Mired within the plodding grandiosity of reboot threequel X-Men: Apocalypse, it’s not humanity nor mutantkind but director Bryan Singer who wrestles with great power and comes out a loser. Who knew Singer, returning to the fold after helming X-Men, X2, and his and Simon Kinberg’s acclaimed X-Men: Days of Future Past, would be the one to give Brett Ratner’s widely-dragged X-Men: The Last Stand a run for its money as the worst entry in the long-running franchise?
In hindsight maybe it wasn’t so clever of Singer and Kinberg to throw winking shade at The Last Stand in their $180 million ’80s-set superhero slog, which joins the disastrous Fantastic Four in Fox’s stable of disappointing superhero tent poles. Playing hooky from Charles Xavier’s School for the Gifted, a gaggle of teenage mutants stroll out of a shopping mall multiplex arguing the meta-marvels of movie sequels. “Everyone knows the third movie’s always the worst,” quips a redhead named Jean Grey (Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner).
She’s an up-and-coming telekinetic telepath, not a future-seer, but how right she is. By the time that bit of groan-inducing snark backfires on X-Men: Apocalypse, the terminally sprawling story hasn’t kicked into gear past the endless set-ups, character introductions, and re-introductions meant to catch us up to what’s happened in the years since the time-tripping Days of Future Past and reboot-starter First Class.
This current run of X-Men movies (including the parallel spin-off Wolverine films, which get a befuddling crossover tease here) has soared on the strength of engaging plotlines and introspective themes that, like any superhero movie these days, explore what it really means to be a superhero these days. The philosophical debates over mutant selfhood, autonomy, and responsibility that Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has been waging within and outside of the mutant community all series long also drive the franchise’s most compelling interplay of characters—namely, the complex frenemyship between pacifist-idealist Professor X and aggro-separatist Magneto (Michael Fassbender).
Hollywood It Goddess Jennifer Lawrence is back as Mystique—thank goodness—who went solo after the chaos in Washington, D.C., and has become a cult hero of sorts, popping up all over the world to liberate and teach oppressed young mutants to protect themselves. The shape-shifter is still wrestling with her own identity issues. Now, she forgoes the scaly blue skin nature gave her for a more acceptable-in-public Jen Lawrence-y visage. Torn between the conflicting ideologies of her old pals Charles ‘n’ Erik, she finds herself back in Professor X’s fold—the X-Men’s own Katniss Everdeen, still rejecting her own heroism. It’s a reluctance Lawrence can portray the hell out of in her sleep; even when she occasionally seems to be doing just that, the Oscar-winner still acts circles around most of her fellow cast mates.
Fassbender and Lawrence arguably get the most to do with their characters, while McAvoy goes through the ringer as X-Men: Apocalypse’s noble lead. But in one fell swoop of misguided sequelizing, all the most interesting stuff is sidelined for a much less heady, and much more unintentionally laughable, enemy: Oscar Isaac’s Apocalypse.
Unlike the usual baddies of the relatively grounded X-Men universe—where robot sentinels, military agendas, and raging xenophobia are mutants’ biggest external threats—Apocalypse presents a villain straight outta the comic book movies of decades past: Clunky, boring, and so very basic in his badness. Yawn. Even the grandiloquent title X-Men: Apocalypse is a misnomer, suggesting that this movie might be more than just a stopover on the long haul, a brief episode with little impact on the larger story arc that connects the X-Men universe so far. (It isn’t.)
So sure, meet Apocalypse. In ancient Egypt they called him En Sabah Nur and worshipped him like a god. Blessed with an array of superpowers the movie never quite bothers to detail—suffice to say he pretty much has all of ’em, save for a biggie he lustily portal-jumps the world with his squad of lackeys in search of—the immortal Apocalypse emerges in totally-’80s Cairo thirsting for power.
Meanwhile over in Reagan’s America, uneven pacing and way too many characters make for an exhausting introduction to Professor X’s brood. At least Singer has fun playing with the outfits, the music, the hair, and other details of the decade. Not that there is time to make the ’80s, its cultural clashes, or its real-world parallels anything but a gimmick.
