Conveniently leaving aside one or two of the dreadful Batman movies of the mid-1990s, the modern penchant for cramming superhero films with lots of heroes and lots of villains really took off with Bryan Singer’s original X-Men movie, a 2000 blockbuster that was full of recognisable actors doing battle in leather and lycra (of which just one remains active in the series today). The recent Avengers and Captain America films have been stuffed with even greater numbers of A-List faces, playing a different set of heroes from Marvel’s stable, and it looks as though this modus operandi will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future (at least until the human race decides it can take no more and burns down every last remaining multiplex). The forthcoming brace of Infinity War films will presumably contain more spandex, muscle and quippery than we’ve ever seen before, while Warner Bros have just haphazardly thrown three of the most recognisable comic book heroes together for the first time on the big screen, and are gearing up toward multi-character pieces such as Suicide Squad and the Justice League movies. Though the days of the individual hero story haven’t quite ended yet, we’re increasingly moving in one direction: bigger, bigger, bigger … and more, more, more.
The multi-hero thing has worked better (albeit patchily) within the X-Men franchise than anywhere else, despite the mash-up of timelines that has occurred, and the fact that at least two actors have played several of the major characters in the series. I’ve generally enjoyed the free-for-all set pieces that have taken place within Singer’s films, and the director has repeatedly attempted to juggle all of the pieces and give individual voices to the majority of his characters, even if much of it is just extended riffing on teen growing pains and the desire to fit in and be accepted. With so many heroes and so many actors it’s inevitable that you’re going to get some who make an impression and some who don’t; and that’s the case with X-Men: Apocalypse, in which we are reacquainted with the various young mutants studying at or associated with the posh-looking boarding school run by Professor Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy, looking slightly out of place in a purple cashmere sweater). It’s 1983, there are new arrivals at the establishment and relationships are developing, principally between Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and telepathic/telekinetic wonder Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). There’s only a short, idyllic settling-in period to be enjoyed, though, as anyone harbouring a power of note is soon whisked away to do battle with some terrible evil. As per usual.
This time it’s powerful Egyptian mutant En Sabah Nur – supposedly the world’s first – who has been slumbering under the rubble of a destroyed pyramid for thousands of years. Woken up during during an extended opening that pays too much lip service to Stargate, The Mummy and Raiders Of The Lost Ark, this villain – a shining beacon of angry purple with little nuance played by Oscar Isaac – watches TV for five minutes before deciding that he’s going to bring about the end of days, and he recruits four helpers to do his bidding, including Michael Fassbender’s familiar master of metallurgy Erik Lensherr/Magneto. Naturally this leads to carnage on a grand scale when the bad guys kidnap Xavier and the Professor’s charges show up to perform a rescue: mutants do battle, allegiances shift and powers are unleashed, with Sydney, San Francisco and especially Cairo taking a pounding. As is common within the genre the film sets its stock villain up as being far stronger than any of the good guys, with an arsenal of special powers at his disposal that are subsequently and conveniently ignored, before allowing him to be beaten by a combination of pluck and teamwork. (That’s a spoiler, I guess, but only if you’ve never seen a superhero movie before.)
If the (generally) quieter scenes set within Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters offer some hope that X-Men: Apocalypse is going to spend a lot of time nurturing its new characters and developing its familiar ones, such promise is dashed by average performances by the younger cast members and eventually crushed by the preposterously noisy and relatively-generic action sequences that begin to stack up, all of which feature John Ottman’s portentous, overblown compositions and are so packed with special effects that each one becomes less special as the minutes tick on, reducing any sense of spectacle. It’s not as though I expected otherwise from an X-Men movie, particularly one with the word ‘Apocalypse’ in the title, but even so it’s disappointing that Singer only seems interested in going ‘one louder’ during the second half of the film. The action is as you’d expect: figures fly through the air, beams of light and lightning shoot out of eyes and chests and fingertips, magic swords cut through huge objects and bulky figures are knocked through the walls and columns of pretty much every building you see. Par for the course these days, I suppose, and over-familiar to the point that it begins to induce boredom, which shouldn’t be the case when nearly a quarter of a billion dollars has been spent on the illusion of such wanton destruction. There is one occasion in which Singer really lets loose with a nastier, claustrophobic B-movie type of violence, and at this point his latest briefly threatens to stand out from the pack of X-Men movies, but once the scene in question’s over with we return to the norm and any edge or sense of danger is gone. There’s little to see here that hasn’t already been covered by the series before in some way or another, while one or two actors are looking tired and uninspired by their roles, particularly Jennifer Lawrence as Raven Darkholme/Mystique. Fassbender’s character – still haunted by Auschwitz and the death of his parents – remains a fascinating prospect, but his storyline here – and the subsequent pull between good and evil that develops – is as predictable as they come, and probably ought to have been ditched altogether. Hints toward future plots left me exasperated rather than intrigued, and I was left with the strange thought that this semi-reboot now looks to be in need of a reboot itself, but I can’t deny that Apocalypse is intermittently entertaining.
Directed by: Bryan Singer.
Written by: Simon Kingber. Based on X-Men by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee.
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Sophie Turner, Nicholas Hoult, Tye Sheridan, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Olivia Munn, Rose Byrne, Alexandra Shipp, Ben Hardy.
Cinematography: Newton Thomas Sigel.
Editing: John Ottman, Michael Louis Hill.
Music: John Ottman.
Running Time: 143 minutes.