X-Men: Apocalypse is a mess. That can be ok sometimes, because some of the best movies of all time are a little messy, and even some of the biggest messes are captivating or interesting in spite of their flaws. But Apocalypse is just a mess with nothing to redeem it. The previous main film in the X-Men series (now 9 movies, depending on how you count), Days of Future Past, was also a mess, but that was partly by design. It went out of its way in an attempt to have it all, combining the original cast with the First Class reboot cast in one extravaganza, with the saga’s most popular character, Wolverine, at the center, and the result had its moments seemingly in spite of itself. This follow-up doesn’t attempt anything nearly as bold or ambitious, yet it fails to deliver on nearly every front. It’s flash and spectacle filled with no substance, yet even the flash and spectacle are generally uninteresting. It tells a story that isn’t worth telling that tries to pander both to comic-book geeks and to simple fans of the movies, yet none of those moments have any impact. It’s filled with actors who often very clearly would rather be in any other movie than this one. It tries to give us something new while retreading some of the same plotlines we’ve already seen in the last 16 years of X-Men movies, but disregards what made the X-Men so special in the first place, all while ignoring any of the basic logic or continuity required for mutli-film sagas in general or the history of this franchise in particular. X-Men: Apocalypse isn’t necessarily aggressively or offensively bad, it’s just generally pointless, and, with the exception of two scenes, utterly forgettable.
X-Men: Apocalypse takes place in 1983, ten years after the main events of Days of Future Past and twenty years after First Class. The Xavier School for Gifted Youngesters is up and running as a safe haven for misunderstood young mutants, Raven/Mystique spends her time in the shadows secretly protecting mutants while having become an icon for those of her kind around the world who witnessed her stop Magneto from killing the president 10 years before, while the magnetic villain himself, Erik, is in hiding with his wife and child in Poland. But these three, along with mutants from around the world, are thrown back together again by the emergence of En Sabah Nur, the titular Apocalpyse, an ancient mutant and possibly the first ever. Apocalypse spent countless years through early human history transferring his consciousness from the body of one mutant to another, making him immortal and allowing him to absorb a wide variety of mutant abilities.
Apocalypse was trapped in ancient Egypt at the bottom of a collapsed pyramid after some of his followers betrayed him, but when he is awakened by accident he is shocked by the state of the modern world, full of weapons and without mutants in charge. He sets out to reclaim the world for himself and for mutants, and to do so he recruits four powerful mutants to act as his “horsemen”, protecting him and helping carry out his plans thanks to his ability to greatly enhance their powers. His actions and those of his horsemen eventually catch the attention of Xavier and his team, as well as the governments of the world who use the moment to try to reign in the mutant threat, and the stage is set for a showdown. It’s up to the X-Men to save the day, with old heroes like Beast and Havoc joining “new” recruits including Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Nightcrawler in the hopes of stopping the apocalypse before it’s too late.
There are only two sequences in X-Men: Apocalypse that are worth the price of admission, though neither is particularly original nor make the film worth seeing as a whole. One is a repeat of the extremely fun Quicksilver sequence from Days of Future Past, with the speedy hero making his way casually through Xavier’s mansion while everything around him moves in super slow motion, all set to the classic “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” by the Eurythmics. The other (spoiler, but not a surprise) involves Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, which shows the good will the character and performer have despite some truly awful films behind them. Seriously, Hugh Jackman deserves some sort of medal for still agreeing to appear in these movies. Other than those two scenes there’s basically nothing in Apocalypse that makes it worth recommending. Sophie Turner does a decent job as a younger Jean Grey, and a few of the other newcomers try their best, but the movie is simply beyond saving.
