X-Men Apocalypse brings one of the best villains in Marvel to the big screen and uses his powers to weave an interesting, destructive experience.
Growing up, Apocalypse was one of the few villains that made an impact on my psyche. There were plenty of blowhards that could destroy buildings and monuments, but this mutant of mutants spoke in a way no other villain did before. He was eloquent without a single wasted word or action, carrying out plans that matched his intellect and touting powers that could be topped by maybe one or two others in all of Marvel. He is, after all, as far beyond mutants as they are beyond humans, and so the movie performance had a fairly large pre-fit mold to matter-phase around.
Thankfully, X-Men Apocalypse delivers on the titular villain front in spades. Oscar Issacs seems to have been turned into a Terminator inside the role itself, executing every move with a grace and force that delivers on the poise and certainty of his actions. The other actors on screen can be seen fidgeting and emoting, but Apocalypse, feeling every bit the meticulous villain that he is, barely even shrugs. Even when his plans don’t follow through, he is mostly calm, patient, and simply allows those so far beneath him to writhe pointlessly. He never even introduces himself to his horsemen; he mentions his name once only as an zeitgeist label as he pushes aside all that doesn’t matter in order to focus on building that better world he craves. Issacs’ performance entwines with the character himself to create a monstrous, intimidating enemy that full-on makes this movie.
This shows the night-and-day difference that comes when you have a villain worthy of the heroes’ time as opposed to when you’re just giving them screen space to preen. You’re given a sense of power with Apocalypse that both seduces and frightens his followers, his abilities, while never fully explained, still feeling vastly superior to his audience’s. Those abilities are used – gasp – against mutants and humans alike instead of every battle devolving into a fanciful fistfight, and the build-up to Apocalypse’s eventual reveal of his full power pays off in a believable, almost anti-machina fashion that hardly disappoints. All the while, Issacs is given the ability to verbosely speak, his voice wavering from humanoid to robotically bellowing to match the intellectual intimidation of the original. All of this is to say that Apocalypse is in this movie to his fullest extent – exactly how such a level of baddie should be portrayed.
With so much focus on this titanic villain, it’s through a lot of subtleties that we learn about the other mutants in X-Men Apocalypse. Three of the four Horsemen are new to this particular timeline and require motivations, all of which Apocalypse shepherds from them, but the majority of character there is to find is through their actions in battle. Psylock is confident and able to think on her feet while Storm is powerful but ultimately a rookie and frightened on the battlefield. Angel is fiercely loyal to Apocalypse and has no qualms about killing, and then there’s Magneto who, unofficially, takes the mantle as the most powerful Horseman. His arc feels a touch light on substance and holds no surprises to speak of, but his history and connection with Charles Xavier makes the journey still feel worth the quick step up. His, Charles’, and Mystique’s three movie arcs all feel woven in fairly well to the message of the movie itself with each given their moments to shine and reflect upon their values in life. You can see the seams, especially with Magneto’s revelation, but there’s still enough emotional impact to not feel robbed.
James McAvoy’s Xavier leads his new group of mutants with some mainstays – Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique and Nicholas Holts’ Beast – against Apocalypse with the newbies taking center stage. Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are put to the fire pretty quickly, pushed to use their creativity and powers to save their group. Yet, they’re shown to be unrefined and still make mistakes, their powers not always able to avoid situations or their plans not fully thought out, thus creating a connection with each of them as you watch them learn and grow. Even with their highlights, McAvoy is still the heroic stand out actor as the pain of his potential loss and even his indignant remarks thrown towards En Sabah Nur show a range that few other characters have access to in this universe.
More highlights come from Quicksilver, in more than just a cameo role this time, and Wolverine. Without giving much away, Hugh Jackman gives you everything you’d want as a fan of the character in just a few minutes. On the other hand, the Quicksilver scene, that apparently took the longest to film, feels like an exclamation point in the middle of the movie. The scale and stakes feel larger than his first while the staging feels looser and a little less creative, but you should take those as quibbling issues. Both of these mutants round out a cast that adds up to one of the most entertaining, engaging, and powerful groups a single movie has ever produced.
X-Men Apocalypse has a plot that, while meandering at first, gives you a clear sense of cause and effect. Magneto’s actions cause Professor Xavier’s reaction, which in turn brings another reaction from Apocalypse; you can feel the plot moving rather than just the scenes ending – for the most part. The early parts of the movie do seem to jump around while laying seeds for later threads, but that lull quickly evolves into the spinning wheel of plot that is engaging the rest of the way through. The movie makes up for those early sections by giving some clever twists and tweaks from within the universe. Mystique, once the fuel for the end of days, is now seen as a hero: a title she shies away from almost constantly. Her changed actions caused mutants to be revered instead of hated, emboldening some to worship them and sending us down the road to Apocalypse’s awakening. The changes feel realistic in this universe and take the growing mutants down a decidedly different road from that other trilogy. The X-Men franchise now feels like an oddity in that the viewers technically are experiencing both sides of reality’s coin, seeing one timeline that ended with Sentinal genocide and this one that could go any which way at this point. That feeling is beyond welcome in a world where Marvel seems to be content with the same kind of movie on repeat and DC haven’t quite found their footing yet, giving this franchise the breathing room to create some of the most human, and inhuman, characters in heroic lore.
Which then circles back around to Apocalypse again; while he’s used to his fullest potential in this conceit, you may find yourself hoping for more by the end. Is there an Age of Apocalypse rendition in the future, or one of The Twelve, or perhaps a tie-in with that certain end-credits villain tease? You should hope so because it’s not often you find someone as powerful, threatening, and loquacious as En Sabah Nur.
X-Men Apocalypse is not your typical Marvel movie, and that’s part of what makes it feel so very enjoyable. There’s still humor but not so much it’s beating you over the head, there are still fights but those with powers are actually allowed to use them to their fullest extent, and there is a villain that can actually step ahead of the main cast and bring a genuine threat to the team. This isn’t treated like just a stepping stone into another storyline for the X-Men, but rather, it’s given the respectful attention to detail that this cast, and that villain, deserves.