After very smart, adventurous entries in the X-Men franchise in First Class and Days of Future Past, Apocalypse cannot help but feel limp and perfunctory at best. The major problem is that the franchise has committed for so long to sticking us with heroes and villains that blur those lines, with actions taken by characters like Magneto and Mystique feeling more heroic than the choices made by Xaiver and his students at various points throughout the series, and Apocalypse indulges in the dullest of comic book clichés. There’s an omnipotent and omnipresent villain hell bent on world domination, destruction, and rebirth where the human stakes get lost in the shuffle.
Lord help me, but I never could vibe with Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac, a bit wasted in the role) whenever he’d appear in the comics or cartoons. He felt completely ridiculous in execution, but impressive as a concept. The world’s oldest mutant emerges in the present day, both horrified and intrigued by what he has found, goes about the process of exterminating humanity and handing the world over to the mutants, especially his chosen ones. The problem always arose in the simple fact that Apocalypse is all bluster and rhetoric with no follow-through. For all his proclamations of obscene power displays and evolutionary superiority, the X-Men could always roundly defeat him.
This problem reoccurs throughout the film, which devolves into the worst instincts of comic book cinema in the final confrontation between all of the parties. We already know Apocalypse will be stricken down, and he is in a gigantic orgy of collateral damage, cities in ruins, and generous uses of mutant powers. At least Bryan Singer has consistently kept his action sequences coherent and free from the visual kinetics bordering on incoherence of a Zach Snyder.
Perhaps the indifference of this sequence isn’t a result of any deficiencies in this movie in particular, but the abundance of comic book cinema over the past decade. For all of the might, and much of the narrative plays like we’re supposed to be overwhelmed and impressed with Apocalypse as a threat, it still feels limp. Marvel has dominated the look and feel of these films for so long, complete with third-act demonstrations of massive destruction, and they’ve created a more enjoyable entry just a few months prior in Captain America: Civil War which found a way to keep the human interest and element at the heart of the zip-pow-bang theatrics.
Yet there’s still the overwhelming problem of a franchise dedicated towards outsider perspective and working as an exaggerated moral parable focusing so hard on the straight, white, male gaze. Characters and voices unique as Psylocke (Olivia Munn) and Storm (Alexandra Shipp) are quickly tossed aside for a sixth go-round of the Magneto/Xaiver show. Hell, there’s even a completely unnecessary sequence showcasing Wolverine’s origin, again, which at this point is as tiresome as Spider-Man’s and Batman’s. Although the returning cast members are still uniformly strong, with James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender tearing into the parts as if they’re great roles from the English tradition.
Apocalypse is at its most entertaining when shifting the focus to the younger class of mutants, including a green Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), moody Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), comedic Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), wiseass Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and tortured Angel (Ben Hardy). Even the various scenes of Apocalypse assembling his new horsemen are fairly interesting, with only one leaving a queasy taste in the mouth. Caliban (Tomas Lemarquis) and Psylocke’s underground lair is a fascinating side-plot that deserves more time and attention than it gets. There’s a flurry of fascinating ideas that deserve more exploration.
I think it’s about time that the franchise’s reigns are handed over to a different creative team, as Singer only cares about a small batch of characters, frequently leaving females and people of color in supporting roles that start strong then vanish. X-Men is an ensemble piece at its best, and in a few bright moments involving the younger students, Apocalypse shines brightest. There’s nothing overtly awful about it, but after shaking up the formula with its two prior entries, this feels like a big comedown. We’ve seen this kind of comic book film before, and much better. It’s good, just not great.