Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Apocalypse has all the ingredients of an abysmal film, yet entertains with its lively opera of poor decisions.
There is a scene of questionable taste in Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Apocalypse, in which blue-skinned villain En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac) and his “Four Horsemen” pay a visit to present-day Auschwitz. It’s easily viewed as a tacky and inappropriate use of real-world horror to tell a story about magical people with special powers to an audience of children and teenagers, but one positive thing is does represent is the constant, unrelenting desire of the X-Men franchise to be taken more seriously than their genre counterparts. The recent Captain America: Civil War aimed to tell an important political story, but suffered terribly from the air of frivolity it bore and the sense that it was- as most modern blockbusters are- made solely to sell toys. Bryan Singer is, for better or worse, a serious filmmaker, having tackled World War II and the Holocaust in several films to varying degrees of success. Even with a cast of ridiculous-looking comic-book characters to juggle, he has managed once again with Apocalypse to inject an admirable amount of dramatic weight into a film with overwhelming potential to be painfully weightless.
Singer’s biggest stroke of luck lies in his cast (many of whom, granted, are contractually obligated to appear): Michael Fassbender is an extraordinary thespian with the ability to make good of even the worst dialogue. Encumbered with appalling screenwriting, he manages to believably keep a brave face in every scene and- as a result- engage the audience’s attention during even the most stupid of exchanges. James McAvoy, the Young Professor X to Fassbender’s Magneto, has moved beyond the Patrick Stewart impersonation he flaunted in First Class and Days of Future Past and inhabits the troubled, tormented Xavier surprisingly well. These two standouts are, sadly, let down by some of their colleagues: Jennifer Lawrence has never looked less pleased to be in a film, while Oscar Isaac gives a truly terrible performance as a truly idiotic visual creation. To layer blue prosthetics and a silly voice onto one of the Hollywood’s most facially and vocally charismatic stars to the point of unrecognisability is a decision Singer will likely regret every remaining day of his life. Youthful franchise newcomers are scattered throughout as the teenage version of original X-Men characters: Alexandra Shipp is a lifeless Storm, while Sophie Turner and Tye Sheridan are satisfactory if unremarkable as Jean Grey and Cyclops. Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Nightcrawler is, however, one of the film’s greatest assets, joining Evan Peters’ Quicksilver as a new franchise favourite who Fox will likely never let go.
Apocalypse both opens and ends with incoherent Egypt-set action scenes, but the middle hour of the film is thoroughly enjoyable. There are strong references to, and atmospheric beats of, Singer’s X2– the finest X-Men film to date, and these breath a life into proceedings than 2014’s Days of Future Past (riddled with dual past/future storylines and an oversized cast) seriously lacked. Whenever Isaac’s Apocalypse isn’t on screen, this is quite a good film. Unfortunately, he’s on screen quite a lot.
Accepting the givens of the X-Men franchise takes a lot of work (it’s taken me the best part of a decade), but once one buys into a world of arbitrarily-gifted people played by actors who take the material far too seriously, it’s hard to truly dislike any instalment of this series. X-Men: Apocalypse is a surreal opera abundant in poor filmmaking decisions, yet it contains, deep within, a damaged soul that a cold marketing exercise like Captain America: Civil War can only envy to obtain.