It’s odd that the ‘X-Men’ series is by far the longest-running film franchise of the 2000s comic book blockbuster boom and yet it’s also somehow an also-ran in the superhero race. Bryan Singer technically kicked off the Marvel movie revolution back in 2000 with the first ‘X-Men’ movie, so the fact that he’s now helming the biggest of these blockbusters to date should count as a momentous event. Yet ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’ is merely regarded as the third big genre entry this summer, and sadly the results on screen play like a series on autopilot.
While it’s certainly big and bold and star-studded, the movie lacks a sense of purpose beyond fulfilling a series of contractual obligations and meeting a release date. It’s fun, but doesn’t bring much new to an overstuffed franchise that’s hit nine movies and counting. At best, it feels like a greatest hits reel of previous chapters. At worst, it feels like watching reruns. Still, at least it’s mildly more satisfying than ‘Batman v. Superman’.
Things kick off in ancient Egypt where the first mutant, known as Apocalypse, is undergoing a bizarre ceremony that will make him look like Oscar Isaac (kind of) and make him invincible (sort of). But the ceremony is sabotaged, so Apocalypse ends up in a state of stasis until the 1980s because this series has been bumped up a decade every movie since ‘First Class’.
Our beloved X-men have been separated (again). Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) is finally running his mutant school in peace. Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is hiding out in his native Poland with a wife a daughter, posing contentedly as a factory worker. Obviously, neither dream lasts. Apocalypse is revived and plots to co-opt all mutants and crush humanity to live up to his name. That means bringing Magneto to his side as well as a new Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn, barely speaking and cast only as a body type).
Meanwhile, Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique is running around saving lost mutants since becoming a hero for the cause in the last movie. Xavier knows that he can only win this battle by getting her on the team along with the new Mutants she’s discovered, such as Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Also, Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) join the school and fall in love. (Yeah, why not?) Quicksilver (Evan Peters) returns because he was popular last time. Rose Byrne is back after skipping a movie for some reason. Plenty of other mutants pop in as well, whether they fit in or not.
This is certainly a massive ‘X-Men’ movie, probably the biggest to date following the wild success of ‘Days of Future Past’. On a certain level, it’s fun to luxuriate in the scale of the production. The ‘X-Men’ movies really didn’t have the resources to match the most epic comic book storylines until the past two movies, and it’s nice for any self-respecting comic book nerd to finally see that slathered all over the screen. Of the three big superhero blockbusters so far this summer, this feels the most like an actual comic, and when the massive action scenes arrive, Singer shows how good has gotten at spectacle over the years.
The cast is as strong as ever, with new editions like Tye Sheridan and Kodi Smit-McPhee fitting in just fine. Oscar Isaac might be an odd choice for the Big Bad, but he clearly enjoys playing beneath makeup so thick that he can be as big as he wants to be. The stakes are high (see title), the nerd references run rampant, the material is treated with respect, the 1980s X-Men costumes are delightfully accurate, and the movie hits all the notes we’ve come to expect from an ‘X-Men’ entry.
The trouble is that it just doesn’t hit many new notes along the way. ‘Days of Future Past’ had the novelty factor of combining Singer’s original ‘X-Men’ with the brighter and cuddlier universe Matthew Vaughn pioneered in ‘X-Men: First Class’. Playing old against new gave the series a jolt of fresh energy, and the plot was one of the most strangely satisfying of the classic ‘X’ books. Here, a profound sense of déjà vu hangs over every scene. It’s getting a little tedious to see Xavier and Magneto stage the same debates with the same results, and the best set-piece is a straight-up reprise of the beloved Quicksilver sequence from the last movie.
The new characters are technically old characters returning to the franchise and playing out in the same ways for anyone familiar. Apocalypse might be a threat, but his motivations aren’t particularly different than the dozens of villains (super or otherwise) who have come before. Mystique’s dilemma about whether or not she should look like herself has poignancy, but it’s been done to death in this series already and it’s clear this time that the subplot exists mostly to keep the series’ biggest star out of the makeup chair. (I’m sure everyone involved wishes that Lawrence had been given almost any other part at this point, because they’re running low on Mystique motivations but can’t lose the actress.) Even when a certain clawed superstar appears as a supposed surprise, it just feels like another box being ticked so that this qualifies as an ‘X-Men’ picture.
All that being said, it’s not as if ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’ is a passionless endeavor. It’s a beautifully staged and massive production. This has always been the super franchise with the deepest roster of characters and most thematic depth, so it’s strange to see everyone involved crash up against a wall of familiarity. Maybe bringing back Singer was a mistake. Talented though he may be, this mutant mope tone feels old hat now. At least Matthew Vaughn brought some camp, color and spark to the table that would be welcome here.
‘Apocalypse’ is far from a bad movie. It’s too well accomplished with too many talented actors for that. The film just feels oddly tired, padded and repetitive. The franchise needs a quick shakeup to be set right again, and it would help if the producers didn’t feel the need to cram in so many recurring characters to the point of tedium. The ‘X-Men’ movies don’t need to get small again; the best part of ‘Apocalypse’ is that it feels like an X-epic that would sprawl out over a summer publication schedule in the comics days. However, it does need some fresh blood, focus and a less dully dire tone.
‘Deadpool’ kicked a little life into this universe back in the winter and I have a feeling that ‘Apocalypse’ won’t exactly be the highest grossing superhero flick of the summer (though it’ll do just fine). Chances are that there will be some changes at Fox before the next one of these X-blockbusters drops. That’ll likely be a good thing. ‘Apocalypse’ feels like an endnote in more ways than just the title.