first, most glaring problems with this new X-Men adventure is its title villain. The enigmatic Apocalypse, “played” by Oscar Isaac is a giant lump of nothing, a very good actor covered up in tons of makeup to the point of anonymity, and given a motivation that should make sense but is actually less clear than what Magneto was up to in the very first X-Men effort in 2000. Something about “following blind leaders” and getting rid of anyone that isn’t a mutant. Frankly, that makes him fairly faithful to his comic counterpart, but that still doesn’t make it an enjoyable watch and this version En Sabah Nur is dreadfully dull. In a sense, he’s a bit emblematic of the entire enterprise that Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg embarked upon with this 80’s set entry, a shapeless formless mess that lacks anything resembling a satisfying arc, or really, a reason to exist creatively.
It’s the former that’s especially a problem, as everyone involved from Charles Xavier on down to the new teammates, all just sort of act as chess pieces. I cannot a tell you a thing about Cyclops, Nightcrawler, or Jean Grey that hasn’t already been established by the previous X-Men features (in much better fashion), and of the central trio of this currently trilogy – Magneto, Mystique, and Charles Xavier – both Erik and Raven have some sort of heroic redemption story occurring in a such a ham-fisted fashion that it barely registers when their respective resolutions finally come. Jennifer Lawrence’s role is especially odd, as Mystique is given a new “underground hero” nature that comes more as a consequence of needing to make better headlining use of the former The Hunger Games star rather than anything that’s a natural outgrowth of her actions in Days of Future Past. These two focal points aren’t particularly well served by the performances that inhabit them.
While James McAvoy is doing his Patrick Stewart impression and seems to be having some fun on screen, Michael Fassbender’s Magneto is now a pale shade of the nuanced figure that so admirably provided an emotional anchor to X-Men: First Class (Apocalypse goes out of its way to flash back to that much better Matthew Vaughn film multiple times, and Charles and Erik’s wonderful interplay therein, crushingly absent here, is hammered over the audiences’ collective head to make up for that void). When Fassbender exclaims to a God that he feels has forsaken him, it’s delivered in such an over the top fashion, I was looking for where the teethmarks were left on the scenery. Lawrence has the opposite problem, as her performance is pitched somewhere between valium-induced and indifference.
All of that aside, the real culprit here is a deeply terrible script, hampered by exposition that comes at what feels like an every 5 minute pace, and unnaturally stiff dialogue that’s hard to believe made it past the first draft stage. It’s as if Singer, Kinberg, and the rest of the crew behind the scenes had no real confidence in their source material or their audiences ability to understand it, so there’s a bit of apologia at work. At the same time, Singer seems to actively be trying to make a “superhero” movie in the Marvel mold, but he also clearly has very little interest in that kind of film, so tonally, we’re looking at a confused heap of metal, explosions and posing that still feels a bit embarrassed to be that. A film that’s trying to be brighter to keep up with the Joneses, but really just wants to whisper to you how serious and grim it is. In the end, nothing about it has import, and it’s just largely a waste of time with really, really ugly CGI. Seriously, there’s a sequence with Quicksilver and Mystique that left my jaw agape at how poorly rendered it was.
And for all its period trappings, just why exactly did this need to be set in the 80’s? What’s even the point of this chronological jump in each film? Currently, I can’t tell you how old Magneto, Charles and Mystique are even supposed to be. They all look to be about in their 30’s, but there’s no way that’s possible given that they were at least college-aged during the Bay of Pigs. And Havoc is somehow Scott’s older brother as well. The latter is more conceivable, but the fact that I spent most of the movie trying to put this all together rather than being at all invested in the incredibly boring, and weightless, events on screen, should tell you all you need to know.
Evan Peters’ Quicksilver is still great though, and reminds you just how much fun you had watching him two years ago. Give that guy a movie instead of Gambit, please? And hand the X-Men franchise over to Deadpool director Tim Miller at this rate while you’re at it. When you make a movie that’s arguably worse than X-Men: The Last Stand, it’s time to move on.
Entertainment Editor for The Beat covering film, television and the occasional comic book. His work can also be found at GeekRex.com and can be heard on the GeekRex podcast. Also, your go-to Grant Morrison/Love & Rockets/Hellboy/Legion of Super-Heroes expert.