This review may contain minor spoilers.
Fittingly, ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’ is a film that relies heavily on gene-splicing. Bryan Singer’s second mutant trilogy conclusion plays out like the original three films on a comeback tour: we have the the heavy-handed Holocaust memorial of the first film; the snowy locations and Jean Grey sub-plots of ‘X2’, and the CGI-reliant, inconsequential deaths of ‘The Last Stand’. The latter film is openly mocked in one scene, as one of the X-Kids, after seeing ‘Return of the Jedi’, claims that the ‘third film is always the worst’. Thank En Sabeh Nur, then, that ‘Apocalypse’ just about avoids this seemingly inevitable doom.
We begin in Ancient Egypt, with a silly but enjoyable origin tale that is a bad computer-generated jackal away from looking like a deleted scene from ‘The Mummy Returns’. In fact, there is more than a little about this opening that recalls the days when Brendan Fraser could front a franchise, not least the conciousness-swapping that gives baddie Apocalypse the body of Oscar Isaac (but still, alas, the costume and colour of Ivan Ooze). Like its predecessor, ‘Days of Future Past’ this first set-piece and the following scenes do well to remind us that the X-films are about genetics, rather than technology. For the first time, we see the plight of Scott Summers (soon to be Cyclops) as he discovers that seeing is incinerating, and again Singer explores mutation as an allegory for hormonal shifts, racial discrimination and celebrating one’s idiosyncrasies, even if they do mean that you might burn a hole in the school bully.
Certainly, for the first third of the film, Singer does a superb job of managing various locations and characters. We teleport from Westchester to Cairo to Poland to East Berlin (this being the 80s, there is bondage wear-aplenty) to catch up with Charles Xavier’s gifted youngsters and some new recruits; each individual story is delicately handled, particularly Magneto’s unfortunate smelting accident, the consequences of which are wholly unsurprising but still moving. Unlike in Avenger-based hero films, the narrative threads here don’t merely punctuate fight scenes in exotic locations; they truly feel as if they are building to something, well, apocalyptic.
All of this foundation-laying is bearable as each scene is incredibly zippy, helped by vigorous performances from old-hands and newbies alike. Charles and Hank McCoy (now un-Beasted, which is far too similar to The Hulk for me) tie the whole thing together, and are aided by competently confident turns from Sophie Turner as Jean Grey (gingers of the world, rejoice), a nervous Tye Sheridan as Cyclops and Kodi Smit-McPhee, whose Nightcrawler is blue in skin tone only and does not stray too far from Alan Cumming’s naive, genuflecting iteration. Elsewhere, Evan Peters’ Quicksilver adds predictable fun, taking us on a whizz-tour of Ms. Pacman and The Eurythmics, leaving no time to ponder his hastily shunted-in daddy issues (clue: Dad repels rather than attracts).
Unsurprisingly, not every character has room to flex their genetically modified muscles. Magneto and Mystique here are nothing on McKellen and Romijn’s erotic double act, largely because the latter has been transformed into Katniss Ever-Blue, a monotonous freedom fighter, while the former is reduced to a single-tear emoji. Meanwhile, part of Apocalypse’s vibe is that he needs four helpers to try out his new suit designs and stand behind him in purple portals, and so we are ‘treated’ to the Four Horsemen, who should have been shot at the first fence. No one would think that Ben Foster’s narrow-shouldered version of Angel from ‘The Last Stand’ would be the best on screen, but in truth Ben Hardy’s attempt falls flat on his face instead of soaring majestically into the sun. Similarly, the most interesting thing about Olivia Munn’s Psylocke is her outmoded costume, which looks like the kind of thing a ‘Treat Yourself’ girlie wears at a Marbella beach club. And while it is nice to finally see Storm with an African accent, Alexandra Shipp is here not so much thunderbolt and lightening as cold February drizzle.
All of this would not matter if their main man could carry the film, but this is quite easily Oscar Isaac’s worst performance to date. After seeing his moves in ‘Ex Machina’, is seems a mighty shame to restrict the snake-hipped hunk in a metallic suit, sporting the head of baby with cradle cap. Apocalypse, for at least two thirds of the film, is a ludicrously camp villain, and unfortunately reminiscent of Arnie’s Mr Freeze. His disturbance at the false gods of the capitalist world is potentially meaty, but quickly shunted aside in favour of mindless destruction and standing around in the desert. In fairness, there are some moments where he is terrifying, particularly early in the film where he stalks around Egypt looking like a Sith lord and makes market traders melt into the ground, but eventually he becomes a kind of empty evangelist, spouting pithy lines about ‘children’ and ‘cleansing’. As a result of this misdirection, the film sags in the middle, and thus a pointless Alkali Lake fight in the second act (guess the cameo) looks even more like Singer and Co. are stalling for time until the final, city-razing battle.
Ah yes, just a small word on the destruction of buildings, if I may. As aforementioned, Singer has made no apology for directly referencing the Holocaust in this franchise, and generally speaking he has made sensitive and important links. However, ‘Apocalypse’ is by no means a film of nuance, and one wonders whether a scene in which Magneto literally obliterates Auschwitz is too bombastic, bordering on offensive. Perhaps it is the ludicrousness of seeing a purple testicle and Olivia Munn’s minge sharing a frame with arguably the most evil place in human history, or perhaps it’s the sledgehammer approach to Magneto exorcism of his Nazi demons; either way, it feels pretty wrong, and turns the atrocities of the 1940s into a boo-hoo issue for one man.
Thankfully, ‘Apocalypse’ regains its raison d’etre in the final battle, which is almost as impressive as ‘Civil War’ in its hero-on-hero action. While occasional scenes in a secret bunker try to convince us that this is a worldwide issue, the film is stronger for keeping the climax intimate, with a series of rather inventive wrestles: Nightcrawler and Angel poof through the Cairo sky, while Psylocke tries to tame the Beast. Unlike most Hollywood showdowns, it’s surprising until the end, largely due to Apocalypse’s perceived invulnerability and the decision to take the combat into the subconscious. Weirdly, it is when freed from the constraints of the real world that Oscar Isaac’s villain is allowed to truly stretch his 5000-year-old legs, while it also gives Charles a chance to do more than just point to his temple. At the end of days, ‘Apocalypse’ is an outrageous mess, but Singer ensures that there is just enough rapture to be found in the Rapture.