About halfway through X-Men: Apocalypse, there’s a scene disconnected from the main narrative where three teenagers—desperately seeking an escape—go to the mall to see a movie. Stepping out at the conclusion of 1983’s Return of the Jedi (for that is when Apocalypse takes place), the three kids are nonplussed, and start arguing about which movie in the trilogy was superior—Star Wars or Empire. “Can we all just agree that the third movie is usually no good?” interjects Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). End of scene. Ba dum tish.
Series devotees will identify that suspiciously pointed line as a metatextual jab at 2006’s fan-reviled-but-monetarily-quite-successful X-Men: The Last Stand, the capper to the previous X-Men trilogy, which committed the cardinal sins of (a) catastrophically misusing the key character of Jean (played then by Famke Janssen) and (b) firing director Bryan Singer, in favor of action-comedy impresario Brett Ratner. Singer, who birthed the X-Men movie franchise (and the resulting wave of comic book films that we’re still living through) all the way back in 2000, returned to it in 2014’s time-travelling soft reboot Days of Future Past. He’s back in the director’s chair once again for Apocalypse, and he continues to make it his business to dismantle and mock the choices the series made in his absence.
That slam about trilogy enders (I promise I’ll move on from it in one second) comes across in the film as fairly obnoxious (it exists as an isolated cutaway), and, ultimately, quite unwise. Because Apocalypse, let’s be clear, can be considered either the third or sixth X-Men movie, depending on how you’re counting, and if you include the two Wolverine solo spinoff outings (which you might as well because 2013’s The Wolverine is a franchise high-point) and this past spring’s Deadpool (which, yeah, apparently that has to be considered, too) than that makes Apocalypse count as number nine. No matter what, we’re dealing with threes in Apocalypse, which means it takes some courage to blow a raspberry like that in a movie like this. Especially since X-Men: Apocalypse is such an undisciplined mess that not only does Return of the Jedi come out looking better by the comparison…so does practically every other film in the X-Men franchise. Including The Last Stand.
Uniquely for comic book movie franchises, the X-Men (on film at least) have not really drawn their power on the strength of their rogues gallery. At their best, the movies are philosophical debates between Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) and Eric Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) with the ensuing superheroic battles between acolytes for both functioning like wham-pow extensions of that struggle. So already we’re on uncertain ground in Apocalypse when we open in ancient Egypt and the promise of a full-on comic book supervillain. In a sequence that looks for all the world like a deleted bit from Stargate, an all-powerful mutant named En Sabah Nur transfers his consciousness to a new host body and is waylaid by a last-ditch sabotage effort. He then sleeps until 1983. Upon waking (now known as Apocalypse, although dialogue doesn’t exactly spell this out), he looks at society in bafflement. He feeds off TV signals (“Learning!” he croaks, showing here infinitely more intellectual curiosity than some presidential candidates). And then he decides it’s time to end civilization as we know it.
Apocalypse is played by Oscar Isaac in a subdued, uncomfortable performance that lacks menace, nuance, wit, or even the joys of well-played camp. Buried under pounds of blue makeup, he looks ridiculous, his voice is twisted into a low-register sinister boogedy-boogedy sneer that sounds ridiculous, and judging by his discomfort with his truly bottom-of-the-barrel dialogue, he understandably feels ridiculous, clearly. But he isn’t allowed to go completely ridiculous. Oh no. If he had, then maybe it would be okay. But because this is a serious (or at least “serious”) comic book film, all he’s allowed to do is stand around and wave special effects at people and recite endless pseudo-profundities that mean zilch. The role has absolutely no juice to it—no motivation, no internal drama, no reason for any of this (he wants to destroy the world I guess because that’s what he does) and if there is secretly buried material that could be mined by an actor even with a baddie this paper-thin, Isaac has not found it. The role utterly defeats him, and we should consider the momentousness of that. Isaac is one of the most gifted and charismatic actors working today (see Inside Llewyn Davis or A Most Violent Year), and even when occasionally stuck in horrible movies (Sucker Punch, Robin Hood), up until now he was always the best thing in them.
But Apocalypse is just an elaborate example of the movie’s key unifying problem, which is that none of the boatloads of characters are serviced very well. Upon rising, Apocalypse goes searching for four minions to become his horsemen. Horsemen? Yes, just like in the bible. “Maybe the bible got it from him,” intones someone at some point. Ooooh. Okay. But…to what end? Why? Never mind. Apocalypse collects his trophies in perfunctory (and altogether unclear) scenes. We have Angel (Ben Hardy), who has wings that are blades, Psyloche (Olivia Munn), who wears a goofy swimsuit of a costume and wields purple energy blades, and Storm (Alexandra Shipp) who can control the weather but, bizarrely, does not have blades. There. Now you know both everything you need to know and everything you will ever learn about the horsemen.
