Rating: ** (out of four)
Directed by Brian Singer
Screenplay by Simon Kinberg
Story by Bryan Singer, Simon Kinberg, Michael Dougherty, & Dan Harris
If I didn’t already know that Apocalypse was another Brian Singer outing, I would have sworn that it was the fifth Michael Bay Transformers installment after having somehow misplaced all the robots. Which is not to say that I didn’t like the first three of that series (even Age of Extinction was too much for me to stomach without the common narrative thread of Shia Labeouf, whom I can’t recall doing a damn thing since, come to think of it), but I went to Transformers, Revenge Of The Fallen, and Dark Of The Moon expecting the dramatic content to be thinner than microfiche; I didn’t buy my tickets for substance, but to see the live-CGI-action versions of the Hasbro ’80s cartoons I geeked out on in college.
As I always say, life is a function of expectations. And I do not go to Transformers movies with the same expectations as I do X-Men movies. Not by a long shot. And my expectations for X-Men movies are that they be substantively deeper than the kiddie pool at Munchkinland. Which Apocalypse was not.
Take its namesake and primary antagonist. Also known as En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), he is billed as the first mutant (which undercuts the premise of X-Men Origins: First Class, but we’re given no choice about ignoring that), a god-like being with so many powers as to appear functionally omnipotent. Which begs the question of how he amassed all those powers, or how it is that modern/contemporary mutants of devolved from him if he was the apex of mutantkind, or how long he’s actually been around, or if a goodly portion of his powers came from alien technology as the comic books tell it. We’re not given any such explanation, even as narrative exposition. All we get is an opening scene from ancient Egypt in which En Sabah Nur is being worshipped, and then preparing for a transfer of his consciousness to a younger body using some sort of alien contraption, when some of his followers turn on him, interrupt the consciousness transference, and entomb him in the bowels of the pyramid where the ceremony was taking place. Which doesn’t seem possible given that En Sabah Nur is functionally omnipotent and should be able to effortlessly save himself and atomize his betrayers, but without that plot contrivance there’d have been no movie.
Ditto En Sabah Nur still being alive in suspended animation in 1983, since if he had to migrate his consciousness from body to body as each one reached old age, the one he inhabited should have crumbled to dust millennia ago. But then, of course, if he was omnipotent, he’d have solved the entropy problem and wouldn’t need to body-hop in the first place, now would he?
Next we have the means by which he is revived: Sunlight. I’m not making that up. If I didn’t already know that Apocalypse was another Brian Singer outing, I would have sworn that it was a Zack Snyder sequel to Man Of Steel.
Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne), now a seasoned CIA agent, is infiltrating the latest incarnation of the En Sabah Nur cult in the context of counter-terrorism. Doing her Laura Croft impression (but without the huge bazooms), she opens the door to some kind of cellar that leads to that same alien mind transference gizmo, and the sun is at just the right angle in the sky to send a shaft of yellow brilliance straight onto the somnolent form of Apocalypse, who, of course, instantaneously awakens and uses his powers to remove the kilotons of debris from his person and surroundings from which he was somehow unable to protect himself over five thousand years before.
Next question: Why does a near-omnipotent being need a team of flunkies to work for him? I could cut to the chase and tell you right now, but where would the fun be in that? Let’s illustrate that answer with the all-time classic cartoon example of this phenomenon: Skeletor from He-Man & The Masters Of The Universe. Skeletor was hugely powerful and supposedly hugely intelligent, right? So why did he surround himself with bumbling oafs like Beastman and Merman (We know why he kept Evilyn around, but that show was rated Y-7, so they couldn’t even imply it to the kiddies)? Because when writers make the main antogonist too powerful, yet the bad guy must lose in the end, there have to be reasons for his defeat that do not directly undercut his functional omnipotence.
Another illustration comes to us from the world of professional wrestling. There have been instances in modern pro wrestling history of bookers building up heel stables like (yes, ironically in the context of this review) the NWA’s Four Horsemen and WCW’s nWo to such a level of dominance that their babyface opponents never got their heat back and were effectively discredited. At that point the only creative option remaining was to have the heel stable turn against itself.
Like Skeletor and “Nature Boy” Ric Flair and “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan, En Sabah Nur, the quasi-god-like being, immediately set off on the task of assembling a team of flunkies to work for him and guarantee the means of his own should-have-been-impossible- but-was-always-inevitable demise.
