‘X-Men: Apocalypse’: Re-purposing a story or making a mess?

Is the purpose of superhero movies like "X-Men: Apocalypse" to tell a character-driven story or create more add-on franchises and sell more tickets on a bombastic voyage to nowhere? (Part 2 of 2)

Apocalypse now! (PR image for 20th Century Fox film "X-Men: Apocalypse)

WASHINGTON, July 4, 2016 – In our first installment on “X-Men: Apocalypse,” we noted the consistent and increasingly tired tilt of director Bryan Singer toward re-hashing, again and again, the moral and ideological conflict between Professor X and Magneto at the expense of the rich character development of both mentors’ youthful charges—a character development that’s long defined the core of Marvel’s X-Men comic book and graphic novel treatments.

In some ways at least, Singer’s “X-Men: Apocalypse” starts to move closer to this core premise, but it’s still not really there.

Read also: ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’: Brian Singer is missing the point

Not including the titular villain, En Sabah Nur (Apocalypse) – who will almost certainly not be included in future installments – the new X-Men film introduces roughly eight prominent characters. They are among the fan favorites in the X-Men’s 50+ year history. But because the movie focuses so intently—as usual—on Professor X and Magneto, these characters are entirely underserved despite this film’s almost maddening 2 hour and 40 minute running time.

Cyclops in action. Screen grab via YouTube from 20th Century Fox trailer for "X-Men: Apocalypse."
Cyclops in action. Screen grab via YouTube from 20th Century Fox trailer for “X-Men: Apocalypse.”

There’s an old adage among Marvel fans that anyone can judge the quality of an X-Men story by the way it treats Cyclops (Tye Sheridan). The current film marks the first time he’s been directly introduced in this timeline. Yes, in the previous trilogy, Cyclops does show up. But he promptly disappears for an hour in “X2” before being killed off in “X-Men: Last Stand.”

In “X-Men: Apocalypse,” Cyclops is at least nominally the “point of view character,” a key concept we explored in our previous article. The current story begins by showing how Cyclops’ powers first manifested and his subsequent welcome at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. That’s all well and good, more or less, until Cyclops’ character erupts as a rebellious teenager, a development that flies in the face of any original Marvel source material.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with deviating from the source material. It’s done all the time in Hollywood, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill. Even so, movie creators, writers and editors shouldn’t be deterred from exploring an established character even in nonstandard ways. However, such character make-overs falter and flounder when little time is spent with those individuals on screen.

Case in point: As soon as Cyclops is introduced to the new characters in “X-Men: Apocalypse” – Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and the criminally underused Jubilee (Lana Candor) – the four are shuffled off camera and away from the main plot in favor of other characters who seem preoccupied with wringing their hands over En Sabah Nur, aka the Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac).

Nearly all films are whittled down in the final editing process, presumably to trim each one down to a tolerable running time as well as to focus the story line. Sometimes the process works out just fine. At other times, however, disputes arise over missing material whose excision may be seen as damaging to the story line.

Englefield House, whose exterior portrays Charles Xavier's hidden-away school for talented mutants. (Photo credit: Richard Croft, CC 2.0, via Wikipedia entry on X-Men films)
Englefield House, whose exterior portrays Charles Xavier’s hidden-away school for talented mutants. (Photo credit: Richard Croft, CC 2.0, via Wikipedia entry on X-Men films)

In “Apocalypse,” footage rumored to have been left behind on the cutting room floor included extended scenes of the X-kids hanging out at the mall or otherwise operating outside of the mansion’s confines. The very thought of this is frustrating since scenes like these are absolutely necessary for the audience to build a rapport with the new characters.

Otherwise—perhaps a bit like Wonder Woman in the recent “Batman v Superman”—such characters are just wallpaper. Aside from an occasional line of dialogue, they’re given little if anything to do, which means they’re essentially being created over again from whole cloth each time a new franchise film is released.

It’s even more maddening given that in the current X-Men film, neither the writers nor the director allow them to have intersection at all with Apocalypse, who, for a good part of this movie, is operating seemingly independent of anything else as he assembles his army seemingly at random.

Apocalypse himself is a potentially fascinating villain because he presents cogent arguments against both Xavier’s and Magneto’s set-in-concrete ideologies. But again, as with this film’s newly-introduced and/or rebooted characters, absolutely no leg work put in by either the writers or the director as to exactly how Apocalypse opposes anyone in his way, other than the blasé garden-variety world domination plot line we’ve seen in superhero comic books and movies since the beginning of time..

The Apocalypse arc gets more confusing as the supervillain assembles his followers driven primarily by their proximity to his whereabouts, thus short circuiting any real agency for the characters he collects, let alone providing them with any character development in the process, rendering them two-dimensional at best. Worst served here in terms of scope is most likely the character of Storm (Alexandra Shipp). Although a prominent X-Person, she becomes just another of Apocalypse’s lackeys and is barely given anything to do outside of just standing around.

The fate of Storm is a stand-in for the biggest problem of “X-Men: Apocalypse.” First and foremost, this film is an “adaptation” in the worst sense of the term. As such, it doesn’t necessarily have to follow the exact framework of a specific X-Men story. Yet even a fairly free adaptation of original material does, on a certain level, have to honor the spirit of the original comic book universe.

At every turn in this film, however, that vital X-Men spirit is something Singer never really honors, maintaining his consistent and increasingly dull treatment of the source material. The characters in this film do resemble their comic book counterparts. But not a single one of them feels familiar outside of the select few that are given any significant attention. Compounding the problem is how little work Singer puts in to filling in the blanks where some demonstrating at least some familiarity with the source material could do the heavy lifting.

This has been a consistent problem the X-Men film franchise since its inception. But up to now at least, the franchise has mostly gotten away with this clichéd approach by offering films that offer a competent action series populated by a handful of distinctly unique and energetic action set pieces designed and executed for the most part by Singer.

Unfortunately, this string of luck seems to have run out in “X-Men: Apocalypse.” Of the major action set pieces in this film, two of them directly replicate similar scenes from earlier films – namely Quicksilver’s (Evan Peters) nearly time stopping display of super speed and Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) violent rampage.

But this film’s final battle drags on to the point where it seems pointless in terms of execution and purpose. As the characters that will become X-Men finally engage Apocalypse, there’s just no sense of natural composition. The primary motivation for this scene is that the movies call for it to happen, and all movies have to end at some point.

When the film does end, it does so in a way that makes the whole Apocalypse excursion feel unnecessary at best. That’s because this is already where the audience thought they were at the end of “X-Men: First Class” –with the formation of the X-Men team. It’s déja vu all over again, and we’ve been here before, making the entire process of Apocalypse story line feel like an exercise in wheel spinning at the expense of a static main protagonist and a bevy of underdeveloped characters. This overworked hamster is getting tired.

“X-Men: Apocalypse” continues Singer’s never-ending drive to repurpose the franchise as something that’s his and his alone. While it’s fine for him to try to put his imprint on the X-Men legend, it blatantly ignores far too many aspects of the source material for devoted series fans to overlook. Worse, it leaves moviegoers with little that’s actually new and interesting.

After six increasingly repetitive films, “X-Men: Apocalypse” ends up sharing the worst aspects of all of them. Instead of streamlining the Marvel mythos, the film and franchise have become not only visually uninteresting, but horribly convoluted for a 50+ year continuity.

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