IF YOU WOULD LIKE further proof that the incessant adaptation to film of tired comic book franchises has gone a tad too far, sit through the latest offering in Bryan Singer’s X-Men series.
It’s bigger, it’s bolder, it’s badder. It’s even called Apocalypse, for goodness’ sake. And, most of all, it’s really boring.
If you have forgotten the events of the second instalment in the prequel trilogy, Days of Future Past, I do not blame you. After all, it was instantly forgettable. Apocalypse begins in Ancient Egypt, where we are informed via voiceover by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) that the first mutants were revered as deities. Then, just in case you weren’t paying attention, we see the familiar figures of the Ancient Egyptian pantheon inside a pyramid, standing around a supine figure on a stone slab. The figure is En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), who is betrayed by his treacherous followers and enters a thousand-year-long sleep before being woken up in the modern day by a group of cultish idiots, at which point he promptly tries his very best to end the world.
Mercifully, Apocalypse saves us the tedious origin stories, instead introducing most of the major characters––Cyclops, Angel, Jean Grey and Nightcrawler among them––neatly in a five-minute, globe-trotting whip-around. There are familiar faces, too, notably Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who now has a young family and is living a happy, humble life in Poland. No prizes for guessing how that turns out for him.
Somehow, nobody in a modern Egyptian medina notices our eponymous villain, who looks like a Pleistocene Senator Palpatine moonlighting as backup for the Blue Man Group, as he taps up a mohawk-sporting Storm, who is using her weather-control superpower––badly––to steal from the vendors. Apocalypse subsequently goes on a recruitment drive, winning over young mutants by levelling up their existing powers and kitting them out in fetish gear.
It was about midway through, at the time that Pleistocene Palpatine begins making a fire-and-brimstone speech about humanity’s various shortcomings, that I started to wish for an actual apocalypse, and even a scene involving flying missiles and the sound of Beethoven’s glorious seventh symphony failed to capture my interest, let alone imbue the film with the drama it desperately needed.
For reasons I haven’t quite determined, Apocalypse is jam-packed with references to the original trilogy and to the pop culture of the Eighties period in which the film is set. Nightcrawler, who looks to be returning from a Bullet For My Valentine gig, wears Michael Jackson’s iconic red Thriller jacket on a trip to the mall suggested by Scott Summers, who channels Ferris Bueller in his thick quartz sunglasses. The film also alludes, rather heavy-handedly, to modern-day issues such as mass surveillance, hacking and nuclear proliferation. The CIA, Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne) notes, would kill to get their hands on Charles Xavier’s mass-mind-reading machine, Cerebro. Listen carefully, and you can almost hear Edward Snowden bashing his head against the wall of his shack in the Russian wilderness.
Nevertheless, Apocalypse does have its moments. Quicksilver (Evan Peters) steals the show for the second X-Men film on the trot––in one scene, he zips around at supersonic speed to the dulcet synth-pop tones of Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams. There’s humour, too, which comes courtesy of James McAvoy’s hirsute young Xavier, still a welcome departure from Patrick Stewart’s kindly old Professor X. of the original trilogy, and one of the best things about the film. It is no spoiler to say that everyone’s favourite wisecracking Canadian mutant shows up to dish out a little violence. It isn’t quite on the level of his killing spree during the raid on the school in X2, but it is, nevertheless, one of the best action sequences of the film.
The great strength of the X-Men comics has always been to render concepts such as prejudice, racism, segregation and alienation understandable and relatable to young audiences (“everyone fears that which they do not understand,” Xavier tells Jean Grey) but Apocalypse devolves very early on into your camp, garden-variety, spandex-and-explosions superhero tedium, totally devoid of subtlety or self-awareness and overly preoccupied with blunt references to pop culture and the issues du jour. It’s a joyless struggle that makes a mid-season episode of Stargate look like high cinema and lets down a very strong cast of actors with a stilted, humourless script. Die-hard fans of the X-Men may well enjoy the film, but for the casual movie fan, I say save your shekels and your time.