To commemorate, the culmination of their long-running and successful X-Men movies, 20th Century Fox declared May 13th as “X-Men Day”, a day to celebrate all things Mutant and X-Men and celebrate Marvel’s iconic collection of superpowered beings who fight to protect a world that hates and fears them. After exhausting all of their storylines with their original cast, save for Hugh Jackman, 20th Century Fox began producing a series of loose prequels centred on younger X-characters and, to commemorate X-Men Day this year, I’ve been spending the month looking back at the first three entries in this “Beginnings Trilogy” to see if they still hold up today.
Released: May 2016
Director: Bryan Singer
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $178 million
Stars: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Bryne, Evan Peters, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Alexandra Shipp, and Kodi Smit-McPhee.
In 1983, the ancient Mutant En Sabah Nur, also known as “Apocalypse” (Isaac), awakens and begins recruiting his “Four Horseman” to bring about an area of Mutant supremacy, forcing Professor Charles Xavier (McAvoy) to lead a new team of untested X-Men into battle for the sake of the entire planet.
Since debuting in 1963, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s X-Men have seen much success as a live-action franchise, spawning first a trilogy of movies, then two spin-offs focusing on breakout character Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), before Fox created a loose set of prequels that brought in a younger cast to portray the early days of the X-Men. Even before X-Men: Days of Future Past (Singer, 2014) proved a financial success, director Bryan Singer announced the production of a sequel; thanks to a post-credits sequence in that last movie, it was clear (and later confirmed) that the next film would not only focus on long-time X-Men villain Apocalypse but also bring in younger versions of beloved X-Men characters to help populate and expand upon this new, altered timeline for the X-Men franchise. Though it made considerably less at the box office than its predecessor, X-Men: Apocalypse still accumulated a total worldwide gross of over $540 million, more than double the cost of its production. However, unlike the last two movies, reviews were mixed, to say the least; once again falling into the same trap as other X-Men movies of focusing on style and a bloated cast over substance, X-Men: Apocalypse is generally regarded as one of the weaker entries in the franchise, perhaps only eclipsed by its follow-up a few years later.
As is the traditional of pretty much all X-Men movies, X-Men: Apocalypse starts off strong enough but, as interesting as its opening sequence (set centauries ago in ancient Egypt) is, I can’t help but feel like it could, maybe, have been skipped and moved to later in the film. It’s one of those things where we get a detailed and visually interesting scene that gives us a glimpse at Apocalypse’s powers and motivations but, later in the film, Moira McTaggart (Byrne) literally sits down with Xavier and Alex Summers/Havoc (Lucas Till) and explains to them what we already know so this opening scene could have been inserted there as a flashback. Still, the film proper takes place ten years after the end of X-Men: Days of Future Past; it’s now 1983 and our main cast hasn’t aged a day. It kind of bugged me how Till didn’t look a day older for his brief cameo in the last film but, here, his character has to be approaching…what? Fifty? Late-forties?…and he still looks no older than twenty-five. The decision to set each of these films in a different decade really shattered any suspension of disbelief the viewer might have had as they could have easily taking place in a ten- or fifteen-year period and it would have been much more convincing.
Yet, armed with the knowledge of the future brought to him by, and from the memories of, Logan, Xavier has officially reopened his school and has taken on a few familiar faces: Jean Grey (the delectable Sophie Turner) is now a student of his, Henry “Hank” McCoy/Beast (Hoult) is now a teacher at the school (and inexplicably back to suppressing his blue, furry form despite the last two movies constantly teaching him to embrace his true nature), and Alex brings his younger brother, Scott/Cyclops (Sheridan) to the school when his optic blasts begin to manifest. Although his characterisation has been pretty well defined over the course of the last two movies, Beast still gets a bit of a raw deal in this film; apparently, he’s the one who built all the X-Men’s tech and training facilities (how is never really elaborated on) but his character arc in this film is his disappointment that Xavier has benched the training of new X-Men to defend the world and his growth into a senior member of the new team. We don’t get to learn too much about Jean except that her powers are potentially limitless, to the point where other students fear her, and she is empathetic towards others; her arc culminates in an impressive, if illogical, display of power at the film’s climax that sets her in motion towards her fate in the next movie. Cyclops, though, finally gets a fair deal of focus and development; he starts off as a bit of a bad boy, almost a rebellious, Wolverine-type loner, but quickly warms to his new teammates in the face of the film’s threat.