Cramming way too many characters into one 150-minute runtime, the film bounces from X-Men old (Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, Nicolas Hoult as Beast, Evan Peters as the scene-stealing Quicksilver) and new (Kodi-Smit McPhee as Nightcrawler, Tye Sheridan as Cyclops, Sansa Stark as the heir apparent to Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey), to dear leaders good (McAvoy), evil (Isaac) and somewhere in between (Fassbender), to new bad guys drawn straight out of the Marvel Comics’ vaults (Alexandra Shipp as a teen-punk Storm, Olivia Munn as Psylocke, Ben Hardy as Angel).
There’s also Xavier’s old CIA flame Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne), whose mind has been wiped of a tropical getaway’s worth of sweet, sweet Professor X lovemaking for her own protection—and so she can conveniently bumble into mutant matters in order to spur the plot along. And yet, although the overlong, overstuffed X-Men: Apocalypse bursts at the seams with characters, I don’t remember actually hearing the name Jubilee uttered once—despite the appearance in several scenes of actress Lana Condor, who brings popular Asian-American mallrat heroine Jubilation Lee to life with no shortage of her namesake pep.
But I digress. While X-Men: Apocalypse has no time for Jubilee (who was heavily cut out of the final film), it has way too much for the lumbering antics of its titular villain. After spending several millennia trapped under a pyramid stewing in the powers he’s absorbed from other mutants since the beginning of civilization, Apocalypse gets cracking on world domination with the speed of grandpa waking up from a nap.
Unfortunately, that means we have to watch as he goes about his evil machinations step-by-step, rolling a few heads, turning people into sand, learning English by mind-melding with a TV, and recruiting his “Four Horsemen” to help him seize ultimate power by wiping out all of humanity, etc.
Sadly, Apocalypse really only exists to propel the other characters into action and toward the next ’90s-set sequel. What a waste of Oscar Isaac. Mostly you spend the run of X-Men: Apocalypse feeling sorry for the naturally charismatic actor, buried under mountains of purplish-gray make-up, the whites of his eyes dimly recognizable as he shouts pompous sinister declarations while an egregiously bombastic score swells.
The first indications of a woefully wayward grasp of tone come early. If you don’t recall how the horrors of the Holocaust triggered Erik Lehnsherr’s transformation into Magneto in X-Men: First Class, Singer’s here to remind you with no measure of subtlety. First, he zooms to present day-’80s with an opening sequence in which all the signifiers of 20th century warmongering fly by—including a giant swastika, zooming at your eyeballs in 3D. Soon thereafter he puts the sad-souled Magneto through a beautifully staged emotional nightmare, only to take the party all the way back to Auschwitz to hammer home Magneto’s deep-seated melancholy and wrathful rage.
The tedium builds as barely-serviceable machinations kick in. A recurring theme echoes as various characters discover how easy it is to hijack and turn their enemies’ weapons against themselves. But any wannabe modern-day relevance is lost in a muddle of dumb plotting. Should we think twice about building systems of technology and military might that could be used against us, or train soldiers (i.e., mutants) to wield weapons (i.e., superpowers) they can’t fully control?
The answer, seemingly, is yes—at least, when it’s convenient for the story. Later those warnings feel like misdirection when Charles prods one of his students to unleash the destructive and powerful mutant within—you know, for the good of the world.
You can piece together threads of what lies ahead from these fragments of ideological division scattered between character scenes and often-dazzling set pieces. Quicksilver returns to steal the show again by slowing down time and cheesing it up for the audience, adding a much-needed injection of energy at what would otherwise be the perfect time for a bathroom break. Its centerpiece sequence takes place in a subconscious nightmarescape where characters battle with their minds, a visually inventive and dynamic setting that beats the generic civilian-free expanse littered with debris that we’ve seen over and over again this blockbuster summer, although there’s that, too.
Alas, even in its grand denouement X-Men: Apocalypse commits a great sin: It relegates its best character—the comics supervillain turned film antihero Magneto—to the sidelines, and fails to give him the emotional closure he spent so much screen time earning. That only begs more questions. If Charles Xavier can’t handle him at his Magneto, does he deserve him at his Erik Lehnsherr? Will we spend the next retro traipse through this comics franchise jonesing for the X-Men of the future, or the past?
And can Fox just put a rush on Deadpool 2 instead?