I. SOME HISTORY
Fox’s X-Men franchise has had more hits than misses. 2000’s X-Men was an excellent introduction to the world and the film franchise’s core character Wolverine. Following three years later, X2 solidified many of the themes that director Bryan Singer evoked in the first film by ratifying them in explicit scenes–in a classic scene framed as a “coming out,” Ice Man’s mother asks if he’s ever tried not being a mutant, hammering home the key metaphor that Singer carries through the rest of his work on the franchise.
A string of less-than-interesting X-Men films followed then as Singer took a break from this particular universe to put his own spin on Superman, Nazi rebellion, and some folk tales. The Last Stand is a nonsensical almost-mash-up that falls prey to a plot that wants to do way too much with not enough time or substance. Origins: Wolverine tells the goofiest possible story with that character’s origin. It was a dire time to be a fan of the X-Men.
In 2011, Matthew Vaughn saved it all with X-Men: First Class. Set in the infancy of the X-Men, the film adopted the aesthetics of 1960s culture and filmmaking to anchor the weirdness of the X-Men in a time and place. By the grace of God, the film was able to secure James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender to play the past versions of Patrick Stewart’s Professor X and Ian McKellan’s Magneto. (I cannot stress enough that this was the best choice that anyone has made in the entire franchise, period.) The next film, Days of Future Past, saw Singer taking the reigns of the films back for himself and grounding X-Men in the paranoiac political thrillers of the 1970s.
And, after yet another Wolverine film lodged in there, we have now reached Apocalypse.
And it’s terrible.
I’m not sure if it is worth enumerating the problems with the film. There are angry nerds and pedantic YouTube channels for that. I’m going to spend the rest of this piece talking about one thing that continues along the trajectories of the films I’ve mentioned already so far in my recounting: the periodization in these prequels.
2. THE WONDERFUL 1980s
First Class spent a chunk of its runtime getting us invested in the character of Magneto as a James Bond-ish Nazi killer. Instead of wonderful, weird technologies, Magneto had his mutant powers, and it is an engaging replacement that not only poses an alternate history of “what if these beings were here at this time” but also an alternate aesthetics: “what if films were made at this time with these ideas in them?”
Days of Future Past doubles down on the idea with a little more continuity with the Singer films of the early 2000s. Where the core conflict of First Class is around political intrigue and the Cold War, ultimately ending in an alternate Cuban Missile Crisis where mutants intervened, Days of Future Past takes us to the political thriller film of the 1970s. Mustaches, confusion, and technological races for power dominate the who-knows-what plot, and terrorism and assassination become the axes around which the plot revolves. We’re trading in the macro, yet secret, Cold War battles for a micro, yet wildly public, battle that runs through the press and establishes mutants as a fact of the world.
Apocalypse, gloriously, takes us to the 1980s and its wonderful cohort of classic teen films, slasher sequels, and action films. Those genres have amazingly specific dress codes, just like the Bond films and thrillers that the previous two films borrowed from, and the ceiling for aesthetic mixing and matching was very high. And there was so much promise in the first thirty minutes of the film. Jean Grey’s shoulderpads, Jubilee’s entire outfit, and Nightcrawler’s red jacket combined with the Sisters of Mercy music video mutant fights and muscle-man Polish steel mills gave me so much hope.
At a critical point in the film, four young members of the team go to the mall, and they play to have a joy ride with one of Professor X’s cars. “Hell yes,” I thought, “this is going to be our Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Breakfast Club moment where we get to hyperfocus in on what it’s like to be a mutant in the 1980s.”
I feel like I wasn’t wrong to have the belief that the film might go in this direction. First Class was so, so specific about making a film about a team, about the members themselves, and the personalities of those teammates was critical to how that film dodged around different perspectives. Days of Future Past brilliantly copied it with a fish-out-of-water-yet-familiar figure in Wolverine.
The focus-in gets deferred in Apocalypse. Instead, we’re denied any kind of interiority to these characters, and the necessity of balancing fifteen characters (and giving them all lines for some reason) means that Singer never settles on any subject positions as the important ones. So instead of a cool mall adventure, we get some generic fighting. Instead of learning about emotions, we get yet another Wolverine cameo (that goes on way too long). Instead of dealing with the apocalyptic worry of nuclear arms in the 1980s (it is, at best, paid visual lip service to), we get the same sort of plodding generic Big Massive Bad Guy fighting that ruined The Last Stand.
In a bitterly ironic scene, the one Mall Teen moment we do get is characterized by a cutting line about The Last Stand (something to the effect of “everyone knows third movies are always the worst ones”), but Apocalypse suffers from the same specific, exact failing of lack of focus, and you wonder if it isn’t some form of autocritique.
So the vibrancy of the 1980s pop culture landscape gets abandoned for a retread of apocalyptic scenarios available to us from Transformers to Independence Day. That specific failure to take the content and the aesthetic from the 1980s, to really ground X-Men in it, is a decision that I can’t even remotely understand in the context of the success of the last two films.