Over the last few years, the X-Men film franchise has enjoyed a rejuvenation with their prequels. Between 2011’s First Class and 2014’s Days of Future Past, the franchise has gotten better and reminded you why you love this family of gifted youngsters. Going into this year’s installment, expectations shouldn’t have been extremely high by any means but reasonable at the very least. But Apocalypse felt like a very middling chapter in this superhero franchise, featuring a cliched villain and heavy on the action end of the spectrum.
As the X-Men faithful have known since Days of Future Past‘s post-credits scene, the big bad for the next film would be (and is) Apocalypse. The world’s first mutant – and possibly the strongest out of all X-Men villains – ruled over Ancient Egypt more than 5,000 years ago like a God. The backstory is where Bryan Singer’s film promisingly starts inside of a large, gold-tipped pyramid, filled with Temple of Doom-like chanting and the usual ritual human sacrifice. Apocalypse looks like a darker blue version of Watchmen’s Doctor Manhattan and almost nothing remotely like the great actor beneath the makeup, Oscar Issac. the mutant attempts to transfer his consciousness and myriad of mutant abilities into a new body but is stopped by a band of rebels and forced into hibernation…until he is roused from his sleep in 1983.
At this point, the existence (and possible of mutants is clear after the events of 1973 in Days of Future Past. The Reagan Era is in full swing and the Cold War battle of good and evil was clear-cut, more than the skirmishes involving the mutant population, including the X-Men. The first third of the film is spent introducing new mutants: Tye Sheridan’s laser-sighted Cyclops, Sophie Turner’s mindreading loner Jean Grey, Kodi Smit-McPhee’s comic relief teleporter Nightcrawler, Ben Hardy’s 80’s rock-star inspired Angel, Alexandra Shipp’s orphan weather wizard, Storm, and Olivia Munn’s Psylocke, who has an epic, fuchsia lightsabery-sword hand that would make Mace Windu proud. Some of these new players are brought to fight for good at Xavier (James McAvoy)’s school; others for evil with the awakened Apocalypse. All of these team-ups should should familiar for anyone who sat through the Marvel Universe’s other (and infinitely better) recent turf war, Captain America: Civil War.
The familiar faces of the prequel series also made their return as Michael Fassbender brought more fury to Magneto, Jennifer Lawrence as the shape-shifting loner, Mystique, Nicholas Hoult as the furry but inventive Beast, and James McAvoy as a wiser Charles Xavier. Lucas Till even returns as Alex “Havok” Summers, Scott’s older brother, and McAvoy was able to deliver some breezy punch lines as Professor X but Fassbender’s emotion on Magneto’s new tragedy, while powerful, felt tiring because we’ve seen this before. With the arrival of Apocalypse, Xavier’s untrained students snap into action to stop nothing less than the end of the world (Nothing like the possible end of the world to actually teach your kids how to protect themselves!). Lawrence’s Mystique steps into a leadership role but I’m still frustrated by how central Mystique has become in this prequel series. Despite how menacing Apocalypse looked, it appeared that there was more to fear from his “Four Horsemen” he recruited than from the world’s first mutant himself. Hiding under a cowl for most of the film, he spent most of the time sounding like a broken record, trying to recruit mutants over to the Dark Side.
The other problem that I had was the choppy pacing of the film, It felt as though Snyder was moving from subplot to subplot and theme to theme so frequently that it felt like he intentionally did that to prevent the audience from getting involved with any one character or one storyline, even the main plot of the film. From Xavier reuniting with Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), Magneto’s family tragedy, the new mutants trying to have fun along with controlling their abilities; it just kept coming in and out while still keeping the main plot relevant. Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine does a violent drive-by for one scene and…just leaves. While I liked this phase of his storyline, I think it was just an insert to make sure we don’t forget about him before his next spin-off and final appearance as the immortal badass. I didn’t care for it that much but still liked seeing Jackman overall.
It’s not all bad, though. There are some funny in-jokes that you can detect, including a swipe at the terrible X-Men 3 (aka The Last Stand). Turner shows promise as Jean Grey, Evan Peters returns with another super-slo-mo showstealer (once you start to hear Eurythmics’ period-appropriate jam “Sweet Dreams”, you know it’s on). Peters also had a slightly bigger role in this film. Munn (who wants Psylocke to return and possibly join Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool in a possible X-Force film) definitely showed that she can hold her own in a superhero film. All in all, Apocalypse stands as a second or third-tier X-Men movie that arrives at an interesting time when studios and filmmakers are stepping up to change or add to the status quo about superhero films and everyone needs to be at the top of their game. We know all the cliches and tropes of these superpowered films at this point but audiences know when they have been put on a ride of emotions and action and when they are just watching a popcorn flick. As an X-Men fan, I consider this to be a solid film but with some missing potential. I appreciate and loved the heightened stakes but Apocalypse is a film with way too much of everything we have already previously seen in an X-Men film and not too much of what we’ve rarely seen – creativity, novelty, and a bigger level of fun.