One of the few memorable moments in X-Men: Apocalypse, the latest, gaudiest, and certainly laziest entry in the long-running franchise, is centered around its best character, Magneto. Often a villain, sometimes a grudging hero, Magneto has literally been through wars, surviving the Holocaust as a child, suffering persecution for his mutant powers, and even weathering a change in the actor portraying him (from Ian McKellen to Michael Fassbender). Apocalypse brings him back to Auschwitz to have him tear it apart in fury, turning the most solemn site of human suffering imaginable into yet another CGI miasma. Amid the tonal confusion, the only thing left to really admire about the sequence is its chutzpah.
It’s just too bad that chutzpah is lacking in almost every other moment of X-Men: Apocalypse, a frantic spectacle that seems to be trying to keep up with the ever-widening scope of superhero movies while still vaguely keeping a finger on the pulse of the earlier films’ broad allegory. The heroes are still mutants, super-powered people who are largely societal outcasts and can be used to stand in for a range of oppressed minorities, often in a ham-fisted manner. But the villain of the latest film isn’t the hatred of mankind, as it was in the eight other X-Men films and spinoffs released since 2000. It’s the titular Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), a big blue dude from ancient Egypt who wants to wipe the earth clean and start anew. Why? The film answers with a shrug. Considering the flimsy storytelling and characterization on display here, maybe a fresh start wouldn’t be such a bad idea.
I, like so many other viewers, am fatigued by the franchise at this point. When the first X-Men film was released 16 years ago, directed (as this entry is) by Bryan Singer, it laid out an exciting blueprint for the comic-book movie that went beyond the simple hero-villain dynamics of Batman or Superman. Its heroes were weird, sometimes violent, often strange-looking, and their internal tensions were as interesting as those with their adversaries. X-Men opened with a scene of a young Magneto first displaying his powers of magnetism at a concentration camp, and it felt audacious—the moment gave the whole silly affair a little more weight. Most importantly, that film’s action scenes were relatively small, and the conflicts had stakes that were easy to understand.
How times have changed. Franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe and big-budget efforts like Batman v Superman have blown the narrative out as wide as possible and set a new formula. More characters! Story arcs that go on for years! As many CGI-laden set-pieces as possible within a colossal budget! The X-Men franchise now feels desperately behind the times, with the last entry, Days of Future Past, largely devoted to saying goodbye to the film’s older cast (including McKellen, Halle Berry, Patrick Stewart, and others). Apocalypse is an effort to catch up to that grander mode of comic-book storytelling, but its epic scope is a mile wide and an inch deep.
The film begins in ancient Egypt, naturally, where the life force of the godlike mutant Apocalypse is being transferred into the body of a new host (the process is complicated but seems to involve solar-powered, prehistoric USB cables). He’s then buried under a landslide, so it takes thousands of years before he wakes up and starts going about his mission. To destroy the Earth, all he needs is four followers, some booming commands, and a little bit of elbow grease. Isaac tries his best to enjoy the bland villainy of the role, but he’s covered in layers of absurd blue makeup, and his voice is modulated beyond recognition, so it’s impossible for him to make a strong impression.
Apocalypse gathers up a force of mutants, including the energy-sword-wielding martial artist Psylocke (Olivia Munn), the winged teen Archangel (Ben Hardy), and a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp), one of the greatest heroes in the X-Men comics catalog, who’s given embarrassingly short shrift by the writing here. Magneto is Apocalypse’s fourth “horseman,” and his initiation is the destruction of Auschwitz, an moment of incredible, impressive tastelessness that’s unfortunately aiming for utter self-seriousness.
X-Men: Apocalypse could have worked if it had been aiming for fun, like the similarly bombastic Gods of Egypt. Instead it’s mostly just a pitched battle between the X-Men, led by the telepath Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and the rebel shapeshifter Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). The film introduces younger versions of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), but both are lost in the crowd. Meanwhile, the film’s legacy players range from Fassbender’s usual devoted intensity to Lawrence’s absolute detachment—clearly doing her third X-Men film through contractual obligation, she reads lines as if a car is waiting to collect her outside once she’s done.
There are some moments of levity where the movie does shine—the return of the speedster Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who gets a long, slow-motion rescue sequence in the middle of the movie, is a particular highlight. But as Apocalypse’s world-destroying plans spring into action, things get very stupid very quickly, and the final action sequences are cacophonies of energy rays and lightning bolts crashing into each other for no particular purpose. In an effort to rise to the spectacle of the superhero movies around him, Singer has forgotten what made his earlier work on this series so winning—if the X-Men franchise is here to stay (and by its box-office numbers, it probably is), it at least needs a fresh creative direction to follow in the future. I won’t spoil whether Apocalypse completes his dastardly plan, but viewers shouldn’t be surprised if they find themselves rooting for him by the end.