X-Men: Apocalypse is a hot mess of a film, with some lovely action sequences, some well done CGI, fairly good acting, good make-up and costuming, and an overstuffed plot that has a few too many twists and characters to make its nearly 2 1/2 hour run time feel worth it. Compounding the strangeness is that I haven’t seen Days of Future Past, nor First Class, and the older X-Men films are memories from a decade ago. This isn’t the fault of the film, which is explicitly billed as the third entry in the franchise, but which also makes a number of concessions to newer viewers via flashbacks and expository dialogue; it’s entirely my own.
There are some needless sequences. The one that stands out most prominently is the kidnapping by Colonel Stryker and the bit in the Weapon X facility, a half-hour detour that is eventually just a transparent excuse to have a Hugh Jackman cameo. It’s a nice shout out to Barry Windsor-Smith’s iconic run, and a naked Jackman is rarely a bad thing to have in a film, but just as easy would have been to excise that entire part. Nicholas Hoult already showed off his fancy new plane to Jennifer Lawrence. They could get in that and go straight to Cairo.
In fact, it was difficult to get a bead on who was supposed to be the protagonist. The only people with character arcs are Oscar Isaac (who comes back to hate the modern world, tries to destroy it, and fails), Michael Fassbender (who comes back to the public world after the death of his family, tries to destroy it, and has a change of heart), and Evan Peters (who comes out of hiding to look for his father, finds him, and then decides not to tell him the truth). Everyone else is either static, or only hits partway towards a change, without resolution. The movie itself is made with a sequel in mind.
And this is an interesting thing. It felt more like watching a few episodes of a television show, albeit one with a much much larger budget than usual, spliced together, than a feature film. Detours like the Weapon X one make sense if it were just an episode of a program. You wouldn’t need to keep cutting back to Oscar Isaac to remind you of why the characters need to hurry.
This makes perfect sense from a financial standpoint: movies are very expensive to make, and therefore if one can get a franchise going, the odds of getting another film made are even better. This leads to an automatic draw at the box office, easier branding, easier promotion, etc. etc. However, it comes at the expense of an actually satisfying film experience. The questions that are posed by the film have to be interesting ones, and far too often, they simply aren’t. There’s a limited number of twists and turns that an audience will accept, and because there are so many competing franchises, and due to the internet’s obsessive theorizing and analyzing of any given piece of media, the answers are inevitably unsatisfying.
Time was, you could leave things open ended, and that was alright. The Maltese Falcon, for example, doesn’t delve deeply into Spade and Archer’s relationship. The film famously doesn’t even get into the real mystery of the falcon itself; such a thing is beside the point of the story. These are left to the imagination of the viewer. And yet it could have easily been developed into a franchise — in fact there was an Adventures of Sam Spade radio serial that ran from 1946-1951. But constant call backs and references to the past were not the point.
Such things make sense for the finale of a TV season. The ongoing subplots can be resolved, everything can be wrapped up, the villain who has been directing things can be defeated, and so on. One goes in nowadays knowing that it is the culmination of a build up of 12 or 25 or whatever previous episodes. But when the call backs become the point, when the plot is an excuse to make references that the long term fans will pick up on, then you’ve insured that you will not be successful. You’ve turned your product into something insular and incestuous, doubly so if it is full of things that can only be found by becoming involved in the internet fandoms. Assuming that your viewers have seen the previous films in the franchise is acceptable. Assuming that they’ve seen them ten times is not.
Which winds us back to Apocalypse. I wasn’t lost at all, because I’ve read almost all the X-Men comics produced from 1963-1993. It was simple to say “Oh, that’s (so and so)” based on casual details or “Oh, they’re doing (that plot)” based on things I recognized. And unlike some, I don’t mind seeing details change; if I wanted to see the same story again, I’d just fish my comics out of the longbox and reread them. I want something mixed up and served differently. Make it unfamiliar enough that I can’t guess exactly what’s going to happen next. Tell new stories with the old characters — I don’t care if it contradicts issue 213 where Wolverine missed Shadowcat’s birthday because he was held up in traffic, not because the subway was stopped due to a track malfunction. There is joy in recognition, but it’s much sweeter to not predict where a story is going.
What some people want, judging from their reactions, is much closer to the original video animations (OVAs) released to tie in with popular manga in the 80s and 90s. The idea was that when a series reached a certain level, the company would commission two episodes of a cartoon, adapting two popular stories from the comic, and sell it direct to video at a terribly expensive mark-up, and Japanese fan culture being what it is, they would sell well enough to make it worthwhile. Nowadays they simply adapt their entire series into a half or full season, with perhaps an OVA to serve as a capstone, but then things are different from how they were thirty years ago. I can understand the appeal of seeing the book in color and motion, with voice acting and sound effects. People enjoy different things. But is it too much to ask that some effort be put in as well?