Ten years have elapsed since the reveal of mutants to the wider world in X-Men: Days of Future Past. It is now the early 1980's and Professor Xavier’s ‘School for the Gifted' is in full swing, Xavier having embraced his psychic powers once again and also regained his impetus for teaching, helping young mutants to harness their unique abilities and to become a benefit to mankind. Magneto has gone to ground, living the life of a simple family man in Poland, while Mystique has continued with her self-appointed mission as a lone freedom fighter, liberating mutants wherever she finds them. But introduced into all of this is En Sabah Nur, the oldest of all mutants, seeking to rid the world of its human disease after having accidentally been freed from his Egyptian tomb after thousands of years of slumber. Once he has assembled his Horsemen, imbuing four wayward mutants with even greater powers, the X-Men are called into action to thwart the gravest threat they’ve ever faced: Apocalypse.
Director Bryan Singer’s fourth turn in the chair on an X-Film is, by his own admission, something closer to “full comic book” action than anything we’ve seen in the franchise so far. The X-Men movies have never had to resort to the patented MCU formula of snappy one-liners mixed in with varying amounts of CG-laden action (though the original X-Men was written by Joss Whedon so it’s got some of his trademark snark, ironically enough), preferring to focus on characters rather than letting the big special-effects bonanzas overwhelm the story. But in this case something changed, as Singer felt that he’d finally built up enough credit over the prior films to really cut loose with the overtures to the comics, the filmmakers opting for costume designs which ape their ink-and-paint counterparts very closely, and deciding upon a “disaster movie” sense of scale as Apocalypse wreaks destruction across the world. And yet even though the scale is far bigger than any previous X-Men film it doesn’t feel as if the stakes are as high, there are so many new characters bouncing around (plus old ones who've returned, some with fresh faces, some with the old ones) that it's hard to feel as emotionally invested as with the superb Days of Future Past.
The full-on funny-book approach also leads to some tonal mismatches, with Magneto's heart-rending story strand seeming like something from a different film, and there's a visit to Auschwitz which is in poor taste (though I recall much the same complaints about the concentration camp opening to the original X-Men, albeit there wasn't anyone standing around in a purple bathing suit). Indeed, some may feel that this kind of gaudy style-over-substance instalment does a disservice to the ethos of the X-Men cinematic franchise, with its myriad metaphorical references to the struggles of the LGBT community never being far from the surface. But if the other films are more sombre reflections on such things then Apocalypse is a big ol’ Gay Pride parade of a movie, full of outrageous costumes, big hair and a rainbow-like colour palette which ensures that it dazzles like no other X-Men film before it (which is also fitting for the lurid 1980's setting). Right from the opening scene – a gloriously tacky set-up for Apocalypse’s entombing in ancient Egypt – it sets its stall out and rarely lets up, bouncing around from set-piece to giddy set-piece, with Quicksilver redux and the return to Alkali Lake being particular highlights. Even the opening titles are wonderfully playful, giving us a potted history of the last 3600 years while Apocalypse sleeps.
Something else that I love about it is that it still feels like a true prequel to the original series of films, as although the altered timeline will obviously result in some big differences (Mystique being front and centre, for one thing) it establishes plenty of cornerstones of that original film, chiefly Professor Xavier realising that for all his idealism he must also be a pragmatist and train these kids to fight. Bryan Singer is of the opinion that the flow of time will inevitably try to correct itself, and while some may see that as a cop-out after the time-bending events of Days of Future Past (the Mystique stinger at the end of that film being a blatant red herring) it’s fitting that the man who brought the X-Men to life 16 years ago be the one who brings this prequel series full circle. Indeed, in some ways this is Singer’s take on the third film he never got to make, having bailed on X-Men: The Last Stand to go and do Superman Returns for Warners and it’s funny how this one just happens to have Jean Grey’s powers boiling over, amongst other little things here and there (like how the very ending of this one mirrors the beginning of Last Stand).
Speaking of Jean Grey, the new cast do a pretty good job. Sophie Turner (I hear she’s in some popular TV show?) is the tortured telepath burdened with a great power, while Tye Sheridan is a fine young Cyclops, he even sounds a little like James Marsden. Kodi Smit-McPhee makes for a nicely awkward, gangly Nightcrawler, while Alexandra Shipp is Storm. Ben Hardy (yes, the kid who was in EastEnders) is Angel but he never quite convinces, as although his physique is mightily impressive I never really felt a great deal of menace from him. Same goes for Olivia Munn as Psylocke, who certainly looks the part but is as expressive as a wooden sideboard (and for all the waffle in the extras about her understanding the character inside and out: just FYI, Psylocke is supposed to be English). Oscar Isaac is En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse and he does his best to radiate menace underneath a mound of makeup and an elaborate costume. The returning cast members are terrific value, mostly, with James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender excellent as Xavier and Magneto respectively, Nic Hoult is as Beastly as ever and even old mutton chops himself gets a very quick outing in a surprisingly violent scene, Hugh Jackman reprising the role of Wolverine once again before his final appearance in Logan. Shame that Rose Byrne's Moira McTaggert is basically Exposition Lady this time around and Jennifer Lawrence is still phoning it in as Mystique, but at least they came up with a decent in-film explanation as to why she’s not in her blue form all the time.
