The X-Men franchise over at FOX always makes for an interesting story. The original trilogy isn’t known as great, but also not bad. The third film did make some errors, such as killing off Cyclops. Sadly, the three were also at their core Wolverine movies with the actual team almost sometimes acting like guest stars. Instead of rebooting it, the company instead decided to quasi-reboot it with the prequel First Class. Then in Days of Future Past Director Bryan Singer smartly messed with the timeline. It was the perfect way to “fix” what previous movies did while maintaining a coherent continuity. So in a way, Apocalypse is the first X-Men film in the new timeline. For those that have read the comics, they know the character of Apocalypse deserves a substantial amount of hype. (He’s basically the Thanos or Darkseid of the X-Men.) Combine that with the inclusion of characters such as Jubilee and Psylocke, plus bringing back fan favorites such as Nightcrawler, we have in theory a clear winner for the X series. Sadly, it might have ended up being the worst.
During watching it’s hard not to imagine how much better the story could have been if the film was set with the X-Men already established. We wouldn’t have needed all the exposition and character introductions the plot attempts to cram in the first half. We have intros for Cyclops, Jean Grey, Nightcrawler, Apocalypse, and numerous side characters. That’s not to mention there are previous character arcs brought back. Having a lot of characters/plots isn’t a bad thing, but it’s something few films have handled well. Captain America: Civil War is the primary example on how to juggle so many characters. Each person there got adequate screen time and a viewer doesn’t walk away feeling, “Well he/she was underused!” In X-Men’s case, it’s quite the opposite.
Perhaps Psylocke was the most awaited character. Olivia Munn doesn’t do a bad job. In fact, I’d say she was very good in the role. The problem is the writing. She rarely has any lines throughout the over two hour run time. She maybe had 4 sentences. Combine that with no backstory and her role being basically a puppet, we have the definition of a wasted character. It’s a shame, because the costume and the way she fights were taken directly from the comics. The second worst example might have to be Angel. He was also criminally underused in his appearance in The Last Stand, but at least there he was likable and got at least one important scene. Like Psylocke, he’s given no backstory and ended up being an empty-minded follower of Apocalypse. His character arc also comes to a very unsatisfying end. How about Storm? Surely one of the future leaders and noblest of the X-Men would be given an excellent role. Sadly, we don’t get much of a sense of her goddess persona from the comics, instead being a thief whom becomes brainwashed by Apocalypse for most of the film.
Besides the poor usage of characters, another negative aspect is the pacing. It’s hard to call this an action movie sometimes. Often, it’s more of a drama/thriller with a few action sequences. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because Days of Future Past pulled this off. The thing there however is that Wolverine was able to hold the film together. There are no main characters here that are quite as interesting to follow. There are no major fights for over 90 minutes. Again, this doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but the story isn’t particularly captivating. It instead saves all the exciting things for the final 20 minutes. Batman V Superman had the same formula. There were numerous problems in that film as well but at least the climax was immensely satisfying. The finale in Apocalypse doesn’t quite reach that.
The biggest disappointment of the final battle is that Apocalypse himself actually rarely fights. He keeps reminding the viewer how great he is, but rarely do we see that in combat. He beats down on Quicksilver (only after the latter completely humiliates him) but he never fights the whole team. That’s the battle people wanted to see. This is not to say there aren’t things to like. Psylocke’s brief scuffle with Beast was a highlight and for a few moments it felt like something out of a comic book. Nightcrawler’s teleportation was also fun, as well as Cyclops’ optic blast being put to excellent use. As one can see, there are some good things here, but ultimately they are too few in a final act that’s only slightly better than 2015’s Fantastic Four climax.
The film had the opportunity to establish Cyclops as the future leader of the team. Instead, he spends most of the movie being unlikable, even a punk. (After maybe a day at the school, he recommends he and a few others go for a joyride.) Interestingly, it’s his brother Havok whom proves to be a much better focus. It’s a shame he stopped appearing after the middle act. Henry McCoy was very solid throughout and definitely someone to look forward to in future films. Quicksilver had a great, though minimal role in Days of Future Past. It was great seeing him play a bigger part here in the latest film. Like in Days, he has a big “highlight sequence.”It goes on a little too long, (and even with his speed it’s incredibly hard to believe) but still was an attention grabber.
Charles Xavier wasn’t bad, but not particularly amazing either. Sadly, James McAvoy can’t seem to command a presence like Patrick Stewart. Michael Fassbender as Magneto was much more engaging. The story smartly shows why he would consider joining with Apocalypse. (Although his dropping the f bomb was completely unnecessary. When did PG-13 films start to allow that?) Like the previous two movies, Mystique plays a rather substantial role. Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of the character has been solid. The direction in the end is questionable, mainly because it seems like it’s just being done for the sake of her having around as a main character. By the end her being a good guy has grown tiresome.
As it should be, Apocalypse was the primary centerpiece in marketing. He’s not only a major X-Men villain, he’s a major Marvel character in general. His first on screen appearance would be a big deal. FOX hasn’t had a great track record with comic book antagonists (such as Dr. Doom and Galactus) but for the most part in the X series the villains have been adequate. Apocalypse is a highlight most of the time here. Oscar Isaac commands a presence whenever he’s on screen. The story dives briefly into his backstory, with him being the first mutant. The writing is excellent as it portrays him as this false-god figure. The only real problem doesn’t have to do with the character, rather the direction. He goes around for most of the film gathering followers, but rarely fights. When he does, it’s more metaphysical. He doesn’t even turn giant, one of his most popular abilities from the comics. (Well he does, just not in reality.) It was an immensely wasted opportunity for Fox because they had the chance to showcase that they can do grand comic book-like fights. Instead we get a lackluster showing for what should be a very powerful villain.
There’s certainly a lot of negatives, but this is not to say Apocalypse was a terrible experience. There are quite a few things to like and it’s fun seeing the team together at the end. As a sort of origin it does an okay job establishing the members, romance between Scott and Jean, and setting up for the future. The soundtrack is also solid throughout. The sad thing is that while most of the characters are good, the writing doesn’t utilize them well. I really liked Lana Condor as Jubilee for example. She brings the quirky character to life in every scene she’s in. But the writing has her do nothing of importance! Instead, Moira MacTaggert, a character whom can be cut out and it wouldn’t matter in the slightest, is given more to do. The film is one big wasted opportunity to showcase all these comic book icons.
Overall, X-Men: Apocalypse is something of a disappointment. Focus is divided between the big conflict and setting up the team. The story couldn’t seem to juggle all these characters, which is perhaps its biggest flaw. The pacing also needed to be better. The two main actors of Batman V Superman can hold a film together because they’re compelling. There were no Oscar-worthy or even somewhat standout performances here. Oscar Isaac as Apocalypse might have been the best. He had great lines and a powerful persona, but the writing never capitalized on it with actual combat. The climax doesn’t make up for the long exposition. There’s plenty of cool things to see, but sadly they aren’t enough to stop this from probably being the most mediocre entry in the X-series.