“The third film is always the worst.” This line is uttered by a character in X-Men: Apocalypse after a viewing of Return Of The Jedi, and on its surface it comes off as a jab at X-Men: The Last Stand, the empty-headed, nearly franchise-killing third film in the original X-Men trilogy. On another level, it's a tacit acknowledgment (however pre-emptively defensive) that people may be coming in to Apocalypse expecting a rehash of that film's muddled narrative and incoherent character arcs. To be sure, the original trilogy and the current trilogy of films in the reboot have similar trajectories. The first film in each was a solid, exciting, and promising beginning. The second film was a remarkable improvement over the first, with higher stakes, a denser story, and a perfect balance of character and action. In fact, the second film sets the standards so high, that it's nearly impossible for the third film to match it. But Apocalypse manages to skirt most (but certainly not all) of the traps and pitfalls that made The Last Stand such an offensive slog to sit through, producing an entertaining and colorful spectacle that delivers more often than not.
WARNING! MAY CONTAIN VERY MILD SPOILERS!
Jumping forward 10 years after X-Men: Days of Future Past, we enter a world where the existence of mutants is common knowledge thanks to the events of that film. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) has become a kind of mutant folk hero for stopping Magneto (Michael Fassbender) from assassinating the presidnent. While she's been busy rescuing oppressed mutants across the world and ferrying them to safe havens, Magneto has tried to start a new, anonymous life in Poland with a wife and daughter. They're common bond is still Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), who's School for Gifted Youngsters (aka mutants) is thriving. All three of them are brought back into contact when the world's first mutant, En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse (Oliver Isaac), awakens after being buried under Cairo for 5,000 years. Apocalypse immediately summons four mutants to act as his Horsemen and lieutenants, Magneto among them, to aid in his plan to rid the the world of the weak — human and mutant alike — and rebuild it as a society ruled only by the strongest beings alive. Needless to say, the end of the world is very seriously nigh.
Your Headliner: Apocalypse and the Horsemen!
And it's a shame that a film where dozens of superpowered characters battle each other to save the entire world from being destroyed isn't a tad more gripping than it should be. To be fair to director Bryan Singer, he tries his hardest to imbue every bit of the film with humanity and drama. This is Singer's fourth X-Men film, and he's responsible for arguably the two best entries in the franchise (Days of Future Past and X2: X-Men United). By now, he knows this universe by heart, and there are fewer better suited to guide it. The main problem with the film is that while Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg do their best to inject meaning and import into the proceedings, it occasionally gets hard to care about the end of the world.
Unlike Singer, Kinberg's batting average in the X-Franchise is not nearly as perfect; while he gave us Days of Future Past and the similarly excellent First Class, he was also responsible for the mangled trainwreck of The Last Stand. Kinberg's main issue is focusing too much on the threat of Apocalypse and not enough on the people involved, although if promotional materials are to be believed, a good number of character establishing scenes were trimmed from the final cut of the film, most likely for time (at 144 minutes, this is the longest X-Film yet). We have a lot of new characters to meet, even if many of them are ones we've met in previous X-Films, and aside from a handful of them, we don't get enough time with the characters to become fully invested in them.
But that's not to say that the movie doesn't have a lot to recommend, because it certainly does. The cast is uniformally excellent, and there isn't a single player that turns in a bad or even mediocre performance. McEvoy, Fassbender, and Lawrence are all fully in touch with their characters from Magneto's pain and anger to Mystique's battle-weary cynicism to Xavier's unfailing optimism and hope. Their interactions are surprsingly deft and emotionally agile, and none of them give less than their best. At this point in the series, it might be tempting for some actors to coast on the goodwill they've established prior, but all three of them approach the roles with the same amount of investment and energy as they did in the two previous films and then some.
Storm. Mohawk. Awesome.
Even among the supporting cast, nobody phones in a performance. While the cut scenes mean that a few of the characters are little more than graitutious cameos (like Lana Condor's underappreciated Jubilee), everybody makes at least some kind of impact. Alexandra Shipp finally fills Storm with the goddess energy (and accompanying accent) that's been missing from the character since her appearance in the first film in 2000. Olivia Munn's Psylocke is a captivating, stone-cold badass who speaks mostly with her swords. Tye Sheridan and Sophie Turner, as classic X-Men Cyclops and Jean Grey respectively, honor both the spirit of the comic book characters and the performances of James Marsden and Famke Janssen before them in an effortlessly smooth passing of the mantle. Turner, especially, connects well with the conflict Jean has within herself regarding the frightening potential of her powers. Her interactions with father-figure Xavier are as beautiful to watch as they are organic and unaffected.
