What would you do if you had phenomenal magic powers? Would you satisfy your own needs and live a comfortable life? Would you try to correct the injustices of the world? Or would you dress your friends in skimpy outfits?
If you answered ‘Skimpy outfits’, then you’ll love the new villain in X-Men: Apocalypse. Apocalypse is a nigh-immortal, practically omnipotent mutant who was born in 3,600 BCE but has awoken in 1980s Egypt to recommence his campaign to… something. Destroy everything? Rule everything? Get more powers? And to achieve this unclear goal, he must give four powerful mutants new powers and dress them in silly clothing (which, in the case of his female friends, amounts to making them show more skin).
Apocalypse is a weird villain in the comics. He has a Darwinist view of human progress and the power to realise this vision. He wants a world where the strongest reign, where ‘strongest’ means ‘able to battle everybody else’. Age of Apocalypse is a classic story arc, introducing us to one of my favourite characters, Dark Beast — a sadistic, alternate world version of Hank McCoy.
Apocalypse is a non-villain in this movie. It’s not clear what he wants to achieve, or why he is doing the things he’s doing.
The film opens with an interesting set up. Apocalypse has (inexplicably) decided to have a giant parade to advertise the one moment in his life when he’s vulnerable to attack. He is going to transfer into a new body, one with the ability to regenerate itself. For the five minutes that he’s doing this, he is unable to defend himself and relies on his trusted lieutenants. The absurdity of the scene — openly telling everybody that they should attack him in now — allows for an interesting look into the power of worship. His followers sacrifice themselves to protect him, putting his interests before their own without hesitation. He holds an unshakable grip upon their imagination and they are thoroughly devoted to him.
But their protection is insufficient and Apocalypse is sealed away for several thousand years. He awakens in a country full of brown people who speak Arabic, demonstrating the constant threat that the Muslim world presents to the diverse, inclusive, left liberal world of the X-Men. And it’s at this point that the film collapses into an unintelligible heap.
Walking through downtown Islamopolis, Apocalypse comes across a young Storm who is a thief who steals to provide food for herself and her family. She uses her fabulous control over the weather in order to commit these petty thefts. And she idolises Mystique who, in the previous film, revealed the mutant world to the non-mutants.
Apocalypse touches a television set and thereby learns everything about the modern world. He then presents Storm with the core argument of the film: the contemporary world is terrible and full of suffering, so why don’t we destroy everything and make him a God-King? In lieu of a discussion, Apocalypse dies her hair white and amplifies her powers.
But why would Storm agree to this? If Apocalypse’s beef is that the weak are worthless and need to be wiped out, why does he reach out to Storm to be a member of the elite? If Storm’s beef is that the powerful don’t care about the poor, why would she support Apocalypse to become a new tyrant?
No time to wait, Apocalypse is after the most powerful mutants to be his friends. They come across Psylocke who is a crazy powerful and aggressive psychic Pokemon who knows Psychic Knife and Mind Reader. She doesn’t need convincing to join Apocalypse’s crew because she likes power and he offers her more power. And of course Apocalypse wants her on his team because he’s after the most powerful mutants. He asks her if she knows any other uberpowerful mutants who might want to join his gang, and she confesses that she does. She knows the most powerful mutants in the world. If you want powerful mutants, boy does she know where to find them.
Inexplicably, she takes Apocalypse to meet Angel. Angel’s mutant power is that he has wings. These wings were recently destroyed and so he doesn’t actually have wings that work. Gosh, what a power.
In case you’d forgotten the two previous movies, we know that this is a world which had a mutant who could both fly and spit exploding acid. That’s a whole extra power that Angel doesn’t have. When Xavier connects himself up to Cerebro, he reveals that the world is lousy with mutants. I would bet my back teeth that at least one of those mutants has a superpower better than ‘has wings that are liable to damage’.
Angel is the goddamn Hawkeye of the Fox universe. He is goddamn useless. Apocalypse later expresses his disappointment with Angel, and it’s hard not to yell ‘No durrrrrrrrrr’ at the screen.
In the comics, Angel does become one of Apocalypse’s Four Horsemen… but after he is brutalised and tortured into compliance. He has to fight his way into victory, and he’s disfigured both externally and internally by the experience. But that story depends on knowing Angel from previous stories. In this film, we’ve known him for five minutes as a cage fighter.
Nothing about this film makes sense. Things just keep happening. Anyway, the good guys beat Apocalypse.
The other half of the film focuses on Xavier and his relationship with the other X-Men characters such as Magneto and Mystique. But it’s ground that we’ve already covered twice before.
The best aspect of the X-Men prequels has been its celebration of the problematic bromance between Magneto and Xavier. It’s the tension between these two characters, the fact that they both seem equal parts right and wrong, that has been the backbone of the series. It was they who formed the original idea to bring together mutants for support and development, but their disagreement about how best to achieve their ambitions that drive them apart. There’s genuine love between the two and yet they come into repeated conflict.
X-Men Apocalypse doesn’t develop this relationship. Magneto, by and large, doesn’t debate with Xavier. There’s no face to face conflict, and no motivation behind their different ambitions. Magneto makes the perfect follower of (comic book) Apocalypse: he wants a world in which the strongest prevail over the weak, which he understands to be progress. But Magneto doesn’t go through any sort of reasoning process. At first, he is grieving, then he spends some time tearing Auschwitz apart, and then he’s on team Mutant Hitler.
The script is woeful and the visual effects look like they belong on an XBox 360. The acting from the younger actors is uniformly terrible (with Sophie Turner — who plays Jean Grey — and Tye Sheridan — who plays angsty adolescent Cyclops — being excruciatingly bad). Jennifer Lawrence really looks like she just hates being in this film. Both Olivia Munn and Oscar Isaac are criminally under utilised, and James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender struggle to work with material.
Skip this film.