X-Men: Apocalypse, much like the 2006 feature X-Men: The Last Stand, is the third and worst film in an otherwise fantastic superhero trilogy that is fiercely faithful to its source material. That isn’t to say it’s a bad movie, as it is arguably quite watchable, but in a time where new comic book adaptations are released every few weeks the film falls far short of our high standards for genre greatness. I’ve only seen it once, but I already fear that may have been too many times because of just how unnecessary the entire affair turned out to be. What works does so just fine, but it’s vastly outpaced by extended origins that are not needed, fulfilling, or all that interesting.
We begin in 3600 BCE when the the Nile Valley was still believed to be the center of the world. A dying mutant named En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), otherwise known as “Apocalypse,” is attempting to transfer his being into the body of another mutant who is able to regenerate, but before the process can be completed the people of the empire revolt, and in doing so bury the powerful leader hundreds of feet below ground. It’s about as predictable as a villainous origin story can be, complete with minion who give their lives in service to their leader, but it doesn’t instill any real sense of danger in the viewer. We understand Apocalypse is bad because the marketing for the film has lead us to believe that is the case, but the film itself offers no justification just yet. All we know is he’s buried, and apparently several tons of rocks is enough to keep him entombed for several thousand years.
Skip ahead to 1983 and a young Cyclops, otherwise known Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), is just beginning to feel the strength of the power he possesses. His brother, Alex (Lucas Till), brings him to Professor Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters, and it doesn’t take long for him to begin meeting the other future X-Men, most of whom also happen to be in their teens. We see Jean Gray (Sophie Turner), Jubilee (Lana Condor), and more in their prime, as well as franchise regulars Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) and Professor X (James McAvoy). Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) also makes an appearance, but not before rescuing a young Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) from an underground fighting competition moments before Angel (Ben Hardy) beats him to a pulp.
Meanwhile, Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is busy living a quiet life in rural Poland with his wife and young daughter. The events of Days Of Future Past are now ten years gone, but the world is still on the hunt for the man responsible for bringing Washington D.C. to his knees. As a result, Magneto lives as a factory worker named Henryck, but his inability to resist using his powers to save an innocent man’s life exposes his true identity to the world. Their reaction is, as you can probably imagine, not good, and the ensuring confrontation reignites the rage that has always inspired Magneto’s most devastating attacks.
Somewhere amidst these numerous storylines we find Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), still blissfully unaware of her participation in the events of First Class thanks to Charles’ decision to wipe her memory, tracking down mutants on the behalf of the CIA. Her journey leads her to the exact location of the Apocalypse tomb, and before long she unknowingly provides the power source needed to wake him from his slumber. It’s an entirely unintentional act, and it’s held together with very little explanation, but it enables the film to reveal its villain and introduce him to the modern world. We’re still a long way from any real confrontation, of course, but this mindless act does allow the film to finally get underway some twenty or thirty minutes into its two and a half hour runtime.
The arrival of Apocalypse does not immediately cause much, if any, change in the world. First the most powerful mutant of all time must find and recruit four followers, including Magneto, to help carry out his vision of wiping mankind from the surface of the Earth. This allows for a proper introduction to Angel, as well as Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and an incredibly young Storm (Alexandra Shipp), but ultimately feels pointless as the need for Apocalypse to have what essentially amounts to henchman is never fully explained. He wants followers, and that is clear from the beginning, but he doesn’t seem to put much emphasis on who comprises that group. He literally chooses the first four mutants he encounters, and they just so happen to be largely unknown to Xavier and his team. It’s convenient, but convenience rarely makes for good storytelling.
If you have made it this far into this review and questioned where all the action you’ve seen teased in the extended promotional period for the film the answer is buried deep in the film’s third act. The first two-thirds of X-Men: Apocalypse offers less than a handful of action sequences, many of which are seen through visions or in super slo-mo thanks to the presence of Quicksilver. These shots are all beautifully rendered, but ultimately empty as they convey no sense of urgency or tension whatsoever. Director Bryan Singer has mastered how to showcase CGI-enhanced destruction on a global scale, but he has yet to figure out how to make us give a damn that it’s happening. At this point in superhero cinema we’ve seen the planet threatened literally dozens of times, including the five previous entries in the X-Men franchise, and aside from finding a slightly new take on how the world will be destroyed Apocalypse adds nothing new to the mix.
The lack of action and genuine tension might be somewhat forgivable if X-Men: Apocalypse allowed us to see the characters at the center of the franchise in a new light, but even that element of this overblown epic feels shockingly underutilized. There are several big name stars in the film, and most have been given some thread of a personal journey to help them evolve as the story progresses, but none of their individual adventures go anywhere worthwhile. Scott’s introduction to Xavier’s school, for example, is completely left behind as soon as Apocalypse begins recruiting his team. It’s as if writer Simon Kinberg had no idea what to do with our heroes while Apocalypse develops his plan so he chose to keep them moving with what basically amounts to busywork. Everyone is more or less the same at the end of the film as the were at the beginning, with the exception of several mutants deciding to fight for Xavier and the world he hopes to create. That, however, is not at all surprising as we have several franchise films that have already revealed who those characters will become. Showing us how they got to that point is nice, but wholly unnecessary.
Despite a star-studded cast bringing their best efforts to the material, X-Men: Apocalypse is an overblown spectacle that relies heavily on its incredible effects team to hide a complete lack of fun. Simon Kinberg should be applauded for finding a way to balance as many storylines as he does, but all their endpoints amount to very little, and their presence makes an already mediocre story downright exhausting to watch. By the time Apocalypse and his followers face-off with the heroes you know and love your desire to watch the battle you’ve seen teased for months is surprisingly low. In fact, all I wanted in those moments was for the glaringly obvious finale to come and go so that I too could be free of the terror on-screen. I never thought a day would come when I wished to take a break from Xavier and his team, but that time has come, and that break needs to happen now.