There’s something to be said for exciting superhero popcorn movies, but as the competition becomes more and more sophisticated, visceral, and character-driven, it gets tougher to make a case for films that don’t meet those standards. This is especially evident with X-Men: Apocalypse, not because it’s one big disappointment all the way through, but rather because it starts off so strong and then devolves into total nonsense.
The movie kicks off in the Nile Valley in 3600 BCE with an introduction to Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac). Fortunately he’s sealed inside a pyramid for thousands of years, but then in 1983, he’s set free and begins recruiting his Four Horsemen so that they can “cleanse” the world together. Apocalypse opens with a lot of force thanks to that first sequence. The combination of the grand scale destruction with the building choral music and the high stakes ticking clock that comes with Apocalypse’s mission to transfer his consciousness to another body makes for an especially powerful start that hurls you into the opening title sequence with a significant amount of momentum.
The introductions to Apocalypse’s Horsemen work well too, for the most part. Ben Hardy has a great, natural on-screen presence and brings a unique, unhinged edge to Angel. Storm’s (Alexandra Shipp) one of the more interesting Horsemen to track because her opening sequence makes a point of highlighting personal values, rather than just throwing her with Apocalypse because she’s hit rock bottom. Olivia Munn’s Psylocke, on the other hand, just joins up because she feels like it, has absolutely no personality and winds up being one of the most disappointing new mutants in the movie.
And then of course we’ve got Erik (Michael Fassbender). Since the events of Days of Future Past, he’s made a nice, quiet life for himself with his wife and daughter while successfully distancing himself from what he’s done as Magneto. As one might expect, hiding his powers and identity doesn’t last very long and the scene that causes him to switch gears is easily the most emotional scene of the entire film.
Over on the good guy side, we begin with Tye Sheridan as Scott Summers. He gets a brief origin story of sorts, but it’s more than enough material to reflect the ups and downs of his new ability and how it completely changes his lifestyle. It’s through Scott that we meet Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey and get reacquainted with familiar faces including Charles (James McAvoy) and Hank (Nicholas Hoult). Turner is perfectly fine as Jean, but the character doesn’t quite pop as one might hope, especially compared to Scott and Nightcrawler.
Somewhat similar to Evan Peters in Days of Future Past, Kodi Smit-McPhee is a scene-stealer as Kurt Wagner, aka Nightcrawler. The make-up looks great, his physicality is right on point and Smit-McPhee really gets the most out of the character’s friendly, awkward, fish-out-of-water personality. Peters gets his time to shine as well and, yet again, it’s a highlight of the film. Hugh Jackman’s material, however, is surprisingly forgettable. Wolverine’s appearance does serve a purpose, but in the context of this story, the material feels like an afterthought, like it deserved more attention and should have been in another film altogether. Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if causal moviegoers who don’t remember all the details of previous X-Men films miss the point of what we see him do here.
The big disappointment of Apocalypse in terms of performances is Jennifer Lawrence. I’m in no position to say whether she tried or not, but she is right smack in the middle of an ensemble of actors that are all clearly giving this everything they’ve got and she feels disconnected from it all – which is especially unfortunate because the Apocalypse script gives her a good deal to work with when it comes to Raven/Mystique building relationships, accepting who she is and figuring out her place within the X-Men.
Overall, the X-Men: Apocalypse narrative starts off strong with highly enjoyable introductions and a fun “getting the band (back) together” kind of feel, but then it fizzles out and turns into a mind-numbing montage of poorly choreographed combat and outrageous, widespread destruction. Yes, Apocalypse’s goal from the start is to cleanse the entire earth, but that winds up meaning absolutely nothing because the movie doesn’t spend any time humanizing Earth’s population. I don’t want to assess Apocalypse in comparison to Captain America: Civil War, but to clarify the point, this is exactly what Civil War gets right – it shows you the victims of Sokovia and that ups the importance of what the heroes are going through the entire film. In Apocalypse’s case, it’s almost as if Apocalypse’s master plan only pertains to the fate of the X-Men.
It also doesn’t help that a good chunk of the third act action is pretty sloppy. It feels as though Singer and his team went out of their way to have the fight take place in an unrealistically empty landscape and have certain characters involved at very specific times in very specific ways. For example, when you’ve got someone as powerful as Magneto, why have him floating in a ball over matter essentially doing nothing for the large majority of the battle?
As for Apocalypse himself, despite all the controversy surrounding his look, the costume and make-up look great in the final film. The choice to build the character using practical elements makes all the difference, especially because Isaac can carry it. It’s a shame to hide his face under all that make-up and to muck up his voice with the modulation, but Isaac makes the most of it by giving Apocalypse a very particular gait and posture, and by making some very effective choices with his dialogue delivery as well. But again, Apocalypse winds up hitting a major roadblock when the film stops focusing on the specifics of his agenda in favor of CG-heavy destruction.
However, even though the X-Men: Apocalypse narrative ultimately crashes and burns, there’s something to be said for the entertainment value of the film. Singer could and should have shaved at least 30 minutes off the running time, but there are enough successful hero moments and well-timed jokes, especially from Peters and Smit-McPhee, to keep the film afloat and even spark some interest in another installment.