Review: ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’ Needs More Heart And Fewer Whiz-Bang Explosions At Auschwitz

Where do the X-Men fit in with the superheroes of today?

X-Men movies have always been at their best when using human drama as a means to build their cinematic worlds. Whether its Wolverine’s desire to discover where he came from, or Magneto’s battles with the demons of his past, it’s this personal element that explains why X2 is the best and most acclaimed of the series. It prized the personal battles of its characters as just as important as the physical ones. And that included the famous mutant ‘coming out’ scene, not-so-subtly bringing the queer subtext of the comics to the forefront.

This allows the films to remain at least somewhat down-to-earth despite all the flying, zapping, telekinesis, blade-slashing, and genetically-modified freakiness on show. And that’s exactly what’s needed in X-Men: Apocalypse: the fourth of the eight-movie franchise, directed by Bryan Singer.

The most complicated of the series — which says a lot considering Days of Future Past involved time travel — Apocalypse finds a gang of young mutants, Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, one of the best young actors around), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Havoc (Lucas Till) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) joining forces with shape-shifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Professor X (James McAvoy) in stopping a villain. This time it’s the green-skinned En Sabah Nur (internet boyfriend Oscar Isaac) — and his band of mutants including Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy), and Psylocke (Olivia Munn) — who has a plot to eradicate the world of destructive humans. Considering this involves destroying the world, yes, he is a bit of a hypocrite.

Despite this large cast of appealing actors, very little has been done to allow audiences to relate to these ‘mutants’. Instead, the film relies on the kind of whiz-bang destruction audiences are increasingly growing tired of.

Apocalypse At Auschwitz

X-Men: Apocalypse certainly reaches for some emotional pathos, but by the eighth film in a franchise, it’s become especially hard to care about Magneto yet again turning to the dark side only to be saved by pleas to his inner humanity. Lord knows they’re trying to make us give a damn about Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique, but it’s hard to care when the performer is so clearly uninterested in the material she’s been given. She just told Entertainment Weekly, Fox should “be terrified at the prospect of her not returning”.

This ultimate disengagement is likely due to the X-Men movies having to keep up with their Marvel stablemates and a rash of copycat franchises that aim to raise the bar for extravagance and over-the-top action. It’s no longer okay to just be battling a guy with a grudge — Oscar Isaac as En Sabah Nur who is (unfortunately) covered in unrecognisable make-up for all but 30 seconds – who wants to enact an evil plan. These kind of movies now need a villain who wants to raze cities to the ground, kill billions, and bring about the end of the world as we know it.

We’re 16 years on from the retroactively quaint X-Men, and Singer is throwing in everything and the kitchen sink; cramming so much in to this film that the climactic finale looks like a lost Zack Snyder scene of wanton destruction. There’s even an extremely tasteless scene in which a sword-wielding super-villain Psylocke (Olivia Munn) stands in the middle of Auschwitz in a high-waisted bondage-inspired costume that looks like a swimsuit with her legs spread wide. Sure, it’s apparently accurate to the comic book, but that doesn’t make it any less absurd.

Moments later, Magneto (Michael Fassbender) literally destroys Auschwitz and what should have been a powerful moment of catharsis is rendered as little more than a pixelated wank factory for teenage boys who want nothing more than boobs and barely-coherent visual effects spectacles. Nothing quite speaks to the plight of Holocaust victims and survivors than having a site of genocide used as wet dream fodder.

Sweet Dreams (Are Made of Quicksilver)

In its most entertaining moments, X-Men Apocalypse can remind us of the joys of earlier films by embracing its characters’ mutations and allowing them to be used as more than just boring plot filler. The film’s highlight is the appearance of Evan Peters’ Quicksilver — Magneto’s son who also appeared (though played by a different actor) in Avengers: Age of Ultron — as he darts around an exploding mansion rescuing people (and a dog eating pizza) to the sounds of the Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’.

It’s almost worth seeing the character turned into a shameless corporate shill just for this wonderfully inventive and comical sequence. They were wise to mimic the success of the character from Days of Future Past.

Elsewhere, a battle between Nightcrawler and Angel as they attempt to save their skins in an underground mutant cage fight has the right amount of thrills and poignant desperation. It’s so good that their final-act confrontation disappoints in comparison. The budding romance between Cyclops and Jean Grey is a welcome relief amid a storm of apocalyptic action; and it’s also a hoot to see the use of ‘80s costuming and hairstyling give the film a unique look. Props to whoever chose Rose Byrne’s wonderfully over-sized reading glasses and put Nightcrawler in a Michael Jackson ‘Beat It’ jacket.

All this will leave some viewers asking if there’s room for the X-Men at the movies anymore. Like any franchise, there is if they make good movies. But it’s quite obvious that the people behind the scenes could use some time away instead of constantly spinning their wheels. Apocalypse is not the worst X-Men movie, but when Hugh Jackman hangs up his claws in next year’s final Wolverine spin-off (Hugh Jackman features in Apocalypse, but only briefly) maybe it’ll be time for these super-humans to take a break too.

X-Men: Apocalypse is in cinemas now.

Glenn Dunks is a freelance writer from Melbourne. He also works as an editor and a film festival programmer while tweeting too much at @glenndunks.