Xavier, finally wheelchair bound full-time, has also embraced his role as a mentor, teacher, and father-figure to his many young students. Unconcerned with training new soldiers, Xavier believes that the world has changed for the better but quickly learns that his views are blinkered somewhat as his focus is so completely on his own little perfect bubble. When his childhood friend, Raven Darkhölme/Mystique (Lawrence), returns into his life to ask him for help in reaching Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Fassbender), Xavier comes to realise that Mutants are still being persecuted and mistreated across the country, and the world, and that the X-Men will be needed to defend those who cannot help themselves. After publicly saving the lives of the President and other high-ranking government officials in the last film, Mystique has become a folk hero for the Mutant community; Ororo Munroe/Storm (Shipp), especially, looks up to her and wants to be just like her. Mystique, however, sees herself as more of a mercenary as she travels the world freeing oppressed Mutants and trying to keep them safe from those who would harm them. Although still closely aligned with Magneto’s cause, she has been forced to forge her own path, one of uncertainty that is filled with doubt about her identity for the first time since X-Men: First Class (Singer, 2011). In an unexpected twist, Mystique ends up coming full circle, learning once again to embrace her true self but also re-joining the X-Men and even ending up as the lead trainer for a new generation of the team. Again, I’m not a big fan of Jennifer Lawrence and the insistence on giving her, and her character, such a big role in the beginnings of the X-Men does irk me, especially as I wanted to see Xavier and Magneto working together in that role in these films.
Speaking of Magneto, Erik begins the film poised and ready to strike back against humanity, having assembled and recruited Mutants to his cause. What? Oh, no, that’s right; that’s not what happens. Instead, Erik is now inexplicably a doting husband and father, working as a factory worker in Poland, having retired from his violent life. However, when his powers are revealed to his co-workers, a bunch of townsfolk band together to out and confront him and, with tensions high, accidentally kill his wife and daughter. Angered, he once again reassumes the role of Magneto and quickly falls under Apocalypse’s sway as the ancient Mutant feeds his grief and rage just as he increases his powers tenfold. As I mentioned before, this is pretty much par for the course for Magneto, who begins each of these films in a place of innocence, turns morally grey throughout the film, briefly appears to be the Magneto we all know and love, only to wind up having walked away from his crusade in the next film. Honestly, I find it really contrived and a little insulting that the filmmakers decided to randomly throw in a wife and child for Erik; the guy has already lived through the Second World War, seen his family (and, specifically, his mother) and people slaughtered before his eyes, been tortured and abused, and seen the very worst of humanity so you’d think he had sufficient motivation already but apparently not and he needs to have suffered the loss of his wife, daughter, and idyllic, peaceful, normal life as well. I feel this was only added to the film to pad the runtime, allow new audiences to sympathise with his plight, and to add even more angst and anger to his already complex character. Ironically, Apocalypse later sparks Magneto’s fury further by taking him back to Auschwitz which, for me, would have been enough to get Magneto under Apocalypse’s sway.
As for Apocalypse…well, there’s definitely a version of him in this film, that’s for sure. Oscar Isaac is a great actor and I always appreciate casting a great actor to elevate a role but I’m not sure if he was really right for this; for one thing, he’s way too short and the filmmakers don’t really make much effort to shoot him in a way that is physically imposing. I applaud them for making him visually interesting and comic accurate rather than just another guy in a suit and tie, and he is clearly the most powerful threat the world has ever seen, but that is also a bit of an issue. Apocalypse’s powers are quite vague; he’s able to transfer his consciousness into the bodies of other Mutants when near death, thus assuming and retaining a variety of abilities, can manipulate the elements, invade the minds of others (but only to a degree), and can vastly enhance the abilities of other Mutants but, while he has a superhuman healing factor, he’s also vulnerable and mortal despite his near-immortality. Thankfully, though, Isaac delivers Apocalypse’s many grandiose speeches with an alluring charisma and he’s definitely bringing a certain quality to the role but I do think an actor of larger build and stature would have been more appropriate and I question whether a character as visually “busy” as Apocalypse really works, but I applaud them for going all-in with his design even if he spends a lot of the film posturing, pandering, and just standing around like a doughnut.
Thanks to Days of Future Past setting the young cast on a divergent timeline, I can now forgive the many, many continuity discrepancies that are present in this film. However, it still bugs me that Logan’s actions in the last film caused Warren Worthington III/Angel (Ben Hardy) and Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Smit-McPhee) to be born earlier than they originally were. I assume this decision was made because of the role Angel/Archangel traditionally plays as one of Apocalypse’s Horsemen and the popularity of Nightcrawler (whose abilities and presence has haunted the series since the second film) but, while Nightcrawler gets a fair amount to do and is generally the same kind-hearted character we saw in X-Men 2 (Singer, 2003), Angel is dramatically different. Both characters are introduced as cage fighters, with Angel being a brutal, violent bad-boy; truthfully, he’s a poor substitute for Wolverine despite his similar introduction in the first film and he ends up having less and less of a role as the film goes on, degenerating into just another mindless henchman whose death is hardly even noticed.
