For me, X-men was always the most mature franchise in superhero moviedom. Grounded and even socially relevant, the best of them tackled themes echoing everything from the civil rights era to gay rights in the 21st century. In 2016, in the wake of Captain America: Civil War, that is no longer the case. With X-men: Apocalypse, the torch has been passed to Marvel’s colorful but complex universe. The X-men are no longer the grown-ups in the room. They’re more like those poser kids in college pretending to be mature and sophisticated. If you’re a long-time fan like yours truly, Apocalypse is affecting, occasionally tugging at the heartstrings of one decade-long emotional investment. Technically speaking, however, it’s something of a mess.
Minus the one-two near death knell that was The Last Stand and X-men Origins: Wolverine, director Bryan Singer has been the guiding hand around these mutant parts, giving us franchise pinnacles like Days of Future Past, as well as producing the much-needed “reboot” First Class. And we can’t forget that the man is actually responsible for kicking off the current boom of comic-book blockbusters with the original X-men in 2000. Having said that, he’s lost his way here, his fourth time orchestrating mutants vs. mutants and mutants vs. humans on a global stage. He was bound to run out of ideas, or come up with bad ones anyway. Take the costumes, once a welcome respite from the rainbow digs of other heroes, are now either awfully cheesy (Psylocke) or visually clunky (Apocalypse). The villain would’ve been better off retaining the grand, flowing cloak he dons early on as a disguise. He’s far more menacing when there’s a little mystery added to the equation.
With cloak in tow, Apocalypse starts out eerily captivating: an Egyptian “god” lost in time until he rises again to reclaim and reshape the earth in his ghastly image. Oscar Isaac is one talented actor, and his ominous cadence lends the larger-than-life character a vaguely exotic panache. That is until Singer and co. can’t settle for merely caking the charismatic thespian in blue and gray makeup. They also bury his voice in a cacophonous, computer-generated echo, an attempt to convey his vast collection of souls from over the centuries. The first two acts grant Apocalypse some impressive gravitas, such as a foreboding monologue while he unleashes the world’s nuclear arsenal into space. Still, by the third act, the big lug has been reduced to a series of megalomaniac cliches, proclaiming a desire to cleanse mankind without much motivation to drive it.
When the baddie gets boring, Singer falls back on battle-tested characters like Xavier, Magneto, and Mystique, and rightfully so. Jennifer Lawrence may be wearing franchise wariness on her sleeve, but James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are stand-outs among the sometimes stale narrative tropes, giving it their all no matter the material at hand. Fassbender in particular is again magnificent as wounded archenemy Magneto. Or is he an anti-hero? I’ve lost track of how many times he’s straddled the line between saving the world and destroying it. Regardless, his character arc remains the most poignant, a man trying to escape the violence of his past to no avail. As soon as he gets out, humanity pulls him right back in. Personal tragedy strikes just as En Sabah Nur goes hunting for his four horseman of the apocalypse, so Erik Lensherr is inevitably poised for another go on the dark side of the moon.
The younger cast are overshadowed by the more seasoned veterans, their teenage iterations of past X-men often saddled with regurgitating exposition we’ve already heard (telekinesis, anyone?), or with exuding outcast hang-ups and outsider statuses we’ve seen so many times before. Kodi Smit-McPhee manages to break through the noise with an endearing and cheerful turn as wee Nightcrawler, his German accent and shy demeanor a dead-ringer for the Alan Cumming adult in X2. Then there’s Quicksilver, the Speedy Gonzalez of devil-may-care charisma and loser charm. Evan Peters is a delight, and we’re lucky to witness another majestic showcase of his powers, this time to the tune of that 80’s classic “Sweet Dreams” by Eurythmics.
Like much of this would-be barn-burner, the sublime takes a backseat to the spectacle, especially during an incoherent climax that almost, just almost sinks the entire movie. A whirlwind of loose ends, looser editing, poor CGI, and ugly cinematography, the chaotic showdown in the garden of good and evil is saved by two scenes: Jean Grey’s powerful coming-out party, and a tender moment between a finally bald Xavier and C.I.A. tag-along Moira McTaggart that recalls their cute romance in First Class. These moments bring a rare blast of heart and heated anticipation that the movie sorely needs by that point. Throughout a majority of its two hour-plus running time, Singer mistakes the same ole’ themes of prejudice and bigotry, human and mutant alike, that he’s trotted out in previous outings for newfound profundity and well-earned empathy. It doesn’t work this time. The angles are worn. The dialogue’s been done.
X-men: Apocalypse is surely disappointing, and certainly a precipitous fall for long-time franchise stalwart Bryan Singer, but there are flashes of brilliance which ensure it’s nowhere close to a complete failure. It’s certainly better than the likes of X3 and Wolverine. We must accept, however, that an X-men movie doesn’t mean the same thing it used to mean. The Marvel kids have made good on their long-form brand of storytelling and usurped FOX and Singer as grown-ups on the block. Too many cliches and too much repetition has rendered the X-men socially relevant no more. More than that, the temptation to go bigger and broader means the X-men are no longer subtle, strange, or sublime on screen. It’s a mutant miracle that Apocalypse is still entertaining and somewhat compelling in the midst of a draining preoccupation with rancid green screens and rote villainy.