Film Review: X-Men: Apocalypse

“At least we can all agree the third one is always the worst.” That comes from Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), about halfway through X-Men: Apocalypse, as a cadre of young mutants exits a screening of Return of the Jedi – helping to establish the ’80’s setting which rounds out this trilogy’s nostalgic tour of three successive decades. It is also, awkwardly and unfortunately enough, as true of this very film as it was of the original X-Men threequel, the disappointing The Last Stand.

Bryan Singer, directing his fourth X-Men feature, rounds up a grand reunion’s worth of beloved franchise characters, with the familiar faces – including Professor Xavier (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and Havok (Lucas Till) – joined by new, younger faces in familiar roles – Tye Sheridan plays Havok’s earnest younger brother Cyclops, Alexandra Shipp is a spunky new Storm, and Kodi Smit-McPhee provides vulnerability and comic relief in equal measure as Nightcrawler.

As if that weren’t enough of a roster, mutant newcomers include Olivia Munn’s dour Psylocke and Ben Hardy’s under-used Archangel; and finally, but briefly, there is Oscar Isaac as En Sabah Nur (or more handily, Apocalypse), the original mutant, who escapes millennia of imprisonment and sets out to regain control of the globe.

X-Men: Apocalypse
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Directed by Bryan Singer.
Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Lucas Till, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp.

Apocalypse’s introduction is sufficiently daunting, but the longer he remains on screen, the less interesting he becomes. From time to time he supercharges the powers of a chosen mutant to create his four apostolic “horseman” (perplexingly, this entails giving his recruits unconventional hairstyles, tattoos, and in one case, a comically suggestive outfit). But Storm, Psylocke, Archangel, and finally Magneto – whose initiation at Auschwitz is visually spellbinding but logically and artistically questionable – then have precious little to do but stand around posing in the background as Apocalypse blusters and bellows about ending the world without getting around to it for a very long time.

The sheer number of cast members means that despite the fundamental simplicity of the story, there is no room for subtle character work. And so, inverting the formula of X-Men: First Class, which set its profoundly uninspired coming-of-age metaphor against a thrilling revision of the Cuban Missile Crisis enacted exclusively by adults, Apocalypse sees its younger members acquit themselves well while the elder cohort meanders through a plodding, slipshod narrative.

Magneto, unsurprisingly, is the exception, with Fassbender – whose presence reinvigorates even threadbare tropes – outclassing the rest as a man who for all his dark history still has farther to fall, and more to learn about himself, than he realizes. Having returned to Poland, Magneto seems to have found himself an idyllic and anonymous blue-collar life, family and all, but his past soon catches up with him.

Only non-mutant CIA agent Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne) reaps modest emotional dividends from a story arc spanning more than one film. The rest mostly rehash what we have seen before, from adolescent self-discovery to Magneto’s moral fork in the road and Professor X experiencing the shock of discovering a mind even stronger than his.

Apocalypse might be the X-Men’s most powerful foe yet, but he is almost certainly the least interesting; with no goal more specific than ending the world and no real grievance for the audience to identify with, he is a classic case of the movie villain who seems to know he is a movie villain, making endless declarations and yelling at empty air for the benefit of none but the camera.

At frequent intervals, his eyes glow and his voice deepens, an effect too ill-judged for any level of finesse in execution to redeem; it simply feels cheap, but in moments as surprising as they are sporadic, so too does the entire movie.
A general lack of creativity is the problem, as evidenced in the paint-by-numbers script and in the fact that yet another threat to the world is represented visually as an all-devouring, computer-generated cloud.

The much-vaunted scene in which audience favourite Quicksilver (Evan Peters) races through an exploding building is a case study in too much of a good thing, taking the slow-motion effects everybody raved about in Days of Future Past and stretching the concept into a full-blown, two-and-a-half-minute music video which is many times the scale and expense of that original confrontation beneath the Pentagon but has conspicuously less heart.

Even the simultaneous launch of all the world’s nuclear missiles, though depicted with appropriate solemnity, does not end in a marvel of special effects nor motivate a clear plot point. Instead, the script hurries on to something else, as it repeatedly does when the opportunity for a juicy conversation or efficient denouement presents itself, sidestepping myriad chances to develop characters meaningfully or give them closure.

The climax is a conflagration of fists and mutant powers and shouted ultimatums, but for all the fireworks it lacks gravity and ends predictably. Given the PG-13 rating, violence is deployed in a flippant and gratuitous fashion throughout, including a cameo of intense bloodletting by Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and a psychic battle represented unimaginatively as a blue-lit fist fight.

Except for a brief opening scene in ancient Egypt – which doesn’t quite set the right tone – we never get to witness what the world might look like under Apocalypse’s yoke, so there is no clarity in the matter of how thralldom to him might compare to humanity’s fleetingly mentioned prostration before religious, political, corporate and technological divinities.

In any case, when it comes to seducing mutants away from Xavier’s good intentions and creating a rift between rival factions culminating in an exciting showdown, Magneto’s been doing it better for 16 years.