X-Men: Apocalypse

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE. James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac. Directed by Bryan Singer. 144 minutes. Rated M (Frequent action violence and infrequent coarse language).

The ‘X-Men’ films have always been a curious proposition. They are made under the banner of Marvel Comics, but are produced by Fox outside of the Marvel Comic Universe, which is now owned and operated by Disney. Tonally, they tend to rest somewhere between the dour gloom of recent DC Comics films (see the joyless ‘Batman v Superman’) and the lighter (albeit more intelligent) popcorn thrills of the MCU, blending their fantastic elements with grounded social commentary aimed largely at discrimination. As such, they’ve always felt fresh (with the exception of 2006’s misguided ‘The Last Stand’). With ‘Apocalypse’ however, some of that newness – always an elusive commodity – feels missing by the time the denouement lumbers forth. It’s a well-crafted and decently acted blockbuster, however it doesn’t quite stand out from the current, superhero-saturated marketplace.

The opening scene takes place in Ancient Egypt, where an all-powerful, blue-faced mutant named En Sabah Nur is undergoing a ritual in the heart of a pyramid, transferring his consciousness into a new body. When several citizens attempt to destroy this ‘false idol’, his four super powered followers spring into action, managing to shield his new body as the structure disintegrates around them. Though the four are fatally crushed, their leader is safely encased in a rocky tomb where he will slumber for several millennia.

Jumping forward to the 1980’s, editor John Ottman and writer Simon Kinberg work to efficiently re-establish where our characters have ended up after the events of the 1970’s set ‘Days of Future Past’. Professor X (James McAvoy) and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) are still running the School for Gifted Youngsters as a mutant haven, Magneto (Michael Fassbender) has decamped to Poland where he lives a simple, secret life with his new wife and daughter, and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is saving young mutants from underground fight clubs in Berlin. Younger versions of characters last seen in the first trilogy are also introduced. Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) has just developed his uncontrollable laser-eyes, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is scratching the surface of her immense abilities, and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McFee) is one of Mystique’s rescued Berliner kids. This trio plus a bevy of other familiar characters end up under Professor X’s care.

The size and value of the cast – of which the names above represent perhaps one half – is frankly overwhelming. This reviewer can’t help but sense that, without prior knowledge of their performances or characters in previous entries, they would struggle to register distinctly with viewers. There is simply too much to cover, even in a two-and-a-half hour runtime. This said, the performances are strong across the cast; the old hands slip easily back into their roles while new names acquit themselves very well, avoiding slavish impressions of their characters’ grown up actors to instead conjure up a juvenile essence of their former iterations. Sheridan and Turner are particularly convincing, known from indie cinema and television respectively, and the franchise should be in good hands moving forward.

When En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac) is awoken by a cult, he rapidly surmises the need to wipe out a humanity overly reliant on false gods – wealth, possessions, cheap entertainment. Now sporting the moniker Apocalypse, he handpicks four powerful mutants to become his new minions (four, like the Four Horsemen – geddit?) and sets out to end the world. Among them is Magneto, reeling after losing his new family at the hands of frightened non-mutants. As expected, this is something Professor X and his team cannot abide, and they mobilise to take down this ancient power.

Similarities with the recent ‘Days of Future Past’ abound – mutant Quicksilver (Evan Peters) steals the show again with a supersonic action scene dripping with charming humour and eye-popping visuals, the production design, costuming and cinematography clearly have a blast embracing the time period in which its set, and there are scenes of spine-tingling CGI destruction throughout. The extended allegory for prejudice that the series has always pushed is still there. While in previous films the mutants hid in society, the events of the last film exposed the existence of mutants to the whole world, whose presence is taught in schools everywhere. This has deepened the allegory this time around, with society’s discrimination now a seething undercurrent rather than an acknowledged part of its makeup. However, despite the added complexity, the topic seems less important to the movie as a whole, lost by the wayside as their foe is one of their own number. Because the film’s conflict essentially constitutes ‘infighting’ within the mutant race, what other people think just doesn’t seem to come into it.

Many film critics and commentators have spoken about the possibility of ‘superhero fatigue’, brought on by the swathe of studios attempting to get in on the lucrative market. This reviewer refuses to believe that this is possible providing the films maintain a level of quality. However this may be the only explanation for why this film, while solidly crafted and played, adds up to less than the sum of its parts. With at least two more superhero extravaganzas to be released this year, only time will tell.

Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Out May 19.

20th Century Fox.

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