When Bryan Singer brought the X-Men to the screen in 2000 there was no superhero cinema craze. There was no template for bringing a superhero to the screen, let alone an entire team of super-powered heroes. Considering the resistance from 20th Century Fox under the leadership of Tom Rothman, what Singer was able to accomplish with X-Men and X2 were herculean feats.
Singer left the franchise before its third installment, the underwhelming Last Stand, and the series lost its momentum. In 2011, Matthew Vaughn, who left The Last Stand weeks before its production, injected a new life into the series with First Class, which featured the pop sensibilities of color and humor that were previously absent in the X-Men series. Neither a hit nor a flop, Vaughn moved on after First Class and Singer returned to the series for Days of Future Past. The sequel wasn’t really a sequel to First Class as much as a way to tie the new franchise to the older one – in other words, they needed Wolverine. It worked, and now Singer is in the director’s chair for his fourth entry in the mutant saga with X-Men: Apocalypse. The director’s latest entry in the franchise is very much in line with his previous X-films – entirely adequate, nothing more.
Picking up not too long after the post-credits stinger that followed Days of Future Past, Apocalypse opens in Ancient Egypt. During a ceremony that would transfer the aged blue mutant into the body of an unconscious Oscar Isaac, a coup takes place and the godly mutant known as En Sabah Nur (from here on out referred to as Apocalypse) is buried beneath the rubble of a pyramid erected in his honor. It’s an incredibly silly and self-serious scene that is emblematic of the film’s overall tonal issues. It also straddles this film with a charismatic and talented actor obscured by vocal modifications and layers of makeup, basically nullifying what makes Oscar Isaac Oscar Isaac.
The rest of the film takes place in 1983. We see a young Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), Cyclops, discover his powers while at his high school, only to be taken to Xavier’s School for Gifted Children by his older brother Alex (Lucas Till), Havok. Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has lost the disillusionment that plagued him the last installment and his school is a thriving beacon to outsiders with special powers, including the volatile telepath Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). Meanwhile, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) has become a mutant icon for her public stand against Magneto (Michael Fassbender) at the previous movie’s conclusion in 1973. That historic moment in the spotlight for Mystique left her wanting to blend in to the normal world, meaning the Oscar-winning actress has to spend less time slathered from head-to-toe in blue makeup and prosthetics. There’s also the shift where the historic villain of Mystique is transformed into one of the film’s central heroes because the character is played by one of the biggest movie stars in the world, though her arc does make sense.
The mutant of magnetic powers that always teeters between villainy and redemption with each passing film, Magneto has found a new life in the intervening decade. He’s got a wife and child, as well as a day job at a steel mill in Poland under the pseudonym of Henryk Gursky. Despite the good intentions of this moment, it does come across as quite laughable considering just how public his declarations for a proposed human genocide were. When he uses his powers at work to save the life of a co-worker in grave danger, the authorities arrive and accidentally kill his wife and daughter which reignites his passion for brutal vengeance. He then joins forces with Apocalypse, becoming the fourth of his Four Horsemen alongside Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy), and Psylocke (Olivia Munn). I’m sure you can figure out who has to team up and stop them, right?
For all of its problems, and there are many, somehow X-Men: Apocalypse is still a passable diversion. Like the original trilogy, Apocalypse is able to cruise by almost on the strength of its cast alone. The quartet of Lawrence, McAvoy, Fassbender, and Nicholas Hoult, who plays Dr. Hank McCoy, aka Beast, are such a solid foundation of actors, each working above the script by Simon Kinberg (with the story provided by the quintet of Singer, Kinberg, Michael Dougherty, and Dan Harris). Say what you will about Singer’s problems with tone and running time (this one clocks in at just under two and half hours), he’s always been adept at crafting some truly impressive mutant action, and he continues that tradition here. If only they were able to find a reason to make that action meaningful.
There’s no greater fault in X-Men: Apocalypse than the fact that it is incapable of providing story arcs for its characters. The sheer roster of characters is almost prohibitive from providing each character ample screen time, and Apocalypse might suffer in comparison to Civil War, which was impressively capable of balancing many story arcs. Each of the villains are still fairly mysterious, another case of filmmakers hoping character familiarity might fill in the blanks. I haven’t been a regular comic book reader for a long time, and I’ve never been able to remember exactly what Apocalypse’s powers were. After the film, I’m still not sure, and I think general audiences will leave with a lot of questions. Even with that minor gripe aside, I was unable to detect any actual arc or characteristics for the Apocalypse character. Wasting Oscar Isaac should be against the law.
With the exception of Magneto, none of Apocalypse’s Four Horsemen are remotely interesting. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about Angel, Storm, or Psylocke, they might have ten lines between all of them. You could cut each of these characters and not affect a single thing about the film other than the fact that Apocalypse always has his Four Horsemen. The inability to make these character matter in the least renders each of their lengthy introductions nothing more than an egregious waste of time.
Even heroes like Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters) are given colorful moments (especially Peters’ Quicksilver), but nothing resembling a character arc. Nightcrawler is rescued from a mutant fight club by Mystique towards the start of the film, and yet he’s never given a moment of genuine character. His Catholicism is constantly referenced, though the aspects of his faith or anything beyond his powers is never even mentioned. Conversely, the film does acknowledge that Magneto is Quicksilver’s father. The fleet-footed hero never reveals this information, which is supposedly his motivation for being in the story. “Why doesn’t he follow through on this?” you may ask. I can’t tell you.
Overall, X-Men: Apocalypse illustrates the lack of imagination that has been circulating this franchise in every entry since X2. The cameo by Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) teased in the trailer is nothing more than another Weapon X scene, though more viscerally engaging than the other two times we’ve seen it before (X2, X-Men Origins: Wolverine). This whole sequence, again, takes place at Alkali Lake. Before the climactic battle, our heroes board a plane and enter the “flight suits,” which are just slightly upgraded versions of the suits worn in the 2000 original. Of course at the end of the film we’re presented with our heroes in stylized costumes – you see, it’s always about the next one. Whatever it is Singer and company are throwing at you, it never feels new and exciting, merely familiar with passable charms.
A funny thing happened while writing this review. I slowly shifted from this movie is okay to this movie is bad. Of the six X-Men movies in the saga (not counting Deadpool or solo Wolverine movies), Bryan Singer has never made a truly awful X-Men movie. However, he’s never made a great X-Men movie. X-Men: Apocalypse really presents Singer’s limitations with the subject matter – Professor X is the primary source of comic relief while Rose Byrne is a sideline character, for crying out loud! In the moment, X-Men: Apocalypse is able to cruise by with its charming leads (villains excluded), but Singer can’t wrangle all of the pieces into a singularly coherent film. The X-Men movies have always had issues with continuity, and the numerous flashbacks don’t do anything but remind you just how nonsensical this whole path has been. Matters aren’t helped by the fact that this series has always had a strange relation to death – and I mean that in full understanding that nobody in the comics ever really dies. Repeatedly, X-Men movies beg the audience to feel emotional over deaths that are entirely meaningless. X-Men: Apocalypse proves an unavoidable conclusion: Just like Michael Bay and Transformers, Bryan Singer and X-Men haven’t really gone that far over the course of his four films. If not for that fantastic opening of X2, there might not have been a sustainable superhero craze at the box office. But that was 13 years ago and the game has changed, but Bryan Singer is still making the same X-Men movies. I guess we’ll always be waiting for that sequel to First Class.
Fairly bloated in length and characters, X-Men: Apocalypse rides the charms of its cast as far as it can in Bryan Singer’s latest installment in the the X-Men saga, one that never exceeds simple adequacy.