Despite the special place the X-Men hold for this generation’s cinemagoer, Fox’s premier superhero franchise has had way more misses than it has hits. Even Singer’s original films are now tragically dated and play much better in our memories than on our DVD players. X-Men: Apocalypse lands a little above the X-average, giving us an uninspired, but totally serviceable mutant-filled adventure. As a piece of popcorn you could do worse than Apocalypse, but if you’re expecting a satisfying climax to the story that began in First Class and continued in the excellent Days of Future Past, you’re going to go home a little underwhelmed.
Having gotten his groove back following the time-bending events of DoFP, James McAvoy’s Xavier is now firmly in Professor mode. His “School for Gifted Youngsters” is in full swing as angsty, super-powered teens run around the campus learning from slightly less angsty, super-powered adults. Even Michael Fassbender’s Magneto has found his happy ending; raising a family and enjoying some working class anonymity (three guesses how that turns out). Everything is about as peachy as can be (at least as peachy as it gets for X-Men), so naturally a godlike, ancient Egyptian mutant played by Oscar Isaac wakes up from a multi-millennium nap and decides that humanity needs to be cleansed from the Earth. You know how it is.
If you’re thinking that synopsis makes the plot sound a little uninspired, well, you’d be right. Isaac’s En Sabah Nur / Apocalypse is about as comic-booky evil an antagonist as this series has ever had. While it’s kind of interesting to see the X-Men take on a threat that feels more mythic than sci-fi, Apocalypse is pompous and evil for evil’s sake, robbing the villain of any tangible motivation, which is an area this series generally excels at. While I maintain Oscar Isaac is probably my favorite actor making the rounds at the moment, this feels like his first major misstep as he joins the long list of great actors to play terrible super-villains.
The bigger problem is that the plot and most of what our heroes do is in response to the movie’s baddie, and given how moustache-twirling he turns out to be, the whole episode feels like an inconvenient aside rather than a progression of the story. It’s most apparent when you look at Xavier and Magneto, who have been the heart of the previous two films but are totally reactive here. Their story really came to its conclusion in the last film, but it seems Fox wasn’t ready to move on to new leads despite how many new mutants they throw at us each movie. Magneto especially seems totally unnecessary in this story, his inciting incident is laughably predictable and his joining with Apocalypse never once rings true to the anti-hero we’ve gotten to know.
But while the movie fails to capture what gives this series its heart, it totally gets what makes it fun. As was the case in the 90s cartoon I fell in love with and the comics before them, one of the big draws of the X-Men movies is getting to meet new mutants and seeing how their powers will shake things up. Apocalypse gives us some new toys to play with, but also reintroduces some characters we got a taste of in the original films, and who may deserve another examination. Chief among them are Kodi Smit-Mcphee’s Nightcrawler, Alexandra Ship’s Storm (fighting for the bad guys this time round), Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops and perhaps most importantly Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey (who’s story Fox seems especially interested re-exploring). As far as new power-sets go, it’s mostly down to Apocalypse’s matter-manipulating powers and Olivia Munn’s Psylocke, who brandishes an arsenal of purple energy weapons she makes with her mind. While the casting is perfect and her character proves awesome in live-action, Munn is tragically underused and is given little to no opportunity to show off her signature charm. Happily, though, it does seem bigger things may be in store for her character down the track.
As was the case in DoFP, it’s Evan Peters’ Quicksilver that really steals the show, lighting up the screen and injecting much needed levity and energy whenever he turns up. In an obvious effort to outdo the kitchen scene everyone loved so much, Quicksilver gets a huge extended showcase of his powers that gives the movie (and possibly the whole series) what is easily its most joyous and creative sequence. Admittedly, it seems like Fox is milking it a little, but it works and it’s a total blast to watch.
The one big player I haven’t touched on yet is Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique, who has almost accidently become the main character of the story. Of all the mutants we’ve met so far, Mystique feels like the biggest departure from the source material as Fox have essentially made her a blue-skinned, red-haired Katniss Everdeen. The purist in me hates this interpretation of the character, but her role as a reluctant hero and eventual junior leader of the X-Men feels organic in the context of her story so far, and no doubt this is what Lawrence’s not unsubstantial fan-base want to see. More problematic is that she doesn’t use her powers in any practical way, or really add anything to the table. It’s obvious the studio wants to put her in the forefront, and there is plenty for them to mine, but in the end she’s kind of just along for the ride.
It’s a problem that goes deeper then Mystique, and is really at the core of why X-Men: Apocalypse doesn’t quite work as well as it should. It’s obvious the studio knows there’s things people love about these movies, but they just don’t quite know what. This movie plays it as safe as possible, ticking all the boxes of what people have come to expect from an X-Men movie, even if they’re boxes we are sick of seeing get ticked. Cameos and references obfuscate the story, recalling movies no longer cannon and teasing things the general public wouldn’t recognize. The lack of confidence and thematic direction don’t quite ruin the experience, but they come damn close and another installment this amorphous could be well enough to burn fans out for good.
X-Men: Apocalypse is far from a low-point in the series, but it is unnecessary and a little forgettable. If you are up for some superhero soap and big chaotic action there’s fun to be had here, but if you need a breather from the barrage of comic-book movies this year, this is one you’re fine to miss.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10