Being the longest running superhero franchise in recent memory, the X-Men series has seen the superhero sub-genre at both its highest and lowest points. It was there when comic book films were really just starting out and discovering themselves both tonally and aesthetically, along with Raimi’s Spider-Man films. And it was also there during the dark ages of dreck like The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. But the X-series now continues to thrive whilst we’re still in the golden age of the comic book film. And following what was probably the most beloved entry in the series to date (I myself am partial to director Bryan Singer’s earlier X2: X-Men United, but Days of Future Past is pretty damn good as well), this latest entry – titled X-Men: Apocalypse – had quite a bit to live up to. While it ultimately doesn’t reach the heights of certain earlier X-Men films and bungles a bit of the potential set up in the first half, there’s still enough here to recommend for even most casual of film-goers.
The plot this time around sees our mutant antiheroes being pitted against what is believed to be the first mutant to ever walk the earth; an ancient being known as En Sabah Nur, who was trapped in a tomb at the end of his reign in ancient Egypt and laid in slumber until being awoken by plot-convenient cult members in the 1980’s. Once awoken, he recruits the most powerful mutants he can find in order to fulfill his grand scheme of (…any guesses?…) achieving world domination through causing global destruction and mass genocide of the human race. Because… comic book villain logic dictates it must be so.
One of the most appealing aspects of the X-Men film series has always been the ensemble cast, and fortunately X-Men: Apocalypse lives up to its potential here, at least for the most part. Returning cast members like James McAvoy as Professor Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Magneto don’t have much of anything new to do but as per usual give it their all and give their characters a reliable sense of gravitas. But the highlights of the casting herein are seeing formerly grown-up characters appearing as their younger selves, with Sophie Turner appearing as a young Jean Grey and Tye Sheridan as Cyclops, among other “brand new” additions to the cast. Also worth mentioning is Evan Peters’ Quicksilver, who once again has the most purely entertaining highlight in the entire film, perhaps even surpassing his bit part in Days of Future Past. I usually don’t say stuff like this, but it very well might be worth the price of admission just for seeing that one sequence alone, and those who’ve already seen the film will immediately know what I’m talking about.
Despite my having praised the ensemble earlier, I must now make a few caveats and point out the two outliers; firstly let’s deal with Jennifer Lawrence. Arguably the most famous and beloved actress under the age of thirty at the moment, she is a rare populist sensation with the actual talent to back it up (her Oscar was well deserved in this reviewer’s opinion), but holy shit did she not care at all that she was in this film. Seeing such an otherwise versatile and talented actress practically sleepwalk her way through what’s now three films into this freshly rebooted franchise is a truly remarkable spectacle for sure, but it makes any of the scenes she’s in very hard to take seriously, especially when she’s playing opposite people who are giving it their all.
I’m not convinced that when Apocalypse is choking Mystique in the final confrontation, she wasn’t just falling asleep, instead of slipping out of consciousness. And speaking of Oscar Isaac’s main baddie, all that’s really there to say with him is… “meh”. He serves his function well within the story and provides a much needed adversary to unite the X-Men. But as a standalone presence, he barely registers, which is disappointing considering the endlessly charismatic actor chosen to portray him. Plus, it’s really hard to take him seriously when Quicksilver is slapping him around like ragdoll in the final act.
With so many films in the X-Men series, it might be easy for non-fans to get lost amidst the continuity and not necessarily be able to tell each individual film apart; one way for each entry in the series to feel distinctive is to have a memorable villain to set it apart from the rest, and unfortunately Apocalypse falls short in this department. While I’ve already discussed Oscar Isaac’s acting, it also bears mentioning that his character’s function in the story and overall goal is flimsy to boot.
In fact, most of the plot in general feels pretty superfluous. The film works best when the characters are just hanging around and getting reacquainted with the audience in the first act (Jean and Cyclops’ budding romance, Apocalypse recruiting the four horsemen, Magneto’s tragic double life, etc). But when main plot finally kicks into gear at about an hour in, the story takes center stage over the assembled cast and one begins to notice how derivative of the past (read: actually good) films in the series this becomes, to say nothing of an absolutely pointless belated detour with an old fan favorite whose presence I hesitate to mention, despite a brief hint in the final trailer. Also, after Days of Future Past made so much progress with both the characters and story on a purely dramatic level, having yet another token “blow up world” plot just feels like major step backwards. The film also introduces some interesting historical Egyptian plot elements which are pretty much abandoned by the second act. Maybe it’s just the clashing off my childhood tastes being just too good to be true, but the possibility of seeing X-Men vs. The Mummy just sounded too awesome to ignore.
At the end of the day, X-Men: Apocalypse is worth seeing (warts and all) if it seems up your alley, but unfortunately doesn’t amount to a satisfying whole. It’s yet another film in a long line of recent Hollywood blockbusters that have a strong start but move towards a weak and unsatisfactory resolution, most likely due to unnecessary studio intervention compromising the vision of those behind the scenes (see alsoTomorrowland and Spectre for other recent examples). Hopefully the inevitable follow-up can stick the landing better, and fingers crossed for a more competent reboot of the Dark Phoenix saga.