Okay, not quite. There’s also Magneto, played once again by Michael Fassbender, an actor who is incapable of phoning in a performance. In the years since the last movie, he has settled down, taken a job, taken a wife, and now has a daughter. By all that is just half of a clumsy and manipulative setup on part of the script to rip things away from Magneto and make him so vulnerable that he listens when Apocalypse comes a’knocking. So he becomes the fourth horseman. But the movie is maddeningly unspecific on what Apocalypse is doing here. Is he brainwashing these folks into becoming his followers, or hypnotizing them? Or is he just preying upon their emotions and leading them towards corruption? Either way it robs Magneto of at least several degrees of agency and cheapens him into a pawn. Do we really want to see a character possessing such piercing intelligence and resolve willingly signing up to be a minion for a dull-witted Smurf in battle armor? I vote NO.
But it’s not just the villains who fail to register. Series staple Professor X spends the whole film stammering away like Hugh Grant though would-be romantic encounters with amnesiac CIA agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne, inexplicably not having something better to do). These scenes are, the more that you really think about them, pretty creepy. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), the blue-skinned shapeshifter, gets one or two scenes as she contends with being an icon of mutant suffrage—she has a couple of blue moments, but most often than not she takes the uncanny form of a bored Jennifer Lawrence desperately looking for the exit. Meanwhile, Beast is played by Nicholas Hoult. He exists.
Even the youngbloods are ill-served. Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Nightcrawler both help open the movie excitedly as if thinking it’s going to be about them, and them glumly realize that they’re just window dressing. Turner’s stiff Jean Grey gets a dramatic payoff without nearly enough setup. Quicksilver (Evan Peters), for that matter, gets a setup and then waits around as the movie deliberately withholds a payoff for him. The movie’s threads feel picked up and dropped and picked up again at random, and the plot follows suit, which is why it allows itself a half hour detour to a secret military installation right before the climax—it’s an entire subplot that goes nowhere, lasts too long, and does nothing (well, it injects some unwelcome Twilight flavoring into one of the series’ key relationships—but other than that, nothing). One need only look a few weeks ago to Captain America: Civil War to see the skills needed to juggle characters and plot points with well-organized gusto. It pulled it off. Next to it, X-Men: Apocalypse stumbles.
By the time of the overlong and undercooked third act (which is accomplished via some really shoddy greenscreen work, it must be said), there’s a weird disconnect happening. The ending of Apocalypse lives up to its (or his? Or His?) name and rains down unholy evil on Cairo, Egypt, in much the same manner that Man of Steel laid waste to a city (this is yet another superhero epic that ends “happily,” except for the fact that thousands are clearly dead). This is the same film that, an hour earlier, transported Eric back to Auschwitz, where he could reconnect with his tortured past and purge his demons (Fassbender makes it work). The holocaust reference points have been coded into Magneto’s backstory for quite a long time in the comics, and since the start of the movie series. That’s worthy, or at least it was at the time.
But there’s something borderline-reckless (if not morally bankrupt) in the way the movie mindlessly veers from real-life horror to comic book horror-cum-blockbuster-spectacle without the slightest bit of pause or introspection (unlike, say, Civil War, which was all about making that kind of soul-searching an actual virtue). Bryan Singer’s original X-Men movies took pains to ground his universe and consider human costs. They had big showy moments, and they didn’t steer away from people dying, but the movies had the grace and scale to acknowledge those deaths. But that was almost two decades ago. Apocalypse, sensing which way the wind is blowing, tries to compete in a crowded superhero field by giving us craven, consequence-free destruction . It’s boring, of course. Most CGI explosion fests are boring. But this one is not just boring and morally dead, it’s also fundamentally at odds with the universe that Bryan Singer built.
But then, Apocalypse doesn’t feel like a Bryan Singer film anyway. Some shot choices are puzzling, the blocking feels ridiculously rushed and ill-considered, and neither Singer nor mainstay cinematographer Newton Thomas Siegel are able to inject much flair into the proceedings, save for one cute time-lapse sequence for Quicksilver set to Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” (that and the Jedi reference are the few times the movie actually goes for period detail). For Singer, the whole movie is a misstep. The careful, deliberate craftsman who long ago made The Usual Suspects (before becoming just the guy who makes X-Men movies) feels utterly adrift here. Maybe Mystique got to him.
I don’t feel angry at X-Men: Apocalypse, I’m just disappointed in it. If we’re going to be sentenced to so many comic book epics per year, wouldn’t it help if most of them were good? Apocalypse plays like a movie made by a committee that persistently confuses fanservice with story and character, and for those of us not in step with the comics (the last time I read an X-Men was maybe a decade ago) it’s like playing to an empty room. No doubt there are X-Men fans who will love Apocalypse, and I’m glad for them. They will have the ability to go above and beyond in explaining its excesses, embracing its winks and nods, and rationalizing its choices. It’s nice to have a superpower.