X-Men: Apocalypse is a very, very cheesy superhero movie. We’re talking Velveeta smothering a big old plate of comic book trope nachos. A main villain so delightfully evil he sports the subtlety of a gorgonzola sundae.
But, in this age of the ultra-slick MCU movie-making machine, it seems so many have forgotten that a little cheese doesn’t necessarily ruin a movie, if it has the heart to pull it off. And Apocalypse has heart for days.
Carrying the continuity from X-Men First Class – which introduced our “new” cast of iconic mutants, and Days of Future Past, which gracefully bridged the early 2000s movies with the current crop, Apocalypse is guilty of trying a little too hard.
Maybe even a lot too hard, in its simultaneous origin story of several mutants (including Storm, Jean Gray, Cyclops, and several others), the possible fall (again) of Magneto, the Big Arcs for Mystique and Xavier. All of this, naturally, occurs while we follow the rise of an ancient super-mutant (Apocalypse, played by Oscar Isaac, chewing the HELL out of the scenery) who wants to end the world.
It bites off more than it can chew, but it does so with heart and ambition. Apocalypse wants so very badly to show you how cool and conflicted these characters are – haunted by demons and very real prejudices in their world, each fights something of a battle with themselves just to get out of bed every morning. Young Jean and Scott don’t have full control over their powers yet. Mystique doesn’t really believe in herself as a hero. Xavier has plenty of hope, but he also has nightmares about the fragility of the current peace. Magneto doesn’t want to be a monster, but he isn’t convinced that he can be anything but.
The X-Men movies have always done this well – given us flawed, interesting heroes that we root for. And they’ve also mixed in the identity politics and the darker fears of the times deftly. To be a mutant is to be different – to be feared and treated, at best, as an oddity, and worst as a threat to be exterminated. Apocalypse is best when it focusses on these touches.
Mystique is running a sort of renegade mutant-saving service at the outset, freeing both Angel and Nightcrawler from a sort of dank East German battle dungeon. She has no compunctions about the state of the world – and the injustices her people face. Xavier is running his school for the gifted, a safe haven where mutant kids (and a few grown-ups) can hone their powers without fear. Beast is preparing for the worst – but getting by on Xavier’s hope for a better future. All of this is set against an early 80s Cold War backdrop that oozes unease.
But then, the ancient evil is awakened, and things get a little more predictable from there. And corny as hell.
Apocalypse‘s biggest problem is Apocalypse himself. The intro is a big, bombastic scene setting up his wildly overpowered status and motivations, but he never becomes anything beyond the most over-the-top rendition of a supervillain. I enjoyed watching Isaac – who was clearly having the time of his life – the same way I loved watching Eddie Redmayne as Cartoon Space Evilman in Jupiter Ascending, but it’s hard to take seriously.
The film’s “more is more” mentality extends beyond the main villain. Everything fueling Magneto’s motivation in the film – from a gross “fridging” to a visit to Aushwitz – feels tone-deaf.
The same goes for one very weird “surprise” appearance of a beloved mutant that I won’t spoil, but really, if you’ve seen one of these before, you know who it is. It’s goofy and unnecessary and takes away from what is otherwise working as an ensemble piece.
And what an ensemble it is. Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence and Sophie Turner, in particular, bring real humanity to their roles, which would’ve fallen apart in the hands of lesser actors. I really honest-to-god cared about these people, which is far more than I can say for most mega-budget superhero films.
I cared about a conflicted teenaged Storm, trying to find her way in a rough situation. I felt for Jean Gray, her powers far more than she can deal with, but she handles herself with honesty and grace. I even gave a crap about Angel, a tortured soul with terrible taste in music (made up for by his amazing Lost Boys-inspired fashion sense), and an understandable need to belong.
Apocalypse has problems, and it has cheese coming out of its eyes. But for all of its faults and clumsy overreaching, it won me over. It has what I really need to enjoy a comic book movie – a very human heart. Yeah, there are ridiculous fights and wild stunts and sky-high stakes – and those things are a great deal of fun. But far more importantly, Apocalypse makes sure there are people in there, and a reason to give a damn about their struggles.