Fox’s X-Men series is the longest running superhero series ever, but for the most part it has operated down the middle of the road — able to verge on greatness as easily as it can descend into awful nonsense. X-Men: Apocalypse — the ninth film in the series, the sixth in the X-Men line and the third in this particular trilogy — embodies this. It’s a middle of the road blockbuster that’s not terrible, not brilliant; decent fun but largely forgettable.
Apocalypse derives its title from the mantle of an ancient mutant, played by Oscar Isaac, who wakes from his slumber to discover a world he deems unfit for purpose. Believing in survival of the fittest above all else, he assembles four followers — his horsemen — to bring about the kind of destruction that justifies his name.
The plot is about as barebones as you’ll see from a superhero film this year. The bad guy wakes up, assembles his squad and attempts to do something awful as the good guys play catch-up and eventually try to stop him. That’s really it. The likely reason for this simple plot is the enormous cast, which includes the trilogy’s regulars, a few returning faces and a ton of newbies.
James McAvoy as Professor X, Michael Fassbender as Magneto, Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique and Nicholas Hoult as Beast all return for a third outing, while Evan Peters and Lucas Till reprise their respective roles as Quicksilver and Havok. Rose Byrne returns as Moira MacTaggert as well, in a severely underwritten part that only serves a very questionable and very creepy subplot about McAvoy’s character once wiping her memory.
Chief among the new faces are Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, Tye Sheridan as Cyclops, Kodi Smit-McPhee as Nightcrawler and Alexandra Shipp as Storm. The latter becomes the first of Apocalypse’s horsemen, while the other three form the backbone of the film’s new X-Men line-up. Turner occasionally seems out of her depth, but certainly has room to grow into the role, while Sheridan is benefited by an interpretation of Cyclops that has a lot more promise and personality than that of Singer’s first attempt, played by James Marsden.
Smit-McPhee makes a great Nightcrawler, but the character is more of a plot device thanks to teleportation powers that make him useful to the team throughout. He’s given a handful of good laughs however, and they’re delivered well. With more screen-time it could have been a show-stealing performance, but once again its Peters’ Quicksilver that hogs the limelight. He’s charming, funny and there’s a repeat of the amazing slow motion scene from Days of Future Past, that’s just as effective. In fact, it’s one of the film’s only stand-out set-pieces.
McAvoy, Lawrence and Fassbender show flashes of their acting prowess, but aren’t given enough time to excel and can’t overcome the problems of some scenes which are more melodramatic than they ought to be. In one otherwise-effective example, Fassbender ends up literally yelling his character’s struggle to the heavens, spelling it out to the audience, when his anguish was made clear enough already.
When the heroic characters are interacting, the film bobs along at a gentle pace thanks to some good-natured humour. However, whatever momentum this creates comes to a screeching halt whenever the title villain appears.
Most of the film’s problems stem from the depiction of Apocalypse. The terrible prosthetics breaks the illusion and only will alone will prevent it from tarnishing your enjoyment of the movie. An inconsistent vocal effect doesn’t help matters either. Attempting to give him some depth of character would have been a mistake – he’s a force of nature, the literal embodiment of the apocalypse. The only thing he needs to be is threatening, and he never is despite the best efforts of Isaac.
He should have been a towering CG character brought to life through motion-capture, whose otherworldly and evil nature could have functioned well as the focal point around which the characters of his horsemen (Storm, Magneto, Ben Hardy’s Angel and Olivia Munn’s Psylocke) are developed.
Such an approach could easily have been mishandled, but it’s hard to imagine it being any worse than the final product here. Apocalypse only shows some signs of life toward the very end, when Isaac is given the chance to play a proper prick.
The film’s other major fault comes during the final act, when Apocalypse’s plot wreaks havoc on the world and the forces of good and bad finally collide.
The year’s two biggest superhero movies — Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War — both dealt with the collateral damage heroes leave in their wake. They did this to varying degrees of success, but both at least addressed the notion. In Apocalypse, there’s scarcely a single shot of how the damage being wrought by Apocalypse is devastating and ending the lives of civilians. Consequently, there’s no sense of what’s being fought for, and as such no meaning behind the action unfolding. Saving the world is an admirable goal, but just saying that’s the intention of the film’s heroes isn’t enough — it needs to be conveyed.
Magneto, who unleashes most of the carnage in Apocalypse’s name, does so of his own free-will but by the end is forgiven. He kills thousands upon thousands, but Xavier seems to forgive him.
Action scenes have always been a problem for the X-Men series, and for director Bryan Singer. They’ve worked best in the past when good character work has informed the scenes. X2 because of Wolverine’s search for answers about his past, First Class because of Magneto’s thirst for vengeance and Days of Future Past because of Mystique’s inner-struggle. For the first half of Apocalypse’s climatic clash, it’s little more than a blur of vapid CGI, but once a little characterisation starts to inform what’s happening and the decisions characters are making, it gets a whole lot better — saving it from becoming a completely meaningless affair.
Functional but imbalanced, X-Men: Apocalypse — like the series as a whole — occupies the space between the very best and very worst of superhero cinema; between the excellence of a Civil War and the turgid mess of a Batman v Superman.
For Fox’s X-franchise to move forward it needs new voices and ideas. X-Men: Apocalypse affords Fox the perfect opportunity to do this — let’s just hope they do.