The X-Men movies have got form when it comes to pulling off the improbable, with Days Of Future Past dispelling pre-release grumbles about over-complexity and over-stuffing by being nimble, intelligent and highly entertaining. So it’s a shame that Apocalypse, the third of the First Class trilogy, falls victim to the kind of problems we thought the franchise had grown out of.
Which isn’t to say that it’s a disaster. On the contrary, there’s plenty here that really works, and more than enough to get us excited about the prospect of another X-Men with the new team that Bryan Singer and Simon Kinberg have set up. What this film is, sadly, is disappointing.
Ancient all-powerful mutant En Sabah Nur is trapped in stasis when a pyramid collapses on top of him shortly after he transfers into the body of Oscar Isaac. He’s finally awakened in the 1980s and he’s not best pleased by what humanity’s been up to.
Meanwhile, Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) has made his school a bright and bustling safe haven, Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) is trying to put Magneto behind him with a blue collar job in a Polish steel mill and a new family in an impossibly idyllic Polish forest, and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) has become a mutant rights icon, introduced while rescuing Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) from an East Berlin fight club.
When Apocalypse decides that it’s high time to set about cleansing the Earth, Charles and his students must stop the most powerful being the world has ever seen.
Apocalypse has a hefty running time of 144 minutes and it’s stuffed to the gills, character-wise. Short-changing the big names, specifically Lawrence and Fassbender, was obviously deemed to be unacceptable, and McAvoy’s role is integral. Meanwhile, Rose Byrne’s memory-wiped CIA agent Moira McTaggart returns to info-dump (and be the target of McAvoy’s dodgy comedy flirting), the younger versions of Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and Nightcrawler need to be established, and Evan Peters’ Quicksilver is back with more screen time and the same goofy charm. Oh, and there’s a big cameo that the trailers have already ruined.
It’s no wonder Psylocke (Olivia Munn) and Angel (Ben Hardy) feel hard done by, with the bulk of their duties limited to standing behind the villain in occasionally evolving outfits.
That villain may get the title, but the younger X-Men are the best things about the film. They’re perfectly cast, they bring heart and humour to a frequently gloomy plot (it’s the end of the world, to be fair), and the film excels when exploring their fears and struggles. Turner’s Jean Grey is a loner whose nightmares shake the walls, Sheridan’s Scott Summers is a moody younger brother who’s having a hard time adjusting to his gift, Shipp’s Ororo Munro is a scrappy kid who idolises Mystique but is looking to make an impact of her own, and Smit-McPhee’s Kurt Wagner is…well, he’s Nightcrawler, and he’s great. When we’re with them, Apocalypse feels like an X-Men movie.
But when we’re with Isaac’s blue big bad, it feels like a different, and not very interesting, comic book film. It doesn’t help that Isaac essentially has to deliver endless variations on the same monologue while buried in hugely distracting prosthetics (which makes it difficult to gauge whether it’s his performance that’s bad or if it’s the film working against him), but his brand of evil never really impresses.
The CGI spectacle is well done, but it generally comes at the expense of the emotional connection, and there’s a surprising amount of brutal violence which feels like it goes a little far. The build-up to the third act is frequently frustrating, with the script over-eager to over-explain and the character situation becoming something of a pile-up, despite the actors’ best efforts (it’s worth noting that McAvoy and Turner are excellent in the final thirty minutes). It finally explodes into an intermittently effective but overly familiar massive smack-down.
So for everything that works, like Fassbender’s superb work in Magneto’s genuinely moving first act story (those deer, though), there’s something that falls flat, like the inevitability of Fassbender’s Magneto floating expressionless through the finale as CGI chaos flies around him. For every dull Apocalypse scene, there’s a brilliant Quicksilver sequence. For every clunking line of exposition, there’s a charming Nightcrawler moment.
It was clearly a conscious choice to confront these characters with an all-powerful super villain who wants to burn the world, but it’s one that frequently threatens to rob this film of what makes X-Men so likeable. When it works, X-Men: Apocalypse is great fun. When it doesn’t, it’s dull and messy. The pros do outweigh the cons, but only just. Still, it’s left in a good place for whatever comes next and hopefully lessons will have been learned.