With a major new superhero film released almost every other month across 2016 – Deadpool, Batman v Superman, Captain America, Suicide Squad, Doctor Strange – it seems strange to think that the franchise which launched the modern era of comic based movies was not released by either of the major studios now associated with that genre, Marvel or DC, but by 20th Century Fox, and that despite the reputation of the X-brand, Bryan Singer’s X-Men was considered a risk before it was released in 2000.
Strange also to consider that Charles Xavier’s band of world saving mutants were almost entirely derailed by the bungled monstrosity of Brett Ratner’s The Last Stand in 2006, a film so loathed that the studio took the unprecedented move of “doing a Bobby Ewing,” not only ignoring it but actively wiping it from the timeline with the events of 2014’s Days of Future Past.
Astonishingly, Apocalypse is the conclusion of the second trilogy, the ninth overall in the universe taking into account the two solo outings of Wolverine and Deadpool‘s visit to Xavier’s school, but any apprehension of a repeat of the previous closing chapter is misplaced.
When Jean Grey (brilliantly played for the first time by Sophie Turner, Game of Thrones‘ Sansa Stark in a younger, more hesitant version than that of Famke Janssen) and her schoolmates exit the cinema having been disappointed by Return of the Jedi and she comments the third film is always the weakest it is still a lack of forgiveness for The Last Stand she expresses, not a plea that this film should be treated gently.
Having survived the sixties and the irradiated heat burning beneath the cold war in First Class and danced with danger in the seventies and the far future in Days of Future Past, ten years have passed since the mutants were revealed to the world following the incident at the Paris Peace Accords and what followed.
It is now 1983, and the undercurrent of fear and resentment of the mutants in our midst is ever present; in high school in Ohio, a young man named Scott Summers (Mud‘s Tye Sheridan) is labelled as “disruptive” by his unsympathetic teacher, but she doesn’t know the half of it. Fortunately Scott’s older brother, Alex (Stoker‘s Lucas Till), attends a special school and is able to get Scott accepted, where he is reassured by the calming presence of Professor Charles Xavier (Wanted and Victor Frankenstein‘s James McAvoy) and Hank “Beast” McCoy (Warm Bodies and Mad Max: Fury Road‘s Nicholas Hoult)
In East Berlin, Warren “Angel” Worthington (Ben Hardy) and Kurt “Nightcrawler” Wagner (The Road and Let Me In‘s Kodi Smit-McPhee) are forced to fight in an electrified arena for the entertainment of the locals; Raven “Mystique” Darkhölme (The Hunger Games‘ Jennifer Lawrence) intervenes, attempting to ensure Kurt passage to safety.
Erik Lensherr (Prometheus and Macbeth‘s Michael Fassbender) is older and quieter having given up his plans for world domination and retired into self-imposed exile in Poland, working in a steel plant, happily anonymous until events across the world conspire to reveal his identity and shatter his happiness.
In Cairo, CIA agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) is investigating a cult, a hijab being a great disguise when nobody expects a woman wearing one to be a threat. There, under the streets, lying buried in the rubble of a collapsed pyramid for five and a half millennia, is En Sabah Nur, betrayed by a rebellion of those who believed him to be a false god. His awakening will shake the world, and in distant Westchester County, Jean will similarly awaken from a nightmare, a vision of the world ending in flames brought on by the rising of the first mutant who will come to be known as Apocalypse.
In his fourth X-Men film, returning director and series originator Bryan Singer is working with a fantastic ensemble, McAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence, Hoult and Till now on their third outing as these characters in the five years since they attended First Class, and there is a definite sense that Apocalypse is the ending of a second trilogy, paths chosen long ago coming to their destination, words spoken long ago recalled in the light of present events, past misdeeds now requiring atonement or forgiveness.
That said, there are a lot of introductions weighing down this film, not only of new characters such as the devastating Elizabeth “Psylocke” Braddock (Deliver Us From Evil‘s Olivia Munn) and the underused Jubilation “Jubilee” Lee (Lana Condor), but of actors new to established roles, not only Turner, Sheridan, Hardy and Smit-McPhee but House of Anubis‘ Alexandra Shipp as Orora “Storm” Munroe, whose super power is to generate more character and impact in one film than Halle Berry did in four.
Almost unrecognisable under his makeup and costume, Óscar Isaac’s En Sabah Nur is understated, a far cry from the overbearing Nathan Bateman of Ex Machina and the cocky pilot Poe Dameron of The Force Awakens, his great power and assurance needing little outward expression: he knows that he is a god who walks among men, why should be concerned with demonstrations of that which he has no doubt, who would it benefit?
Leading the show are McAvoy, Fassbender and Lawrence, each with their own story, Charles still refusing to give up on humanity no matter the cost, Erik now composed solely of pain, Raven striking out on her own without either of her former mentors, though turning to the former for help when the latter is in trouble; unlike the contrivances of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and, to a lesser extent, Captain America: Civil War which required artificial antagonism, these are believable adults who can disagree while remaining friends.
Singer handles the eighties well, present in the fashion, particularly Nightcrawler’s Michael Jackson jacket, but never overpowering, though the specific pop cultural commentary dates from fifteen years before, a rerun of an episode of Star Trek, the return of a god to a modern scientific age demanding worship and sacrifice from a population who no longer require him in Who Mourns for Adonais?
With the varied locations of the film digitally tinted to give a more stylised appearance, the life and colour bleached out of Auschwitz, the deep reds heightened in the many emotional scenes, the wanton destruction of the final act could have been reined in somewhat without diminishing impact, though it does have the advantage over Man of Steel in that the viewer is at least invested in the characters.
Being a strictly linear narrative, Apocalypse suffers from an absence of the plot twists and convolutions of Days of Future Past, the nick-of-time showcase of Evan Peters’ Peter “Quicksilver” Maximoff offered here a less effective rerun of his scene-stealing jailbreak in that near-masterpiece, and it lacks the ebullient joy of First Class, but even so it is a satisfying conclusion to both the trilogy and the overall sequence. If this is indeed our last lesson – certainly for the time being – it is a good place to leave our friends, with classes back on at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.
X-Men: Apocalypse is now on general release and also screening in 3D and IMAX