After sixteen years of just fighting Magneto, the X-Men finally have another one of their major villains turn up on screen in X-Men: Apocalypse—sorry, Kevin Bacon’s hammy Sebastian Shaw doesn’t count. Does the film raise the series to new heights or does it signal the end of the world?
MINOR SPOILERS THROUGHOUT
Usually I summarize the plot of the film first in my reviews. The problem is, there are so many disparate storylines going on in X-Men: Apocalypse, the summary could go on for pages—one of the major problems with the film. So, here’s the quick version: It is 1983 and Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), possibly the first mutant, reawakens after centuries of sleep and immediately sets to destroying the world that humans have built so he can create a new one where the strong rule. He assembles his Four Horseman: Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Angel (Ben Hardy), and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who has been living quietly in Poland until tragedy finds him and he returns to his supervillain ways. Meanwhile, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is traveling the world protecting mutants. Her current project is Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the teleporting, devil-looking hero fans will remember from X-Men 2. At Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, Havok (Lucas Till) has brought his brother, Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), to Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) for help controlling his powers. When Cyclops arrives, he meets Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), who is shunned by many of the students because of her off-the-charts telekinetic and telepathic abilities—it’s like everyone saw X-Men: The Last Stand and they know that she’ll one day become Phoenix. When Apocalypse awakens, an energy pulse goes around the world. Xavier uses Cerebro to investigate and discovers that Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne) was at the epicenter of it—why he doesn’t see Apocalypse there too is beyond me. Moira was investigating an Apocalypse cult in Egypt, so Havok and Charles go to visit her. Charles wonders if he did the right thing in X-Men: First Class in wiping her memories of him and the X-Men. When it is reported that Magneto has resurfaced, the X-Men come together to aid their former friend. Unfortunately, Mags has already allied with Apocalypse, who has found exactly what he wants in the powerful mind of Charles Xavier. Xavier is kidnapped and the X-Kids have to grow up and take on the greatest challenge they will ever face that no one will ever mention again in the future documented by the other films.
That’s a lot going on for a single film and I haven’t even mentioned how Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) fit in. And ultimately, that’s the biggest problem with X-Men: Apocalypse—there’s just too many characters introduced/re-introduced at once and a lot of them do nothing once they’re in the movie. Director Bryan Singer and Screenwriter Simon Kinberg can’t decide what this movie is about. Is it about Apocalypse? Is it about the reintroduction of the X-Men we met in the first two films? Is it about Charles and Magneto? Is it about Mystique finally embracing her role as a hero to the mutant community? It’s like the filmmakers had all of these questions—each of which might have made fine movies all on their own—and just said, “Screw it, throw it all in there.” The problem with that approach is that everyone gets the short shrift in the final product. I could probably count the number of lines Angel, Psylocke, and Storm have—combined—on two hands. These are characters that have long, storied histories in the X-Men comic books and they’re reduced to fancy digital effects that look neat. Singer and Kinberg would have been better off making one major character a Horseman and making the other three nobodies. It’s funny, there’s a line in the film about the third films in trilogies always being the worst. Many think it’s a dig at X-Men: The Last Stand, but then Singer goes ahead and makes all the same mistakes that film made by cramming too much into the film, diluting everything else.
This isn’t to say that the film is all bad. There are a lot of great moments and nods to the comic books—comic fans: Moira has a son!—and the first half is really good as everyone is introduced. All the new X-Kids are well cast and I look forward to a film where we can actually, y’know, get to know them. However, that’s all the film is really—setup for the final battle. There didn’t feel like there was a real second act in this film, which leads it to being a great buildup to a finale that is a complete mess. There are several scenes of extreme close-ups of characters just standing around staring at what’s going on around them. It’s like halfway through writing the thing, Kinberg realized, “Oh crap, there’re WAY too many people in this thing. I don’t have anything for them to do!” As in X-Men: Days of Future Past, there is another great Quicksilver scene, but while I enjoyed it a lot, it really stretches credibility. Also, as can be seen in the final trailer that was released, the X-Kids end up at the Weapon X facility somehow and we get to witness Wolverine’s escape. The scene is very cool, but its presence in this film is unnecessary—and as a fan of Wolverine, you don’t know how much it pains me to say that. The X-Kids actually aid Logan in his escape and it weakens Wolverine as a character and shrinks this universe even more than it has already been shrunk. So, cool scene, but it should have been in a solo Wolverine film, not X-Men. Finally, and I’m not really giving anything away here, but the final battle is almost exactly the same circumstances as the very first X-Men film: the villain is trying to transfer his power and needs his flunkies to protect him from the X-Men while he does this. I don’t know if it was an homage or if Singer and company have just run out of ideas.
The cast is good for the most part, but the majority of them are just unnecessary. Jennifer Lawrence is clearly here for contractual obligations only. The filmmakers have tried so hard to make Mystique an integral part of this universe for some reason and it fails on every level. I remember in First Class when Mystique actually had a personality. Well, that’s gone now. McAvoy is great as usual as Charles Xavier. The X-Men brain trust really did a great job casting him as the younger Xavier. Fassbender is also good here as Magneto, but for most of the film he should have been called Sadneto, because all he does is stare into space looking sad. He definitely has reason to be sad in this one, but it got ridiculous after a while. Also, talking about Magneto brings us to our Apocalypse problem. Isaac plays the role very well, but I’m not sure they went the right way with how they wrote him. Usually, Apocalypse is a strongman with a myriad of superpowers and expert control over technology. In the film, they’ve made him more of a cult leader who can amplify other mutants’ powers—he can do this in the comics, but again, it’s usually through technological means—and then proceeds to let them do all the heavy lifting. So, while the X-Men eventually get to fight Apocalypse, mostly the problem they’re dealing with comes from Magneto—again. Also, Apocalypse is too powerful here. He can basically do anything he wants to do and you begin to wonder what the heck he needs these other four bozos for. Speaking of those bozos, Munn and Hardy bring nothing to their roles because the characters aren’t even characters. They’re cyphers with familiar names. Psylocke’s costume is comics accurate, but that’s about it. Her powers are also wildly inconsistent. Alexandra Shipp is great as Storm, whenever she’s given the chance to actually talk, but mostly she just stands around making fierce faces as she hurls lightning. Peters is great as Quicksilver, but again, his character is poorly written overall. I really liked Sheridan, Turner, and Smit-McPhee in their roles—Nightcrawler is especially great—but once again, we have the filmmakers leaning on well-worn crutches when Jean taps into the Phoenix Force at one point in the film. Really? We just re-introduced her and we’re already heading back down that road? I didn’t mind when they made Phoenix already a part of Jean in the earlier films—or did Magneto’s machine at the end of X-Men trigger it?—it was kind of necessary since introducing space adventures to this universe wouldn’t have worked too well. However, to immediately go back to it as a plot device is lazy. Develop the character first, Singer. Hey, Nicholas Hoult is also in this film as Beast again! Why am I mentioning him so late in this review? Because he barely does anything!
Overall, X-Men: Apocalypse falls into the same traps as other “trilogy-cappers.” There is way too much material crammed into this film and the sad part is that most of it is completely unnecessary. There was a good X-Men story in here somewhere, but because the filmmakers can’t decide on the focus for the movie, everything gets muddled into one big mess. Ultimately, I think it was a mistake to carry on with the “X-Men through the Decades” approach. This film would have been better served to have Famke Janssen and James Marsden fighting Apocalypse. There would have been less setup for the characters and more time to actually devote to the story.
Final note: Oh, and unless you’re a huge X-Men comics nerd, you won’t get the stinger at the end of all the credits. Just go pee and look it up online.