Everything that’s good, and bad, about X-Men: Apocalypse can be traced to it being part of the successful X-Men franchise. It’s not only the third film in the series (in the new movie continuity), but also the sixth (overall), and also the ninth (if you count solo movies) which creates certain expectations—expectations that no movie could possibly meet.
So, for example, Hollywood demands sequels always are bigger than their predecessors, right? But Apocalypse is a sequel to at least five other, already huge movies. Everything has to be impossibly big. Then there’s the last film, Days of Future Past, which set the precedent all of these movies, at least at one time, took place in the same universe. So in this film, lots of future character interactions and arcs must be set up and teased. Before the movie even begins, writer Simon Kinberg and director Bryan Singer are left with an insane checklist and the film suffers for it.
At every single moment, X-Men: Apocalypse feels like it’s racing to the next point. As a result, very little in the movie actually gets explored or enjoyed. Something major happens, and we instantly move on to the next thing. A popular character is introduced, and the next scene is someone else entirely. The filmmakers have too little room to worry about emotion or theme. In fact, with the insane amount of storylines and characters X-Men: Apocalypse is working with, the structure is surprisingly simple. There’s a prologue, one hour of set-up, two big setpieces separated by maybe five minutes, and the finale. That’s it. It’s disarmingly and detrimentally straightforward.
X-Men: Apocalypse takes place about 10 years after the events of Days of Future Past. The whole world now knows about mutants, but an uneasy peace has been reached—a peace we see in various odd permutations as Singer, over the course of the film’s first hour, reintroduces every character from the previous film, as well as all the new villains and the new heroes. The pacing of this section of the movie isn’t boring, per se, but there’s a lot going on and yet very little seems to be getting accomplished. The whole thing feels like the film is stacking a deck of cards, ever so carefully putting pieces into play.
This all starts with Apocalypse, played by Oscar Isaac, though he’s never explicitly called that in the film. He’s supposed to be the first mutant, the biggest threat the X-Men have ever faced, and yet he’s really just the film’s biggest problem. We never exactly know what his powers are (we see him do many things, but it’s always vague), his motivations are almost laughably childish (“I want to rule the world!”) and Oscar Isaac’s potentially nuanced performance is lost under layers of makeup and wardrobe. He’s supposed to have this grand, centuries-old, frightening presence. But it never materializes on screen to because he looks so silly and is so underwritten (but more on him in a second).
Once you’ve met all the characters and set up all their storylines, the movie gets a kick in the pants with its first, truly amazing setpiece. It’s this film’s version of Days of Future Past’s Pentagon with Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and it’s the highlight of the film. It’s the kind of extended, fun, VFX-driven, single character building sequence the audience is craving. From there, things quickly move into another major setpiece before moving to the big final battle. Each of the two middle action scenes, while certainly smaller than the finale, are much more rewarding because of that scale. Once the scale gets bigger, the core emotion of the narrative is lost. There’s too much going on.
You see, while we know Apocalypse wants to destroy the world, all the destruction that he and his team create feels totally empty. With each X-Men film, the filmmakers always feel the need to go bigger, be bolder and destroy more. X-Men: Apocalypse has global destruction that Roland Emmerich would envy, and yet there’s no connection to it. No fear. No aftermath. Just CG buildings collapsing. How are we supposed to care that the world is being destroyed if all we see are tiny cars lifting in the air? This is the anti-Man of Steel, destruction without any human consequence.
The emptiness also comes from the fact the central themes of the X-Men movies are mostly lost this time around. Those rich discussions about mutant segregation, hatred, and discrimination, are all on the back burner in Apocalypse. There’s no time for them, because the film’s nature dictates such a propulsive narrative. We are teased with hints of these conflicts, but it never really plays out.
Okay, there is one instance where the relationship between humans and mutants plays a central role, but it quickly stumbles. It’s with Magneto, again played by Michael Fassbender. Without spoiling it, Singer takes the character in what, at first, feels like a deep, dark, depressing direction, and yet after that the character is incredibly bland. The consequences of that event are articulated with words, but never with actual motion. Magneto blindly follows Apocalypse with a stoic indifference that will make Fassbender fans cringe. Sure, there’s a bit more to it but, without proper motivation, it doesn’t quite land. Which feels like a microcosm for the movie itself.
Besides that aforementioned Quicksilver scene, some of the film’s brightest moments are and the new mutants of the film. There’s Jean Grey (Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner), Cyclops (Ready Player One’s Tye Sheridan), Storm (Drumline 2's Alexandra Shipp) and Nightcrawler (The Road’s Kodi Smit-McPhee; meanwhile Lana Condor as Jubilee is barely worth mentioning as we never see her use her power.) These characters have a much-needed, youthful energy about them that lifts the entire film when they’re on screen. It’s refreshing to once again see mutants, especially ones we know so well from the other movies, discovering who they are. And their story sets the stage for two of the films biggest and best surprises, which I won’t spoil here.
It comes down to this. Fans of these characters are going to overlook a lot of X-Men: Apocalypse’s flaws. How could they not? There are moments where, even as I was frustrated by the movie, I wanted to cheer. Singer has made a movie that has several moments designed for that response., but everything around them is a slog. It’s crazy to think how many things are going on in the movie and yet it feels so inconsequential. Cities collapse, time’s most powerful mutants rise, and nearly every member of the cast is a popular, award-worthy actor. And yet, in the end, it feels like we’ve seen it all before.
At one point in the film, Jean, Cyclops and Nightcrawler go to see Return of the Jedi. Jean walks out and says “The third film is always the worst.” X-Men Apocalypse is definitely the worst of the latest three films, but is light years ahead of The Last Stand and X-Men Origins Wolverine. It’s not godawful, but it’s not good either. Basically, it’s just another third film in a trilogy.