If every superhero movie of recent times were as smart and entertaining as the previous, outstandingly well-reviewed instalment in the X-Men franchise – 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past – the genre would likely be celebrated using words like ‘New Wave’, instead of being greeted with a general shrug of the shoulders.
The film was a cleansing ale for audiences fatigued by save-the-day caped crusader stories. It configured a time travel component that allowed the writers to rethink their characters’ pasts, as well as how these people – well, mutants – might align with historical events.
The wheelchair-bound Professor X (James McAvoy) found a way to walk again. On the downside, he became addicted to injecting drugs, taking the gong for the superhero universe’s highest profile junkie. The ability of Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to manipulate metal explained the JFK assassination’s magic bullet theory.
Hopes for the X-Men to lead the way in smart and interesting storylines body slams back to earth with X-Men: Apocalypse.
The ninth X-Men instalment – and the fourth from director Bryan Singer – is another casualty in the superhero arms race, continuing a recent run of bloated heroes-as-vigilantes blockbusters from directors working with the modus operandi that more characters equals more entertainment. Singer gets lost in a sea of tight fitting outfits, with characters whose presence feel little more than cut-outs from a poster.
A fast-footed cameo from Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who arrives for a couple of minutes to carve up some humans then dash off, is one of several utterly superfluous moments. In this instance, lip service to fans plays a part in fattening up the running time to an unnecessarily elephantine 147 minutes.
The “Apocalypse” of the title is actually the name of the villain: a virtually unrecognisable Oscar Isaac, who looks like he’s wearing a knock-off samurai warrior outfit with a bucket on his head. This surly fellow is an ancient, god-like mutant who wakes up on the wrong side of bed after centuries of slumber and decides to obliterate the world because he’s disgusted with how things turned out.
I was hoping Apocalypse’s gripes would be made specific. Perhaps he turned on Fox News and was disappointed with the quality of the coverage, or joined Instagram and couldn’t make head or tail of the Kardashians.
Alas, this po-faced mood killer seems disappointed that the world simply isn’t building more pyramids. He goes about recruiting a Four Horseman-esque team to help him trigger Kingdom Come; conveniently fitting into this is a family tragedy that inspires Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to join the fold, playing into X-Men’s never-subtle allegories of prejudice and discrimination.
One might have expected a full house at a Sydney screening to react in some way to the demolition of the Opera House.
Meanwhile the so-nice-you-can-bring-home-to-mother sort of mutants congregate at Professor X’s university, providing the film’s most pleasurable moments. These include Scott Summers aka Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), who can’t control laser beams coming out of his eyes, and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner from Game of Thrones) who can’t control her telekinetic powers. There are several others, but these days even introducing the supporting cast of a superhero-v-superhero brawl will set you back a couple of hundred valuable words.
Oscar Isaac, a fine actor, gives the villain barely a breath of life. He seems muted by his bulky costume, stricken of emotion by the makeup department. Apocalypse goes beyond the realm of a mediocre personality-devoid villain, into a space where the laziness of the writing is laid bare: the kind of bad guy who’s invincible for 99% of the running time then suddenly, through a shoehorned Achilles Heel, is vulnerable for the remaining 1%.
One might have expected a full house at a Sydney screening to react in some way to the demolition of the Opera House. Instead, were it not for the sound of the blast, you could hear a pin drop; just another explosion in just another superhero movie. At least the action scenes in X-Men: Apocalypse are staged competently, mostly devoid of whaling bombast or disorientating freneticism.
Where other recent movies (Batman v Superman, Captain America: Civil War) have dwelled on loss of life caused in the name of superhero wars, X-Men: Apocalypse swings wildly in the other direction, not for a moment pausing to consider the impact of entire cities that have been levelled. Superhero movies these days, gore blimey: they either care not a jot for human life, or carry on about it endlessly.