X-Men: Apocalypse Buckles Under Its Own Weight

There is a scene in X-Men: Apocalypse in which a group of young mutants exits a theater having just seen Return of The Jedi (The film is set in 1983). Two of the youngsters are debating the relative merits of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back and a third chimes in “At least we’re in agreement that the third one was the worst.” The line could be, and likely is, intended as a dig at Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), or it could be winking reference to the difficulty in creating a compelling third chapter to a trilogy, which X-Men: Apocalypse is, but it feels like a tacit acknowledgment by the filmmakers that this movie is not as good as its predecessors, X-Men: First Class (2011) and X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). It’s not.
The aforementioned Jedi reference serves as the only reason for setting X-Men:Apocalypse in the early 80’s beyond dressing the characters in jackets with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows. The timeline of this second trilogy of X-Men films is a bit wonky, the returning characters here, Professor X (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne) and Havok (Lucas Till) do not appear to be 22 years older than they were in the 1961 based First Class. Like Return of The Jedi, X-Men: Apocalypse struggles to recapture what made earlier entries in the series work by going bigger with the action and the immensity of the danger represented by the antagonist. Here, the X-Men face their greatest threat yet in the form of ancient and essentially omnipotent mutant, the titular Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), who returns from a long hibernation intending to destroy all of Earth’s homo sapiens and rule over the surviving mutants. The idea holds some appeal to Magneto who has a serious chip on his shoulder about non-mutants (they keep killing his loved ones), but is anathema to Xavier, the MLK to Magneto’s Malcolm X. And so, like this summer’s superior Captain America: Civil War, the film to which this one is destined to be unfavorably compared, we have two teams of powered “heroes” duking it out. Indeed, both sides are heroes, even if they are not in this specific film; Apocalypse’s side is made up of his “Four Horsemen” who are, in addition to Magneto, X-Men comics favorites Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy), and Psylocke (Olivia Munn).
Far too much time is dedicated to the assembly of those teams. In addition to the “Four Horsemen,” there are a passel of new students of The Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters to be introduced or, rather, reintroduced in younger form; Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are all welcomed to the fold as the young mutants who must learn to harness their powers when they are called upon to rescue Mystique, Beast, McTaggart, and Days of Future Past’s Quicksilver (Evan Peters, the MVP). The bringing together of these teams is interminable, reflecting the film’s biggest problem: It is bloated and unfocused. It is understandable that the filmmakers would want to introduce new characters to the mix, but too much time is spent with them and not enough on the villain and his plot to destroy the world.
Director Bryan Singer has a great talent for shooting scenes of the X-Men fighting, using their powers in fun and unique ways, as evidenced most especially by Nightcrawler’s (Alan Cumming) presidential assassination attempt in X2: X-Men United (2003) and the opening raid in Days of Future Past. He has not necessarily lost that talent for X-Men: Apocalypse, the mutant powers are still very cool, but it all seems fairly humdrum this time around. At one point, Singer attempts to repeat the magic of Days of Future Past’s dazzling “Time in a Bottle” sequence by having Quicksilver dart about a building as it explodes, rescuing dozens of innocents, it’s neat but no longer novel. Further, this scene and others are not aided by the fact that much of the CG imagery in X-Men: Apocalypse looks like shit.
It’s not all bad. The cast is pretty great. McAvoy, Fassbender, and Lawrence, are some of the finest actors working today; so is Isaac, but his natural charm is wasted on a character who is all stentorian speechifying. Hoult and Peters  seem like they are each one great role away from being on the same level. Turner, Sheridan, and Smit-McPhee are all promising newcomers. If the cast had one wish, it should be that Singer and company had gone smaller rather than bigger, time that could be allotted to characterization goes instead to plotting and not in a good way, the gaps between times when anything exciting happens are unconscionably long. The movie’s best moments are when the action and plot development take a break and give the characters time to breathe and have fun. These actors know how to get a laugh, they should be allowed to do it more often.
X-Men: Apocalypse (Fox)
Director: Bryan Singer
Writer: Simon Kinberg
Cinematographer: Newton Thomas Sigel
Editor: John Ottman
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Evan Peters, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Rose Byrne
English/PG-13/144 min.

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