X-Men: Apocalypse works because it seems to take itself simultaneously very seriously and not very seriously at all. Whereas some movie are all grit and no grins and others take self-awareness to cloying extremes (think Deadpool, although that film saved itself with moments of genuine heart and humor that leaven an otherwise overly self-congratulatory air), Apocalypse manages to send up the genre it inhabits without losing faith in the seriousness of its characters’ psychological and moral struggles.
The story proper begins in the 1980s, a decade after Days of Future Past and two decades after First Class, but the film opens in Ancient Egypt, where occult shenanigans are underway. A band of priests and priestesses are seen venturing into a pyramid to conduct a sacrificial ceremony that would empower their leader through the death of another. Rebellion ensues, resulting in the leader being buried underground until the film’s present-day, at which point he resurfaces thanks to the help of modern-day devotees. Loosed upon this earth, the leader, alternatively called En Sabah Nur and Apocalypse, seeks to recruit new followers before destroying the world. As per usual, the mutants who are more sympathetic to humanity mobilize to meet this threat, and we are introduced to faces both old and new.
One of the most noticeable aspects of Apocalypse is that it’s violent. Much brouhaha surrounded the news that the next Wolverine movie will be rated R, but truth be told, the X-Men series had been skirting the boundary for years now. In the Egypt-set mutiny of Apocalypse’s intro, skin is burned to a crisp, and one unfortunate guy has his body telekinetically scrunched up like a used tissue. Later in the film, necks are punctured by a shard of metal and a cameo from a beloved character results in upwards of twenty people being massacred. All this carnage, PG-13 only by name, could have easily transformed into exploitation, but for the most part, the violence is administered with full consideration of its physical and psychological consequences. In this film, the dead are mourned, and if not that, then at least acknowledged as being dead. Batman vs. Superman and Captain America: Civil War felt in part like post hoc corrective measures that tried to retroactively imbue the wanton destruction of earlier films with moral weight, but the X-Men series understood the ramifications of violence from the very beginning. It isn’t afraid to show people dying and dying violently, and to make us concerned about them in the process.
As has been the case with all the X-Men prequels thus far, Michael Fassbender’s Magneto bears the bulk of the film’s pathos. Possessing a bone-deep seriousness and gravitas, Fassbender continues to prove himself a formidable screen presence; when tragedy strikes, Magneto’s bitter rage at non-mutant humanity manifests in Fassbender’s trademark steely-eyed gaze. The character’s crowning moment, however, occurs with the help of the film’s special effects team. Brought to the modern-day vestige of Auschwitz, Magneto is confronted with the memory of the Nazis tearing his family apart, and he repays the favor on the physical concentration camp itself by literally disintegrating it into brick and sand. IndieWire critic David Ehrlich hailed this moment as a “powerful example of pop art iconography” that both enacts the Jewish fantasy of obliterating the most infamous concentration camp and casts this erasure as being problematic. “There’s a good reason why Auschwitz is a museum,” Ehrlich writes in his review. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
The stellar review, which can be read here, proceeds to articulate the irony of Magneto’s wrath against the Nazis when he himself will soon be recruited by Apocalypse to perpetrate genocide on an even larger scale. Ehrlich’s write-up more or less cinches the case for the moral seriousness of X-Men: Apocalypse: here is a film that features a visual metaphor for the violence of Jewish rage against the Holocaust but that nonetheless cautions against the use of past pain to justify future atrocity.
And yet, amid the thematic heaviness, Apocalypse still finds time to have fun, and not through toothless comic relief either—the chuckles to be had arise from barbed humor aimed at blockbuster cinema’s staunch commitment to mediocrity. At one point, a character openly declares to his pals while exiting a showing of The Return of the Jedi, “I think we can all agree that the third film is the worst” (sic). Apocalypse’s self-deprecation is ham-fistedly obvious (Apocalypse is the third of the X-Men prequels) and more than a little wry. In some ways, the film does strive to be “the worst” in the series by wholeheartedly embracing those most-disparaged qualities of the run-of-the-mill blockbuster tentpole.
