This review contains spoilers.
I’m going to say this right now… I absolutely adore X-Men: First Class – the reboot that was helmed by Matthew Vaughn and which introduced a much younger cast of actors to assume the roles previously occupied by fan favourites Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. On this occasion, and in First Class, we were introduced to James McAvoy (as Professor Xavier) and Michael Fassbender (as Magneto) – both of which made an already great movie even more memorable via their powerful on-screen performances and chemistry. It also helped that the movie had an incredibly nuanced and powerful score (provided by Henry Jackman), as this leant credible weight to the more complex story-arcs that pervaded the film and which ensured that the viewer would more easily relate to the X-Men as characters that were motivated by more basic humanistic and emotional desires.
Thus we got to experience the full psychological devastation that was wrought upon Magento whilst he was still a child and as he witnessed his mother being assassinated in the Nazi concentration camps. And through Michael Fassbender’s incredibly multi-layered performance, we felt the same level of rage and helplessness that he experienced as he relives those all too brief moments that were brutally cut short between mother and child.
It’s moments like the above which really cement my love for First Class and why I consider the movie first and foremost as an intricate character study, and less of a bombastic (Michael Bay inspired) superhero action movie. And to be honest, Matthew Vaughn’s contribution to the superhero film landscape stands tall alongside Ram Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight as being amongst the very best of what the genre has to offer.
With X-Men: Days Of Future Past, I was disappointed to discover of Matthew Vaughn’s decision to not continue as Director, and was even more dismayed upon discovering that Bryan Singer would again be returning to the franchise in an active role. And whilst X-Men movie traditionalists would probably cite Bryan Singer as the more appropriate choice in terms of ensuring character lexicon and continuity, I however have never been extremely fond of the Singer-era X-Men movies. X2 was quite good, but when compared to X-Men (2000) and Superman Returns (2006), it’s quite clear that the second X-Men movie stands out as an anomaly and a lucky fluke that somehow managed to defy expectations. Indeed, some would argue that prior to X2‘s critical and commercial success, the only really good movie Bryan Singer had ever made (and what ultimately still allows his career to flourish as a somewhat in-demand director) is The Usual Suspects. In short, Bryan Singer’s inconsistent track record gives weight to the idea that he’s a glorified hack.
So imagine my surprise upon really liking Days Of Future Past. In fact, I would argue that it’s nearly as good as First Class, if not for its rather more subdued emphasis on character development alongside a comparatively more unmemorable soundtrack. Indeed, upon watching First Class in conjunction with Days Of Future Past earlier this week, I was struck by how big a factor the role of a good soundtrack plays in elevating the quality of a film. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that one of the pivotal strengths of a Michael Bay directed movie (despite the ire that it often receives from film critics) is its exceptional soundtrack.
With X-Men: Apocalypse as the latest continuation of the superhero franchise, as well as marking Bryan Singer’s second concurrent return as Director, I was looking forward to what the movie had in store for fans of the reboot. Sure, it couldn’t possibly hope to match the tonal quality of Matthew Vaughn’s more cerebral and emotionally weighted take on the mutant franchise, but I still expected Apocalypse to reach a similar threshold as set by Days Of Future Past. And how wrong I was, because X-Men: Apocalypse is boring and utterly devoid of many of the qualities that made the previous two franchise entries such memorable experiences.
For starters, and maybe I should have taken this as a sign of how frustrating my experience with Apocalypse would prove to be, but the 3D didn’t appear to be optimised during my viewing. And whilst the special effects would prove to be gorgeous throughout, and a veritable highlight of the film, it was hard to appreciate their splendour when I was finding myself having to constantly shake my head and adjust my eyes due to the movie’s inherent “double-vision”. At the same time, I honestly should have taken the lavish special effects as signalling a fundamental flaw that (stereotypically) pervades Hollywood blockbusters – namely one that constitutes a lack of character and plot.
Now I don’t want to belabour the point, but one of the shining hallmarks of First Class was its calibre of actors – especially the brilliant casting decision to get Michael Fassbender on board to portray Magneto. And without necessarily diminishing the importance and contribution of Ian McKellan – who leant a certain gravitas to Singer’s X-Men movies – I however believe that Michael Fassbender gave Magneto a much more emotionally weighted edge that was steeped in an irrational fanaticism borne out of his experiences in the holocaust. With a brooding intensity that is aptly conveyed via his piercing “reptilian stare”, Fassbender channels all the rage and burning desire to avenge the murder of his mother and right the wrongs inflicted upon him by humanity. Ultimately, and what makes him so believable, is that you understand his motivations, know where he is coming from, and root for him as the quintessential anti-hero who doggedly pursues his mission.
As a comic book franchise, X-Men found popularity for a wealth of reasons – most notably for depicting the every-day struggle of a minority group (mutants) that is heavily marginalised and discriminated against by society. But what catapulted the series into becoming an enduring pop-cultural phenomenon, including the production of films at a time when the superhero genre was largely derided by mainstream film-goers, was its relatable characters. With the nerdy Charles Xavier (Professor X) and holocaust survivor Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) modelled upon black civil rights leaders Martin Luthor King and Malcolm X respectively, X-Men spoke to all the outsiders and disenfranchised individuals who had experienced social rejection in one form or another.
But whilst rejection is the over-arching theme for why X-Men resonates with so many people, what made First Class so memorable (as an atypical blockbuster) was how it was able to imbue this within the context of a story that also explored themes of loneliness, hope, fear, distrust, love, selfishness, and power. In short, First Class was first and foremost an intricate character study, with Michael Fassbender himself stating it best that “a lot of the times I think with action films, the plot can be pretty weak because it’s taking a back seat to the action sequences and the special effects. What we wanted to do with X-Men was definitely the reverse of that. We wanted to really focus on the characters and the plot and then have the action sequence there to sort of enhance the story”.
With mutants being referred to as “Children Of The Atom” and as a by-product of radiation poisoning, it’s only fitting for the story to be based around the Cuban Missile Crisis. And with the stage being set for megalomaniac Sebastian Shaw to deploy nuclear warheads as part of his strategy to hasten the population increase of ‘Homo Superior’, there emerges a clear connotation between Sebastian Shaw (as archetypal super-villain) and Hitler who had his own racial theories on Aryan biological supremacy. Indeed, Sebastian Shaw himself played a key role during the Nazi regime when he worked as a scientist in the concentration camps and where he conducted medical experiments involving genetic research on prisoners – much like the dreaded ‘Angel of Death’ Dr. Josef Mengele.
All things considered, First Class did a fantastic job of offering a credible explanation as to why (Homo Superior) mutants were an emergent species, and also rationalised Sebastian Shaw’s racially supremacist motives and ideologies. But with Apocalypse teased at the end of the Singer-directed Days Of Future Past, as well as finding out as to how he increased his litany of powers in Apocalypse (which implied that mutants have always co-existed with humans throughout the ages), I was somewhat disappointed with how Bryan Singer and his writing team had retconned the originally proposed mutant evolutionary theory.
I was also disappointed with how Apocalypse was portrayed as a villain. Whilst it is true that his character sought to rule the world and possessed similar levels of megalomania as Sebastian Shaw, his motivations for doing so weren’t as credible or as intriguing. Maybe this is because I genuinely like Kevin Bacon as an actor and really enjoyed his performance as Sebastian Shaw, whereas I didn’t even know as to who Apocalypse was until the credits sequence when I discovered that it was Oscar Isaac (under all the costumed prosthetics makeup). But even then, and using the example of Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight, it doesn’t matter if the actor is unrecognisable as long as the character they’re portraying is well-written and is convincing in conveying their emotions. In Apocalypse’s case however, and behind the expensive facade that his prosthetic mask represented, the only emotion he adequately conveyed was via his eyes – therefore ensuring that he wasn’t able to make audiences suspend disbelief as the film-makers had intended.
The mark of a good villain is someone who one either comes to like or dread, yet is eminently watchable and has believable motives in pursuing their wrongdoing. In Sebastian Shaw’s case, we found him to be a charismatically powerful individual who was convinced that humans presented a credible threat to the survival of mutants and who wanted to ensure the eradication of Homo Sapiens in favour of Homo Superior as the master race. The Joker however instilled a far more primal feeling of fear by being so unpredictably crazy and this behavioural psychology stemmed from his resolute conviction that civilisation was nothing more than a mere social construct through which people were always on the brink of tearing themselves apart.
In First Class, there is a certain nuance and richness to each individual’s characterisation, immeasurably aided by an expertly crafted world building lore. One is also given ample time to determine the extent of each mutant’s powers. But with Apocalypse however, one is never able to determine as to how powerful he is – even until the end climactic battle when he only demonstrates a glimmer of what he’s capable of. Indeed, and with very little justification, there’s always the feeling that Apocalypse’s presence is liberally sprinkled in throughout the movie because the writers need a place-holder for a villain, yet aren’t able conjure up the necessary creativity that legitimates his existence as someone with clearly delineated abilities. This is clearly the mark of a weak script as the story is unable to maintain consistency, where the writers (like Simon Kinberg) make things up as they go along, without taking the necessary time to reflect on what effect certain mutant powers would have on society and the world.
But even with a hastily assembled script, and without necessarily earmarking X-Men: Apocalypse for its incongruous plot deficiency that is unable to explain the main villain’s lack of three dimensional character (including an absence of flaws and internal conflicts), there are other characters within the production sphere as well, such as the award winning Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy. What about their on-screen “McFassy” bromance and how does this develop on from First Class and Days Of Future Past?
To be honest, the relationship between Magneto and Professor X isn’t explored until a lot later in the film, after which there’s hardly any screen time shared between the two friends and arch rivals. A disappointing turn of events, especially considering that the bond between the two individuals was one of the more instrumental factors in making the two previous movies successful – because audiences wanted to see as to what would happen next, and how certain events would help shape the world view and dynamic between the two mutants.
And that’s the problem with all of the featured characters in Apocalypse – including Apocalypse himself. Whereas previously with First Class, the ensemble cast was purposefully kept small so as to allow the writers to focus on the plot and story, Apocalypse however crams in so many characters – some of whom that are superfluous to the film’s proceedings – that a certain amount of claustrophobia hangs over the entire production. With an inherent feeling of disposability to each character, not least because of an insufficient amount of screen time for them to forge an emotional bond with audiences before being killed off, there’s always the sense that the film lacks the necessary thematic continuity to engage viewers. Indeed, with so few of the cast from First Class returning, gone is the raw drama and character-centric historical perspective that would have engaged and invested film-goers in the story arc.
Whereas previously in First Class and Days Of Future Past, whenever a character died (such as Darwin and Iceman), the emotional weight of their death was always tinged with sadness – no matter how short our journey was with them. There was a certain nobility to their actions and eventual demise, and because of good writing that was accentuated with an emotionally powerful score, we pined for them as fallen heroes. This was also true of the villains, and in Sebastian Shaw and Trask, we realised that everyone was compellingly written and that each individual received the same level of attention and care so as to allow the actors to give their best performances. However, whenever someone dies in Apocalypse, their finality in death often comes across as due to plot convenience and any resultant emotions that one could have felt is now rendered as being contrived and insincere.
As a team based mutant franchise, and due to the level of emotional depth and complex characterisation that goes into the individuals, I vastly prefer the Vaughn and Singer directed X-Men (First Class and Days Of Future Past) movies in comparison to the Marvel Cinematic Universe Avengers franchise. Indeed, and unlike the Marvel Avengers series, where the action and dramatisation is much more light-hearted and generally of an accord that gears itself towards children, the X-Men movies aren’t afraid of nailing their masts on the wall and tackling real world problems. They have a much more mature take on superheroes, and like Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman, transcend the genre by absolving themselves of many of the perceived limitations of comic books. This is evident throughout the two movies, and as an example, can be seen when Magneto gives his rousing speech near the end of Days Of Future Past – a moment that convinces (despite its brevity) that Marvel Cinematic Movies don’t share the same ideals in terms of storytelling.
