There’s a scene in this movie where a bunch of young students from Xavier’s school discuss Return of the Jedi and one of them remarks that the third movie is always the worst, a knowing wink to the audience that was probably meant to refer to X-Men: The Last Stand, the much-hated third entry of the original X-Men trilogy. A movie’s gotta be careful with a line like this in case it comes to bite it on its ass, and man does it come to bite, hard.
It’s not just the worst film in the trilogy that got started in the 60s with X-Men: First Class, I’m tempted to call it the worst X-Men film ever made, if only for the fact that it was the first time I was bored watching an X-Men movie. This disappointment doesn’t exactly come as a surprise seeing that I wasn’t a big fan of Days of Future Past, the previous offering from the writer Simon Kinberg and director Bryan Singer, which flattened most of the great character work seen in First Class, wasted or underused most of its cast and was full of dumb contrivances. Still, I had hopes that, with the continuity now reset courtesy of the time travel plot, something new and different will be done with the franchise, but nope, instead Apocalypse feels like a tedious, messy, over-familiar rehash of the elements seen in these series over and over again.
Much of the problem lies with the titular character of Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), an ancient and powerful mutant who is awakened from his rest in the 80s and decides to destroy the world… for some reason. The character is a disaster in every respect: terrible design with ridiculous rubbery facial make-up, lack of presence and clear motivations, powers that are never clearly defined, dialogue that consists of pompous villain speeches and empty platitudes. He comes off less like an intimidating foe and more like a cheesy villain-of-the-week from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s also never clear why exactly he needs to recruit a posse of mutants that come to be known as Horsemen and include familiar faces like Storm and Magneto, and why they would join him on his destruction quest. This guy is the biggest waste of top acting talent in a villain role since Spectre.
Speaking of Magneto, as much as I loved his origin story in First Class, I had wondered what they were going to do with a character whose story was essentially over in the very first film. My worries proved to be correct, because Kinberg and Singer clearly have no idea how to move the character forward in an organic fashion; instead he is basically reset at the start of every new film according to what the plot requires. Here, Erik starts off the movie by living a quiet life in Poland with an adorable wife and young daughter and their equally adorable fluffy chickens. How did a fiery, militant mutant leader with supremacist views come to have a (presumably) human wife and abandon his life’s cause? Your guess is as good as mine. Bottom line is, the writers wanted Magneto to have a sympathetic reason for joining Apocalypse, and you can easily guess what’s going to happen to his wife and daughter. It’s a shame that this is all so contrived, because Michael Fassbender does some fine work in these early Magneto scenes. As soon as Magneto becomes Apocalypse’ henchman however, you can practically see the light go out of his eyes and boredom set in.
The tense, complicated relationship between Magneto and James McAvoy’s Professor X was the heart and soul of First Class but it’s become increasingly sidelined and stale since, and here it’s reduced to a couple of scenes with McAvoy and Fassbender reciting the same dialogue we’ve heard from these characters million times before. For some reason, Singer also decided to resurrect the barely-there romance between Professor X and Rose Byrne’s Moira MacTaggert, which results in some cringeworthy scenes with Professor X reduced to a giggling schoolboy. Other First Class mainstays don’t fare much better: Nicholas Hoult’s Beast hasn’t progressed anywhere since the first film and has precious little to do here; while Jennifer Lawrence at times barely hides her disinterest in playing Mystique, the shape-shifting mutant whose character arc here is a repeat of First Class (Mystique hides her true shape because…. reasons, then comes to embrace her true blue appearance).
It’s a pity that the movie doesn’t instead spend more time with the new additions to the series, because the new cast playing the younger versions of the familiar characters – Jean, Scott, Nightcrawler – are easily the brightest spot of the film and have nice camaraderie when the movie lets their characters breathe a bit. Evan Peters’ Quicksilver, who was the best thing about Days of Future Past, has a bigger part and is still delightful, even though his super-speed sequence here feels too much like a calculated rehash of the similar, genuinely inspired scene in the previous film, and Quicksilver’s mugging rather undercuts the seriousness of the situation.
The film has a weird structure where it spends ages setting up the multiple characters and jumping between various storylines (lessening the impact of each as a result), before rushing straight to the climax without a second act in between. What could pass for a second act here is a bizarre detour that has nothing to do with the main storyline, and feels instead like a clumsy attempt to shoehorn in a brief pointless cameo from a much-loved character. The final climatic battle – because every superhero movie has to have one – is an unremarkable CGI-fest where presumably millions of people die and major landmarks get destroyed (goodbye, Sydney Opera House), with minimum emotional impact. It’s impossible to feel the global stakes when the movie makes it look like it’s only ten or so people you’re supposed to feel concern about. The social commentary that had always distinguished the series is virtually non-existent here, and nothing much is made of the 80s setting other than the fashions and a track by Eurythmics.
In the end, I wouldn’t write off these series yet, as the acting talent involved is enormous, but what it badly needs is a decent screenwriter and a director who can bring a fresh vision to the franchise and its characters. I’ll always be grateful to Singer for X1 and X2 and unleashing the hotness of Hugh Jackman upon the universe, but it’s really time for him to go.