In a world now over-stuffed with comic-book movies, X-Men: Apocalypse is far from being the finest movie yet may well rank among the most comic-booky, feels Raja Sen.
The first comic book crossover event I ever read, in its entirety, was called X-Men: Onslaught.
A messy, violent and over-ambitious storyline spanning — ‘affecting’ — several individual comic issues created by various writers and artists, it had me (circa 20 ago) pretty darned hooked.
It wasn’t great storytelling, of course, but, in the way it took its own stakes seriously, it felt big and sprawling. What’s that word bandied about too regularly today? Ah yes. Epic.
Bryan Singer gets it.
We are used to a certain kind of comic book movie, but in X-Men: Apocalypse, he gives us something a lot more spread out, a lot sillier and a lot more like, well, an actual comic book.
This is a film that opens with a giant Egyptian ceremony in 3600 BC — something that could have fit well into an Indiana Jones universe, plus hieroglyphics that look like modern-day chipsets — and then, leaping from silent violence in the woods to fence-removal at Auschwitz, it stays in the 80s, where characters play Ms Pac Man while Knight Rider reruns play in the background.
It’s loopy without being particularly smart, but — like in so many crossover events — what kept me riveted were the artists. For the first half hour of this giddily preposterous film, I was too busy gaping to start looking for flaws.
Shot by longtime Singer cohort Newton Thomas Sigel, this film is a visual thrillride, a film that uses 3D so slickly that you can’t help but notice the tiniest of details in background and foreground — and these there are many.
From the curves of a ringleader’s painfully elaborate moustache to the dates and kebabs in an Egyptian bazaar, this film constantly provides visual relief, small focal points to marvel at while the narrative whizzes by.
We go from story to story, character to character, location to location, and thanks to the superbly streamlined visuals, it does feel like binge-reading a bunch of disparate comics, comics with distinct styles, forced to try and take the same story forward.
Sure, there are hiccups, and it is all rather goofy stuff, halfway between the harmless and infectiously fun animated X-Men television show of the 1990s and the shadowy darkness brought to the franchise by Matthew Vaughn with his lovely, 70s-y X-Men: First Class, which is just the way a boombox-wielding ’80s party should be.
What really works for Apocalypse is Singer’s constant attention to detail — the first time you see Magneto walk into a wooden cabin, what resonates instantly is the automatically sinister clang with which his car-keys hit the bowl — and his exquisite cast. Who better to spout malarkey than Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence and James McAvoy and — hello there — Oscar Isaac?
Isaac, playing an age-old deity, has it particularly hard. His face is wreathed in prosthetics and he is made to bellow things like, “You can fire the arrows from the Tower of Babel but you can never strike God.”
All this while the others have a blast. As Professor X and Magneto, McAvoy and Fassbender own most of the film, though fan-pleasing turns come also to us from Nicholas Hoult’s Beast, Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops and, of course, Evan Peters as Quicksilver, tying the band together like a young Stewart Copeland.
Blasphemously enough, Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique is the weakest thing in this film, over-earnest and emo in a way completely at odds with the character we know from the comics or the movie franchise.
Olivia Munn spends a lot of time as an action figure in a gratuitously sexy outfit — but by the end of the film she kicks a whole lot of mutant ass quite spectacularly and so becomes the best kind of action figure.
The problem, really, lies with Jean Grey. Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark from Game Of Thrones) has the right look for the character — and there’s a charming meet-cute when someone blindfolded walks into her and she almost drops her Anthology Of American Literature to the ground — but she plays the part a bit too wishy-washy.
Grey — the greatest X-Men character of the whole damned lot, and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise — deserves more flair, more inherent awesomeness. (More Famke Jannsen, maybe?) There is, however, a point where even this timid Jean takes baby steps toward her future, and it is a joyous sight.
True Believers will also rejoice at the electrifying character cameo in this film — a bloody and brilliant deus X-machina, if you will — and I remain impressed by how strongly the film commits to its operatic villain, Apocalypse.
For a shouty film, this one contains a surprising amount of grace-notes. Not least of which is glimpsing William F Buckley during a montage of civilisation as-seen-on-tv and spotting Breakfast Club alumnus Ally Sheedy play Scott Summers’ schoolteacher. There is even a smashing moment involving birds, with a nod towards the way Mr Hitchcock scored his masterworks.
In a world now over-stuffed with comic-book movies, X-Men: Apocalypse is far from being the finest movie yet may well rank among the most comic-booky. For some of us, that’s all that matters.
There are too many movies out there Magneto may like; this one is something Professor X would dig.
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