Imagine a rich comic universe with plenty of potential to be found in simply taking a piece of it, rather than cramming so much into one feature film. That has been the struggle of X-Men films over the years and while some have managed to balance this assemblage of characters better than others, there is also the matter of having these films mixing up super-powered action with interesting themes. Sadly, X-Men: Apocalypse comes up lacking in both character and substance, making its grand-scale action somewhat worthless in a very muddled film.
Serving as something of a finale to the second trilogy of X-Men team-based films started by Matthew Vaughn with X-Men: First Class and continued by Bryan Singer with X-Men: Days of Future Past, Apocalypse has Singer back once again in a film that brings us a new threat in the form of the oldest and most power mutant, En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac). The story features En Sabah Nur gathering together followers in a plot to build a better world by destroying humanity. Meanwhile, Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) is putting together his school of mutants, only to be kidnapped by En Sabah Nur, leaving it up to the young mutant recruits (and some veterans) to save the world. Oh, and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) does something fantastical with his ‘lifting heavy metal’ powers.
If the story sounds familiar, it is because Singer and screenwriter/producer Simon Kinberg have essentially remade 2000’s X-Men, the film largely credited as beginning a new wave of successful comic book films (Blade and Spider-Man are a big part of that discussion as well). Sixteen years later, X-Men: Apocalypse has the massive budget X-Men did not and all the potential to fully deliver on something wildly entertaining, yet it misses that mark.
I’ve generally been a fan of this franchise (X-Men: The Last Stand included), which is why it is disappointing to see this film move away from speaking to something interesting in regards to what it is to be a mutant in a world populated by humans or how that connected to times of the past. Instead, we have a disaster film overstuffed with largely ill-defined characters.
The earlier films had issues with dealing with so many characters at once, but they also relied on creatively getting around certain limitations and featured occasional banter. Somehow, this 144-minute film doesn’t even have the time to serve even its key characters proper justice. Instead, most of the characters speak in somber monologues, with attempts at humor feeling like the producers took every opportunity to make cheap shots and attempts at metahumor. I may have had more eye-roll moments than Olivia Munn’s Psylocke had lines of dialogue.
Speaking of Psylocke, the film’s biggest issue is in its characters. One can look at these superhero films and pronounce how little I am supposed to read into them, as long as they are entertaining spectacles, but that really isn’t the case. These films work because you like or like watching the cast at play. In these X-Men films, in particular, you usually have some characters who stand out. Fassbender and McAvoy have each shared time in the spotlight in these past two films and now you would feasibly think Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique or Isaac’s En Sabah Nur would have the time to shine. You would be wrong, as it feels like everyone in this cast is bored. There is some spritely energy coming from the newest recruits (Tye Sheridan as Cyclops, Sophie Turner as Jean Grey and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Nightcrawler), but they hardly provide much, as the story allows them only so much to do that isn’t based on CG-enhanced action scenes.
Even the basic idea of Apocalypse feels off. While we should have at least some understanding of En Sabah Nur’s followers, we instead have Magneto and three characters with absolutely nothing to offer beyond their distinctive looks (though Alexandra Shipp’s Storm and Ben Hardy’s Angel decide to both have mohawks). It’s a shame, as the film once again relies far too much on Magneto drama (this time he gets to deal with the loss of his new family), which upsets the film’s rhythm. While this is going on, Munn (who has gone on record with her proud decision to choose the role of Psylocke over Deadpool’s girlfriend) gets to play a subservient character to two different men and have little more to do than what is seen in the trailers. But hey, this is only the sixth film involving Magneto being angry and lifting things, so it’s worth dismissing other characters, right?
I may be getting a little specific, but it comes down to how odd I find the choices that have been made here. Singer, for all the credit he gets for crafting this cinematic universe, has really taken the life out of it. We see massive scenes of destruction, yet rarely a shot of people panicking to indicate any sort of real drama. There are elaborate camera movements only made possibly by visual effects, yet the film lacks much of a personality beyond certain pop song choices to play with the tone. Big decision moments feel false, because they happen to be set in bland locations that feel like soundstages. There are at least fifteen different personalities between all the major characters, yet this film feels so dull.
There are some highlights. The opening sequence sets up a better (albeit goofier) movie. Evan Peters’ Quicksilver brings the most fun to the proceedings. Fights that break out tend to look rather good, despite how inconsistent Apocalypse’s power seems to be. The film is not devoid of entertainment value, but it feels so off as far as what should make a film like this work. I may not have been in love with Days of Future Past in the same way many others were, but it had a life to it that I enjoyed far more. Apocalypse ends up feeling like more of the same and really lacks the nuance that initially helped to build this series.
In a year where some superhero movies (and their fans) have been at odds with each other, I was hoping X-Men: Apocalypse could be a bit of a sneaky option that delivers on being different from the pack, despite providing familiar spectacle. That turned out not to be the case, as the film misses out on building interesting ideas and simply repeats a lot of what you’ve seen before, with a bigger budget. As much as this series has relied too much on Wolverine in the past, maybe it is old man Logan that this series needs, or perhaps Singer can just hand things off to the next generation.