The X-Men franchise is maybe the most pure comic book superhero movie franchise out there. It is also the franchise that ushered in the modern day superhero franchise, with the first X-Men film in 2000 representing a turning point from the old Superman and Batman films from the 80s and 90s and setting the stage for what we have today, taking advantage of state of the art technology that was unavailable to the likes of Richard Donner and Tim Burton. X-Men: Apocalypse marks the sixth proper film in the X-Men franchise, and ninth if you include the spinoff Wolverine films and February’s Deadpool. After losing its way a decade ago with X:Men: The Last Stand and the director musical chairs involved with that film, Fox righted the ship with X-Men: First Class and with X-Men: Days of Future Past made a film that could stand with X2: X-Men United as the best of the franchise has to offer. Unfortunately, Apocalypse is another misstep in the vein of The Last Stand, representing a massive missed opportunity.
The film opens thousands of years ago in Egypt, where a ruler named En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac) is a supremely powerful mutant who is betrayed by some of his worshippers and buried under the sand, but preserved by his four closest followers before they perish. Fast forwarding to more modern times, the 1980s, the story of Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and other mutants like Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is expanded to include young versions of Scott Summer/Cyclops (Ty Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), and Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as they join the fold. Magneto has lived in obscurity in Europe with a family. Mystique is a vigilante folk hero as a result of the last film, traveling around the world saving mutants like Nightcrawler and Angel (Ben Hardy) from human persecution. The film re-introduces Moira McTaggert from X-Men: First Class, stumbling upon a secret religious sect in Egypt that unwittingly frees En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse from his captivity, and he begins his plans for world domination and survival of the strongest by rounding up his new “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” in Angel, Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Aurora Munroe/Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel, and, when tragedy strikes, Magneto, enhancing all of their powers and bringing them into conflict with the Professor and his school with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.
There are a lot of ways to go, as the film goes in many directions, but perhaps the best place to start is with that; there is just so much going on with this film. Days of Future Past was necessarily a bit complex given the mixing of two timelines and two stories being told in the past and present. Here, though, the plot seems needlessly complex and full of unnecessary diversions, like a return to Alkali Lake facility and a sequence with Col. Stryker (Josh Helman) who takes some mutants after things go bad at the school. While there are some good moments and action sequences between various mutants, too much of the plot meanders and is uninteresting.
Speaking of uninteresting, Apocalypse is surprisingly uninteresting as a villain. He is known as one of the greatest villains in the X-Men rogues gallery, but he was quite dull here. Somehow they managed to make Oscar Isaac, one of the best and most versatile actors currently working, uninteresting and boring. The character has little motivation beyond world domination and little to no backstory of note. On top of this, Apocalypse has amassed considerable mutant powers over time, which he has gained by taking them from other mutants in a special process, and the way they exhibit his powers in the first half of the film makes it unbelievable that he wouldn’t just destroy the majority of mutants who stand in his way with a simple hand gesture. They set him up as too gargantuan of a unstoppable baddie that the ending doesn’t quite feel believable.
Sadly, Apocalypse is not the only character the film struggles with. Magneto is reduced to being Apocalypse’s lackey, and given the nature of that character, it is hard to believe that he would serve anyone. Also, there is a subplot involving Magneto and Quicksilver that they build up to for most of the film, only to cop out and not pull the trigger when the moment calls for it. Not only that, but the film is building up that moment for a payoff and as a character motivation, but that character still, inexplicably, has the change of heart despite the payoff. It is bizarre. Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg get some stuff right between Cyclops and Jean Grey, as we see the beginning of their relationship. But we also get them going from 0 to 60mph with Jean and the Dark Phoenix character development without any preamble. At least X2: X-Men United teased it before making it part of The Last Stand.
There’s some borderline questionable activity going on. Charles admits to having manipulated Moira’s memories to make her forget the events of X-Men: First Class. The film is going for something along the lines of Superman wiping Lois Lane’s memory at the end of Superman 2 with a kiss, but it comes off feeling almost like a violation. And while the criticisms of city destruction and disregard for human life has been leveled against the Marvel and DC and were addressed in both Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War, this film is either completely uninterested in those concerns or oblivious to them. In fact, it goes even further, with global destruction. Worst of all, it does this in the lamest way possible, in the vein of movies like Transcendence and Lucy.
Perhaps the biggest problem with this film, though, is the Mystique problem. Mystique was always a sexy, interesting character, but never a major player in the comics or the first few films. The casting department hit a home run when they were able to snag Jennifer Lawrence when she was on the way up to superstardom. That they have managed to keep her for three films is more than they could have hoped as her star got brighter and brighter. In my mind, she is without question a bona fide star and a legitimately talented actress. With that said, the stature of the character is not equal to the stature of the actress playing the character, and because of that they have quite forcibly tried to elevate that character to a higher status. In short, they have tried to make Mystique their Mystiquingjay and it just doesn’t quite work.
Coming off one of the best films in the franchise, X-Men: Apocalypse feels overloaded and undercooked. Too many characters, too many plot diversions, and a storyline and script that feels like it could have used at least one more revision. Word is that Singer is stepping away from the franchise again. Perhaps new directing blood and some new talent on camera will give future X-Men films a boost of energy and quality similar to what X-Men: First Class provided back in 2011. As was the case in 2006 after The Last Stand, the franchise needs it.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars