In 2000, Bryan Singer shook Hollywood with X-Men: a blockbuster that dared to take comic book superheroes seriously and intelligently. Now, in 2016, he bequeaths us X- Men: Apocalypse – the most dire sabotage to the genre’s longevity and credibility we’ve seen since…well, X-Men Origins: Wolverine (and, amazingly, just as excruciating). My theory? Singer has consciously treated his fourth X-Men as a piece of holistic, self-reflexive, self-loathing performance art. You wanted an Apocalypse? You got one, all right.
You’d expect the film’s critical lambasting proceeding the airtight Days of Future Past to be hyperbole. But no – X-Men: Apocalypse really is THAT intolerable. Many have pointed to the film’s Return of the Jedi “the third one is always the worst” quip turned horribly ironic prophecy for the First Class trilogy. But what if this wasn’t just a smarmy, overconfident boast backfiring hilariously? What if the film is literally cheerfully prophesying its own awfulness?
Screenwriter Simon Kinberg (whose ongoing employment after penning both X-Men 3 AND 2015’s Fantastic Four speaks to a deep, virulent masochism on Fox’s part) meticulously collects Every. Single. One. of the superhero genre’s most loathed tropes, and rubs them in audience faces to such a nauseating extreme I felt a rash breaking out over my corneas. Oodles of stilted, snoozy exposition, and uber-serious self-important melodramatic posturing? Check. Risible, shoehorned-in love scenes? Yup (“I’m on a beach” is in danger of becoming the new “Martha” or “Brutasha” of boneheaded superhero movie maneuvers). A plot that careens from subplot to subplot like a drunken mosquito, each only in service in the interests of (sigh) universe building, yet still unreasonably stagnant and draggy? Oh yes. A climactic blow-out so bloated with incompetent, aimless CGI it nearly outdoes Hulk’s murky mess of a lake battle that then devolves into a literal, beat-by-beat remake of Fant4stic’s mortifying, rushed final boss battle? Oh COME ON. This is beyond surgical, histrionically poor filmmaking. This is Fox watching the world burn.
You can practically taste Singer’s desperation to ape as many iconic X-tropes as possible for fear that he won’t get another chance, including clumsily reintroducing his original roster, but it only makes the film more contemptuous. At one point the plot gets – literally – hijacked just to devote the film’s middle third to an extraneous William Stryker/Weapon X Hugh Jackman cameo. And yes, in spite of the material’s almost unquenchable coolness, it’s a dud too. Singer can’t even be bothered to keep up the campy, pop-art political subtext of the last two X-outings, despite the almost irresistibly spoofable Reagan administration. But, lest you find his film insufficiently profound, he has a peeved Magneto…um…destroy Auschwitz. Um. Wow. I’ll just let the seismic tastelessness of that sink in, and scuttle on.
Surely, you plead, there’s solace to be found in our beloved cast of lovable mutants? Not so. Most of the movie alternates between the cast of actor-props practicing their constipation stares as they feign telekinetically moving/dissolving things. By the final third, the main attraction is Jennifer “Speechsnoring” Lawrence, Rose Bryne, and Sophie Turner attempting to aggressively under-act one another (Turner wins; we have an actual contender for ‘worst blockbuster performance ever documented’. Just remembering her gives me a headache). Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops matches them in petulant overacting, and is just as hatable for it.
It almost defies belief seeing the X-Men’s single most formidable foe squandered to such an outstanding degree. Poor, poor Oscar Isaac. It’s offensive enough leaving Apocalypse bereft of any context or explanation for his powers, resurrection technology, or world-destroying motivation, but he’s so swaddled in mountains of torpid Power Rangers prosthetics, and given nothing to do but whisper and stand with his arms outstretched, we nearly forget about him while he’s still on screen in front of us. As he innocuously and politely assembles Alexandra Shipp, Ben Hardy, and Olivia Munn’s human action figures to stagnate around a desert with him (for HOURS.), CGI farts swirl around his visibly slight frame signifying his (unseen) menace. Shameful is far too feeble a word for this travesty.
The rest of the cast phone it in with furious nonchalance. Michael Fassbender in particular, doesn’t bother hiding his contempt at how often he stands around vacuously, stuck with a pathos subplot so strained he – literally – bellows at God. James McAvoy is on inappropriately but hysterically fine comedic form for the first third of the film before being reigned in as a googly-eyed morality platitude slot machine. We get glimmers of charisma from Evan Peters’ delightfully snarky Quicksilver (and yes, he gets another slow-mo scene. Satisfied?) and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s bashfully goofy Nightcrawler (even if 13 years of FX improvements make him and his ‘bamfing’ look even less credible than Alan Cumming in 2003). Naturally, Kinberg is clueless on how to use either to anywhere close to their full potential, sidelining both and saddling Quicksilver with a motivation so cumbersome you can feel Peters rolling his eyes as the words tumble sheepishly out of his mouth. Recognizable side characters like Tómas Lemarquis’ sassy Caliban intrigue, but are virtual nonentities.
Still doubt Singer’s willful self-destruction? Dig this: the earlier X-Men movies fiercely advocated for education and tolerance, employing violence only to stave off hate- crimes. Apocalypse ends with Lawrence’s MystiKatniss droning on the virtues of militarism Above All Else. Here is the death of Xavier’s dream – so dismal that the only worthwhile embers are lazy callbacks to moments done better in other Bryan Singer X-Men films (McAvoy and Fassbender virtually shed tears of embarrassment reenacting dialogue exchanges from X-Men 1). If this is the rejigged time-stream after Days of Future Past, they may as well ship Wolverine even further back in time to put the whole sodden franchise out of its misery.
3 out of 5 stars