There were a lot of reasons to anticipate greatness from the continuation of the X-Men movie franchise. The property has an army of sensational characters in its heroes and villains. Fox’s shrewd prequel angle has allowed a whole slate of younger and hotter stars (like Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Sophie Turner) to join the fray, while keeping genre icons like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in the mix. Better yet, after years away, “X-Men” and “X2” director Bryan Singer returned to the helm following “X-Men: First Class.” And with superhero movies still being heavy-hitters (especially for Fox, who cleaned up with “Deadpool”), you’d think a healthy visual effects budget would be granted on the series’ latest installment. And yet, “X-Men: Apocalypse” is a lifeless affair, squandering its star power, underselling its characters, and muddying its action in grays and cutaways.
Set in 1983 — ten years after the events of “X-Men: Days of Future Past” — “X-Men: Apocalypse” finds Charles “Professor X” Xavier (James McAvoy) happily overseeing his school for the gifted, where Hank “Beast” McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) teaches and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and Scott “Cyclops” Summers (Tye Sheridan) are students. Hiding in a human form, Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is continuing her activism, freeing mutants like the transporting Kurt “Nightcrawler” Wagner (Kodi Smit-McPhee) from their captivity. As for Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), he’s gone into hiding. But once the authorities discover him, Magneto once again goes to his dark side, just in time to join the Four Horsemen of the world-rattling uber-mutant Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac). It’s a battle for Magneto’s soul and the world itself, again.
One of my true frustrations over “X-Men: Days of Future Past” was how much it relied on you having seen the previous films for its story to make sense, before its time-traveling conclusion kicked those prior movies right out of canon. “X-Men,” “X2” and “X-Men: The Last Stand’s” expulsion becomes more clear in “X-Men: Apocalypse” as characters who were introduced to each other in those films (like Nightcrawler and the X-Men) now meet here for the first time. In this and many more ways, “X-Men: Apocalypse” feels like a lazy reboot, casting aside the first three entries in the franchise, and re-exploring their character arcs, setups and plots, for better or worse. But mostly worse.
Once again, Charles is begging his pain-filled friend Erik not to take his anger out on humans, but to channel it into helping mutants. The same arguments we’ve heard in six films now are rerun so egregiously that Erik actually has a flashback montage of Charles’ previous pep talks! This likewise sequel takes us back to Auschwitz, where Erik was shown losing his parents to the Nazis twice before. But this time, screenwriter Simon Kinberg folds in the “women in refrigerators” trope, too.
Once more Raven is torn between her loyalty to Charles and her loyalty to Eric. Once again Colonel Stryker (Josh Helman) is looped in to be a glowering menace. And once more Quicksilver (Evan Peters) pops in for a bonkers rescue scene scored by an era-appropriate pop song (this time it’s “Sweet Dreams” by the Eurthymics). Now, that last bit is terrifically fun, bringing some much-needed zing into these grim retread proceedings. But it’s nonetheless a thorough repeat of Quicksilver’s arc in “Days of Future Past.” 10 years have passed, and the affable speed freak is stuck in a loop: still living at home in his mom’s basement, still wondering about his MIA father, still the plucky comic relief that runs away with the movie.
New to the X-Men franchise is the wannabe god Apocalypse, and what a waste of Oscar Isaac he is. The mesmerizing leading man who thrilled audiences last year with “Ex Machina” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is buried under bizarre prosthetic make-up and clunky costuming that makes the mutant overlord look like a reject from the rock band KISS. This is not the only bone I have to pick with the film’s costumes, because Psylocke’s revealing warrior gear is beyond ludicrous. I know, I know, that’s how they looked in the comics. Unpopular opinion alert: I don’t care.
These choices need to make sense in the world the films are building. I am willing to accept that one of Apocalypse’s weird, random powers is the ability to transform sand into multicolored armor so he can do mutant makeovers. (Yes, there’s actually a scene that shows that.) However, it’s a bridge too far to imagine that he decided a suitable costume for one of his warrior followers would be a Capezio leotard with thigh highs and a boob window, and that he made such an impractical costume out of sand.
Apocalypse as a villain is vague and thereby underwhelming. But more frustrating is how Kinberg’s script takes so much time focusing on rehashed plotlines that the new ones have little time to develop. Erik’s tangle with Mystique and Charles steals so much focus that his fellow Horsemen get virtually no screen time. Angel (Ben Hardy) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn) get introduced and then barely speak, giving us no clue to their personalities, backgrounds or motivations.
On the other hand, Storm (Alexandra Shipp) is given a promising start, introduced as an “Aladdin”-style street rat using her weather powers to steal for the sake of her fellow Egyptian orphans. But no sooner does she ask what Apocalypse’s deal is that she’s brainwashed and mute until the film’s final moments. For most of the movie, the Four Horsemen don’t even battle! They just stand around Apocalypse, posing as if they’re on a photo shoot while he blathers on and on and on about power and genocide.
There’s way less action in this action film than you’d expect. Quicksilver’s sequence is a highlight. But beyond that, there’s way more talk of war than actual war. And with so little character development in the villains and such ambiguity about what they are actually up against in Apocalypse, the final showdown is a mess of low stakes and confounding setups. More shocking — and to prevent spoilers I’ll be vague — even Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) big fight scene is a let down, with most of it happening offscreen!
Sifting through the pieces of “X-Men: Apocalypse,” it feels poorly reverse-engineered. People like Nightcrawler, Jean Grey, and Storm, right? Let’s bring them back but younger. Jennifer Lawrence has tons of fans, so let’s bring Mystique back but ditch the blue makeup, and favor low-cut tops for most of her screentime. Throw in Wolverine, plot sensibility be damned. Shake with global crisis. Stir in some more Charles v. Erik biz, and a spring of Quicksilver for garnish! The ingredients for great thrills are there, but in Singer and Kinberg’s hands, they become a recipe for disaster.
Still, it’s not all bad. Even though they get virtually nothing to do, it’s fun to see young Storm, Jubilee (Lana Condor), and Nightcrawler. And the rebooting of Jean and Scott comes with some great gifts. In the first trilogy, Cyclops seemed like a stuck-up goody two-shoes, but Sheridan brings an angst to Scott that makes him a bit more complex than we’d previously seen. Yet Turner becomes the movie’s true hero, presenting young Jean as resilient, smart and courageous, but deeply afraid of the power within. Her journey is essentially “Frozen’s,” from “conceal, don’t feel,” to “let it go.” And aside for making for a truly climactic moment, that’s far more progressive and satisfying character arc than the “Last Stand” backstory that had the Professor violating her brain to control her.
Ultimately, “X-Men: Apocalypse” is a massive disappointment, being boring and repetitive where it should be thrilling and imaginative. However, it does set up some stakes and some new heroes that could bring me back for more. That is if the recipe is right.
“X-Men: Apocalypse” opens in theaters May 27.
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