The latest entry in Fox & Marvel’s own mutant chronicles marks the culmination of the current “First Class” trilogy, as well as the near completion of an almost unprecedented project of rebooting and retconning a much-disliked film out of existence. As divisive as “The Last Stand” was, though, we’re still talking about it; which makes it all the more disappointing that “X-Men: Apocalypse” is one of the most forgettable X-Men movies of the nine we have had so far.
Awoken from an ancient slumber, the world’s first mutant – Apocalypse – is dismayed at what he finds has become of both mutant and humankind and sets forth to gather his four horsemen and recreate the world in his image.
The film opens in the ancient past: Bryan Singer’s “Cleopatra” and it’s all very promising. The downfall of the ancient Apocalypse is one of the film’s strongest moments, setting up the cleverly realized opening credits, recognizably still Singer’s trademark X-Men titles style but with a ‘journey through time twist’ “Doctor Who” would be proud of. Unfortunately, once the action reaches the present day, the film tries to pack so much in and service so many ongoing obligations that it loses focus and any sense of exigency starts to leech away. Never before have so many superheroes been gathered together on screen only to spend most of the time standing around looking pensive while we cut away to scene after scene of weightlessly inconsequential CGI destruction. Like the clouds of digitally animated particulates, various storylines swirl and eddy around but there’s little sense that there’s an irresistible force moving everything along, let alone in the same direction. The whole plot seems disengaged and flat despite the stakes being higher than almost any other X-Men film to date, emphasised by the dull scenes of grave men in situation rooms explaining to the audience what the latest special effects fandango on-screen actually means. There’s a static quality to it that undercuts the potential drama; for the longest time nobody really does anything.
Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique role practically screams contractual obligation in both writing and performance, her real-world rising stardom creating a gravitational lensing effect on the franchise where she is placed front and centre whether the story requires it or not, often at the expense of everything else. Of the big-hitter cast members, it’s once again Michael Fassbender who really delivers the goods, imbuing Magneto’s latest flip-flop between peaceful good and vengeful evil with an emotional power and heart-breaking authenticity that overshadows every other performance in the film. You could take McAvoy and Lawrence out of the film without affecting the general quality of it but lose Fassbender and the whole thing could end up feeling very “Last Stand” very quickly.
Oscar Isaac, a naturally charismatic performer, struggles to impose himself from underneath the ‘Ivan Ooze’-esque makeup and never feels like a particularly intimidating villain, spending most of the movie conducting a seemingly haphazard recruitment drive. In assembling his four horsemen, there’s no explanation as to why he decides to dress Psylocke (Olivia Munn) in the sluttiest possible costume. Indeed, Apocalypse may have misheard her name as he ensures there always at least a pound of flesh on show while he provides his other evilised [s/o to “Miraculous Ladybug” fans] followers – Magneto, Storm (Alexandra Shipp, impressive in a fairly limited role) and [Arch]Angel (a bland Ben Hardy) – with layers and layers of battle-appropriate armour.
James McAvoy finally gets to shave his head as go full Professor X but neither he or Nicholas Hoult’s Beast get much new to do as attention shifts to (re)introducing the latest bunch of big screen mutants, some of them new faces with familiar names. We get a new young Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and a new Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) with the former settling into the role quicker than the latter. We also get a new Nightcrawler in the form of Kodi Smit-McPhee, a welcome return for the character absent since “X2”. Even less surprising than the fact the story would needlessly pivot around Mystique is the fact that the breakout fan favourite of “X-Men: Days Of Future Past” would return for more high speed shenanigans. In fact, the makers of the film are so taken with the Quicksilver gimmick they use it not once but twice and both times make a fundamental mistake about his powers. He has the power to move at incredible speeds, not to slow down or freeze time yet there are points where the admittedly amusing or clever things he does could only be achieved by freezing time. You can’t be moving at incredible speed and stand still at the same time – as the film itself emphasises later when Quicksilver learns his speed doesn’t quite make him untouchable. Of course, there’s the all-important cameo which Fox were sorry not sorry about ‘spoiling’ in the last trailer. All in all, it’s a fun appearance by Wolverine and obliquely explains why he’s back to having metal claws (although in doing so it renders the end scene of “Days Of Future Past” where Mystique posed as Stryker bafflingly redundant) but story-wise it’s an egregious and literal ‘get out of jail’ free card for our plucky heroes.
As refreshed as the “X-Men” franchise has been by the rebooting of the timeline and injection of fresh talent, “X-Men: Apocalypse” encapsulates the contradictions of the potential opportunities and the self-imposed constraints the writers have created for themselves. There’s a pretty heavy set-up for another attempt at doing the ‘Dark Phoenix’ saga and the post credits scene widens the potential follow-up possibilities even further, maybe even setting the stage for “Wolverine 3” with some much needed sinister goings-on after a needlessly twee super-powered “DIY SOS: The Big Build” final scene. But we’ve now had six films of Magneto oscillating between Magneto is good/ Magneto is bad/ Magneto reconsiders again and is good and it’s starting to strain credibility and credulity (despite the peerless work of Messrs McKellen and Fassbender) and even if they can escape that narrative merry-go-round, there’s still the problem of Hugh Jackman’s iconic Wolverine, a seemingly irreplaceable legacy from the previous cinematic ‘Generation X’ who is (ever so slightly) holding the new cast back a little.
I did enjoy “X-Men: Apocalypse” but two hours twenty-four minutes is a hefty running time and thanks to the flat storytelling and uneven pacing it feels like it. I was expecting better and I still hope for better in the future. Hopefully they’ll stick with the new young cast they’ve brought in this time – would it kill them to let Jubilee finally do something? We’re on our third actress for the role and she’s yet to do anything but appear in the background wearing a yellow coat and hoop earrings! Trust the young cast and let them grow into the roles rather than continue to revolve around the big name cast members. After all, isn’t tearing down the world they’ve built and, from the ashes, building a better one kind of the mission statement of the “X-Men” franchise now?