Silver Screen: X-Men: Apocalypse ***
It’s called X-Men: Apocalypse, but don’t get your hopes up— this isn’t the last one.
Apocalypse is the name of the new villain, played by an almost entirely unrecognizable Oscar Isaac. He looks like a goth Mister Freeze, or a White Walker in a space suit, or a pissed-off Smurf king, depending on your nerdy frame of reference.
He’s an ancient being last seen ruling Egypt before a group of usurpers dropped a pyramid on top of him. He wakes up in the 1980s, a few years after the events of X-Men: Days of Future Past, to cause trouble for Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his school of superpowered students.
One trilogy and now three prequels in, the X-Men franchise has become temporally complicated and overstuffed. In that way it’s both frustrating and an accurate representation of the source material, which is notable for its confounding overlap of alternate timelines and vast web of interrelated characters.
It’s tough to imagine this or the previous installment as a jumping-on point for new viewers. At this juncture, either you’ve seen the other movies, or you’re out. (When Nicholas Hoult’s character, Dr. Henry McCoy, suddenly and inexplicably turns into a furry blue monster man, he shrugs it off by saying “I forgot my meds,” and that’s that. Just try to follow along.)
So is it worth getting into?
Director Bryan Singer helped incite the superhero-movie boom with the first X-Men, then followed it up with a terrific sequel. Singer has a facility for outsized setpieces and the ability to project the illusion of gravity into an otherwise weightless swirl of digital effects. For awhile he was able to marry big-screen blockbusting with more intimate allegories and character-driven scenes.
But two movies into Singer’s return to the franchise and he seems to have lost his touch with those smaller moments, or at least doesn’t have time to squeeze them in between big action sequences. Halfway through Apocalypse, a group of Xavier’s pupils decides to take new student Kurt, also known as Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), on his first outing to a shopping mall. The trouble being that Kurt is a demonic-looking being with blue skin, three fingers, and a pointed devil tail. The kids zip off in a stolen car for some teenage downtime, and return to find their school demolished. Singer doesn’t bother with the antics at the mall, though. He keeps the character stuff offscreen to focus on the school’s umpteenth invasion. It’s lost opportunities like these that leave the movie devoid of the personality that lent texture to its predecessors.
An impressive ensemble does their best to inject some humanity into the proceedings. Returning stars McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, and Evan Peters are joined by newcomers Tye Sheridan (Mud) and Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner. Yet they’re stifled again and again by the script, which either consigns them to spouting exposition or pushes them toward dramatic high notes without any buildup as it lurches from one big moment to the next.
The only one who seems to have much fun here is Peters as the speedster Quicksilver, whose hyper-acceleration renders him slightly bored by the pace of normal life. He nabs the movie’s best sequence, in which he blithely darts between debris fragments of an exploding mansion to save his fellow X-Men in super-slow motion, all while listening to Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams.” It’s a blatant retread of the “Time in a Bottle” sequence from Days of Future Past, but who cares? The series could rip itself off ad nauseam as long as it maintained this level of exuberance.
Quicksilver’s sprinting and Nightcrawler’s nifty teleportation into puffs of blue smoke— last seen way back in X2— pave the way for some clever choreography and awe-inspiring visuals. Alas, most of the X-Men’s powers are conveyed entirely by computer-inserted laser light shows while the actors either furrow their brows really hard or make strained faces while they extend their open palms. Without much of the banter and character interactions that fleshed out both the heroes and villains in the early movies, the actors are too often asked to stand still and look serious while they hold their hands over their heads— excitement to be added in post-production.
And it doesn’t help that Apocalypse, while presumably the most powerful threat the X-Men have faced, is laughably stiff. Isaac isn’t able to convey much through the vocal filters and thick makeup. (Diversity alert: There are three blue X-Men characters, but still just one black one.) Apocalypse’s powers are all-encompassing and ill-defined, his dialogue nothing but dastardly proclamations, and his motivations are so simplistic as to be utterly disinteresting.
Yet again Fassbender, as Magneto, is tasked with providing the moral gray area. He’s the series’ most interesting character by far, but there’s only so many times he can waffle between fighting for humanity or against it that he becomes a wishy-washy flip-flopper who’s only really bad when the plot requires it.
That said, if you’re not burned out on superhero movies, or the increasingly repetitive X-Men iteration of them, the movie boasts a few fantastic setpieces: Peters’ running rescue, a harrowing nuclear-missile launch, a louder-than-usual climax, and a nifty cameo from a favorite castmember of yore. Singer can still deliver the big beats, but he seems a bit weary of juggling the increasingly overpopulated cast and uninspired to make this movie distinct from the others.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillerComedy.