Review: X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

Are we rebooting or not? This mess thinks it’s a stand-alone film, acts more like an episode in a series, and leans on the mutually exclusive traits of both.

For any of the characters to make any sense at all, the film depends on you having already seen all the previous X-Men movies, whose continuity this film then takes liberties with, usually with no clear intent or substantial effect. For example, we need to have seen Days of Future Past in order to understand why Mystique is a legend – because this film doesn’t show or earn it. We need to remember back to First Class to even recognise ’80s haircut Havoc, who barely appeared in the intervening Days…, much less to feel any loss when he dies (off screen) here… ugh, what a mess.

Side note: why are these films set decades apart when the actors clearly barely age?

Other characters, such as Quicksilver, Kurt Wagner and Jean Grey in particular, rely heavily on your knowledge of them from other, now non-canonical movies to at least fill in the shading, and at most provide any sense of portent, of their personalities, appeal and arcs. This would be fine if this were a strictly episodic film – and yet the majority of these characters were introduced and endeared to us through other films whose storylines this reboot series has explicitly told us to forget. Specifically, nothing about Jean Grey in this movie makes any sense without Last Stand, which the movies since then – this trilogy specifically – have actively sought to make redundant. So: is this a reboot or not? ‘Apocalypse’ tries to have it both ways, in a way that First Class at least acknowledged (albeit clumsily) and Days… steamrolled over (how is Charles alive? If it’s not his original body, how is he in a wheelchair? “Who cares?” replies Days…, “This story’s so good, it’ll make overlooking those things worth it, we’re promised.” And, I’d argue – I have argued – that promise is made good on).

How is Apocalypse the villain? We’re told, sure, but what are we shown?

This film’s dependence on its predecessors really shows in the way that the new characters (re-)introduced here, who are treated no differently than the more established ones, aren’t really characters at all. Storm, Psylocke, Angel – what do we know or see of any of them? Powers and makeovers. Magneto comes closest to having a self-contained arc within this film, and even that doesn’t make sense. We’re introduced to a tragic figure who lacks a tragic end – or an end of any kind. His family is taken from him, his vengeance drives him to genocidal acts, and then… the horrors he commits are forgotten by the film’s end. The TV news somehow identifies him as having played a role not in creating but averting the apocalypse (?!), and Xavier bids his “old friend” farewell. This is the same Xavier who, just one movie ago, threw Magneto to the wolves for threatening one life (yes, it was the President’s, but still: one, not billions). What? Yes, he’s the product of apalling horrors in Auschwitz – but again, his “arc” feels balanced only if you’ve seen his origin portrayed repeatedly throughout the X-Men movies, not within this movie alone. Let’s be clear: he’s committed genocide – and yet everyone (the world, the other X-Men, even the film) seems fine with that.

By comparison: how is Apocalypse the villain? Again: we’re told, but what are we shown? We see him kill a handful of people (fewer than we see Wolverine kill in this movie alone), and his only other major act is to rid the world of all arms in one grand gesture. And everyone else is terrified by this? The glimpses we get of his potential power are truly terrifying, but then so too are most mutants’ powers, so…?

The viewer is expected to have invested an awful lot of time and memory in the X-Men movies, and yet is barely rewarded, and often insulted, for any of that effort.

All this might work if Apocalypse were strictly an episodic film, which actually remained true to its own continuity. Highlighting just how unaware of itself this film is compared to how self-aware it thinks it is, Apocalypse makes a depressingly ironic reference to Return of The Jedi, which at least is the conclusion of a single narrative. This film IS the worst of its trilogy, not least due to it throwing in so many gratuitous twists and “knowing” winks to things it needs you to simultaneously remember and forget in order for it to work. One small example: if you know Days… really well, then you know the twist at the very end, where Wolverine is picked up by Stryker who turns out to be Mystique – a potential cliffhanger, certainly a new wrinkle. Is that referenced at all here? We find Wolverine (whom the new characters do not need to meet at this point) in the real Stryker’s Weapon X program, and Mystique nowhere nearby to confirm or deny they’d ever even encountered eachother, much less address or even hint at what may have transpired in the 13 intervening years. The viewer is expected to have invested an awful lot of time and memory in the X-Men movies, and yet is barely rewarded, and often insulted, for any of that effort.