At one point in X-Men: Apocalypse, a character makes a tongue in cheek joke about how “the third movie in a series is always the worst.” Whether director Bryan Singer was responsible for scripting the joke I am unsure, but he is certainly responsible for compounding the sentiment in this, the third film in the X-Men prequel trilogy. It’s low hanging fruit to weave into a review, but Singer made its use irresistible in a feature where, in an effort to top what has come before, he throws everything but the kitchen sink into the production and somehow fails to deliver anything of note.
En Sabah Nur (aka Apocalypse, for the uninitiated) is believed to be the first mutant, an entity of incredible power, long worshiped as a God. After an uprising in ancient Egypt, he became sealed beneath one of the great pyramids. Finally awakening from his slumber in 1983, he finds the world that awaits him unworthy of his presence and decides to cleanse it to rebuild; only the strong will survive. He recruits a team of powerful mutants to aid him: his Four Horsemen. This includes Magneto (Michael Fassbender), after his efforts to lead a normal life are thwarted in tragic circumstances. All that stands in their way is Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Professor X (James McAvoy), who must lead a team of newly assembled X-Men to stop the coming Apocalypse and save mankind from destruction.
Apocalypse opens in a promising manner, with scenes of Ivan Ooze at the height of his power, the scope of his influence in Earth’s history laid out. During a moment of weakness as he takes on a new form, a rebellion strikes leading to his entombing. His Four Horsemen respond to the rebellion in a brutally efficient manner, providing an impressive spectacle of mutant activity that unfortunately represents an epoch for the film.
What follows is equal parts familiar and lackluster, despite efforts to up the ante from Singer and co-writer Simon Kinberg. A clunky script is lavished with spectacle but lacking any heart. Huge swathes of the film and script are completely redundant and unfocused, at times seeming more preoccupied with showing off nifty uses of 3D rather than plot. It’s the antithesis in a way to Captain America: Civil War. The latter is a film stuffed to the gills, too, but one that maximizes every second of its runtime in service of the story and characters. How Apocalypse achieves so little with a similarly large runtime, budget, and cast is incredible.
John Ottman contributes a score that stirs more than most in the superhero genre, and some of the visuals do pop. There is a flourish to the X-Men universe that is a refreshing contrast to the more perfunctory look of the Marvel series. That being said, an insistence on skipping through the decades has gone from being a resource to mine for rich visuals and effective pop culture jokes to something that is more of an afterthought. Apocalypse doesn’t really embrace the vibrant palette of the ’80s the way First Class did with the ’60s and Days of Future Past did with the ’70s. Similarly, this is Reagan’s America. A time steeped in cold war paranoia is a rich resource for the film to mine, but is only briefly touched upon and ties into the prejudice and paranoia that is a cornerstone of what the mutant series is about. A smarter, incisive inclusion of these themes is lost amidst the action spectacle.
There is no arguing how impressive a cast has been assembled for the film, both returning stalwarts and new additions alike. Jennifer Lawrence does well, impressively managing to make the clunky lines seem somewhat sincere at times. Her Mystique still feels shoehorned into the leading role, a character more befitting the villainous status afforded her in the comic books. Likewise McAvoy rises to the occasion as ever. Well, not physically, because wheelchair. Fassbender, usually ever so reliable, teeters on the melodramatic at times, again because script, but his talents cannot be denied. I’d happily see Rose Byrne added to the lineup of any film, but bringing Moira MacTaggert into the tale is a clunky romantic side-plot too far.
As far as fresh blood goes, Tye Sheridan (Scott Summers) and Sophie Turner (Jean Grey) show promise as the fledgling X-Men, while Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Nightcrawler is one of the more applaudable facets of the film. Jubilee is more of an afterthought. Rumors abound that the mall scene in the film has been heavily cut down, and it would be interesting to see whether this adds much to their dynamic. Alexandra Shipp’s Storm is immediately a more compelling character that at any point during Halle Berry’s tenure. Psylocke, at the forefront of much of the marketing push, seemed to have been low in the priorities of the script writing team, leaving Munn with little to do but pout; a similar fate befalls Ben Hardy’s Angel, despite a promising introductory scene. As for Oscar Issac, the man who won us over last year with the rogue-ish Poe Dameron, or the flawed, irascible, but endlessly engaging Llewyn Davis back in 2014: there was hope that he would bring nuance to Apocalypse, a character that could have been lost amidst an all-CGI creation. But armed with a clunker of a script and a slathering of prosthetics and purple body paint, his talents are unrecognizable.
Earlier this month, Cinapse staff writer Brendan Foley mentioned on Twitter that it “sounds like Bryan Singer delivered a Bryan Singer X-MEN movie.” It’s very true, and therein lies the problem. It hits the beats you expect, but does little else. The Vaughn-led First Class aside, the X-men franchise has been uninspired, failing to use the source material or talented casts effectively. The most audacious move Singer deploys in this film involves a scene where The Wishmaster takes Magneto to Auschwitz in an attempt to convince him to join his cause. The end result of this is mind boggling enough, but the cherry on top is the visual of Olivia Munn’s Psylocke wearing fetishistic garb. At AUSCHWITZ.
We’re six films in now to this X-men saga, maybe five after Ratner’s woeful effort was retconned out of existence. That’s longform storytelling, but it all feels so dispensable that the stakes are non-existent. The one real casualty in the film is a building, prominently featured in the series, blown up for a overindulgent setpiece. By film’s end, it is reassembled as if nothing had happened. It’s an apt demonstration of the film’s issues. Likewise, Magneto, the recurring villain of the piece, once again murders hundreds, and once again reconciles with the team because Professor knows there’s “good in him.” No fallout, no change, no progress. Sure there’s wanton destruction of landmarks and obliteration of nameless members of the populace, but there’s little emotional connection. Apocalypse feels like a return to the Emmerich era of the ’90s: impressive visuals and scale, but sadly, very little to truly invest in.
THE BOTTOM LINE
X-Men: Apocalypse is an ambitious tale that aims to expand the scope of the franchise but ultimately fails to coalesce and provide anything new. Characters are added, stakes are raised, but the series doesn’t move forward so much as flap around under the weight of it all. It’s ironic that a series that draws inspiration from the ideas of evolution continues to deliver such familiar fare.
X-Men: Apocalypse opens in theaters May 27th, 2016.