Superhero films have grown on me over the past few years. I used to eschew them, perhaps because I’ve never explored the source material, bar the X-Men cartoons of my childhood. This is why I’ve always met the releases of new films in the mega-franchise with excitement. Many critics (and fans) went for the jugular when Marvel introduced the Days of the Future Past trilogy. I’m not one of them. The final installment, X-Men: Apocalypse, releases in South Africa today. Aside from wrapping up this trilogy, it’s also the beginning of the next one.
X-Men: Apocalypse traces the origins of mutants, back to the first and most powerful of them all. The film is set a few years after the events of Days of the Future Past, and mirrors the biblical end-of-days story in the Book of Revelation. In Ancient Egypt, the immortal psychic mutant En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), is trapped in a tomb, after being betrayed by some of his followers. Fast forward to 1983, and some idiotic explorers decide to open the tomb, awakening a mutant that is more god than human.
En Sabah Nur believes humanity has lost its way and he needs to annihilate the world, so that it can begin again (so logical), with mutants. He goes in search of four “Horsemen” to help him do this. He begins in Cairo, with a young street kid, Ororo Munroe a.k.a Storm (Alexandra Shipp), who we know joins the X-Men team in the future. Betsy Braddock/Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and mutant cage fighter, Warren Kenneth Worthington III/ Angel/Archangel (Ben Hardy) are the next recruits. “I’ve been called many things over many lifetimes: Ra, Krishna, Yahweh. I was there to spark and fan the flame of man’s awakening, to spin the wheel of civilization,” he explains. So basically all religions were inspired by him. Can anyone say megalomaniac?
In the meantime in Poland, Magneto (Michael Fassbender) has become Erik Lehnsherr again, living a simple yet happy life with his wife and daughter. But when the townsmen discover his ability to control anything metal, and recognize him as the one responsible for the “White House incident” (in Days of the Future Past), they try to capture him. Instead, his wife and daughter are killed, and enraged by his pain, Magneto vows revenge against humans. This makes him ripe for the picking and he becomes En Sabah Nur’s fourth sidekick.
En Sabah Nur’s awakening sends a kind of sensory shockwave through the world, which is picked up by Xavier (James McAvoy) and the X-Men. And when Xavier, the world’s most powerful telepath, connects to Cerebra to investigate, En Sabah Nur hacks into the professor’s mind, thereby gaining access to all other mutants in the world. En Sabah Nur is practically immortal, able to transfer his consciousness to other mutants in a weird occult-like ritual, thereby also absorbing their powers. If this ultimate evil of villains can possess Xavier, it would make him omniscient and unstoppable.
Now it’s up to the team of teenage mutants under the guidance of Xavier and Raven Darkhölme/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) to try and fight back, and save the world from complete destruction. Some fans of the comics are hopping mad that Mystique has become a heroine, when she’s a super villain, who in the future, joins Magneto’s team evil, The Brotherhood of Mutants.
The most engaging parts of the film are the humour provided by teenage Kurt Wagner/Nighcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (another superbly entertaining performance by Evan Peters), and even better, the introduction of the troubled Jean Grey, struggling to control her immense powers (flame-haired Sophie Turner – Game of Thrones’ Sanza Stark delivers a strong performance as this character).
Superhero origin films have become increasingly popular, capturing a new audience who might be familiar with the characters at the height of their powers, without knowing how they came to be. These films are often darker than the others, humanizing their heroes. The problem with Apocalypse is that it doesn’t tap into this. En Sabah Nur is meant to provide the grit and tension in this story, but he’s more Mummy than frightening or intimidating. And as much I have always loved Wolverine, the hint that he will once again feature prominently in the upcoming X-Men trilogy has suppressed any anticipation for the next installment. Marvel has us believing Wolverine is the ‘ultimate’ X-Man as this character is given an enormous amount of screen time. Yes, he is dark, and brooding, and powerful, and sexy, but there are dozens of other equally tortured, interesting mutants whose stories should be explored.
X-Men: Apocalypse has high entertainment value, but fails to deliver the kind of intensely gripping plots some of the other films in the franchise have. One thing that would inject some much needed energy into the franchise, would be some crossovers, like exploring Deadpool’s time with the X-Men or even The Avengers (another franchise that has becoming miserably tedious). There is no doubt that Apocalypse will emerge on top at the box office this weekend. But with the exponential release of films in this genre means audience should and could demand more from Marvel and DC, and push them to aim much higher if studios are to keep audiences riveted.
Director: Bryan Singer
Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Sophie Turner, Peter Evans, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, Oliva Munn
Rating: 3½ out of 5
SA release date: 20 May 2016