X-Men: Apocalypse is currently on the receiving end of a brutal critical pile-on, currently rating just 47 percent on RottenTomatoes. That’s more than 40 points lower than Captain America: Civil War, which wasn’t much better, if at all, than X-Men: Apocalypse depending how you rank a mostly dull movie with an unconventional ending and one good scene (Cap) vs. a watchable movie with a few good scenes and a terrible ending (X-Men).
In some ways, I understand the hate. Apocalypse tends to lose its grip on believable dialogue at the worst times, often during the climactic moments. “You’re in my house now!” is not something anyone should say in a movie, let alone Charles Xavier, a mutant character of freakish intelligence and the headmaster of a fancy private school. (Just imagine Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society turning to the snooty headmaster and yelling “What’s up now, bitch!”). It’s always a bad sign when an X-Men line sounds like it could’ve gone in the one Brett Ratner directed, and that’s to say nothing of the fact that Xavier is referring to an actual house at the time. Don’t bother checking the whether, you are literally on the inside of my house now.
To make matters worse, Apocalypse is guilty of ending with the same tired, “superheroes teaming up to beat the big bad guy trying to destroy the Earth” trope. For all its faults, at least Civil War avoided that.
But as long as we’re giving Civil War credit for avoiding some of the most obvious pitfalls of the genre, X-Men: Apocalypse deserves the same treatment. Therefore, here are some things it does right.
A Consistent Metaphor
Now, I’m not saying a movie about people in tights and leather pew-pewing each other with mind bullets necessarily needs to be a grand allegory for the human condition. In fact, the last thing I want when I’m watching, say, a maniacal clown man stab someone in the eye with a pencil is to have to wonder “but what does it really mean?” (Incidentally, this is my Cliffs Notes version of Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation.)
Yet the people writing these movies lately sure seem to think we need that. And as long as every superhero movie is desperate for symbolic depth, the least they could do is have a consistent metaphor. Batman v. Superman and Civil War both seemed to be about something completely different from scene to scene. This was executed more obnoxiously in BvS, thanks to Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor trying to be both Type A and Asperger’s (which I blame more on Zack Snyder). Civil War wasn’t much better. The characters are sad about collateral damage of past missions… so they… agree to UN oversight? How would that even work? More importantly, why would I care? And then later, it turns out the movie is actually about vengeance. Sure, why not? What other things can we pretend are important for six to eight minutes?
Meanwhile, in X-Men, Apocalypse takes concentration camp survivor Magneto to Auschwitz to remind him why he should join the bad guy team. It may not work perfectly, and sure, Xavier and Magneto end up having basically the same conversation they’ve been having for the past six movies, but X-Men still has a far more effective guiding metaphor than any of the other superhero movies. Xavier and Magneto have famously been positioned as stand-ins for MLK and Malcolm X, respectively, for about as long as the comic has been running, which might be a reason to call it old news. But the question of whether you can love your oppressor and believe them capable of change, or let fear and hatred turn you into them still feels pretty relevant.
Spectacle Over Shaky Cam
If you read Civil War reviews (and comments), I guarantee you’ll find a lot of people talking about the airport fight scene and lots fewer talking about anything else. There were a lot of other fight scenes that maybe weren’t quite shaky cam in the old Bourne/Batman Begins mold, but were pretty damned close. Someone would throw a punch, and there’d be three cuts before it landed and then another cut to the punchee grunting or slamming into a wall. I get it, these superhero movies have huge casts, and not every actor is going to be Tony Jaa. They kind of have to cut around it. But the only thing more dull than two guys fighting in a stairwell when you can’t even tell who’s punching is two guys fighting in a stairwell where one of them is an unkillable superhero whose punches don’t hurt anyway. Why do I care about this again?
For all his faults, Bryan Singer still knows how to shoot an action set piece. Where Civil War‘s action (aside from the airport scene, which is admittedly superb) is choppy, Apocalypse‘s is languid (leaning maybe a little too hard on slow motion now and then, especially toward the end). Where Batman V Superman is drab, Apocalypse is vivid. And just like in Days of Future Past, Apocalypse has a Quicksilver scene that steals the whole film (and it’s better than the Quicksilver scenes in Age of Ultron, which were also probably the best action scenes in that movie).The Quicksilver scenes are fun to watch for the same reason a lot of Civil War isn’t: You can actually see what’s happening. Deadpool is probably the best superhero movie of the year for the same reason — the action is interesting even if every third joke falls flat.
There’s another Nightcrawler scene in Apocalypse too, set at a nightclub gladiator match, a scene we’ve already seen in at least one other X-Men Universe movie (featuring Wolverine) and in the Bone Saw scene (R.I.P., Macho Man) from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (which is so vivid it’s like a bad acid trip at the circus, and kind of reminds me of the golf shoes scene from Fear and Loathing). Yet, no matter how conscious I was of having already seen it a few times, it was still fun to watch, simply because it was visually interesting, and action-packed in a way that maintained a consistent spatial awareness. It goes to show, all it really takes to make an action scene watchable is a sense of space, even when the scene is sort of dumb.