The X-Men movie franchise is built on irony. Marvel’s mutant characters were created on the basis that they were the next stage of human evolution, but the films are still locked into the same basic path that they were back when the original came out in 1999. If there’s a large complaint that can be leveled at the new movie Apocalypse, it’s that for how much it fits into the First Class trilogy and continues from the new timeline formed by Days of Future Past, it feels like this could’ve easily fit into the old timeline.
Taking place in 1983, James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier is now spending his full time teaching students at his school as Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan) discovers that he’s a mutant and blast lasers from his eyes. His brother Alex (Havok from First Class, in case you don’t remember) takes him to the school to get a better handle on things. Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique is doing her part in the mutant cause by rescuing any tortured mutants she can, while Magneto is just trying to live a normal life with his wife and daughter. (Spoiler: it doesn’t go well for them.) Our bad guy this time around is the titular Apocalypse, the so-called First Mutant who was buried alive in ancient Egypt after being betrayed and recently awoken thanks to cults convinced of his return. Not happy with how humans have been running the planet, he supercharges the powers of Magneto, Storm, Psylocke, and Angel to be his Horsemen and kidnaps Charles to control every mutant mind on the planet.
Apocalypse is the Biggest of Bads for the X-Men, essentially their Thanos, and the film should, in theory, do everything in its power to make him a credible threat. Sadly, that’s not what we get here, thanks to his atrocious visual design that looks like Ivan Ooze from Power Rangers made rough love with an electronics store. Half the time he speaks, it’s talking in the most pompous and annoying ways that make you want him to button his mouth for about five minutes, not helped at all by the vocals. The layered voice they give him doesn’t work, and Oscar Isaac’s famous expressions are lost beneath the makeup job. If you need an idea of just how bad he is, his final line in the film is an accurate summation of what he’s ultimately here to do in terms of setting the stage for the future of the franchise.
Though in his defense, his outfit transfers to the big screen slightly better than Olivia Munn’s Psylocke, which just doesn’t look good in any shot it’s in and manages to be the worst costume in the entire series. It could’ve been forgiven if she at least had something badass to do with her katana or psychic sword, but the film gives nothing for her or Alexandra Shipp’s Storm to do besides just stand around and glare. Considering that they have less lines than Magneto’s dead wife and kid despite being in the film much longer and featured in all the marketing, it makes me wonder why Apocalypse even recruited them or Angel when the Master of Magnetism is doing pretty much all the heavy lifting during the last 20 or 30 minutes. You could cut them out of the film entirely and little would change outside of giving Cyclops, Beast, and Nightcrawler something to do.
While the villains are all pretty one-note and wasted, the heroes have more to them. Nothing much needs to be said about McAvoy as Charles, perfectly slipping back into his cocky role as Rose Byrne’s Moira McTaggert makes her return to the series. Jennifer Lawrence couldn’t be any more disinterested through the whole affair, but the new cast definitely has the mojo. Tye Sheridan and Sophie Turner are pretty good as the young versions of Cyclops and Jean Grey, even though the film sorta rushes through some plot stuff with the latter. The real winner here is Kodi Smit-McPhee as Nightcrawler. He looks and acts like a genuine teenager, and he’s genuinely funny to have around. If only the rest of the movie shared the same enthusiasm and energy he had.
That lack of energy is at its most present during the second half of the middle act, where we finally get our Mandatory Wolverine Appearance. It’s about 20 minutes and completely derails the plot, which would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that Hugh Jackman’s mutant only makes up about four or five minutes of this, running around and looking like a homeless man gone feral. It’s incredibly awkward and the conclusion to it is just weak (during my viewing, people actually laughed as he ran offscreen), and it’s also amazing how much that cameo impacted things more than Psylocke, Angel, and Storm. The other actors largely seem to be on autopilot as it all goes down, with the exception of Evan Peters’ Quicksilver. If you were a fan of his brief stint in Days of Future Past, he’s in much more of the movie and is definitely more tolerable, though the film does hype up an expected plot reveal that has no real conclusion.
X-Men: Apocalypse is a 2016 movie, but you wouldn’t know it based on the CG. It’s genuinely bad, alternating between looking like something from a late PS2/early PS3 game and something they came up with while editing everything together. No more is it apparent than during the climax, as Magneto rises in the air with metal swirling all around him, looking incredibly unconvincing as a Horseman of the Apocalypse, or the flashy arrivals of Storm and Angel on the battlefield. If you told me this movie was made in the early 2000s era, I’d certainly believe you, and that’s part of the problem.
With the exception of some recent entries (Deadpool and The Wolverine come to mind), the whole series could’ve come out on a weekly basis back in 2002 and you wouldn’t be able to tell. We’re still locked into the basic path of humans learning to trust mutants, we’re still having these conversations about optimism versus realism at the end of every film between Charles and Erik. And we’re still putting everyone in black padded rubber like they’re about to play paintball after coming back from a screening of The Matrix.
Apocalypse is a film that exists purely on the basis to exist, and not much else. Not much happens in the film besides some table setting for the next film set in the 90s and an explanation for why Professor X went bald. In about the middle of the film, Nicholas Hoult’s Beast tells Mystique that “the world needs the X-Men.” If that holds true, then we need some that aren’t content with still pretending like it’s the turn of the millennium.