His first recruit? Ororo Munroe/Storm (Alexandra Shipp), a common street thief using her meteokinesis in Robin Hood-esque fashion after the example of her heroine, Raven Darkholme/Mystique, whom she came to idolize after the events of Days Of Future Past a decade earlier. Nur enhances her powers and turns her mohawk white, explaining where her hair color came from. His second horseperson is Psylocke (Olivia Munn), whose powers are forming light sabers with her mind and having a fantastic rack. She’s also the only one of the four who does not ultimately turn on their master. Recruit #3 is Warren Worthington III/Archangel (Ben Hardy), who is despondent after having lost a fight with Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi McPhee) after having defeated Fred Dukes/Blob, or in other words, an understandable state of mind. Nur turns his wings to metal, which doesn’t prevent his messy death in the final incoherent battle scene.
You’ll notice I had little to say about all three. That’s because I’m simply reflecting the script itself.
And the main event Horseman? Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Largely because Singer decided to use him in that role instead of Wolverine, as in the comic books, for whom Twentieth Century Fox has other plans. Does the swicheroo work here? Yeah, I guess. But only because the entire premise of the movie is so shallow and weak anyway that it really doesn’t make that much of a difference one way or the other.
Lensherr is the closest this film has to some genuine, meaty drama. Ten years after having made a bid, or at least threat, for world domination, The Most Wanted Man On The Planet (Remember, he’s still convicted of having assassinated JFK) has, somehow, become a working stiff in Poland, having gotten a job in a steel mill. He’s also gotten married and become the doting father of an adorable little girl that he obviously loves very much.
You can see where this is headed already, spoilers or no spoilers.
Lensherr, understandably paranoid of discovery and hyper-appreciative of the Xavier adage that anonymity is the first line of defense, commits the unpardonable brain fart of using his powers to save a coworker from what would otherwise have been a fatal accident. This apparently inspires his co-workers, who apparently have never seen a “wanted” sign in their lives, to take their first good look at him. Realizing his unpardonable brain fart, Lensherr rushes home and tells his wife to pack up and prepare to leave ASAP. Sure enough, the local cops show up shortly thereafter. Surprisingly, he is willing to turn himself in on the condition that his wife and daughter are left alone.
Remember how mutant powers first manifest in early adolescence in times of emotional distress? Remember how Lensherr’s own powers manifested when his own parents were taken away from him? Thus did little Nina Lensherr’s at the specter of her daddy being taken away from her, as set up in an earlier scene where he promises never to leave her as his parents were ripped away from him. So of course, the local cops witness this and one of them shoots and kills Nina and her mom with one tragically lucky shot.
It’s too much for Lensherr to take. His father, his mother, his wife, his daughter – “humans” have taken away everybody he’s ever loved. So he does what he’s always ultimately done: morph back into Magneto. He ferrokinetically beheads the local cops with the locket he gave his now-dead little girl, more in anguish than in anger. “IS THIS WHAT I AM?!?” he bellows at the sky, not unlike when Wolverine found Kayla Silverfox seemingly dead in the woods in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
The anger came later, when he realized that it was one or more of his co-workers at the steel mill that had to have ratted him out. So he goes there with the intent of murdering them all to avenge his family’s death….
….And then that whole subplot is summarily squashed and usurped by En Sabah Nur’s unscheduled appearance, Storm, Psyclocke, and Archangel in tow. Just as with the others, Nur plays on Lensherr’s grievances, almost casually and anti-climatically snuffing the latter’s co-workers, and enhancing his ferrokinesis to the point where he can literally rip the entire planet to shreds if he wanted to – or, rather, when Apolcalypse wants him to.
Had the movie focused on Lensherr, it would have earned a third star at least. But he was demoted to be Beastman, in essence, to Nur’s Skeletor. More’s the pity.
What is Nur’s objective? The apocalypse, of course. Armageddon. Total global extinction. Genocide of homo sapiens. Because evidently Nur doesn’t like the direction in which human civilization has “evolved” over the preceding fifty-six centuries he’s been “asleep,” so he’s going to wipe it out and start all over, Noah’s flood-like. Only using his “horsemen” to do the job for him. Somehow. But not with nukes, since he shoots every ballistic missile on the planet into deep space. I guess they were infringing upon his gimmick. Or he didn’t want to infringe upon Sebastian Shaw’s. Six of one and all that.
This “destroy everything!“/bwahahahahahaha! intent manifests itself, most conveniently for the plot, by a planet-wide earthquake that gets the attention of Professor X, prompting him to seek out his aforementioned former squeeze, Agent McTaggart, who, as you’ll recall, doesn’t remember ever having fallen in love with Xavier twenty-one years before because he wiped her memory of him. He then attempts to use Cerebro to find Apocalypse only to have the latter usurp his mind and powers and become obsessed with capturing him in order to transfer his consciousness into Xavier’s body. Which implies that for all his other powers, En Sabah Nur is not telepathic. Which seems awfully implausible, but again, the plot demanded it.
