On paper, Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Apocalypse is ostensibly about an ancient super-mutant wiping clean the sins of mankind and a new generation embracing their destiny. On screen, however, it turns out to be about a franchise taking a giant step backwards. After the rejuvenated one-two punch of 2011’s First Class and 2014’s Days of Future Past, there was reason to expect better. A lot better. But Apocalypse feels like a confused, kitchen-sink mess with a half dozen too many characters, a villain who amounts to a big blue nothing, and a narrative that’s so choppy and poorly cut together that it feels like you’re watching a flipbook instead of a movie.
As the X-Men faithful have known since Days of Future Past‘s post-end credits sequence two years ago, the big baddie this time around would be (and is) Apocalypse—the world’s first mutant, who ruled over Ancient Egypt more than 5,000 years ago like a Nile god. And that’s precisely where Singer’s film promisingly kicks off, with an ominous tableau of gold-tipped pyramids, ritual human sacrifice, and Young Sherlock Holmes-style chanting. Apocalypse, who looks like a cross between Watchmen‘s Doctor Manhattan and the breakfast-cereal specter Booberry (and nothing remotely like the great actor trapped beneath the makeup, Oscar Isaac), attempts to transfer his consciousness and myriad mutant abilities into an unwitting victim’s body when he’s foiled by a band of rebels and basically put into hibernation…until he’s roused in 1983.
Ah, the Reagan era. A period when the Cold War battle between good and evil was decidedly more clear-cut than the skirmishes amongst the global fraternity of X-Men. The first-third of the film is spent on introductions to new mutants like Tye Sheridan’s laser-sighted Cyclops, Sophie Turner’s mindreading misfit Jean Grey, Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Teutonic teleporter Nightcrawler, and Olivia Munn’s Psylocke, who has a groovy, fuchsia lightsabery-sword hand. Some of these new kids on the block are fighting for good (Team Xavier); others for evil (Team Apocalypse), which will sound very familiar to anyone who just sat through the Marvel Universe’s other (and infinitely better) recent battle royal, Captain America: Civil War.
The familiar faces are all back too. But for how much longer is anyone’s guess judging from the general expression of tedium creeping across the faces of Jennifer “Mystique” Lawrence and Michael “Magneto” Fassbender. James McAvoy, at least, gets to deliver a few breezy punch lines as Professor Xavier when he’s not touching his temples like he’s feeling the onset of the world’s worst tension headache. With the arrival of Apocalypse, Xavier’s good guys and gals snap into action to stop nothing less than the end of the world before it’s too late. (Yes, nothing less than the end of the world! And yet, it feels like there’s bupkis at stake.) Part of the problem, I think, is how uninteresting Apocalypse is as a foe. With his leathery aqua, reptilian skin and cobra-cowl, he keeps trying to lure various X-Men over to the Dark Side like a broken-record Darth Vader. The guy’s kind of a relentless pest.
The other part of the problem is that Singer keeps cutting from subplot to subplot and setting to setting with such frequency that he seems hellbent on preventing the audience from getting involved with any one storyline or character. Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine does a drive-by for one scene and then splits—apparently so we wouldn’t forget about him before his next spin-off. Less tastefully, Apocalypse brings Magneto back to Auschwitz (the sacred ground where his tragic backstory began as a child) and it just feels…wrong. You almost want to cheer when Fassbender says, “You shouldn’t have brought me here!”
It’s not all bad, though. There are some funny in-jokes, like a swipe at the terrible X-Men 3 (aka Last Stand). Turner is promising as Jean Grey, and Evan Peters’ Quicksilver gets another super-slo-mo showstopper scored to Eurythmics’ period-appropriate synth-jam “Sweet Dreams.” But all in all, Apocalypse is a third-tier X-Men movie that arrives at a time when studios and filmmakers who traffic in spandex need to be at the top of their game. We know all of the clichés and all of the tropes too well at this point to settle for place-holding mediocrity. We know the difference between an instant classic and a dog. Apocalypse isn’t quite a dog. But it is a movie with way too much of everything except the things that should matter the most—novelty, creativity, and fun. C