Speaking of which, as is also tradition for the series, X-Men: Apocalypse features a far bigger cast than its predecessor; there’s something odd when a film about time travel and actors and characters from the original movies meeting those of these new ones juggles its plot and pacing better than a film that focuses only on one set of characters. However, when you do Apocalypse, you obviously have to include his Four Horsemen but, rather than follow their own lead by having him recruit existing characters like Magneto, who have already received a lot of character development, the filmmakers throw in Angel, as mentioned, and have Apocalypse recruit a young Storm and even Betsy Braddok/Psylocke (Olivia Munn). Similar to her appearances in other X-Men films, Storm is criminally under-used in X-Men: Apocalypse; she’s the first Mutant Apocalypse recruits so you’d think she would have a bigger role than just being an angry, lightning-spewing antagonist but she doesn’t really. Her thing is admiring Mystique, which is enough to turn her away from Apocalypse by the film’s end, but that’s still more of an arc than Psylocke who, despite looking fantastic and having some bad-ass moments, could be taken out of the film and you wouldn’t even notice. Unlike Storm, she doesn’t even end up on the new X-Men team by the end and she never appears in the series again, completely wasting an actress like Munn and a character a popular and visually interesting as Psylocke. Also returning is Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Peters) who, despite being in his thirties, still looks and acts like a hyperactive teenager. Now fully aware of his true parentage, he wishes to confront his father, Magneto, but rather than this being the anchor to bring Magneto out of Apocalypse’s control, it is, of course, Mystique who reaches Erik. As a result, Quicksilver is primarily here for another impressive super speed sequence, this time rescuing Xavier’s students when his mansion explodes.
Later, we see just how game-breaking his abilities are as he effortlessly attacks Apocalypse and the writers actually bother to give a decent explanation for why he doesn’t just end the film by himself; Apocalypse breaks his leg, incapacitating him, and necessitating that the rest of the team (but mostly Jean) end Apocalypse’s threat. Jean’s final display of power, while impressive, seems to align with the original trilogy’s narrative that the Phoenix Force is more an extension and manifestation of Jean’s true potential, which means, of course, that the entire next movie completely contradicts what happens here as Jean doesn’t receive her Phoenix powers until the beginning of that film. Still, it’s an impressive moment, one that comes after Xavier finds himself no match for Apocalypse’s vast abilities and must call upon Jean for help. Her role could have been bigger and a bit more of her background explored, however, to help set up for this moment and I almost feel like Nightcrawler could have been dropped from the script to give more screen time to her, but she does get an entire movie dedicated to her in the sequel so I guess that makes up for it. Finally, of course, we see the return of recurring character Colonel William Stryker (Josh Helman); now suddenly shifted back to his original characterisation as a military scientist obsessed with the Mutant threat, Stryker literally drops in out of nowhere and derails the entire plot and pacing of the film for a completely pointless side quest for the new/young X-Men. However, this does also provide us with perhaps the greatest cameo by Wolverine ever; fully garbed in the Weapon X outfit and twisted into a mindless, animalistic killer, Wolverine slaughters Stryker’s men and is only calmed when Jean manages to remind him of a small piece of his past. Still, though, as awesome as this moment was, it really could have been cut or replaced by scenes more relevant to the actual plot.
X-Men: Apocalypse is a decent enough effort but there’s something about its execution that is lacking compared to the last two movies. X-Men: First Class suffered from a bloated cast, similar to its predecessors, but managed to get by through its unique premise and the potential of exploring the early years of these familiar characters but X-Men: Apocalypse is just unnecessarily staked and convoluted. It’s a shame because expectations were quite high after X-Men: Days of Future Past and from the inclusion of familiar X-Men characters and the potential of a villain like Apocalypse. Yet, while Apocalypse is impressive to behold in many ways, the film squanders him, and Oscar Isaac, and bogs down its plot with too many redundant plot lines (particularly those involving Magneto) and under-developed characters. Like X-Men: First Class, the film is far more concerned with rushing through its narrative to establish a more familiar team of X-Men and a future sequel and suffers as a result, descending into mindless, bombastic action that fails to live up to the standards of other X-Men films.
Could Be Better
How did you find X-Men: Apocalypse? Do you agree that it was a step back for the franchise or did you enjoy the film for what it was? What did you think to Apocalypse’s characterisation and the inclusion of more familiar X-Men? Which Apocalypse-centred storyline from the comics or other media is your favourite? Would you like to see the character revisited in a different film? Whatever your thoughts on X-Men: Apocalypse, and X-Men in general, feel free to leave a comment below.
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