In the trailer for Independence Day: Resurgence that preceded Apocalypse, Jeff Goldblum wryly observed that the aliens in that movie always targeted historic landmarks. This comment poked fun at the way American action movies artificially enlarge the stakes of their story (and, in the process, betray an ignorance of the nuances of foreign cultures) through the way they perpetually and exclusively foreground the Greatest Hits of tourism and architecture. France always involves the Eiffel Tower; China, The Great Wall; New York, The Statue of Liberty. In similar fashion, Apocalypse playfully embraces the action movie’s feeble attempts at generating self-importance by taking this grandiloquence to unprecedented heights of ridiculousness. Of course Apocalypse’s trip to Egypt involves the pyramids. Of course the concentration camp decimated by Magneto is Auschwitz, the most notorious by name. Of course the bridge destroyed in the film’s finale is the Brooklyn one.
Then there is the figure of Apocalypse himself, whose evil scheme cribs from that of half the movie villains ever created (i.e. kill everyone in the world to “build a better one”) and is therefore perfect for this film. Moreover, not only is he bent on destroying an entire planet, he claims to have been every major deity in history (Yahweh and Krishna are one of the few mentioned by name, but his overall point is clear) and has the potential to acquire every existing mutant ability. If you thought Superman was too powerful, wait till you check out this guy.
In light of all this, the argument could be made that Apocalypse isn’t playing bad—it’s bad, period. Perhaps, but I don’t think so. To me, the film is playful enough in tone (consider the eerily goofy way in which Apocalypse dispenses of an entire workforce of miners) and self-aware enough (e.g. the “third is the worst” reference) to suggest that there is more than meets the eye. Even if there wasn’t, however, Apocalypse would still be far from a failure. Bryan Singer, a seasoned director who helmed the franchise-best X2, has here crafted some of the most entertaining scenes in the series to date, the best of which is a slo-mo fire rescue involving Quicksilver. Taken at face value, the film is at least as reasonably paced and plotted as the average X-Men movie; it’s certainly a cut above X-Men: Origins and The Last Stand. The action doesn’t blaze new trails, but it’s for the most part competently filmed and comprehensible.
And yet, it is also within the action scenes where the film is most fascinating as genre deconstruction. Despite the high entertainment value of the Quicksilver scene, the CG in it is so bad that everyone aside from the hero resembles mannequins. Why would Singer, with all of today’s FX technology at his disposal, create such a visually tacky set piece? We’ve established that filmmaking amateurism is most likely not the answer. Rather, it seems to me that Singer might be using this scene to subtly critique the weightlessness of today’s CG effects, once again through the technique of exaggeration. He seems to be saying, “You want weightless? I’ll give you weightless.” And he delivers: the scene, which conveys the speedster’s velocity by slowing down everything around him, appears to us real-time viewers like it’s taking place in zero gravity. Weightlessness reaches a second apex in the film’s climactic scene, in which a city is uprooted with an almost leisurely ease. The buildings dissolve like sand, and the debris orbits around the perpetrator in strikingly flower-like arrangements. In contrast to the shapeless chaos of most superhero climaxes, the emphasis on giving arbitrary shape to the destruction has a teasing quality, as if to imply that we viewers have become so obsessed with surface-level cinematic spectacle that simply drawing pretty circles in the sky is enough to make us salivate like dogs. In fact, this same kind of geometry was evident as early as the scene at Auschwitz, which comes to function as an embodiment of the film in general: powerfully grave when necessary, but always hovering on the brink of play.
This review, which thus far could be titled “In Praise of X-Men: Apocalypse,” glosses over the movie’s obvious inadequacies. This film isn’t a masterpiece. The climax is overlong, the performances range from so-so to wooden, and the special effects do not ever exceed the industry standard of mediocrity. In the course of two and a half hours, no new ground is broken. And yet, the film injects some much-needed life into a stylistic model that has grown stale, striking a delicate balance between self-reflexivity that isn’t smug and seriousness that isn’t grim. Currently eight films long, the X-Men series has overstayed its welcome, but if more of these movies must be made, they could learn a thing or two from the plentiful pleasures of Apocalypse.