I Won’t Spoil Anything Major Which Wasn’t Already In the Trailers
X-Men: Apocalypse is a perfectly diverting action movie from a franchise which usually aims for more depth. It’s more or less the movie we feared it would be based on the trailers. A surprisingly meta comedy moment a third of the way through uses a discussion of the original Star Wars trilogy to apparently poke fun at X-Men: The Last Stand since everyone knows the third film in a trilogy is always the worst. This criticism should have been directed inward, though. This new X-Men trilogy, which started with Matthew Vaughn’s excellent First Class followed by Bryan Singer’s surprisingly compelling Days of Future Past, has now ended with an uneven, disappointing third installment of its own.
That’s not a paragraph I would have written a third or even halfway through Apocalypse. Before everything devolves into rote storytelling, retreads of overly familiar character dynamics and an utterly wasted Oscar Isaac spewing generic bad guy dialogue as the titular villain, Apocalypse is actually quite entertaining.
It begins where Days of Future Past‘s post-credits scene left off: ancient Egypt. Despite what those old X-Men/X-2 Patrick Stewart prologues implied, mutants are far from a relatively recent part of human evolution. Turns out, the world’s first mutant (Isaac, whose character goes by many names, but let’s just call him Apocalypse) was worshiped as a god by the Egyptians, but those who viewed him as a false-god rose up and buried him underneath the ruins of his own pyramid, leaving him down and out for several millennia.
Cut to the present.
Correction. Cut to 1983. Remember, these First Class movies (mostly) take place in the past.
It’s been ten years since Magneto’s attempted assassination of President Nixon was felled by Mystique and Charles on live television. Magneto now lives peacefully among the humans under an assumed identity as a factory worker in Poland, eager to return home each night to his wife and young daughter. Mystique, now primarily using her human guise to avoid detection (and also because Jennifer Lawrence only likes playing Mystique when she doesn’t have to look like Mystique), is still running around the world saving wayward mutants, dropping by a mutant vs. mutant cage fight to free a young Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). She drops him off at Charles’ school, which appears to be flourishing with a robust student body (mostly embodied by Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops and Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey) and faculty (led by Hank McCoy).
Meanwhile, a re-awakened Apocalypse pulls an Ultron and instantly decides the world needs cleansing (there is a regrettable effort to repeatedly frame this as a reaction to the 1980s saber-rattling between world superpowers USA and Russia). To help with that, he travels the globe to recruit his four horsemen (or should it be horsepeople), starting with Alexandra Shipp’s Storm in Cairo followed by Olivia Munn’s Psylocke and Ben Hardy’s Angel, all of whom receive new, especially comic book-y costumes and heightened powers from their master. His fashion sense sucks, though, and there’s almost nothing to any of them as characters.
It’s all a bit scattershot, in the way so many comic book movies are in their early scenes, darting from place to place, straining to establish everything. However, there is a surprising warmth to Magneto’s family moments, even though this is the first we’ve seen of his wife or daughter. Charles and First Class alum Alex Summers (a longer-haired, borderline unrecognizable Lucas Till) visit Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) to hilarious results. Who knew Xavier would get so tongue-tied around a former almost-girlfriend he Superman 2‘ed (i.e., the memory-erasing kiss)? And there is an initial wow factor to Apocalypse’s god-like powers, such as an early moment when he manipulates matter and causes someone to become one with a wall (Apocalypse’s powers stop seeming so cool once you realize they have almost no limits).
However, there is a checklist-quality to the plotting (and cameos), striving to serve all of the narrative masters without stopping to notice that it’s all been done before. Xavier and Magneto, who is eventually swayed by Apocalypse after tragedy, have played out their MLK vs. Malcolm X dynamic many times before. Mystique has been caught in-between them for two consecutive movies just as Beast and Mystique have been dancing around their unconsummated mutual attraction for one another for two consecutive movies. Apocalypse is so stuck with repeating these same old First Class/Days of Future Past conflicts that it actually resorts to remarkably lazy First Class flashbacks on multiple occasions (like they wanted to tie it all together since no one knows if McAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence and Hoult will come back).
There is at least an attempt at some newness here. For example, Magneto tried Charles’ way and trusted humans in-between sequels. Mystique is now a reluctant mutant icon who thinks Charles needs to train his students to fight. Charles is…well, the same ole dangerously naive dude he was in First Class. Hank is, um, around. They’re still fun to watch together, lifted considerably by the acting talent on display, but their character drama is a bit tapped out by now.
Even the potentially interesting idea of Apocalypse as the world’s first mutant is largely ignored by all the principle characters, folded into more familiar hope vs. pragmatism arguments waged by the same ole same oles. There is nothing remotely as compelling here as Magneto’s vengeance-seeking in First Class or Charles re-finding a sense of hope and purpose in Days of Future Past. The immense scale of Apocalypse, which io9 accurately referred to as being both the biggest and emptiest of all X-Men movies, didn’t leave any time for that, and a franchise which is usually deceptively complex and character-driven devoted itself to generic disaster movie tropes, for some reason.
By comparison, Jean Grey, Nightcrawler and Cyclops tend to pull focus from the First Class cast by virtue of the fact that we’ve at least never seen these characters interact like this before, even if some of their drama is familiar (particularly Jean’s). Turner and Sheridan strike an immediate chemistry as a potential on-screen couple, their characters bonded by their mutual inabilities to control their powers. Smit-McPhee plays a younger, more naive Nightcrawler who is still good for a laugh, just not exactly the way he was in X2. Sadly, Lana Condor’s Jubilee barely registers and never takes part in the action, and while Evan Peters’ returning Quicksilver again steals the show they clearly tried just a little too hard to top Days of Future Past‘s “Time in a Bottle” sequence.
Bryan Singer recently told Collider about a deleted Apocalypse montage depicting Jean, Cyclops, Nightcrawler and Jubilee at the mall, shopping for records, marveling at the various ways the world has and has not adjusted to mutants. I can see why he took it out. Apocalypse is already long enough as it is. The upside, though, is that I liked those characters enough that I want to see that scene. I am more interested in seeing drama like that from an X-Men movie than a god-like villain shouting, “Everything they built will fall, and from the ashes of their world we’ll build a better one!” Apocalypse is certainly a fairly competent action movie, one packed with plenty of grace notes in its first half and the occasional, “That looked pretty cool” action beat during its finale. However, it’s ultimately a disappointment because this franchise is capable of so much more.
After Apocalypse‘s post-credits scene, an on-screen message applauds the efforts of the thousands of individuals who worked on the film. It’s such a shame that the untold hours upon hours they poured into this production were in service to a creative lowpoint for the Bryan Singer-helmed X-Men films. To be fair, there is still a considerable entertainment factor to be found here. I certainly laughed more than I expected to. However, Apocalypse is an ultimately transparent attempt to up the franchise’s wow factor, but somewhere along the way they lost sight of what makes the X-Men movies special. If this is to be the end for the First Class cast, they deserved a better send-off, yet their potential replacements in the form of young Jean Grey and company seem deserving of their own movie.
ROTTEN TOMATOES CONSENSUS
47% Fresh Rating: “Overloaded action and a cliched villain take the focus away from otherwise strong performers and resonant themes, making X-Men: Apocalypse a middling chapter of the venerable superhero franchise.
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