Ten years ago I left the theater after X-Men: The Last Stand among baffled silence. I whispered to my friend and fellow X-devotee that the reaction reminded me of people departing from a funeral. In the time since release the X franchise has seen an awful spin-off (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), a much better spin-off (The Wolverine), a much, MUCH better spin-off (Deadpool), a complete reboot (First Class), and a merging of the original series with that reboot (X-Men: Days of Future Past). Now, ten years after the previous third film comes another third film, only this time directed by Bryan Singer, the man behind the original film, the arguable series highlight (X-Men 2), one of my all-time personal favorite movies (The Usual Suspects), and whose exit from the series is widely blamed for the funeral march which followed Last Stand.
There is a joke in X-Men: Apocalypse that the third film is always the worst. While Apocalypse never reaches the depths of Last Stand, for the main X-Men franchise, this joke is funny because it’s true.
Apocalypse picks up right from the pyramid featured in the Days of Future Past post credits scene. The opening sequence provides a pretty good introduction to the film’s big bad, his methods, his tactics, and hints at about as much of a motivation as we’ll receive. From here we move to ten years after the events of Days of Future Past‘s past/real timeline and proceed to catch up with or meet our many characters. Here’s where we find the first of several logical holes which nearly overwhelm Apocalypse: this is supposed to be ten years after the previous film and twenty years after First Class yet it seems like these characters and this world haven’t been effected by time. At this point both Magneto and Xavier should at the very least be in their late 40’s, possibly up to their late 50’s. Havok would be at least late 30’s, yet is only slightly older than his brother Scott who’s in high school. For Mystique not aging isn’t a problem, for everyone else, it’s one of several small mistakes which detract from what the film does well.
The secondary problem with this time-standing-still issue is that very few of the characters demonstrate any personal growth. Sure, the school has grown to include students such as Jean Gray and a girl in yellow trench coat whom comic readers know as Jubilee but is never named, Hank McCoy has become a more prominent presence, and Xavier’s got his fancy wheelchair, but there seems little fallout from the previous world-threatening situation. Mystique has moved from villainous assassin to mutant mercenary, and Magneto is given strong material but beyond big hair and period-friendly fashion this doesn’t feel like ten years later. It feels like two years, which it is. Think of how long ago Last Stand was and how much has happened since then, that’s the amount of growth these characters should experience. If the original X-Men cast has aged out of their characters, these new X-Men characters will quickly age out their cast. It might sound like nitpicking but when the next film is already rumored to continue the new movie/new decade trend, it represents a real problem. The next film is clearly important in this one, and that’s another problem.
While the new X-Men characters – Jean, Scott, and Nightcrawler, are given introductions and their own plotline, the new Horsemen characters – Storm, Psylocke, and Angel – are given basically two scenes each before they’re locked into an endless series of evil stares. This is particularly sad for Storm as Alexandra Shipp is excellent in her two scenes, and so much discussion around Olivia Munn (who is the right choice for Psylocke) results in nine lines. Meanwhile, the new X-Men cast sadly aren’t that good. Sophie Turner is obviously given the bulk of the material as Jean Gray, Tye Sheridan’s Scott Summers does some cool stuff, and Kodi Smit-McPhee is clearly comic relief as Nightcrawler. They seem less like the cast of First Class and more like the Hogwarts class of early Harry Potter movies. Smit-McPhee especially suffers as Alan Cumming’s portrayal of Kurt Wagner was the heart of X-Men 2 and his absence has been felt ever since. The biggest loss however is in Apocalypse himself. Oscar Isaac is an absolutely brilliant actor whose role here could have been played by anyone and been exactly the same.
Meanwhile the necessity to introduce new characters so that they may then carry the series gives the film less time to develop the old characters. Much of the strength of this second X-Men trilogy has come from its trio of Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, and Michael Fassbender. While Fassbender’s performance makes the canceled Origins: Magneto film even more of a loss, Lawrence and McAvoy never move beyond what they’ve previously done. In all, Apocalypse ends up falling victim to one of Batman v. Superman‘s biggest troubles: there are simply too many stories to allow emotional investment in any of them. This, in turn, makes the film feel far, far too long. There’s about a half hour that could be cut from the movie, and it wouldn’t hurt to take a couple of characters with it. Lack of time makes the newest chapter of Erik, Charles, and Raven’s story underwhelming and unsatisfying. If this is the last time we get to see these versions of these characters then it’s truly a shame we never got the wrenching climax their story deserves.
From a pure spectacle standpoint Apocalypse is easily the series’ most epic event since Last Stand (the only things Ratner got right were intensity and scope). There is a lot of action throughout Apocalypse, even if there isn’t the emotion to make it engaging, and much of it looks amazing, even if some of it is cheesy and there are times when the staging looks like an incredibly expensive 1990’s TV movie (seriously, after Deadpool, BvS¸and Cap 3 made some good looking costumes, the Horsemen here… are the most convincingly 80s thing in the entire movie).
Yet, within all this action, we see another of the film’s problems. There are so many characters capable of so many amazing things that the plot quickly falls out of balance. While the novelty has worn off, Evan Peters is again given the most enjoyable sequence with an even more ridiculous rescue. But while Days of Future Past was wise in sidelining him, Quicksilver’s presence potentially breaks the world. The same goes with several other characters with power levels that fluctuate as necessary for the plot. The result is a lot of distracting “Well, why doesn’t (insert name) just do this?” Nonetheless, the philosophy of bigger, more spectacular, more characters, more powers, more, more, more shows no evidence of stopping, no matter how much it needs to.
Yet probably the worst part of X-Men: Apocalypse is that it feels disposable. Its old characters aren’t given a satisfying conclusion. Its new characters don’t promise much for the future. Even its own story is so predictable that is feels like something Deadpool would rant over, complete with the latest unbeatable villain.
Ten years ago Bryan Singer’s exit made The Last Stand feel like a death knell for the series. As great as his work has been and as much of a fan as I am (Superman Returns is fine for what it is), Apocalypse shows that for the series to move on, it may be time for the director to as well. First Class was a fresh start. Days of Future Past was the conclusion to Singer’s original series. Apocalypse is a disappointing coda to what could have been a graceful exit. With yet another new cast promised for the next film, and new life in a potential X-universe, perhaps, sadly, the time has come for the last original series member to age out.