More than ever, the X-Men films are feeling like fan fiction. That’s not necessarily a criticism. But a lot of the ‘Singer-verse’ is remixing elements from before into a new context. The scene of Scott in a classroom, smelling of the worst American high school cliches, with none of the 1980s John Hughes fun, is straight out of the Spanish class scene in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2008), excused from class before almost destroying the school with his new abilities. The Weapon X scene feels like a plot device, where Singer couldn’t think of any other way for Jean/Kurt/Scott to escape from Stryker. Jean becomes the reason for Wolverine recovering his memory, acting as the worst kinds of “it’s all connected!” of unnecessary continuity and retcons.
Characters introduced in X2: X-Men United (2003) and The Last Stand (2006), like Nightcrawler and Psylocke, are given new origins, looking more like their comics counterparts. Angel returns from The Last Stand, stinking more of vodka, and speaking more German, than before; whilst Jean’s Phoenix-esque outburst against Apocalypse hints at what is to come. Even the opening credits, spanning decades through swastikas and red stars, recalls the (much cooler) scenes of Wolverine in every American war in Origins. Where Days of Future Past (1981) was transposed into the 70s, switching Reagan for Nixon, Age of Apocalypse (1995) is now transposed from a 90s alternative reality/time travel story to the 80s, without any sense of alternative reality.
Quicksilver’s scene in the mansion, set to Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams and complete with Tab, gave me chills – but it’s also quite close to the scene in Days of Future Past (2014), just more grandiose. Peter is stationary – Raven has grown up; Erik has found a wife in Magda, and a daughter in Nina; Charles and Hank are teachers – yet he remains in his mom’s basement, surrounded by Knight Rider (1982-86) and Pacman. He’s presented more complexly, especially over the issue of his father, yet it would have been more appropriate to give him an apartment of his own. Something different. The events of 1962 and 1973 are referred to a lot here, especially in flashbacks to First Class (2011) – and, in one moving scene, Raven talks about the mutants they have lost to Jean, Kurt and Scott.
Apocalypse’s intents in the film recall Magneto’s resistance to nuclear weapons in Cuba in First Class. During the Cold War, it would have been a powerful message. A god looks upon what humanity has done and hates it. He’s a sympathetic character, in some respects. But this isn’t The Abyss (1989). Nuclear weapons are still an issue, especially in relation to North Korea and Trident – but today, seeing every rocket on the planet shoot off into space, although a powerful image, doesn’t carry the same impact. Ultimately, the archival footage of Kennedy in First Class seemed to work better than the historical context here.
Unfortunately, it takes a lot of time to set up the story. An unnecessary prologue sets up Apocalypse in ancient Egypt never feels real, and serves no purpose. We return to the sense of an international X-Men, a la Chris Claremont – Kurt, Warren, Raven, Caliban and Psylocke in East Berlin; Ororo in Cairo; Erik in Poland; the rest of the X-Men in New York. But there are so many scenes of exposition, cutting between character introductions, that it drags on forever.
Erik’s re-introduction is perhaps the most powerful, returning to some of his guilt from the Second World War. I just want to see an X-Men Origins: Magneto film with more Fassbender. His family recalls the origin of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, complete with the Eastern European setting, but it also ties in his Jewish heritage, in a time where, after the war, Jews have become a minority in Poland. His destruction of Auschwitz feels like a political point. Today, Auschwitz remains standing, but as a museum – but should such pain and brutality remain there? Yet it also reminds us that in these new timeline, all rules of established history can be broken (including, it seems, with the stadium in Days of Future Past, and with the Sydney Opera House later on in the film.) Nina’s powers are beautiful, and it’s a shame she wasn’t able to be elaborated on.
Yet Apocalypse is incredibly disappointing; his four horsemen – Storm, Psylocke, Angel and Magneto – just don’t do enough. His powers to grow are rarely incorporated, and, besides the power to turn people into cement and leave Quicksilver’s leg in a cast, the battle against him is no more than a ‘beat ’em up’.
The final scene leaves a lot of optimism for the future – gone are the black flight suits, and now we have the 90s costumes, fighting against Sentinels in the Danger Room. I’m down. It’s just a shame we’ll have to wait for another film to see the suits in action.
Apocalypse has its high points, but the X-Men films are capable of much better. It’s certainly ahead of Origins and The Last Stand (and Generation X), but it fails to reach the strengths of First Class and Days of Future Past.