“Well, at least we can all agree, the third one is always the worst,” says Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) to her fellow barely-legal mutant chum, Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan). She’s talking about Return of the Jedi, which the heroes of the 80s-set X-Men: Apocalypse have snuck out of school to go and see. What she’s really talking about is Brett Ratner’s atrocious trilogy-capper from 2006. How cute. It’s just like when George Lazenby, the first replacement James Bond, said “This never happened to the other fellow.” Except it isn’t like that. At all. Because she could just as easily be talking about this movie, the second sequel to Matthew Vaughn’s First Class, and easily the worst of the current, jumbled-up timeline.
I’m fairly sure Bryan Singer (directing from a screenplay by Simon Kinberg) felt comfortable making that joke because 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past used its temporal looseness to alter or outright excise all of the terminally-stupid decisions made in both The Last Stand and Origins: Wolverine, which were the two worst instalments of a middling franchise that First Class effectively reinvigorated. But he also made that joke because he couldn’t see the irony. He thinks this movie is good enough to get away with sneering. While I’ll happily concede that nothing about Apocalypse is offensively terrible, it’s still a glass house. And we all know what people in those shouldn’t do.
Still, this is a franchise superhero movie produced by a studio that has to keep churning these things out to keep hold of the rights, so it’s hardly a mystery how this one got made or why there’ll certainly be more of them. There’s hardly any point in getting worked up about it not being very good, and in fairness, looking back, none of the X-Men movies have been, aside from Singer’s X2, First Class and portions of the last one. Sure, you thought they were at the time. You might still now. But when did you last sit down and watch, say, 2000’s X-Men? Try it. Would that movie have left a cultural footprint if the Avengers had already assembled? I doubt it, and so does Bryan Singer, which is why Apocalypse mimics your average MCU feature from the witty character interplay to the colour palette to the elaborate action sequences. But Singer is not a director with a sense of humour or a strong visual sensibility, nor is he able to properly direct spectacle. So, what you’re left with is a stale imitation of the structure and tone of a Marvel movie, without the technical acumen to make it work on its own terms.
Another thing Apocalypse doesn’t have is the social awareness that Singer broached in the first movie and nailed in the second. And that’s always an odd thing to omit from an X-Men story. Anti-mutant hysteria’s equivalency to real-life homophobia and racism is hardly a subtle parallel – it’s the central metaphor at the heart of a series that was conceived during the Civil Rights movement. Bobby “Iceman” Drake unambiguously “came out” as a mutant to his parents in X2, his mother asking, “Have you tried not being a mutant?” in a way that made the whole scene transcendental. Apocalypse doesn’t just lack this allegorical dimension, but also awareness of anything outside its own contorted mythology.
At this point, that mythology has taken so many jaunts into the past and the future and back again, with so many different actors, that simply differentiating between the heroes and villains is becoming increasingly difficult. We open with a flashback to the heavily CGI-composited Egypt of 3600 B.C., where the titular super-mutant villain (Oscar Isaac) is entombed in a pyramid. He wakes up in the 1980s, slathered in hilariously fake-looking prosthetics, and nurturing a major beef with 20th Century civilisation – so major, in fact, that he decides he’s best off blowing everything up and starting from scratch. In order to do that he recruits four mates (of course the movie refers to them as “horsemen”) and supercharges their abilities: Storm (Alexandra Shipp) gets a Mohawk, Angel (Ben Hardy) trades his feathered wings for some metal ones, Psylocke (Olivia Munn) gets a lightsaber, and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) masters the art of hovering imperiously in swirling debris. Yes, Magneto is evil again. The movie contrives an extraordinarily hackneyed reason for this, but luckily it means we get to see Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) continuously insist there’s still good in him, despite the fact he’s a mass-murderer several times over at this point.
Speaking of Charles, he’s still running his school for gifted youngsters, which now includes Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Cyclops and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Nicholas Hoult’s Beast is still around as a tutor, the shape-shifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is out recruiting new mutants, and a mind-wiped Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) just so happens to be investigating Apocalypse and needs Xavier’s help to stop him from doing whatever it is he’s trying to do, which is sometimes kidnapping Professor X and the rest of the time having Magneto destroy the world with earthquakes. Honestly, Apocalypse’s powers, motivations and ultimate goals are so nebulous that he may as well be a completely different character from one scene to the next.
This isn’t a strong cast so much as a group of actors so overqualified for the material that nobody can be bothered making any effort whatsoever. Jennifer Lawrence is perhaps the most noticeably disinterested, and they even gave her character an unwilling revolutionary gimmick, presumably to snare the Hunger Games demographic. McAvoy’s phoning it in, Fassbender is tracing the same arc he was in the previous two movies, and the script doesn’t give the new recruits much to do other than rush through their truncated origin stories. The rest of Apocalypse’s horsemen fare even worse than Magneto; none of them have anything resembling character development, and their sole purpose seems to be distracting the X-Men for long enough that their leader can figure out what his own plan is. It’s a complete mess. Yet despite all the overstuffing we still find time to visit an underground facility just so the newbies can run into Hugh Jackman, which the movie bends over backwards to accommodate for no real reason other than that we’ve spent four main series movies and two spin-offs characterising this guy and we’re not letting that go to waste.
Every scene in this movie is unintentionally hilarious, except for the parts that are supposed to be funny, which are just embarrassing. There was a chance that this dour drivel could have at least served up a few passable action sequences, but Apocalypse is so determined to undermine itself at every given opportunity that the two or three big dramatic moments can’t even summon a modicum of emotional impact. This is partly down to how insultingly cheap everything looks, but one of them includes the requisite Stan Lee cameo, of all things, and the other gives way to another of those slow-motion Quicksilver (Evan Peters) set-pieces while “Sweet Dreams” by the fucking Eurythmics plays for three agonisingly upbeat minutes. Yes, his similar scene in Days of Future Past was tremendous despite the actor being kind of annoying and his design being atrocious, mostly because of its excellently-chosen music cue. But the difference there was that the whole scene was largely inconsequential and existed entirely to show off Quicksilver’s powers, whereas here he’s inserted into the most theoretically dramatic moment for no reason other than a tonally mismatched attempt at fan service.
Even the third act battle royal set amid a decimated floating Cairo manages to squander its potential by repeatedly revealing the phony green screen in a deluge of arbitrary CGI. That isn’t even taking into account how evident it becomes that none of these characters have any particular purpose outside of using their one specific power exactly when they need it for one specific plot-mandated reason. During this sequence, the X-Men battle Apocalypse physically while Professor X does so telepathically, which is actually a really good idea for an action scene… or at least it would be if Bryan Singer knew how to direct it, which he doesn’t. Worse, it’s one of those large-scale superhero movie blowouts that results in unquantifiable collateral damage, and, presumably, incalculable loss of innocent life, yet the movie still seems more interested in dramatizing Xavier’s premature baldness than addressing what any of that catastrophic global carnage might actually mean going forwards.
And we are, inevitably, going forwards. A post-credits scene lets us know for sure, but really there wasn’t any doubt in the first place. Fox and Bryan Singer specifically are determined to hold onto this franchise until they either run it so deep into the ground that the next one has to be filmed in the earth’s molten core, or Marvel steps in to offer them lucrative shared custody of the rights. Either way, there will be more X-Men movies, which is great news if you want to spend another two hours watching Jennifer Lawrence stare vacantly into the middle-distance. But let’s look on the bright side. Maybe we’ll get more Deadpool.
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