There being no other way to sever the Cerebro connection, Alex Summers/Havoc (Lucus Till) demolishes it with his force beams, setting off an explosion that destroys the X-mansion and would have slaughtered all of Xavier’s students, had not Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters) not fortuitously been present to rescue them all and give us another slow/fast-motion musical interlude. Maximoff was there to enlist Xavier’s help in finding his father….Magneto. Summers was there to enroll his
younger brother nephew, Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), in the “Xavier School For Gifted Youngsters” because the latter had almost killed one of his high school jock bully tormentors by accident.
Long story short, Havoc is presumed dead, although they never find his remains, all the students except for Cyclops, Nightcrawler (who is at the school after Mystique rescued him), and, yep, Jean Gray (Sophie Turner), who had a precognitive vision of all this madness (the OTHER factor that sends Xavier to McTaggert) and, yes, becomes Cyclops’ girlfriend, are captured by….now-Colonel William Stryker, one of whose Trask-derived gizmos detected the mutant-source of the X-mansion explosion. At the same time, Apocalypse and his “Horsepeople” beam in and kidnap the unconscious Xavier. Beast and Mystique, having no other options, link up with the four students and Nightcrawler teleports them onto the last of Stryker’s departing helicopters, where they discover too late that their powers have been neutralized by another of his anti-mutant doohickies.
Why was Stryker inserted into the plot? To set up the next sequel, of course. While incarcerated at Alkali Lake, the sextet’s inevitable escape brings them face to face with none other than Wolverine, in a different but equivalent iteration of the Weapon X program in which he didn’t escape like he did in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and was forced to do all the horrible things depicted in the comic books. Gray is able to telepathically restore at least some of his memories and probably plant the seed for their future unconsummated relationship.
Getting back to the Smurf From Hell, rather than simply possessing Xavier and being done with it, En Sabah Nur forces Xavier to telepathically monologue on his behalf, and that gives Xavier the opportunity to send a backdoor mental message to Jean Gray as to where he’s being held and what’s going on.
Short version: The good guys fight the bad guys, the bad guys should win because the good guys are “fighting a god,” but the good guys implausibly win anyway.
Long version: Mystique, Beast, Jean Gray, Cyclops, Nightcrawler, and Quicksilver manage to rescue Xavier before En Sabah Nur can possess him with the alien consciousness transference device, but not before it eliminates Xavier’s hair, explaining where his baldness came from (though not why he didn’t subsequently patronize the Hair Club For Men). Thereafter every good guy takes a crack at Apocalypse, and every one of them initially gets the upper hand, but is ultimately defeated, including Xavier. Quicksilver beats him up with his speed until Nur grabs him by the throat and breaks his legs. Xavier kicks his ass on the “astral plain” until Nur goes Giantman-at-Leipzig-Airport on him and proceeds to telepathically beat him to within an inch of his life. That’s when Xavier unleashes his secret weapon: Jean Gray’s Dark Phoenix powers, which, combined with the attacks of Cyclops and Magneto and Storm, finally overpower and incinerate Apocalypse once and for all. Which they really shouldn’t be able to do, but but Dark Phoenix is as good a MacGuffin as any, I suppose.
I didn’t buy Lensherr’s babyface turn (“I didn’t betray you, I betrayed them”) any more than I did his earlier heel turn. But while the latter was merely a tired rehash of previous movies, the former was completely implausible absent Quicksilver revealing himself to Magneto as his son. Learning that he did have family still living after all whose life he could save would have provided the motivation for his switching sides at the climatic point in the battle. Quicksilver chickening out made it pointless and arbitrary, as well as being annoyingly disappointing.
So where are the characters after this episode? How have they advanced and changed? Let’s see: Xavier is bald and might be dating Agent McTaggert again; Storm is now one of the X-Men, along with Cyclops and Jean Gray; but Quicksilver still hasn’t told Magneto of his parentage, Beast is pretty much the same, and Magneto is still a fugitive, refusing Xavier’s offer of a teaching position, although he does help Jean Gray re-build the X-mansion….much the same way that En Sabah Nur built the Egyptian pyramids. Nothing ominous about that, is there?
As to the world at large, millions are dead and much of the planet lies in ruins. But what do us Neanderthals matter? Heck, we’ll have all those nukes replaced before the next sequel, right?
The post-credits scene confirms the next sequel’s Wolverine-centricness. But I won’t spoil it for you. I’m thoughtful that way.