X-Men: Apocalypse is a really messy movie, but a very enjoyable one as well. Audiences will be entertained, and fans of the films or the comics will likely find a lot to delight in, but there’s no denying that Apocalypse falls short of the dependable X-Men franchise’s heights.
The plot of X-Men: Apocalypse is very thin, as bare-bones as one can get. An all-powerful villain arises, decides to destroy the world, collects strong allies, and has a climactic confrontation with a freshly assembled team of heroes. It’s a very familiar, straightforward structure, with not much added substance or embellishment.
There’s even a strangely tangential side-adventure in the second act that’s completely unrelated to the main antagonist. It’s only there to push the characters forward, bring them together, and give them something to do before the big showdown. It’s a good sequence, but the fact that it has nothing to do with Apocalypse speaks to how insubstantial his story is.
The Apocalypse subtitle is almost a misnomer, then, because the titular villain and the conflict he presents are treated like no more than a mere framework for character scenes and action sequences much like the one I just mentioned. Luckily, the majority of those work really well.
Of the returning characters, Mystique in particular gets a strong conclusion to her character arc throughout this trilogy. Say what you will about Jennifer Lawrence’s celebrity status influencing the amount of focus her character has gotten, but Mystique’s journey from hero to villain to antihero and finally to leader was a great progression.
The “new” characters are also a success that gives me hope for future X-Men films. Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops gets far more of a focus than James Marsden’s adult version ever did in the original X-Men trilogy, which is great because he has the potential to be a really strong character like he is in the comics. Sophie Turner is solid as Jean Grey, though I hope future movies give her more material to play with. And Nightcrawler also makes a good impression, injecting the movie with a good dose of humour—again, very much akin to his comic book counterpart.
In fact, in many ways Apocalypse feels much more like the X-Men comics than any of the previous movies so far. Storm, with her mohawk and street urchin scenes ripped straight out of the pages of her comic book backstory, is but one of many examples of that. A franchise that used to feel apologetic for its source material, substituting colourful costumes for drab leather uniforms, rarely capturing the true personalities of the characters, and refusing to get into the comics’ crazier elements (giant robots, immortal mutants… aliens, perhaps?) is gradually starting to embrace its roots. We have the Marvel Cinematic Universe to thank for that.
“Gradually” is the operative word, though. Despite that freshness, a lot of Apocalypse is very familiar, well-trodden ground, still feeling like a comic book movie from a decade ago, an era before the most recent boom of superhero movies that shook up the genre in a major way. It only makes sense, as Bryan Singer has been the steward of this franchise since 2000. Still, X-Men: Apocalypse takes several steps in the right direction, and it’s those steps that are the film’s high points, the parts that I hope future entries will latch onto.
The majority of the action scenes in X-Men: Apocalypse are excellent. Bryan Singer’s done enough of these movies by now, and his assured direction elevates those sequences, deriving great entertainment from pitting the various mutants and their powers against each other. And just like in Days of Future Past, there’s a brilliant Quicksilver scene that steals the movie.
On the flip side, X-Men: Apocalypse is at its weakest whenever it focuses on Apocalypse or anything related to him.
Apocalypse himself is not a particularly strong villain. He doesn’t really do much more than talk, yet despite his many monologues, his motivation is never fleshed out beyond “I am powerful therefore I want to rule the world.” It’s a shame, because it’s a waste of Oscar Isaac’s talent.
And his grand plan to rule the world basically amounts to the kind of standard destruction that audiences have gotten desensitized to—earthquakes, cities crumbling to CGI dust, etc. That kind of large-scale but ultimately hollow destruction fails to resonate anymore. Only one scene of his, the one with the nuclear missiles featured in the trailers, really stands out.
It’s a consequence of raising the stakes to such an epic scope that an omnipotent villain becomes defined by his powers and the danger he poses to the world rather than being a character in his own right. (It’s the kind of pitfall that I hope the Marvel films avoid with Thanos, but that’s neither here nor there.)
Apocalypse’s horsemen don’t fare any better. I praised Storm earlier, and Alexandra Shipp proves she is the right person for the role in the few scenes she has, but she is criminally underused. Neither her motivation for joining Apocalypse’s world-ending crusade nor Psylocke’s and Angel’s are ever clearly explained.
Magneto’s motivation is the most fleshed out, but I have mixed feelings about him. He will always remain these films’ best and richest character, and Michael Fassbender is as perfect for the role as he ever was. But his story arc in Apocalypse is forced, and the steps taken to ensure he reverts back to his supervillain form really feel like contrived overkill.
X-Men: Apocalypse may be a step down from First Class and Days of Future Past, but it’s still leagues above the franchise’s weakest films, like X-Men: The Last Stand. The latter’s flaws were so damaging that they necessitated its erasure from continuity, whereas Apocalypse actually moved the franchise in the right direction.
Taken on its own, X-Men: Apocalypse is a collection of many strong individual moments and elements mixed with some weaker ones, all held together by cinematic duct tape. Though its flaws ultimately drag it down, I had a very good time watching it, and its strengths had me saying, “More of this, please.”