Bryan Singer is crazy as hell, creatively speaking. As a director he is unapologetic in his choices and the way he puts together a movie. He has made four “X-Men” since launching the franchise back in 2000. All of the films share similar strengths and glaring weaknesses. To me, Singer’s “X-Men” are like an orgy: big, loud, colorful, messy, and you end up often regretting the choice to participate. Yet, I can’t think of any other director making such daring choices in what are supposed to be big-budget Hollywood blockbusters. There are so many scenes to marvel at—moments of pure brilliance which feel like the perfect amalgam of sight and sound. But he never is able to achieve harmony between these moments. The connective tissue is so often a disjointed mish-mash that viewers end up ambivalent about the final product—despite witnessing scenes of pure genius.
“X-Men: Apocalypse” might be the strongest example of Singer’s confounding directorial style. It features some mind-blowing scenes of raw drama and a lot of mediocre, by-the-book action contractually mandated for movies featuring characters from the Marvel universe.
We meet back up with Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) 10 years after the events of the last film that saw our mighty mutant mob take on Magneto (Michael Fassbender) in the 1970s. Now it’s the ‘80s, and Singer gives us “Miami Vice”-inspired outfits, jackets from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” and a glossy new-wave vibe. Even though these 10-year jumps (beginning with “X-Men: First Class” in the ‘60s) make little sense, it’s all done in an effort to give each new installment its own sense of identity. Sure, the characters don’t look like they’ve aged more than a handful of years over the past decade, but maybe maintaining a youthful appearance is one of the side effects of being a mutant.
The “X-Men” movies have been built on a foundation of dueling ideologies. Mutants are polarizing figures who are feared by the general public. There are those, like Xavier, who believe they can coexist in peace and harmony like a good hippie. And there are those, like Magneto, who believe the best defense is a good offense and want the humans to pay for their transgressions against their genetic superiors. “X-Men: Apocalypse” decides early on there will be no high-minded sociological debate this time around. We are introduced to the villainous Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), a 5,000-year-old mutant with amazing powers that make every other mutant look useless in comparison. Like all would-be world conquerors, he begins to recruit acolytes to help him destroy the world. Because, apparently, humanity needs to be leveled every few millennia so the strong can rebuild a better world; for reasons only world-conquering, near omnipotent beings can understand.
Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) has become a hero to the mutant population after saving President Nixon in the previous film. It’s a role she’s uncomfortable with, which seems fitting since Jennifer Lawrence appears so uncomfortable in these blockbusters. I would barely call what she’s doing here “acting”; she spends the vast majority of the film poorly emoting wooden dialog. There are at least a dozen characters, but the only two worth following are Magneto and Quicksilver (Evan Peters). Fassbender is an actor of remarkable range and his tragic villain is one of the few highlights in a movie that is far more “flash” than it “bang.” Peters’ Quicksilver possesses what most other young mutants lack: charisma. He’s a joy to watch in every scene.
As I mentioned, there are some super-fun moments in the film, like an entire action sequence staged to the Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams” that steals the show. There’s a scene where Fassbender revisits Auschwitz, where he was once detained and his family was lost, so he decides to use his powers to reduce it to rubble. It’s an interesting choices by Singer: watching a man who has suffered great loss, yet acting out by trashing the world’s most salient reminder of the Holocaust. It’s an act of immense power and selfishness, and feels almost out of place with over-the-top theatrics of a third act trying to turn “X-Men” into another world-saving superhero franchise. But the X-Men always work better when battles are smaller and stand for something.
“Days of Future Past” achieved a great deal because it avoided world-ending clichés and instead made the finale about a simple choice between right and wrong. This sensory assault of a third act is a cut-and-paste trope from the comic-book movie playbook. Much like “Batman v Superman,” I commend “X-Men: Apocalypse” for its strange and often baffling choices