In a scene partway through X-Men: Apocalypse, a couple of young mutants emerge from a showing of Return of the Jedi – opinions vary, but by way of compromise, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) suggests ‘can we all just agree the third one is the worst?’ This movie suffers from many of the typical problems of a third movie – throwing more stuff in, making the threats bigger and more explosive, upping the special effects to the max – and as a result, it is a confusing and subpar X-Men movie. There are good aspects here, but the bad helps turn the film into a bit of a drudge.
The immortal Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) was the world’s first and most powerful mutant, worshipped as a god since the dawn of civilisation. He awakens thousands of years later, and disheartened by the shape of the planet in the 1980s, he elects to create a new world order – in order to do so, he recruits four powerful mutants as his horseman, including Magneto (Michael Fassbender). As the fate of the Earth hangs in the balance, Professor X (James McAvoy) is reunited with the shape-shifting Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) to lead a team of young X-men who must confront the seemingly invincible adversary and stop him from destroying mankind.
That’s as specific as I can be with the plot, as I found the movie somewhat tricky to follow. Not that it is a particular cerebral movie by any means, but it seems that the motor driving this film is powered by a logical vacuum – Apocalypse’s plan and motive is never made clear in the slightest, and it’s hard to feel any degree of menace when you don’t know what the villain is up to.
Similarly, he is built up as a terrifying and all-powerful mutant, but his powers and power level seem to fluctuate throughout – if he is as powerful as he seems, why does he need four horsemen to support him in his quest (who, excusing Magneto, we meet for all of about five minutes before they are deployed)? I know it parallels the comics, but in the end, it was clear their purpose was to give half the team something to do in the movie’s climax.
There is a lot going on here, and the result is make the film a bit of a mess. There are too many characters, with some winding up just being there because they are – it fails to really balance them all, and a lot of the first hour has us zooming back and forth between different characters, introducing us but doing little else. This wouldn’t matter so much if the characters were very enjoyable, but the tone here is fairly grim – Jennifer Lawrence especially just bandies around being stony-faced, a powered-up Katniss Everdeen with a blank stare. (I’m also not a fan of Evan Peters as Quicksilver, in part because his character arc is frustratingly non-realised and in part because of the horrible broadband adverts that seem to be on constantly).
The two guiding lights of this movie are McAvoy and Fassbender, reprising their roles to aplomb and really carrying the picture. Fassbender especially brings a lot of heart to the picture – we find him at the start living a happy life with a wife and child, the sword of Damocles practically swinging for him. We know what is going to happen, and we have little build-up, but Fassbender still manages to wring a lot of emotion from it. His is the tragic heart of the movie, and every time he appears on-screen, you can’t help but wish the movie focused on him a bit more.
Bryan Singer is clearly more at ease with some characters than others – the Quicksilver speed sequences are realised exquisitely, and the director knows exactly what to do with newcomer Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who also provides most of the movie’s comic relief. Singer is one of the few people involved with superhero movies who clearly understands them – he brings their abilities and other aspects of the X-Men world (such as Cerebro) to the big screen in a fantastic manner (the post-credits scene and, aside from Stan Lee, the movie’s least surprising cameo are highlights for comic fans).
This ability, however, makes it all the more upsetting that this movie is a bit of a dud. The movie just throws in a lot more stuff, and the road to the climactic battle is so predictable that it should be no surprise the ending is so flat and so stagnant, following all the same plot beats you’d imagine. It also falls victim to some massive issues of taste – how many times do we need to hear Professor X harp on about Magneto having good inside? By this point, he is a mass murderer many times over. Also, more gravely, the film sees a lot of innocent people killed (and entire cities being wiped out for our entertainment) without so much as a second glance – in a film that makes a big deal of referencing the Holocaust, this seems a touch off.
Apocalypse has a number of good aspects, but it is both too packed and too poorly handled to making watching it any more than a disappointing slog. Any time McAvoy or Fassbender is on the screen, you know you’re guaranteed something good – sadly they, and the few good aspects here, can’t help raise the film above average. It’s not the most disappointing third X-Men movie I’ve seen, but it doesn’t win by much – a poor villain headlining an over-packed and poorly structured movie renders Apocalypse a bit of a slog to sit through, rather than the gripping superhero movie it should have been.
Director: Bryan Singer
Cast: James McAvoy (Professor Charles Xavier), Michael Fassbender (Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto), Jennifer Lawrence (Raven/Mystique), Nicholas Hoult (Hank McCoy/Beast), Oscar Isaac (En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse), Rose Byrne (Moira Mactaggert)
Running Time: 144 Mins