Bryan Singers return to the X-Men series after some specular failures with Days of Future Past used the great Chris Claemont story from the comics to bring solution to the growing problems of the now 16 year old franchise. But he also replaced much of the elegant, simple storytelling of his first two films (the second of which holds up much more than the first) with mammoth set pieces punctuated by the character dynamics between those that had become fan favourites, namely Magneto, Professor X, Mystique and Wolverine.
That mode of storytelling extends to X-Men: Apocalypse. The symbolic elements to mutants as allegories for the oppressed is unfortunately dropped, but it is still in much of the broad strokes where this film excels. There is one scene between Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) which is so unapologetically bold in its execution and premise that it turns what could possibly be an exploitative image into a hair raising one. This kind of bombast also extends to those who find pleasure in the more kitsch quality of these movies. One scene of remarkably fantastic camp sees Apocalypse assembling his Four Horsemen set to the Metallica song of the same name. When you are watching a Bryan Singer X-Men movie, it’s like the 90’s never left. (Well, the 00’s acting like the 90’s set in the 80’s. Are we on the same page?)
But that camp and humour also works against it in some important and tragic moments. A moment of character building tragedy for Magneto – a scene that would have felt stronger at the ending of a movie instead of the beginning – is punctuating by a unintentionally funny, god-cursing exhale that gives Revenge of the Sith a run for its money. The worst offender of this comes in the middle of a sequence set to Beethoven that is the closest that a super villain destruction has come to elegiac, only for THAT to be the moment where the movie puts its comic Stan Lee cameo, meaning that anyone invested in these films can only experience guffaws. It’s Apocalypse’s combination of boring stoicism clashing with its never fully realised theatricality that ultimately sinks the film. The garishness of the 80’s presented here is wasted when most of the characters end up in the traditional boring black latex of previous X-Men films, and barring some music and pop culture references is rarely used to full effect.
The foppish sulks get extended by the actors. Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique seems to get the most flak in these movies for monosyllabic tone and vacant stares, but she has no more so than a lot of the new supporting players, some of whom played by the most talented up and coming actors today. Tye Sheridan as Scott Summers/Cyclops get very little to do as the film goes along, and while Kodi Smith McPhee is fine as Nightcrawler, the timid prepubescent Nightcrawler does not hold a candle to Alan Cummings memorably vibrant portrayal in X2. Sophie Turner’s flat demeanour makes the character arc of Jean Grey/Phoenix feel a little wasted (until the very end), and its kind of hilarious just how little Olivia Wilde gets to do as Psylocke other than pout.
The script leaves characters we know with very little to do or very little to work with. Whilst James McAvoy charming optimism as Professor X in these movies is always a highlight, his relationship with Rose Byrne as Moira MacTaggart has so little impact that it has to borrow flashbacks from First Class to remind audiences of its importance. Meanwhile Quicksilver, a highlight for many in Days of Future Past, is given another similar sequence that whilst very entertaining felt shoed in, as though you could hear the studio boardroom going “how can we do that scene again, but bigger?” As well as another scene which makes questions of him being overpowered even more fervent, his relationship with Magneto (Michael Fassbender, who is always good in these movies), the man who is his father, is brought up in the movie only for it to lead to absolutely nothing.
Then there’s Apocalypse. Played by Oscar Isaac, one of the most charismatic and expressive actors working today, counterintuitively layered in makeup whilst playing many scenes in whispers (at this point its worth mentioning how both the practical and visual effects are noticeably worse compared to the last film). His magnetism is such that he still manages to convey a certain sense of menace, but his slow build set up building his crew and working out his plans eventually lead to a destruction scene that makes Man of Steel look tame, and has just as little impact. A redeeming feature of this villain’s arc was that compared to other summer superhero fare like, say Batman V Superman, the story threads connected and were building up to a telegraphed but still well structured conclusion. But just as I thought that, there came a whole twenty minute sequence with L’il baby Striker whose events serve absolutely nothing to the plot, and seems to only exist so the movie can have the thing that no X-Men can restrain itself from including.
X-Men: Apocalypse is ambitiously average. The fact that there are scenes with bombastic zest, some that might be my favourite in any superhero film, means that the movie being mostly a dull flatline hurts even more. It’s the third X-Men movie in a row which seems to exist mainly to restore a status quo. But after the third time, it does make you wonder, after six main films, if there is actually anywhere more to go.