X-Men: Apocalypse is definitely overstuffed as pointed out in our prior cinema review by my colleague Karol Krok, and I can appreciate how it feels like a missed opportunity to the folks who expect so much more from this franchise. They’ve tried to out-Marvel Marvel instead of sticking to their core strengths and maintaining what makes these films stand apart, and yet there’s a generation of people out there who grew up on the gaudy Saturday morning cartoon iteration of these characters (everybody now: dah-dah-dah-dah-daaaaaaah-dah-dah) so having this bigger, bolder “full comic book” X-Men film doesn’t feel like a betrayal to me. It’s undoubtedly less than the sum of its parts, feeling more like a series of comic splash panels brought to life rather than a truly satisfying film narrative. However, I enjoyed it immensely precisely because of the comic-book factor and I actually applaud whenever I get to the end of the film, that final scene alone is manna from heaven for comic book nerds. Well, it is for this comic book nerd anyway, but mileages can and do vary so please bear that in mind when comparing my score to that of the cinema review above.
I went ahead and imported the German 2D Blu-ray edition several weeks ago for this review, and it appears to be the exact same disc as we will receive in the UK thanks to the English menus and the usual array of foreign language options. It’s locked to region B which is unusual for Fox discs as they’re usually of the ‘one pressing for worldwide’ variety these days, but seeing as this is a European disc anyway it’s of little consequence to those on this side of the water.
The movie was shot in native stereo 3D on dual 5K RED Epics, reduced down slightly to 4K for the final digital finish. This 1080p HD 2D Blu-ray version is flawless to all intents and purposes. Presented in the intended 2.40 widescreen aspect, detail is beautifully fine and textured without looking aggressively sharp and the vibrant use of colour hammers home that more garish ‘80s sensibility, compared to the more muted ‘70s palette seen in Days of Future Past. Blacks look a touch thin in the opening reel but are good and deep throughout the rest of the film, with consistent contrast that balances the light and dark extremely well (though an HDR grade would no doubt reveal more in the brighter highlights). It looks very clean in terms of grain and/or noise and I didn’t spot any overt technical problems like aliasing, blocking, banding etc as this AVC encode is superb from start to finish. Fabulous stuff!
Audio-wise you’re also in for a treat. The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 sound is as peerless as the picture quality, offering up a beautifully balanced mix with crisp dialogue, prominent music and a well-layered sound field. I always like it when the rear speakers aren’t just used for bits of things flying around, there’s a moment when a news report starts at rear right and pans around the back of the room before dying away in the rear left speaker. The bass is excellent too, providing big, bolshy bass as you’d expect but it’s also very agile when need be, like when Metallica’s fast-paced The Four Horsemen is playing during Angel’s transformation. I’m quite sure that the Dolby Atmos mix on the 4K UHD Blu-ray will be even better but this Blu-ray DTS-HD 7.1 track is still deserving of the highest marks.
The extras are comprised of an audio commentary, deleted scenes, a main ‘making of’ plus other bits and pieces. The yak track features Singer and writer/producer Simon Kinberg, it’s a decent track but not an incredibly insightful one, and the same could be said of the documentary X-Men: Apocalypse Unearthed (HD, 64 minutes, playable as a whole or in six parts). As I noted about the prior documentary on the Rogue Cut Blu-ray re-release of Days of Future Past it feels more like an extended EPK that pays lip service to the production rather than giving us some real juice, but it’s nice to have something rather than nothing. The Gag Reel (HD, 8m) is hilarious though, these things are usually chronically unfunny because you’re not in on the joke but the infectious goofiness of the cast is hard to resist here.
Next we get some 28 minutes’ worth of Deleted & Alternate Scenes with optional introductions by Bryan Singer. Amongst the usual narrative detritus there are a couple of introductions for Jubilee and Jean Grey that really should've been left in the film, plus we get to see the hilarious mall scene with Jean, Scott, Kurt and Jubilee in full. The Wrap Party Video (HD, 5m) is akin to another gag reel of sorts, only not nearly as funny. Then there's a Stills Gallery which contains some concept art and unit photography. Finally we get a selection of Theatrical Trailers (HD, 7m, teaser plus theatrical trailers 1 & 2) and I must again thank Fox for that, trailers are an all-too neglected part of the extras packages these days.
X-Men: Apocalypse certainly doesn’t reach the same emotional depths or engage in the social commentary of previous efforts but it’s a HECK of a lot of fun all the same. This 2D Blu-ray rendition features stunning A/V quality along with a generous helping of extras.