It’s clear that a lot of work went into X-Men: Apocalypse, and it’s production gives off the feel of an epic undertaking that it owes to hundreds of undoubtedly skilled craftsmen and women. But everything on the storytelling side of the equation is flat, lifeless, sloppy, or lazy. The movie is crammed with characters, both new and old, to the point where no one gets anything that resembles a satisfying emotional arc. The villainous Apocalypse never has clear goals beyond destruction, nor a clear motivation beyond power. Potentially revelatory character moments are set up and then abandoned at the last second, seemingly held back for an inevitable sequel. Characters we haven’t seen for two movies show up with the expectation that the audience will care, but with no weight behind the emotions that are supposed to arise from the reunions, while developments from the previous film are simply ignored. It’s clear the actors notice, because many of them clearly couldn’t care less about what they’re doing. Jennifer Lawrence seems downright mad that she’s still contractually obligated to play Mystique (who spends a record low amount of time in her blue form, probably as a concession to the actress), while James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender just coast through as Xavier and Magneto and Oscar Isaac is wasted as Apocalypse. As a result, the whole film comes off as boring despite fate of the world hanging in the balance.
But even beyond the basic problems with the story, both X-Men: Apocalypse and the franchise in general are broken, maybe irreparably in the case of the latter. Twenty years have passed since Xavier and company dealt with the Cuban Missile Crisis in First Class, yet no attempt is made to age the characters in the slightest. None of these young actors look like they’re in their 40s or 50s and could have lived through World War II. I understand Hollywood plays fast and loose with aging actors, but it’s especially ridiculous to take actors who can pass as teenagers and have them play characters in their 40s. (And really, there’s no plot reason for Apocalypse to take place in the 80s, other than the costume choices.) And while I realize that Days of Future Past rewrote the timeline to allow new events to transpire, there’s no logical explanation as to why a character who was a certain age in the original trilogy of X-Men films would be seemingly the same age 20+ years earlier. The “First Class” series would have been better off as a complete reboot, ignoring anything to do with the previous trilogy, which would allow it a free reign to change things without being beholden to a different continuity.
This basic sloppiness is inexcusable, but there are even larger storytelling failures that I lay solely at the feet of director Bryan Singer. (Yes, the screenplay was written by Simon Kinberg, but Singer is definitely the force behind the X-Men franchise and has been the saga’s mastermind.) X-Men: Apocalypse reuses storylines we’ve seen before, in some cases more than once, for no apparent reason and with nothing new to add. What is there to be gained by returning to Alkali Lake, where Wolverine was created, just to retread a familiar plot point we’ve seen in two previous movies? Why tap back into the Jean Grey/Phoenix at all after the poor reception of X-Men: The Last Stand, especially without devoting any worthwhile time to set up the story? The point of the reboot was to take familiar characters and give us a different take on them by flashing back to a different time, but history is now repeating itself. But the worst part is that the man who brought us X2, one of the best superhero movies ever and a film which really understands the power of the X-Men as a metaphor for being different from the rest of society, has lost all sense of the value of these characters or the weight of the franchise. Singer has filled the film with obscure call-outs to the comics and shiny new battle sequences with previously unseen mutant powers, but he’s lost the soul of the X-Men. Apocalypse simply has no reason for existing as a film, other than to fill in an available release slot for a franchise film.
It’s time to retire the X-Men from the silver screen. Give the series a break for a decade or two and then start over again fresh. That’s never going to happen of course, so as much as I’d hate to see it they might as well reboot one more time and wipe the slate clean. Give the series to someone with vision, which recent films have sorely lacked. I like Bryan Singer, and was amazed that he made an even someone compelling film out of Days of Future Past, but it’s clear that he’s lost whatever touch he once had with these characters. Find a way to work Deadpool into the reboot, as his brand of humor and style would be a welcome shot of life into this dying franchise. Or better yet, pull a Sony and come to a deal with Marvel/Disney and let Kevin Feige get involved like with the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming. At this point there’s nothing to lose by a clean break, as things can’t get much worse than they currently are. At this point, the only interest I have in future X-Men movies lies with Hugh Jackman and one more attempt at a standalone Wolverine film, even if I don’t have much hope for that either. It’s just such a perfect match of casting and character, who has done so much for both the franchise and the superhero genre in general (I doubt we’d have Captain America: Civil War without Jackman’s Wolverine taking the screen back in 2000), so a part of me still roots for the duo to have one last shot to go out on a high note. As for everything else? Trash it. Apocalypse may be trying to bring an end to the world and the X-Men in this latest film, but with any luck X-Men: Apocalypse will really succeed in bringing an end to the franchise. For now, at least.