At the beginning of this movie is a scene in the 80’s set X-Men: Apocalypse where a young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan) exit a showing of Return of the Jedi and argue the merits of the various Star Wars films. The participants discuss “Empire Strikes Back was better” versus “Star Wars started it all” before coming to a consensus that the third films always stink. It’s intended as a jab at X-Men: The Last Stand, but it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Bryan Singer’s would-be trilogy capper is a shocking miss. It is a lifeless and hollow shell of a picture, lacking exciting action, strong character interplay, or compelling storytelling. It is the nadir of the franchise, determined to make you apologize for every mean thing you’ve ever said about Brett Ratner’s rushed X-Men trilogy capper a decade ago. X-Men: The Last Stand is X2: X-Men United compared to X-Men: Apocalypse.
After a pretty promising prehistoric prologue that seems to promise a certain fantastical one-upmanship for this generally grounded franchise, the film offers a series of introductory table-setting scenes for what turns out to be the vast majority of its running time. We have the “meet the new mutant kids” moments (including a great Cyclops origin that feels like the X-Men prologue segment we never got back in 2000), some “catch up with old friends and enemies” beats (Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven rescuing Nightcrawler from a cage match), and our new villain Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) slowly and deliberating recruiting each of his four “horsemen.” For a reel or two, it looks like Bryan Singer, Simon Kinberg, and friends are really going to give us a “ good disaster movie” in the mold of an X-Men adventure. But then we come to the first confrontation with Xavier and Apocalypse (the scene shown in all the trailers), and you realize that the film is literally almost over.
It’s really no secret that I think the over reliance on Magneto (be he Ian McKellen or Michael Fassbender) as a source of (the same) conflict or (the same sort of) villainy has been this franchise’s long-form Achilles’ Heel. You can imagine my horror when I realized that this sixth team X-Men film was again going to revolve partially around Magneto (Fassbender, sadly phoning it in) lifting stuff for evil and Charles (McAvoy, also phoning it in) and his X-Men trying to get their former friend to stop lifting stuff for evil. Hell Magneto’s new wife and daughter (this one takes place in 1983, ten years after Days of Future Past) get more dialogue than Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn) combined. That’s impressive because (as you might guess) said family quickly gets Blown UP so Erik can lets just say “have an angry” and willingly join Apocalypse’s team.
The other three “horseman” (Psylocke, Storm, and Ben Hardy’s Angel) are literally walking action figures, with no character development and no substantive screen time. There is a reason why we keep seeing that “Psylocke slices a car in half with a sword” shot in all of the later X-Men: Apocalypse trailers and TV spots. The heroes do little better. The young kids (Jean, Scott, Jubilee, etc.) get almost no time to bond or play with their powers. McAvoy is fun in the early scenes but soon becomes an exposition machine and a non-entity in the action. Even Jennifer Lawrence, arguably the biggest/overrated female star on Earth at the moment, has almost nothing to do beyond a few brief reunion moments and an extended bout of climactic peril. If you think this all ends with the mother of all X-Men action finales, think again.
No spoilers, but what you get is a slightly more fantastical redo of X-Men’s finale (with a few secondary villains sent to briefly distract our heroes so that the main villain can cement his evil scheme) and a deluge of arbitrary CGI that will remind you of the climax to Ang Lee’s Hulk(yes that bad). With the end of the world is confined to a single isolated location, with no outside reaction or consequence despite what I presume are countless deaths. I am not sure how you make Oscar Isaac as a world-destroying baddie dull, but the powers-that-be have pulled it off. It’s good fun seeing a happy and revitalized Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) running his school and enrolling a bunch of young mutants. The idea of a young batch of fresh newbie X-Men, even if they are just younger versions of the characters we already met, has promise. But we spend next-to-no time getting to know these new kids.
After all, why spend time watching these kids getting used to each other or their powers when you can configure a huge chunk of the film for the sole purpose of being in a specific location that enables a fan-bait cameo? Say what you will about X-Men: The Last Stand, but at least that film had characters who talked to each other about interesting things, and a plot that at least tried to be about something. This has little of that. The one great action beat is A) a variation of the last film’s great action beat and B) basically (if you think about what almost happens and why) undercuts the entire premise of Charles’s philosophy. The film plays like a mixed tape from prior X-Men pictures, with both highlights (Quicksilver is cool in slow mo) and lowlights (Did you love lumberjack Logan and his imperiled girlfriend in X-Men Origins: Wolverine?).
And through all of this is a total lack of urgency, a lack of momentum, and because of the utter lack of character development for our newer/younger characters (or much of interest for the veterans), no emotional investment. The entire film seems to want to set up the next stage of the franchise, yet it hamstrings itself by neglecting nearly all of its characters. This is the kind of film where the production notes contain far more character development and thematic elements than what we see onscreen. I won’t outright say that this is the worst X-Men film ever made because X-Men Origins: Wolverine is still that bad. But it is unquestionably the worst “team” X-Men movie ever made. Yes that’s right, I’m putting this below Last Stand, and it is also just the kind of film that will lead to so-called “superhero fatigue.”
It has no reason to exist beyond the fact that the last film made money, and it offers a franchise absolutely determined to be so tied to its past that it gets left behind in the very comic book sub-genre that it helped popularize. It is the kind of superhero comic book film that typified the genre before the original X-Men (and Blade) turned things around. X-Men is still a groundbreaker and still works as a potent character drama. X2: X-Men United contains perhaps the best first act in superhero cinema. X-Men: First Class promised a deliciously fantastical and pop art zippy X-Men reboot. But X-Men: Apocalypse is the kind of weightless, soulless trifle of a bore that makes comic book superhero movies look bad and makes me not look forward to the next installment.
X-Men basically invented the modern superhero movie. But this franchise needs to make a choice: evolve or die.