A few weeks ago, 20th Century Fox did something unusual for a studio with a blockbuster summer action movie headed to theaters: it dropped the review embargo on X-Men: Apocalypse early, letting critics get their responses online with much more lead time than usual. The reviews weren't abysmal, but they weren't enthusiastic either: as of this writing, the film has a 49 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 52 percent over at Metacritic. That's tepid-to-bad word of mouth, which can be deadly in the weeks leading up to a film. But given how fast conversations move online these days, and how quickly people lose interest in a new topic, Fox may have actually counted on fans reacting to the reviews when they posted, then considering them old news by the time the film actually came out. It's an interesting ploy. Apocalypse did reasonably well at the box office over the holiday weekend — better than the trilogy kickoff, First Class, though not remotely as well as the second trilogy installment, Days of Future Past. It just remains to be seen whether Apocalypse suffers the dreaded Batman v Superman box-office drop, or sustains some healthier long-term earnings, like Captain America: Civil War.
In the meantime, our review went up ages ago, and there were so many things it couldn't discuss, since most people reading it wouldn't have access to the film itself for weeks. Now that it's been out for a few days, though, we're going to dig into some spoilers, and get deeper into what we did and didn't like about the film.
Tasha: How's your superhero fatigue, Bryan? It's been a busy year for heroes in theaters already, with Deadpool, Batman v Superman, and Captain America: Civil War already cycling through, and we've still got Doctor Strange, Suicide Squad, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows still on the way. And now we've got Apocalypse bringing the X-Men franchise back into the 1980s, continuing the continuity established in X-Men: First Class (set in the 1960s) and X-Men: Days of Future Past (set in the 1970s). No matter how many hero movies we get, though, I don't ever feel like I have superhero fatigue. I just have repetition fatigue, from too many familiar origin stories, too many takes on the same characters at the expense of the larger superhero world, and too many tired old tropes that really shouldn't be part of the cost of admission for any hero film. I'm seeing a lot of those in Apocalypse, which feels like a big step backward for the X-franchise after the much-more-promising Days of Future Past. How are you feeling about this particular superhero series, and where did you land on this installment?
Bryan: The X-Men franchise has always felt like the safe, familiar, superhero home I wanted to come back to. Bryan Singer's original is where the modern superhero movie was born for me, and even though we've now been through the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy and Marvel's ever-expanding world, the Wrath of Khan-style mix of victory and tragic loss that X2 evoked remains a high point for me. Basically, I want those crazy mutants to deliver. But let's get real: they've been struggling with missteps and confusing storylines ever since The Last Stand.
With the soft-rebooting of First Class and Days of Future Past now firmly out of the way, the promise of Apocalypse was a film that could just get down to the business of being a good movie without all the gimmicky storytelling devices. But from the opening minutes, I felt Apocalypse was in trouble, and things didn't get that much better from there. I think there's going to be a lot for us to talk about, but I want to get one thing out of the way: how do you make Oscar Isaac boring?
Tasha: You bury him in makeup and prosthetics, then make him repeat "The weak should suffer, the strong should rule" over and over and over for two hours. Regardless of who's playing him, Apocalypse as he's written is a terrible villain, on par with Avengers 2's Ultron for the frustrating disconnect between his credo and his actions, and for his tendency to monologue about his motives at length without giving us new information. He's a Meany McGuffin with one thought in his head — "strong equals good" — and no nuance. Except maybe a compelling interest in costume design? I still can't get over the fact that when Magento gets the wake-up call from Professor X, Apocalypse misses it because he's redesigning Archangel's facial makeup. Seriously. Magneto's in the foreground, telepathically arguing for the destruction of humanity, and the would-be scourge of weak and decadent civilization is literally in the background adding lines to Archangel's face. I don't get it. But was Isaac's costuming really what baffled you most?
Bryan: Oh God, no, that's just the appetizer. We could talk about the wildly erratic tone, where Singer takes a horrifying, cataclysmic moment like Xavier's School for the Gifted getting blown to pieces — and without even a beat for the audience to process what's happened, jumps into a wacky Quicksilver rescue montage. We could talk about how the film gives Psylocke, Angel, Jubilee, and nearly every other new(ish) character introduced in the film nothing to do other than stand and / or fly around. We can talk about the bizarre timeline, given that this movie supposedly takes place 10 years after the last one.
There's also the unrelenting focus on Magneto as a driver of plot, because apparently there's some belief that he is the only character people really care about. At a certain point, it starts to feel like X-Men Mad Libs:
[A person] hurts Magneto's [family member], causing him to strike out with his mutant powers and hate all humans. He decides to [verb] with the help of [mutant], ignoring Charles Xavier's warnings. At the end, Magneto decides that destroying [metaphoric or literal representation of humankind] would be bad, and he and Xavier are cool bros again even though [take your pick] almost died.
