X-Men: Apocalypse takes the franchise’s hard-won chips and bets them all on tumbling pyramids and slo-mo explosions. It sells the X-Mansion for a bag of CGI beans.
It’s an incoherent jumble, lacking any kind of authoritative vision; a collection of disparate elements that rub uncomfortably against each other, more closely resembling a fan-made super-cut than a new entry into the X-Men canon.
The most disappointing thing is that Bryan Singer is the man responsible, the same guy who created the blueprint for the modern superhero movie with 2000’s X-Men. Singer who, in 2014’s Days of Future Past, made a nimble, articulate movie that not only juggled dozens of characters, but multiple timelines. That film occasionally wobbled; this time the whole tower comes crashing down.
The X-Men’s latest antagonist is the titular Apocalypse, the original mutant who ruled over ancient Egypt until he was betrayed by his followers and buried under a pyramid. He wakes up and immediately sets about re-conquering the world. Apocalypse is a tough gig: he’s big and blue and silly. Oscar Isaac tries to wring a bit of fun out of the role, playing him with the air of a 60s Bond villain, but his place in life is to be a rallying point for the multitude of X-People jostling for attention.
There’s Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy, as Magneto and Professor X, waging a losing battle against each other and their scriptwriters. There’s a bunch of young mutants engaged in various high-school dramas. There’s a sub plot involving Professor X’s long-lost wife, and another about a secret government weapons program, neither of which has anything to do with Apocalypse.
Singer picks up and drops ideas with a remarkable lack of care. At one point Apocalypse rids the world of nuclear weapons and nobody seems bothered. Wolverine shows up for no reason other than people might like to see him claw at the walls for a few minutes (the only laugh-out-loud scene comes when Hugh Jackman takes one look at the young X-Men and scampers off naked into the forest, looking for all the world like he’s trying to run away from the film itself). Each loose thread is knotted with missed opportunities: even Jennifer Lawrence puts in an uncharacteristically flat performance as the blue shape-shifter Mystique.
There’s an occasional stab at character building – usually involving Magneto’s conspicuously bucolic home-life – but nothing escapes the CGI event horizon that lurks around the mid-way point. It’s here the gulf between this and Captain America: Civil War is most apparent; in Marvel’s movie, you care about the characters, understand their motives, empathise with their pain. Singer’s film doesn’t come close to replicating that emotional weight.
A fundamental problem is Singer’s film appears to have no idea who it’s aimed at. There’s a jarring inconsistency in what’s expected of the audience, who are molly-coddled one minute while liberties are taken the next, like a bad parent unpredictably praising and chastising a child. Familiar characters are given pointless origin stories, suggesting it’s newbie friendly, but understanding the finale requires prior knowledge of a story-line that was last mentioned in 2006’s X-Men 3, a film most fans are trying really hard to forget.
At times, X-Men: Apocalypse is like a dark, sad reflection of past glories. One of the best scenes from Days of Future Past saw super-fast mutant Quicksilver run around “fixing” the results of a shootout to the mellow sounds of Jim Croce’s Time in a Bottle. The scene is recreated here – for reasons tangential to the main story – soundtracked by Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams. It now includes slow-motion moonwalking: it tries so much harder and falls so far short.
“At least we can agree the third one is always the worst”, says an X-Girl after a class trip to Return of the Jedi. This is probably a barbed dig at Brett Ratner’s dismal handling of X-Men 3, suggesting Singer felt confident enough about this train-wreck to poke fun at a rival. Or perhaps it’s a self-referential dig at his own film, a kind of meta, in-universe apology. Not accepted.