After crossing over characters from the original X-Men films with the younger generation in 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past and resetting the narrative timeline so future films would no longer be bound by the franchise’s sloppy and inconsistent mythology, X-Men: Apocalypse should have been the first entry in a reimagined and revitalized series. Regrettably, that’s not the case.
Instead, it’s an erratic combination of ill-conceived ideas, introducing us to younger versions of the iconic mutant superheroes at the most crucial point in their lives, when their powers first begin to manifest – and then immediately squandering the potential to explore or develop these characters in any meaningful way. Casting phenomenal young talents like Tye Sheridan and Sophie Turner in the roles of Cyclops and Jean Grey sounds great on paper, but they’re given so little to do that the audience is never given an opportunity to connect with them on an emotional or intellectual level.
If the new heroes are under-served by X-Men: Apocalypse‘s bloated and meandering screenplay, then its treatment of the new villains is downright insulting. Before finding themselves “chosen” for a higher calling, Angel (Ben Hardy) is forced to perform in an underground mutant fighting ring, Storm (Alexandra Shipp) uses her weather-controlling abilities to aid her pickpocketing skills, and Psylocke (Olivia Munn)… carries a sword and glowers a lot? It’s hard to say what her story is, since she’s only given about five lines of dialogue throughout the film’s 143 minutes – not that Angel and Storm fare much better, as we never learn anything more about them, or their motivations.
Each member of this trio has been selected to become a disciple of Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), an ancient being with unprecedented levels of power who can amplify the abilities of other mutants. Once worshiped as a god, Apocalypse was betrayed by his followers and imprisoned beneath the ruins of an ancient pyramid for thousands of years, and now seeks to cleanse the world of humanity and create a new utopia for mutantkind in its place. “From the ashes of their world, we’ll build a better one,” he tells Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who joins the fray after a tragic event shatters the peaceful life he’s been enjoying since the events of the previous film.
With world destruction and domination on the horizon and Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) incapacitated, it’s up to Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) to lead the X-Men into their most challenging battle yet, with a little help from Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters). Coincidentally, X-Men: Apocalypse‘s few moments of levity come at the hands of the latter two characters, as Nightcrawler struggles to acclimate to American culture and Quicksilver showcases his talents with another wildly inventive and amusing slow-motion sequence that tops the escape scene from Days of Future Past.
The film’s best performance easily belongs to Isaac, who finds himself saddled with the difficult task of emoting through what appears to be several pounds of makeup and prosthetics. He brings gravitas to the role, imbuing Apocalypse with a quiet dignity that makes the ancient mutant seem far more intimidating than if he were constantly shouting and gesticulating, as so many supervillains are prone to do on the big screen. And with Lawrence turning in her most lifeless and uninspired performance in recent memory, it’s up to Isaac – and to a lesser extent, Fassbender – to carry the film on their backs. Mystique was clearly meant to be the centerpiece of this adventure, but the complete lack of emotion and enthusiasm from Lawrence makes rooting for her blue-skinned heroine an impossible task.
Days of Future Past struck a nice balance between huge spectacle and smaller, more intimate character moments, but X-Men: Apocalypse allows the latter to mostly fall by the wayside in favor of more destruction and devastation. Director Bryan Singer and producer Simon Kinberg had promised the film would feature carnage on par with an extinction-level event, and to that end they deliver – but because we’re not emotionally invested in these severely under-developed characters and their fates, none of it really means anything. It almost feels like Singer wanted to try his hand at directing a Roland Emmerich film, but the only way he could get the project greenlit was to include the X-Men.
Despite its laundry list of shortcomings, there are a handful of truly enjoyable moments in X-Men: Apocalypse, including the aforementioned Quicksilver appearance and a cameo from an old friend that brings Barry Windsor Smith’s artwork to life. But the film suffers from many of the same problems that plagued X-Men: The Last Stand, relying far too much on a boring, CG-heavy finale and stuffing far too many characters into a narrative that can’t support them, short-changing nearly everyone in the process. Seriously, why bother to add Jubilee to the roster if she only gets five minutes of screentime, isn’t involved in any of the battles and never even uses her powers?
After essentially creating the age of modern superhero cinema with the original X-Men and correcting many of the franchise’s mistakes with Days of Future Past, Singer seems to have forgotten the very essence of why audiences love these films so much. No matter how many bridges are destroyed, how many buildings are toppled and how many cataclysmic events are prevented at the last possible moment, if we can’t relate to these characters on an emotional level, then we just don’t care – and X-Men: Apocalypse gives us plenty of things not to care about.