“Everyone knows the third one is always the worst,” a young Jean Grey (Game of Throne’s Sophie Turner) ironically reports, exiting a 1983 screening of Return of the Jedi. She’s right of course: Jedi is the lesser of the original Star Wars trilogy. But to her larger point: the culmination of trilogies often results in some degree of disappointment, sometimes even sullying the good name of that whence came before it. Take Godfather: Part III, The Dark Knight Rises, The Matrix Revolutions, Spiderman 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, ALIEN3, Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome, Terminator: Rise of the Machines and of course, Brett Ratner’s quite bad X-Men: The Last Stand. Jean’s remark, planted as it is in what is the third film of this newfangled X-Men trilogy, is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, perhaps both a potshot at Ratner’s derided 2006 entry to the franchise and a preemptive snarky parlay to the film’s inevitable detractors, because believe me when I say, X-Men: Apocalypse proves Jean Grey’s point.
Fulfilling the cycle of X-Men flicks begetting two ace films to be followed by one gnarly offspring, X-Men: Apocalypse undoes the strong work accomplished by the previous pair of entries into the franchise. If X-Men: First Class breathed new life into a superhero collective believed undone and smoldering and Days of Future Past discovered a supremely satisfying highway to weave together a bramble of mixed continuities, Apocalypse is the apocalypse of our newly restored faith in Fox’s remaining superhero entity. Punishingly long, thick with clunky character development and almost entirely devoid of fun, this excessively self-serious X-Men entry sinks to the ocean floor with the weight of heavy metal Colossus and the speed of Quicksilver.
Bryan Singer’s fourth X-Men film to date returns to Egypt 3500 B.C. to develop the breadcrumbs left in the post-credits of Days of Future Past. An omnipotent faux-deity named En Sabah Nur (a not-so-good Oscar Isaac obscured by silly blue paint) busies himself amassing more power. His attempt to transfer his consciousness into a new body to acquire immortality by the power of the sun (…don’t ask) is interrupted by an armed rebellion of Egyptian guards, which leaves the world’s first mutant in a state of semi-permanent suspension, buried beneath the ruins of a pyramid until a day comes when he will awaken to rule once more.
This takes us to the present day where the modern world (modern being 1983) is aware of the existence of mutants and has mixed feelings about them. On the one hand, the actions of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) saved the POTUS ten years back but it was another mutant, Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who put him in harm’s way in the first place. The former has adopted a kind of cult hero status among circles of young mutants near and far while the later has stored himself away from the eye of the public, attempting to adopt the peaceful mantra of adversary/friend Prof X. While the blue shapeshifter traverses the world freeing mutants, such as a similarly pigmented, and just barely pubescent, Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) from forced underground cage matches (a potentially interesting aside that leads essentially nowhere), Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has developed his student core into a thriving community of young mutant learners, all taking in his mission statement of peaceful coexistence.
Among the newcomers are the aforementioned Jean Grey and Nightcrawler as well as Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), the younger brother of previous X-Man, Havoc (Lucas Till) who himself resurfaces as a driving narrative figure, and Jubilee (Lana Condor) who’s featured in the film insomuch as the sound booth guy is featured in a punk rock music video. A long time fan favorite, she appears on the screen without actually saying or doing, well, anything. The new circle of youngsters is the inevitable next step for the franchise and if their performances and arcs here are any indication of where things are going, there is little promise evident.
Sheridan and Turner lack charisma and potency, imbuing their admittedly throwaway lines with little confidence and flat bravado. Their resultant kiddie versions of X-Men mainstays are hardly well-constructed enough to inspire any semblance of confidence in where their path will take them once Fassbender, Lawrence, McAvoy and Nicholas Hoult bow out of the spotlight. In their defense, the script from Simon Kinberg, who had a hand in writing both Days of Future Past and The Last Stand, is clunky, obvious and mostly without grace. Smit-Mcphee is privy to some of the films few humorous hits but almost every attempt at comedy falls flat on its face. But X-Men being a superhero film that’s always issued itself a serious modus operandi, failure to launch in terms of proper character execution is much more troubling than its inability to stick a good quip.
Another important entry to the classical X-Men lineup is Storm (Alexandra Shipp), who is likely the most poorly written of this new stock of poorly written characters. Her motivation is taciturn and wafer-thin, a borderline unintelligible driving force that’s just as terrible as her wishy-washy recruitment by Isaac’s big blue bad. Living in the streets of Cairo and scamming vendors to get by, this new and unimproved Storm is promised bulked up powers by Apocalypse, who then attempts to manipulate her to his cause by claiming he wants to save the world. When he’s later tearing it to pieces (quite literally), there is no rhyme or reason to her sticking to his guns and hanging with a dude who promised peace and is clearly, well, not a fan of such. As a launching pad for introducing audiences to new iterations of the once beloved X-Men, Apocalypse short changes many, but none so badly as Storm.
Unsurprisingly, the only character who seems to have been given any further semblance of complexity is Fassbender’s Erik Lensherr who has left behind the mantle of Magneto to pursue a life of Scandinavian quaintness. He’s hung up his cape and helmet, married an unassuming brunette and brought an animal-affectionate daughter into the world, spending his days milling steel (what else?) at an industrial factory like a rugged, mysterious everyman. His arc takes him from a place of tranquility to one of great rage, making for what is no doubt the only character whose involvement with Apocalypse’s new vision of the world (death to all humans, rise of the all-powerful mutants) is justifiable on any cognizant story-level. But as the film gives way to shifting allegiances and hazy alliances, even Magneto’s ultimate placement on the chessboard is head-scratching, rushed and unearned.
Of all the failures present, Apocalypse does thrive on its familiar faces and the standout cast playing such. McAvoy and Fassbender don’t get to work off one another as much as they ought to but each has carved out a dignified space playing what could otherwise have been superficial comic book figures just as Lawrence’s Mystique has snowballed into an intriguing moral lynch pin, the presumptive center of this trilogy’s overarching narrative. And though we only got a glimpse at Evan Peters‘ Quicksilver last go, his return here is again a highlight, if lacking the initial surprise of that first speed trial. But it’s our existing investment in these characters that makes the wheels turn, not anything note-worthy that’s accomplished within the pages of this particular script. (And our willingness to extend them our respect is saying something for a film that introduces the idea of physically manifested mind-battles.)
A warning to all who plan to stick out the 10-odd minutes of credits, there is no stinger scene waiting at the end of the tunnel; a fact that could be quite interesting considering the implied circumstances. The lack of a post credit scene makes me wonder if Singer regrets the placement of one En Sabah Nur in his last film, as the promise of Apocalypse painted the future of the franchise into a very particular, very blue corner. When the cart comes before the horse, and the very seed of a story idea is cemented before a intelligible story has ever taken shape, the result is X-Men: Apocalypse; a clumsily told entry into a saga that can reach shocking heights, one that can’t quite figure out how to work in new characters organically and almost seems to throw up its hands at any sign of adversity. The whole thing is, in as few words as possible, a big, dumb bummer.
CONCLUSION: ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’ is a joyless and often unengaging entry to X-Men’s impressive catalogue. Overlong, actively not fun and without any defining or memorable action beats, this sixth X-Men feature wears out its principal cast with an overstuffed story that’s as vapid and poorly written as its featured villain is ridiculous and blue.