With the growth of superhero films in popularity since 2000, when the original X-Men hit theaters, it’s odd to look back at that film and see how…muted it is. Bryan Singer’s first few X-Men films rejected the bright costumes and crazier levels of theatrics that marked the comic series in favor of a more grounded approach to storytelling. This is, after all, the film series that opens not one, but two films with a scene set inside Auschwitz. But something’s clearly changed. After X-Men: Days of Future Past allowed for a reboot of the series that also keeps the previous films in continuity, X-Men: Apocalypse embraces a level of comics-inspired storytelling that’s occasionally messy and familiar, but allows for some surprising shifts in this continuing series.
Approximately a decade after the (main) events of X-Men: Days of Future Past, Professor X (James McAvoy) has reopened his school for gifted youngsters with the assistance of Beast (Nicholas Hoult). Magneto (Michael Fassbender) has managed to build a new life in secret in his native Poland. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) has become a mysterious loner who pops up in random locations to help younger mutants in need. The three find themselves brought together again – as enemies and allies – when an archaeological dig unearths Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), a powerful mutant who’s spent millennia lying dormant. Apocalypse, rumored to be the first mutant ever, accrues his powers by absorbing them from others, and he travels with four mutants whose powers compliment his desires. Newly awoken without any of his old followers, he chooses four new ones: Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Angel (Ben Hardy) and Magneto. With their help, he plans to rebuild the world – and kill anything that stands against his vision.
Professor X, meanwhile, has a powerful group of students, including new recruit Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and the quiet but potentially powerful Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), while Mystique has a newly-rescued young mutant by her side: Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). These particular gifted youngsters, along with a returning Quicksilver (Evan Peters), find themselves forced to come together to stop Apocalypse before he destroys the world.
One of the more remarkable aspects of the X-Men films is how, with the exception of Wolverine (and in a far different regard, Deadpool), none of these characters have been obviously built to sustain their own stories. Instead, they’re sketched out enough to make the X-Men films work. Given how the films Marvel produces in-house come and go through a mix of team-up and solo films, and how DC can’t quite seem to figure out what they’re doing, it’s kind of refreshing to know these characters are meant to work first and foremost as a team. Some characters are more constant than others; in the main X-Men films since X-Men: First Class, that’s meant Professor X, Magneto and Mystique (with Beast as a prominent supporting character). While the earlier versions of each character were certainly memorable, they’ve been fleshed out in surprising ways through this second X-Men trilogy.
Given this track record, it’s great to see another set of characters from the original films given new life in Apocalypse. Alexandra Shipp’s take on Storm may be the most immediately impressive, mainly because her take on the character is able to do so much more than Halle Berry’s version – including maintaining a single, solid accent! Elsewhere, Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops is given more to work with than just being the third wheel in a relationship, the way James Marsden’s Cyclops was. Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Nightcrawler is the most in keeping with its predecessor, with this version working well with Alan Cumming’s tragicomic take in X2: X-Men United. But it’s Sophie Turner who brings the biggest change to a character, with her Jean Grey being a far more credible future Phoenix than Famke Janssen’s take. It’s a take that’s far more kick-ass than several seasons of watching Turner play Sansa Stark on Game of Thrones might imply, and it makes the rumors of a redo of the Dark Phoenix saga in an upcoming X-Men film all the more thrilling.
Singer’s also taken advantage of the current popularity of superhero films, and the early 80s setting of Apocalypse, to mesh the darker styles of his first few films with an aesthetic that should feel more familiar to long-time fans of the comics (or the 90s animated series). Splashes of yellow, purple and blue bring bits of visual flair to the action, and the costumes (particularly those for Storm and Psylocke) have a closer connection to those found in the comics.
Not everything about X-Men: Apocalypse works, or at least feels that fresh. The film’s ending is appropriately apocalyptic, but in a year that’s already seen one superhero film end in its own apocalyptic showdown and another go refreshingly small-scale in its final battle, a massive battle that doubles as destruction porn comes across as tired. That being said, the film does offer some fresh spins on material that’s worked before. As he has for most of the series’ run, Magneto finds himself changing sides from good to evil, with Professor X eventually pulling him back. What makes this work this time is the scene that pushes Erik back into Magneto mode, which is easily the most heartbreaking scene of this film (and possibly the series). And after Quicksilver stole Days of Future Past with the “Time in a Bottle” sequence, he gets a similarly slowed-down scene that takes the action (and choice of song) to a whole new level.
After 16 years and nine films, the X-Men universe has experienced plenty of highs and lows. While X-Men: Apocalypse ultimately has a hard time landing among the top entries in this series, it’s still a worthwhile entry into the long-running series. The reintroduction of some classic X-Men characters, along with some well-crafted moments involving returning characters, also hint at an exciting sense of potential for future films in the series.