**Warning – Contains Spoilers**
Let me take you back to the distant past of the year 2000. Russell Crowe celebrated the millennium by dressing up in a toga and avenging his family in Gladiator. John Woo attempted to ruin the Mission Impossible franchise before it really got going and Disney spent a small fortune of Dinosaur – a film I haven’t seen and can’t really make fun of. And it was also the year that superhero films began their rehabilitation.
Following the success of Star Wars and an increase in film budgets & visual effects, it was little surprise that superhero films became big business in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Superman was the first big-budget comic book adaption, with Batman and Robocop the big names following in the decade. A plethora of films followed with a range in quality – some were terrible, whilst others were merely adequate. The nadir of late 90’s cheesiness emerged with 1997’s Batman & Robin – a film which managed to not only kill off it’s franchise, but also inflicted serious damage on the genre. Spawn made an effort to go darker later that year but managed to merely bore it’s audience into submission and only Blade (1998) really flew the flag for comic book films for the rest of the decade (Please, use this as an excuse to tell me all your favourite comic book films from 1998 and 1999 that I’ve forgotten about), even then as a straight action film rather than a comic book franchise.
But along in 2000, Fox released X Men. An ensemble cast led by two screen legends, directed by Brian Singer – the man best known for The Usual Suspects – and featuring a young actor by the name of Hugh Jackman who was making his Hollywood debut, the film was a huge success. Fun, accessible, thematically strong, well-acted, great effects and the occasional terrible line (Do you know what happens to a toad when it’s struck by lightning?), it kicked off a franchise as well as giving the green light for several other Marvel franchises. Yes, you can blame this film for Fantastic Four, but apart from that it was a great success. Admittedly, it hasn’t aged brilliantly, but it’s still a fun watch even now.
The film was followed and expanded on by the superb X2, before things went downhill. X Men 3: The Last Stand struggled after Brian Singer left the series – a confused plot, ill-thought out characters, crap effects… It seemed to signal the death knell for the series. Two standalone Wolverine films followed, and debate rages to this day as to which of the two was worse (I’ve only managed to make it through 10 minutes of either film, so lets call it a draw). That seemed to be that, until 2001 when Matthew Vaughan made the fantastic X Men:First Class. A smart, fun intriguing film, showing the emergence of mutants in an already fraught society during the Cuban Missile Crisis and focussed on the relationship and beginnings of the rivalry between Professor X and Magneto. It highlighted on the depth and complexity behind the characters, making the descent of Magneto believable and sympathetic. Vaughan left the franchise afterwards, with Singer returning for Days of Future Past – a clever time-travelling plot again focussing on the characters and giving them believable arcs. The film also presented moral grey areas and notions of pre-determinism. Between them, the films had been intelligent ripostes to the “There’s the big bad guy, let’s go and punch the big bad guy” that the series had become.
So along comes X Men Apocalypse, and the film’s plot is essentially “There’s the big bad guy, let’s go and punch the big bad guy”. Believe me – I could not be more disappointed than I am for this. The plot is of the first mutant who existed in ancient times and was held unconscious in Egypt before being awoken in 1980. Hang on – I thought it was established that it was the nuclear age that unlocked the mutant gene? Ok… never mind… His power is the ability to take the abilities of other mutants… Hang on, so if there were others then why hadn’t they been seen for 2000 years? Ok, never mind… Meanwhile, in present day (well, 1983) Magneto is living with a young family in Poland. Hang on – he was last seen in America using his powers on TV in an attempt to murder the president! I get that he’s gone behind the Iron Curtain, but surely there’d have been some sort of border control to stop him leaving at the very least, if not a full blown hit squad!
I could go on in this vein, but there’s only so many words allowed on the internet and I fear I’d use them all autopsying the film in this manner. So as Apocalypse awakens, we’re treated to a whistlestop tour introducing the new cast. We meet the young versions of Storm, Cyclops and Jean Grey (with whom I had a game of What accent are you using?), as well as revisiting Nightcrawler and Angel (now given a new back story and aged an extra 20 years since TLS). Then there’s also Psy-Locke and Jubilee, the latter appearing for no other reason than to keep fans of the cartoon happy. Then there’s characters from previous films appearing – Quicksilver and Banshee are re-introduced, though it took me a while to remember who Banshee was. And you might think that introducing all these characters could kill the pacing. You’d be right.
Amongst all the introductions, Apocalypse wakes up, decides he doesn’t like the 20th Century and thinks the best way to resolve this is to destroy the world. He’s joined by young Storm, Psylocke and Magneto, who joins after his peaceful existence is ruined by the evils of man. And again, this is handled with care and delicacy of a neutron bomb in a china shop. The sides are set up – Apocalypse says join us, the X-Men say shan’t, CGI fisticuffs follow.
I could go on detailing the plot but it’s just too exasperating. Characters make decisions that frankly bewildered me and went against everything we knew before, and this is easily the least interesting of the films. The main problem is with the villain, who takes centre stage despite not being very interesting. In First Class, Sebastian Shaw was almost incidental as Xavier & Magneto’s relationship took the main focus. In Days of Future Past, Trask was an important plot device, but the film largely focused on the battle for Mystique’s soul. There’s none of this nuance in Apocalypse – a blown plot device with Quiksilver being Magneto’s son is the closest we get but is left bafflingly unresolved.
It seems likely that this could be the last X Men film featuring the main cast – the film seemed to be setting up for the next generation to take the lead from here on out and there are clearly still stories to tell for this. If this is the case it’ll be a shame – Lawrence, McAvoy and Fassbender deserved a far greater swansong for their talents.