Most impressive, however, would have to be Kodi Smit-McPhee as fan favorite Nightcrawler. He has perhaps the most difficult part to live up to after Alan Cumming's pitch-perfect portrayal of the character in X2. Nightcrawler is given much more to do here, and McPhee does a phenomenal job of capturing the seemingly contradictory nature of the character. He has both a swashbuckling sense of adventure and a deep religious faith. He is probably the most socially maladjusted of the mutants here, but he's also the one most willing to help when the situation requires it. In short, McPhee shows us in every scene why Nightcrawler has become one of the most beloved X-Men of all time. His fish-out-of-water status also serves as source of genuine comic relief, alongside the deadpan-snarker attitude of returning mutant Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who's also given much more to do here than in his previous appearance. In fact, one of the absoulte highlights of the film is an epic recreation of the brilliant “Time In A Bottle” sequence from Days Of Future Past, only this involves a full three minutes of the speedster rescuing people (albeit with a heavy dose of prankster energy) in gleefully-steroidal bullet time from an exploding building to the strains of the Eurythmic's “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This).”
But what about the villain? Well…he's a villain. Oliver Isaac does a good job in conveying the god-complex authoritativeness that is typical of every version of Apocalypse across every plot line and media iteration of the character. The only problem is that Apocalypse is simply not a very interesting antagonist. He is extremely powerful, but he is anything but subtle. He constantly drones on about “survival of the fittest”, but his definition of “fittest” seems to be whoever can cause the most damage in a single blow. He is not the most masterful tactician or cunning strategist, and his plans seem to involve simply causing as much destruction as possible. Again, this may be a result of losing establishing moments on the cutting room floor, but what we get on the screen is an amazingly generic supervillain with a cool costume, which seems to be a significant problem with all the superhero films released this year. Isaac tries his very best, and at more than one point, the cult-leader charisma and aura of power required of the character are quite apparent. But he can only do so much with a character who's reputation has always been more powerful than his actual substance. (At least he isn't portrayed as ridiculously as he was in the 1990s animated series.)
Similary, the setting of the film feels extremely generic and basic. The previous films were firmly established in their decades (the 1960s for First Class and 1973 for Days of Future Past). Aside from a handful of music cues, pop culture references, and non-battlefield fashion, there's almost nothing tying the film to the year it's set in. That lack of tethering prevents the plot from seeming as immediate or gripping because there's simply less connection to the real world. Similarly, the final battle royale, which is admittedly beautifully-staged and choreographed and gives every single character the opportunity to really let loose with their powers, is set in the ruins of a city that seems like it could be anywhere but most often feels like a big studio lot. The X-Men films have always shied away from being “gritty” or “urban” reimaginings of their source material. They're comic-book-fantastical in the best ways, and the previous two films in the rebooted trilogy married that four-color exhiliration with a tangible reality that helped to ground the films while also making the superheroics seem all the more exciting. A little more of that in Apocalypse could have served to make something as monumentous as the potential destruction of all human civilizaition seem…well…apocalyptic.
Get it? Rush? Because he's fast, and…oh, never mind.
X-Men: Apocalypse is not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination. As superbrawls go, it has a tremendous amount to recommend and probably has the most epic battles of the entire franchise within its runtime. As acting showcases go, it has a cast that is uniformly committed to respecting their characters and giving them true life. As a comic book film, it succeeds far more often than it doesn't. If only the narrative was a little thicker, the antagonist a little more complex, and the script as deep into character as the actors themselves. To be fair, First Class and Days of Future Past set tremendously high benchmarks, and Apocalypse should be commended for even coming close to either one of those films. If history is any indication, the next trilogy of films should start out with a big bang, because we're nowhere near done with the X-Men yet. It will take a lot more than an apocalypse (or Apocalypse) to dull the shine or mute the energy of the world's most uncanny heroes.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B