In 2014, Bryan Singer made Days of Future Past, a pretty decent return to the X-Men franchise that he had started all the way back in 2000, and which is part of the reason we are now seeing such a proliferation of comic book films. Now, just two years later, he’s back with Apocalypse, which tells of the rebirth of the first mutant, En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), who has been buried beneath a pyramid for thousands of years.
There is a lot for Singer and his screenwriter Simon Kinberg to set up here. First we establish the background of the villain before catching up with various mutants – some new to (or reimagined for) this series, some not – before all the bits come together to create what it has to be said is a bit of a jumbled mess. Like many current-generation comic book films, Apocalypse is torn between fan service and getting on with the story, and ends up sacrificing structure and pacing for cameos and attempts at crowd pleasing.
This series, for all its many flaws, has always benefitted from its roster of compelling characters to root for; but here, even the best of them get lost. So Michael Fassbender (as Erik Lensherr/Magneto) must once again appear torn between his good and evil natures (in this case, prompted by an obvious and contrived story turn), while James McAvoy must dispense wisdom and use Cerebro to help uncover the plot. These two actors, incidentally, have always been two of the strongest aspects of this reimagined franchise and, when the script lets them, they’re very good; but they, like all the characters in the film, must routinely be sidelined. This is a film with lots of very good actors acting like they’re in a much better film, and at times you almost think it’s pretty good, but the moments when it works are outnumbered by the moments when it doesn’t.
En Sabah Nur (or Apocalypse, as he is also known) is given a certain gravitas by Oscar Isaac (who does well to make the character work at all) but carries little real weight. He basically wakes up, decides the world is rubbish, and decides to make a “better one” by destroying everything. The film tries hard to make him compelling, going full-on with the bombast, but he strikes hollow. As do his ‘four horsemen’ (four mutants he takes under his wing) who are generally little more than poorly established window dressing. Sadly, most of the rest of the supporting cast also fall under that description, most damagingly in the form of Jennifer Lawrence, a terrific actress who was always compelling as Raven/Mystique, but who in this film has essentially no arc or character progression, and is reduced to delivering boring motivational speeches. New additions such as Sophie Turner as a young Jean Grey, Tye Sheridan as Scott Summers (aka Cyclops) and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Kurt Wagner (aka Nightcrawler) do what they can but aren’t given much chance to make an impact.
So, given the story is fumbled and the characters underdeveloped, we might expect the film to deliver in the action stakes, but it’s sadly a letdown in that department as well. Pretty much all of the previous X-Men films had more compelling action scenes than this one, and the most inventive sequence (in which Quicksilver (Evan Peters) returns to the fold) is a fun but sub-par retread of one of the standout sequences from the previous film.
X-Men Apocalypse has a lot of stuff in it, but those elements don’t add up to much. Its loose structure, hit-and-miss action sequences and underused characters mean it struggles to hold the attention consistently. For a film that i s striving so much for grandeur and scale, it actually feels rushed. As a result, the post-credits teaser for the next film left me feeling underwhelmed for the future of the series.