The superhero film is here to stay, for better or worse.
Now that Sony and Marvel have brokered a deal to bring your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man into the MCU, having cameoed extraneously in Captain America: Civil War, there’s uproarious fan clamoring for Fox to do the same for their merry mutants. This is folly. Having the X-Men coexist on screen with The Avengers would be a spectacle and probably a huge box office earner, but it’s not necessary. Even in the comics source material, Charles Xavier and his coterie of gifted youngsters have always existed off center from the Marvel Universe proper, their exploits so convoluted and self contained as to be a world all their own. Maybe a few films ago such a merger would be feasible, but with this latest entry in the franchise, the X-Men are too far gone to play nice with any other IP.
X-Men: Apocalypse, the fourth film to be helmed by series originator Bryan Singer, mashes up the dueling aesthetics of the franchise to cacophonous results. There are positive elements from the other two prequels that remain (First Class and Days of Future Past, namely the core cast of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Xavier and Magneto and the decision to set each film ten years apart in history, but the character driven storytelling has been replaced with the same everything but the kitchen sink plotting that doomed the franchise all the way back with X3. As a result, we’re left with a schizophrenic popcorn bonanza with minor, charming flashes of former ambition.
It’s the eighties now, a decade removed from the day Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) saved President Nixon’s life. This heroic, televised act has temporarily cooled humanity’s jets with regards to the whole hunting and killing mutants with giant robots thing. Xavier’s school is booming with younger versions of characters from the earlier films, like Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). Mystique is hiding from the public and using her clout to rescue mutants from the fringes of society that use them in freak shows and cage fights. Erik is living in Poland, married with a young daughter, having turned in his Magneto helmet for a hard hat working at Chekhov’s Steel Factory. It’s a status quo just waiting for a cataclysmic call to arms.
That’s where Apocalypse comes in. The only way to top the insane time travel of the last film is to adapt one of the more absurd villains from the comics. Apocalypse, aka En Sabah Nur, is the world’s first mutant, originally from Ancient Egypt. He’s been living under a bunch of rocks since those days and now that he’s awake, he’s ready to fuck shit up and have his race take over the world. Even though this is the 1980s, Apocalypse is a serious relic of nineties comics. He’s overpowered, dubiously motivated and visualized with a busy, downright ugly design. Luckily, though, he’s played by Oscar Isaac, so he’s not entirely unbearable.
Isaac’s casting was controversial, given the whitewashed nature of his involvement, but he brings serious chops to an otherwise awfully written antagonist. While the last two X-Men films featured a wide array of strong performances, both tragic and comedic from a capable cast, Isaac and Fassbender are the only two who still seem to take their jobs seriously. Apocalypse and Magneto inevitably team up, as Erik is brought into the fold as one of Apocalypse’s Four Horsemen, but there’s a really strong connection between the two that explores depths of the mythology the comics haven’t properly plumbed. Apocalypse is essentially a mutant God and watching Fassbender implore answers from Isaac’s ashen visage gives their interactions a heft the rest of the film sorely lacks.
Lawrence, in particular, seems bored here and doesn’t put forth much more effort than you’re likely to see in one of those strained late night television interviews where she feigns relatability through forced vulnerability. McAvoy doesn’t have as much to work with as he did in the last outing, but he has good chemistry with his students and watching him slowly morph into the Patrick Stewart iteration of the character is engaging enough. Sheridan and Turner avail themselves decently, but no one else really rises to the occasion. It’s hard to blame the cast, though.
The script, written by Simon Kinberg with a story by X2’s Dan Harris and Michael Dougherty (the two guys who wrote Superman Returns), is an embarrassing step backwards in quality. It shoehorns in too many characters with too little substance. Civil War is stuffed to the gills with ancillary players, but the filmmakers at least went through the motions of finding reasons for their involvement. That film also drew from eight years of MCU films and a back catalog of these actors evolving their individual characters. The X-films have so much retroactive continuity that the heroes have to be rebuilt from the ground up in very little time since set pieces and exposition eat into so much of the run time. Outside of the core trinity (Xavier, Magneto and Mystique), no one seems real enough to care about.
Singer doesn’t make any new leaps and bounds with the spectacle, either. The action lacks the workman-like focus of Days of Future Past, instead settling for incoherent carnage and a hailstorm of mediocre special effects. The intro, set in Egypt, cribs so much from The Mummy Returns (NOT even the first one) that it begins to feel like a Zucker parody. Some of the scenes set at the school have the vibrancy of the original trilogy, specifically a sequence where the students steal a car to go to the mall and watch Return of the Jedi, but the rest evaporate from memory the minute the credits roll.
The superhero film is here to stay, for better or worse, and we’ve seen strides in quality and some variety in what these tent poles can really be. The X-films were at their best stepping to the side, offering oddball pop art period pieces tearing down the early 2000s wave that brought life to this fad in the first place. In Apocalypse, that quirky ambition is all but vacant, leaving an underwhelming run of the mill actioner audiences might have settled for in 2003. There are too many films in this hyper specific subgenre being released every year to rest on laurels like this.