X-Men: Apocalypse, the eighth installment in the X-Men cinematic series, aims to do something new within an old story in a genre that’s kicking out more movies than any other. Helmed by Bryan Singer, Apocalypse makes use of the retcon created in the last film, Days of Future Past, to bring some much-needed freshness to a story audiences know all too well by now. One thing is abundantly clear: if you watched the animated X-Men series in the 90’s, you’re going to love Apocalypse. If not, then you may find it more dour than intriguing.
Picking up ten years after the events of Days of Future Past, Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is running a thriving school, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is a mutant hero, and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) strives to live quietly. Unbeknownst to them, En Sabah Nur (Oscar Issac), an ancient mutant with untold power, returns from a centuries-long slumber to cleanse Earth of all those he considers weak. With old friends and new students by his side, Xavier must fight En Sabah Nur and his four Horsemen to prevent total annihilation.
In case you’ve forgotten, the previous film Days of Future Past sent Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine into the past in an attempt to prevent a mutant holocaust incited by the actions of Mystique in 1973. Altering those events served two purposes beyond the narrative: erase perceived mistakes within the X-Men cinematic series and open the doorway to new possibilities. In the case of Apocalypse, Singer reintroduces X-Men stable characters Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and Angel (Ben Hardy) into an already overloaded cast that also adds protagonist En Sabah Nur (known in the comics as Apocalypse), his first Horsemen, Psylocke (underused Olivia Munn) and a series of other fan-favorites who barely get used at all. Managing so many characters in various locations makes the story seem disjointed at first (and a bit cramped), but once the main players connect, everything flows more smoothly. This is both a source of great fun for the film and also where Apocalypse runs into trouble. As the third film in the First Class trilogy, it should raise the stakes while focusing on tying up storylines; something that Apocalypse does occasionally well, yet tends to do quickly in favor of setting up potential future arcs. If you’re a fan of the X-Men comic/animated series with deep-well knowledge of the materials, or even just a fan of the first trilogy(X1-X3), you won’t need to stretch to understand what Apocalypse attempts. If this doesn’t describe you, you could be left feeling confused and unsatisfied.
Two excellent things worth noting:
- The retcon broke all the previous storylines, thereby creating new opportunities to surprise the audience. When you’re eight films in, surprise is hard to pull off, but it’s a necessity in order to maintain your audience while cultivating a new one. Characters whose stories we think we know can now have new origins and new relationships.
- This means that the decisions the characters make carry real weight because we’re seeing a new history play out and there is no playbook to fall back on. We, as an audience, don’t know what their futures hold and this aspect requires the writers to develop characters that make narratively honest choices within the situations presented. The stakes are always high in comic-book films, so they need honesty and heart to ground the cinematic experience, ensuring they succeed with audiences.
Overall, X-Men: Apocalypse has everything going for it that a summer blockbuster needs: solid pacing, engaging characters, and impressive fight scenes scattered throughout. Not since X2: X-Men United have I felt such a strong sense of joy after watching any of the X-Men films. The references are tight, the action is engaging, and the choices are heavy with consequence. I really felt like a child again, watching my favorite cartoon made real. It’s because of this that I understand why the reviews from critics seem to be mixed and choosing one hard stance over another. For me, where Apocalypse works, I felt like a kid watching my favorite cartoon, but that response can change if your experience with the material is different from mine. While a general audience will leave having been entertained, it’s fairly clear that X-Men: Apocalypse will only blow you away if you’re a child of the atom.
4 out of 5 (If you watched X-Men: the Animated Series)
3 out of 5 (if you didn’t)
In theaters nationwide Friday, May 27th.