Let’s just get right down to it: the disappointing “X-Men: Apocalypse” is far from unwatchable but it’s the first X-Men movie in the franchise that I’m not clamoring to go see again. It pains me — seriously pains me — to rate it at only three stars. This one is pointlessly noisy and dull, riddled with poorly conceived CGI effects, cluttered with too much religious imagery, and crowded with far too many irrelevant characters.
The core of what holds this film together comes from the strong characters. The X-Men have always been my absolute favorites when it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) so just seeing them onscreen makes me giddy. This time around, the mere presence of them is nearly the only thing that works. What doesn’t: the acting performances from the usually great Oscar Isaac (rage-grunting his way through thick makeup as Apocalypse) and Alexandra Shipp (making the already unlikeable character of Storm even more irritating); both performances are so overwhelmed with mediocrity they are distracting. Olivia Munn (Psylocke) is given nothing to do except scowl in her semi-sexy costume; she comes across as nothing more than a low-rent version of Wonder Woman. Thank goodness for Nicholas Hoult (Hank / Beast), Sophie Turner (Jean Grey), Tye Sheridan (Scott / Cyclops), and Kodi Smit-McPhee (Kurt / Nightcrawler) for redeeming the other casting failures.
The friendship between Charles / Professor X (James McAvoy) and Eric / Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is one of my all-time most beloved on-screen bromances, and one that is the true heart of the franchise. As usual, Fassbender and McAvoy are standouts in the acting category; I couldn’t have asked for a better casting decision and the two men give it their all.
The most glaringly dreadful thing about the movie — and this comes as much of a surprise to me as it will to you — is Jennifer Lawrence‘s lackluster performance as Raven / Mystique. I love Lawrence but something about her is completely “off” and, for the first time in her illustrious film career, she seems to be phoning it in. I don’t know if she hated working with director Bryan Singer or was being forced by her agent to be in the movie or what, but something is obviously wrong and it translates onscreen.
Speaking of Bryan Singer, I’m still in shock that he directed this. This is his fourth time at the helm of an X-Men movie so he knows and respects the characters and he’s undeniably skilled, but “Apocalypse” is a bit of a hack job. It’s almost as if Singer knew his finished product would be a letdown: there’s even a self-referential joke about it at the film’s halfway point (and one that got huge laughs from my disappointed audience). The half-hearted applause as the credits rolled showed me that I wasn’t the only X-Men nerd who was disillusioned by this latest MCU installment.
The elephant in the room is the film’s originality problem (and lack thereof). There’s a cameo that should’ve made me all fired up but instead it felt like a strained, pointless sequence and was more lame than inspired. Quicksilver (Evan Peters) basically makes the same entrance as he did in “Days of Future Past,” only to a different retro song. It’s fun, but I’ve seen it before (and it was done better the first time around). In fact, there’s a lot of retreading and not much innovation. I’m starting to worry that the X-Men franchise is slowly reaching its expiration date, and that makes me sad.
The lackluster plot and script are tolerable but the visuals are far too gimmicky. I refuse to see 3D movies so I didn’t watch this one in 3D, but even in 2D I easily noticed all of the special effects that were put in just for the 3D crowd. It was bothersome and distracting, especially in the opening credits sequence. I hate when I watch a movie and I’m emotionally removed from the story because all of the effects look like they were done by some tech nerd with a computer. This was a huge budget movie and I expected better effects.
I know that I set the bar very high for all X-Men movies because I’m a big fan of the characters and there’s a level of quality that I’ve come to expect, so I acknowledge that yes, I’m bitter and yes, maybe I’m rating this movie a bit harsher than I should. I wanted the greatness that its recent predecessors “First Class” and “Days of Future Past” reached, but instead I got mediocrity.
If you have a pulse and you follow the entertainment world, I don’t need to tell you what this movie’s about. The younger versions of Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) are back, along with Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult). This time, they face Apocalypse (Isaac) a mutant that has lived for tens of thousands of years and, through body transference, has amassed the talents and abilities of a number of mutants. As would be expected, this new mutant poses a significant threat not only to Xavier and his school of gifted individuals, but also to humanity itself.
Broadly speaking, the “X-Men” movies are so much more compelling than most other superhero movies. This is because of the essential humanity, and friendship, of Professor X and Magneto. These men, their backstories, and their bond with one another is unlike anything else we see in the MCU; the relationship between Charles and Erik forms the beating heart of the X-Men universe. “Apocalypse” is no exception to this rule.
“X-Men: Apocalypse” is at its best when it’s focusing on Erik and Charles. As the film opens, we find Erik in a place we never expected to see him. He’s apparently found peace and happiness; when that happiness is violently ripped away from him, he reacts in the way that only Magneto can. Professor X continues to live in a state of somewhat blissful ignorance running his school of mutants, and it’s only when the rising threat of Apocalypse comes to his attention that he finally starts to understand what’s at stake in this world where mutants exist side-by-side with humans. It’s when Erik and Charles once again cross paths that we see the men, and their worldviews, tested.
Conversely, “Apocalypse” sometimes loses steam when it’s focusing on the other characters. While we know Jean Grey (Turner) plays an important role in these movies, she’s given little to do in “Apocalypse” until the very end of the film. The movie is okay when it turns to Mystique (Lawrence), Hank/Beast (Hoult), and Nightcrawler/Kurt Wagner (Kodi Smit-McPhee), but the story just isn’t as compelling when it comes to these X-Men. In fact, any time the focus isn’t on Charles or Erik, it’s much less interesting. The notable exception to this rule is Peter Maximoff / Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who once again steals the show nearly every time he takes the screen.
Broadly speaking, what is so great about all of the X-Men movies is that it consistently casts “actors’ actors” in the lead roles. Having first-rate talent play the central roles is critical in adding gravitas, and McEvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence, and Hoult are clearly up to the task as always. Disappointingly, however, Isaac does a “just okay” job as Apocalypse. He isn’t given much to do other than issue dramatic pronouncements about humanity and ending the world. It’s actually kind of a shame: as one of the best actors working today (see also: “Ex Machina,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and “A Most Violent Year“), his talents are wasted. Director Bryan Singer, who is usually very good at getting great performances out of his actors, is clearly struggling when it comes to directing Isaac in heavy makeup.
“Apocalypse” also loses its momentum through the climax of the film, where — like virtually every other superhero movie in recent memory (with “Captain America: Civil War” being a notable exception) — the team faces another CGI-heavy, potentially world-ending event. In almost all of these movies, it’s when the focus leaves the main characters and goes instead to some computer-generated threat that the story gets bogged down. It’s much harder to care about what’s happening on the screen when all that we see is another swirling CGI whatsit that is going to end the world as we know it.
On balance, I’m disappointed to say that “X-Men: Apocalypse” didn’t reach the heights of “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (on my honorable mentions best list for 2014), but it was still a damned good movie. There were a handful of very memorable scenes that alone were worth the price of admission. One scene, in particular, featured a certain well-known X-Man doing what we’ve all, collectively, always wanted to see him doing. And it was… everything I ever hoped for.
While it wasn’t a perfect movie, I want to see it again, right now. And that is a sign of a good movie.