But it's really just a grab bag of frustration. What issues have stuck with you the most?
Tasha: It's 2016, and comic book stories are still introducing female love interests for no reason other than to kill them off to make a dude protagonist temporarily unhappy. The Women In Refrigerators website was founded 17 goddamn years ago, and we're still doing this lazy, boring bullshit? And the movie isn't shy about it, either. As soon as the film introduced Magneto's adorable, doting wife and daughter and their perfect, idyllic, "all I ever wanted" family life, I may have actually said "Oh NO" out loud in the theater. Because there's only one reason a movie like this gives a character something like that, and that's to gleefully, grotesquely take it away.
I'm also disappointed by Magneto's arbitrary on / off evil switch. I'm disappointed at Quicksilver for not manning up and saying, "No, Luke, I am your son," even with the freakin' world at stake. I'm mildly disgusted at Professor X's meddling with Moira's mind, though at least he admitted it was wrong. I'm a little disgusted at the film for blowing up Auschwitz, which felt like a cheap and pointless gesture, disrespecting a real-life monument to actual genocide.
And I'm disappointed that Magneto, even in going all momentarily grimdark again, would stoop to being someone else's lackey. How does that fit anything he's ever done before? None of Magneto's plot beats make much emotional sense to me, but the stomach-churning frustration of yet another high-profile fridging trumps everything else. Does anything rise to that level of bile on your hit list?
Bryan: Thank you for mentioning Quicksilver's utter inability to follow through on the Dad thing; I think I blocked it out due to frustration. When he failed to actually say the words — which, you know, was the entire reason the character exists in this story — the entire theater I was in groaned out loud. And not in a "Wow, this dramatic tension is really getting ratcheted up!" kinda way. More a "Damn, you couldn't even deliver on the slammiest of slam dunks, could you?"
But we know why he didn't follow through: it's because they're planting that conflict here so they can pay it off in some future movie. The fact that they forgot to give Quicksilver any kind of satisfying arc in this film just speaks to the borderline contempt Apocalypse has for its audience. It's not so much a movie as it is a random sensory experience designed to support a marketing campaign, and if that means using fistfuls of dated tropes, taking huge leaps of logic, or ignoring even the basics of storytelling… well, the film itself certainly doesn't seem to care. "I'm an X-Men movie," Apocalypse appears to be saying, "and you're going to come see me whether I'm good or not."
I know that sounds a little extreme. I don't believe anybody sets out to make a mediocre film. But it's hard to even parse out a version of Apocalypse that could have been good, and just got a little lost along the way. X-Men: Apocalypse is lazy in some truly fundamental ways, and while I have no doubt it will continue to do okay at the box office, this make-it-up-as-you-go approach just isn't working. It's not that Fox needs to copy Marvel — in fact, movies would be better if everybody stopped trying to bite what Kevin Feige and company are doing — but if a franchise is going to attempt serialized storytelling over hours and hours the way these last three X-Men films have, there better be some point and dramatic build. Otherwise there's no reason to follow along, other than to see the origin story of everybody's hairstyles.
I know you have a lot of fondness for these characters from the comics, Tasha. How are you feeling about future installments in the X-Men film franchise, and some of the set-ups Apocalypse put into place?
Tasha: Well, a big problem for me is that I just don't care about the Dark Phoenix Saga — I've always thought Jean Grey was the most boring and underdeveloped major X-Man, starting with her lack of pseudonym and duplicate Professor X powers, and concluding with her lack of a personality other than "angst generator." So watching her manifest in all her Phoenix-y glory doesn't make my neck hairs stand to attention the way it's supposed to. I know there are people out there who just can't wait for a better Dark Phoenix saga than the mangled X-Men: The Last Stand gave us, but I personally want more Phoenix about as much as I want a third live-action Spider-Man reboot and origin story. Been there, done that.
But Apocalypse assumes we want to be geared up for a payoff that may come years down the line, if at all. So many comic book franchise movies these days are obsessed with building anticipation for the next thing instead of telling a worthwhile story. And in Apocalypse, the setups really get in the way. First we set up the next Wolverine movie. Then we're promised a future where Storm is part of the X-Men, and where Psylocke gets to do or say something cool instead of just posing and jumping around, and where Magneto finally learns who Quicksilver is (and smacks him upside the head for his cowardice). And we're especially promised a story where all the power and potential Professor X is constantly talking about re: Jean Grey finally comes to fruition. But so much of this future-promise comes at the expense of actual cool things coming in this movie. So much of Apocalypse is slow and sleepy and inert, like the characters are waiting for something to happen. And so are we.
But let's not risk sounding like wells of bottomless hatred. The internet has plenty of that already. What worked for you in Apocalypse? Did anything give you a thrill?