It’s a pity then that despite the previous two X-Men movies having created their own distinctive style and signatory feel, the film-makers felt as if they had to ape much of what constitutes an Avengers movie. This was unnecessary, as the X-Men franchise has always been known as an allegory to real world conflicts and how these are experienced by minority groups in terms of individual and group identity politics (as outsiders). Yet, this thematic issue is quickly jettisoned half way through Apocalypse in favour of a style more reminiscent of the Avengers, where the covert mutant struggle is quickly eschewed in favour of a more bombastic-laden approach that serves up a villain who poses a global threat, yet isn’t very compelling as he doesn’t have much nuance or conviction behind his motives.
As someone who doesn’t read the comics, it’s unfair of me to comment on the appeal of some of the X-Men mutants who appeared in First Class. Certainly, the likes of Tempest and Banshee proved to be unpopular enough so as to not reappear in Days Of Future Past. But with so many of the mutants from the sequel also not reprising their roles (such as Blink, Banshee and Warpath), it does feel as if the film-makers have failed to capitalise upon the groundwork that they helped establish in the earlier movies. Not only does this ensure a lack of continuity, but as stated earlier, also fails to emotionally connect audiences with the new characters of Apocalypse. And with so many new mutants in the fray, who go on to form a new incarnation of the X-Men team, one does feel as if the world building efforts of the previous two movies are unabashedly wasted.
Where once there lay the opportunity for continuity and coherence, now there only lies confusion. And with many of the disjointed and dysfunctional individuals of previous movies having been jettisoned in favour of establishing an all new ensemble that’s (much more) squeaky clean in comparison, Apocalypse orients the X-Men franchise as being more in tandem with Avengers and how that franchise presents a far more scrupulous (family friendly) image for its super-heroes.
But that’s the problem… The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been establishing the story arcs of each of its super-heroes since 2008, which is why the Avengers movies feel so organic. There’s been plenty of time for the main protagonists to breathe and to comfortably gel within their roles. However, with Apocalypse earnestly wanting to emulate the Avengers movies, by hastily assembling a retrofitted cast, the film does come across as being incredibly busy, where none of the characters have ample screen time to breathe. So much is going on, with the pacing often feeling rushed, that there’s very little room for character development. And by the time the villain gives audiences a mere glimpse of what he’s capable of, the film is practically over.
Some would argue that I am being too hard on the X-Men movies, as they have also had sufficient time to establish themselves – with the first movie coming out in 2000. However, with First Class serving as both a prequel and a soft reboot that helped introduce audiences to fresher faced takes of Magneto and Charles Xavier, it’s somewhat distasteful to consider that many of characters who originally appeared in First Class didn’t make it to Apocalypse. Indeed it could be argued that whilst the movie franchise is established, many of the characters within the movies (apart from a few notables) aren’t. There’s no sense of shared history, where audiences feel as if they have been on a journey with the character. And it’s the deprivation of this core traditionalist philosophy, together with the utter lack of care on how some of the characters have been handled, that renders Apocalypse as being the weakest of the present trilogy. A soullessly cynical cash-in which, when viewed contextually, and after what Matthew Vaughn was able to achieve as well as how good Days Of Future Past was, deserves better than the treatment it’s received.
As a comparison, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy never suffered from this problem as the Writer/Director clearly had lot of respect for the source material. This level of respect also extended to the actors who, apart from Heath Ledger’s understandable absence from The Dark Knight Rises, reprised many of their roles across the three movies – with Cillian Murphy himself making a cameo appearance in the trilogy finale as Dr. Jonathan Crane. Indeed, it was the level of care and attention to detail that allowed Nolan to get such a high performance out of his team. A level of dedication and craftsmanship that’s sadly lacking from Apocalypse, with many of the actors giving half-hearted performances to the extent that some have even accused Jennifer Lawrence of phoning it in.
In closing, and despite one’s apparent bias as someone who adored First Class (as well as someone who also really liked Days Of Future Past), I consider Apocalypse to be both a hugely missed opportunity as well as a crushing disappointment for those who wanted to see the trilogy end on a high. The film squanders much of the potential of its hugely talented cast, and with Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, and Nicholas Hoult’s contracts all up for renewal, it’ll be interesting to see as to whether Fox Pictures can convince any of them to return. But what’s not up for debate however is how much of a serious mis-fire Apocalypse represents, and how much more of a concerted effort Fox and its X-Men team will have to put in in order to make sure that any future X-Men movies live up to critical scrutiny and consumer expectation.