I tend to use the phrase “greater than the sum of its parts” a lot. It’s a perfect way to describe a baseball team that finds a way to beat a superior unit, or a novel that just doesn’t seem to catch fire but you find yourself thinking about it days or even years later, or a movie that is full of faults, but somehow pulls together disparate pieces so that, by the end, you’re overjoyed and thrumming with excitement. Bryan Singer has made a career out of such movies, and in X-Men:Apocalypse, he may have found his masterpiece. Spoilers Ahead!
The basic plot of Apocalypse is fairly boilerplate. Ancient evil awakens and threatens global annihilation unless our band of plucky heroes can come together and defeat it. There are several nods to the comics, most notably “The Twelve” (Apocalypse needs a new body every hundred years or so). The movie starts fairly quickly with an exciting preamble giving us the origins of En Sabah Nur, the all-powerful villain, as well as his original downfall at the hands of some human guards, who employ a little bit of Rube Goldbergian genius to bring a pyramid down upon Big Blue and Ugly just before he can enter a new host. There’s a little bit of Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy in these set pieces, especially later when the awakened Apocalypse first wanders the modern world covered in robes and killing people with sand.
After this beginning, there’s a lot of table setting – especially for the third movie in a trilogy. We meet our newest mutants, muppet baby version of the ones we knew from the original set of movies, including Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner from “Game of Thrones“). We also find that Mystique has become a freedom fighter, roaming the world saving persecuted mutants; while Magneto lives in blessed obscurity in Poland, attempting to lead a normal life. It all comes crashing down, of course – fueled by Apocalypse’s arrival. The Big Bad recruits his Four Horseman quickly, starting with alley rat Storm (Alexandra Shipp), before moving on to Psylocke (Olivia Munn) and a much more fearsome than remembered Angel (Ben Hardy), and culminating with Magneto as he works out some anger issues on his former co-workers.
Apocalypse as a villain pretty much works like he does in the comics, he’s able to do whatever the situation calls for. The reason given is because he keeps the powers of all the host bodies he’s ever inhabited (which is, I guess, as good a reason as he found it in a space god’s ship), but he’s simply too strong and one dimensional to work as an effective bad guy. He doesn’t have the righteousness of an outraged Magneto or even the slimy, 60s camp of Kevin Bacon. He’s a force of nature, as bland and frightening as an approaching hurricane. Dangerous, but nothing you’d base a movie around.
The movie works best when it stays small, focusing on the characters and their relationships, whether it be Charles and his favorite student Jean, Hank’s continued puppy love for Raven, or the continuity-stretching relationship between brothers Scott and Alex Summers. The elements of estrangement and the weight of hero worship are displayed throughout the film. “Was my father a bad guy?” Quicksilver asks about Magneto. “No, well, yes,” Mystique answers, pretty much summarizing the dichotomy of all great heroes and villains. When the plot goes global (and this is really the first X-Men movie to do so), or when a wasted Oscar Isaac gives some reverberated speech about destiny and strength, or Magneto starts using his enhanced powers to wreak havoc around the world, the film loses something. The vast swaths of destruction seem shallow, like something from latter day Roland Emmerich – all spectacle and no soul.
And yet, just when the movie starts to veer off the path, Singer turns the movie over to the kids and something clicks. You start to see the theme he’s building: No one can do this alone. A reformed Magneto turns on the would-be conqueror, Hank and Scott work together to save their teammates, Storm sees Apocalypse strangling her idol and realizes she’s made a mistake and – maybe most importantly – Charles calls to Jean for help. And when she answers, when the Phoenix flames flare around her and she begins to kick Apocalyptic ass, I giggled like a twelve-year old at a Duran Duran concert. At that moment, the team – and the movie – became greater than the sum of their parts.
Ultimately, there was a lot to like about this movie. It had some funny meta moments (Jean Grey comments that the 3rd movie in a trilogy is always the worst, 80’s icon Ally Sheedy makes an appearance as Scott’s teacher, Charles mentions that Moira McTaggert had barely aged after a twenty year absence), as well as an occasional lazy bit of screenwriting (Apocalypse is awakened because an undercover Moira leaves the front door open to his secret tomb, we get another Quicksilver ‘bullet-time’ scene, and Apocalypse learns about the modern world by hooking himself up to a TV and absorbing the signals). There’s a surprisingly bloody cameo by everyone’s favorite adamantium infused mutant, and we even get to see a fight on the Astral Plane, something we’ve missed in the movies. Unfortunately, Psylocke never once mentions that her energy weapons contain the ‘focused totality of her psychic powers.‘ I guess we can’t have it all.
What we do have is a new team of mutants. One with twice the chemistry as those from the earlier movies (Sheridan and Turner in particular work well together as the two youngsters who will someday become THE mutant power couple), an unending number of potential story lines (rumors abound we’ll be getting the Dark Phoenix done right) and – if the post-credit trailer is any indication – a sinister new villain to challenge our heroes in the years to come!
I give X-Men: Apocalypse a rating of Excelsior Plus!