Bryan: It's telling that I'm sitting here, ticking off different aspects of the movie on my fingers, trying to find something that really wowed me. But the film definitely does have its moments. I continue to be a fan of John Ottman's scores. (While I couldn't tell you what any given theme was, I was always aware of the charge his music adding to the action.) And while I had huge problems with the transition, the Quicksilver slo-mo sequence was undoubtedly one of the movie's highlights. (Between Quicksilver and James March, I'm thisclose to starting an Evan Peters fan club.)
And we can get down to some basics, too. Even though Michael Fassbender is given nothing new or interesting to do here, I will still watch him for days. Preferably days when he's not playing Steve Jobs or going through the motions, but still: days. It always seemed like Fassbender, James McAvoy, and Jennifer Lawrence were the home-run casting choices when the prequel-Men kicked off, and while Apocalypse stutters all over the place, there's no denying the pure charisma of all three as performers.
But here's the thing I wasn't really expecting: halfway through the film, I realized I've enjoyed the X-Men films in contrast to some of the other superhero franchises because the series has been relatively self-contained. There's Team Good and Team Bad and a school full of kids ready to jump to the forefront, but when you compare Fox's X-Men franchise to the sprawling characterscape of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — or DC's awkward me-too attempts in Dawn of Justice — the limited scope that comes with Fox's limited character rights is actually refreshing! Over the years, it's essentially forced Fox to focus on the same set of characters, which (in theory) could allow them to dive deeper and (also in theory) really be thoughtful when they do decide to incorporate new mutants. Even the studio's take on Deadpool seems like it could never truly do the expanded-universe thing with the proper X-Men franchise.
And even though the Wolverine scene was egregious, didn't line up within the fictional timeline, and could have been utterly removed without anyone noticing, I still loved seeing Jackman go all Weapon X. At some point, I'm hoping for a Wolverine musical, at which point we will experience the Hugh Jackman Singularity. I also really enjoyed watching Kodi Smit-McPhee's take on Nightcrawler. What parts of the movie still made the journey worthwhile for you?
Tasha: The Wolverine segment seemed mighty gratuitous, but I enjoyed watching the young X-Men react to him in awed terror. I've always found the Cyclops / Wolverine / Jean love triangle pretty dopey (she's the original Bella, boring yet somehow mesmerizing to glowering tough guys), so I appreciated that Apocalypse finally gave it a reason to exist: Wolverine is now carrying around a mental image of Jean as a salvation figure who pulled him out of mindless insanity. That said, the difference in their ages is going to make any attempt to follow through on their romance from the comics pretty Game Of Thrones icky, and Hugh Jackman says he's done with the character after Wolverine 3 anyway, so really all we're doing here is setting up hurt / comfort fan-fiction and swoony Tumblr gifsets.
I'll also watch Michael Fassbender no matter what he's up to, though it feels criminal to turn such an expressive actor into a blank despair-bot for so much of the film's runtime. (At least he gets to briefly express love, contentment, worry, and grief, which is much more emotional range than anyone else in the movie gets.) And I'm glad Apocalypse made time for little distinguishing character touches, like Havok's brotherly support of Cyclops, or the way Storm sees Mystique as a pop idol, or Nightcrawler praying in extremis. I also enjoyed what Mystique has become, both as an icon and as a cranky freedom fighter with her own agenda, and no patience with mutant politics. Plenty of people have complained that the character is getting too much screen time because Jennifer Lawrence's profile has risen so much since First Class, but for me, Mystique becoming a distinct character is one of this trilogy's few strong throughlines, one of the only arcs that feels like it's perpetually developing and pushing forward. So much of Apocalypse is about new characters, or about old characters making the same mistakes that they made when they were first introduced. Mystique at least has been growing up.
Mystique becoming a distinct character is one of the few strong throughlines
And that, for me, is the real disappointment of X-Men: Apocalypse — Fox has had six-ish hours to tell a coherent story, and with this film, it choses to rewind and try to retell the same stories again: the Professor X / Magneto clash, the coming-out stories of frustrated young mutants, the first stirrings of the Phoenix saga, Cerebro being weaponized by the bad guys, Quicksilver simultaneously saving everyone and stealing their snacks at superspeed. This is the end of a trilogy, and the last X-Men collective story currently on Fox's production schedule. It should be a triumphant send-off, and a chance to take some big risks. Instead, it's a few hesitant, noncommittal steps backward.
Bryan: So... the Jean Grey / salvation figure set-up did not land for me at all when I was watching this movie. I think you actually just made me like Apocalypse a little bit more, Tasha. You might have the most impressive X-Men superpower of all.
Tasha: With great power comes great responsibility, though. I'll try not to abuse this superpower of mine. But when the next set of X-movies come around, I'm afraid I'm going to be using it again and again, in the exact same way. Apocalypse is all about the franchise promising it'll do everything bigger, better, and smarter next time around. But why should we trust that promise at this point?