The X-Men films vary all over the map from very good (Days of Future Past) to okay (The Wolverine) to downright terrible (X-Men Origins: Wolverine). It’s a shame that the latest team entry, “Apocalypse”, teeters more towards the latter.
Set ten years after the events of “X-Men: Days of Future Past”, the film, directed by Bryan Singer, follows a new villain, the dastardly En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), the first mutant, as he awakens for the first time in thousands of years. Disgusted with the world, he sets about recruiting four followers (horseman) to help him “cleanse” the earth, including Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender). The only individuals left to stop him are Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his X-Men, including Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters), as well as a reunited Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence).
As the first sequel after the terrific “Days of Future Past”, the film is a giant step back. While that film was dramatic, moving and based in science fiction, “Apocalypse” is silly, overstuffed, action-packed nonsense. You almost have to wonder if that was what the filmmakers were aiming for.
The film takes forever to get going, with the only action really at the end of the film. Starting the film right off the bat would have served the story well. Without giving too much away, Apocalypse needs to gather his horsemen in the first fifteen minutes of the film rather than the first forty-five minutes. He needs to introduce himself to Xavier and the X-Men much sooner, gain his foothold as a dangerous opponent and set the stakes for the rest of the film. Since this confrontation is delayed so long, the film loses steam and the emotional engagement in the final battle is only half of what it should be.
In addition to setting the stakes, a clearer protagonist was needed. If “X-Men: First Class” was primarily Magneto’s story and “X-Men: Days of Future Past” was Xavier’s story, I would think that “Apocalypse” would be Mystique’s film. After the events of the previous film, Mystique is balancing the two halves of her consciousness: the desire to do the right thing and her hatred of mankind. When the opportunity arises in “Apocalypse”, she must either follow Charles or Magneto’s way, fight with the X-Men or with Apocalypse. Her decision would fill the film with meaning as she realizes her identity.
Mystique’s arc is briefly mentioned in the film, but it does not carry much emotional weight because of another major flaw; there is simply too much going on. The film simultaneously tries to achieve the following: establish the story of En Sabah Nur and his resurrection and attempt to destroy the world, finish Magneto’s emotional journey reaching back to Auschwitz, conclude the building of the X-Men team as we know it, finish Mystique’s story of self-discovery, show Xavier learning the importance of the X-Men, set-up the next Wolverine movie, introduce younger versions of characters such as Cylcops and Nightcrawler and Jean, bring Quicksilver back and establish a storyline about his patronage and set all this against the backdrop of 1980s Cold War paranoia. There is so much thrown at us that nothing sticks. We can not ride the roller coaster because it is so cluttered.
The story should be focused on a very simple narrative: After centuries trapped underground, a “god” has re-emerged to find that the world is teetering on chaos. He finds disillusioned souls and recruits them to a higher purpose, the need to make a better world. This contrasts starkly with Xavier’s vision of peace and stability, and Mystique is caught in between and must finally make a choice: to save the world or tear it down. She must lead the X-Men, young and full of issues, towards that purpose she cast out long ago.
Everything outside of this plot should be discarded. Magneto, Wolverine and Quicksilver do not need to be in the story. Cyclops, Jean and Nightcrawler could all start at Xavier’s school rather than be recruited, starting the confrontation with Apocalypse sooner. Little things like that cut out five minute scenes that really add more flow to the narrative.
The action at the end makes up for a lot of the doldrums of the beginning, but like most of the film, it is not handled particularly well. There are several enjoyable moments of unintentional comedy mixed in with some interesting action. Seeing the modern X-Men assemble for the first time ties everything together nicely. It’s just a shame it happens in this flimsy, overpacked jumble.
It would certainly appear that Bryan Singer and company, after their fourth film in the franchise, are starved for ideas. New blood in both casting and the creative team should be given a chance to flex their muscles and really explore this world further. “Deadpool” and “Logan” are just reminders that superhero films don’t all have to be cookie-cutter, save-the-world-from-the-evil-mastermind type fare. They can be funny, dramatic, farcical, romantic, action-packed or terrifying. It’s time for the X-Men to establish themselves in a new way. “Apocalypse” is a strong reminder that change is needed.