In 2000, Bryan Singer’s X-Men helped to create the 21st century’s obsession with superhero movies. A few years later, X2: X-Men United (still a weird title) established how to do a proper blockbuster sequel and is regarded as one of the best superhero films. After a detour in some lesser movies (looking at you X-Men Origins: Wolverine), Singer returned to the franchise to deliver the great X-Men: Days of Future Past. While Singer (along with writer/producer Simon Kinberg) proved they could revitalize a franchise and use time travel to connect two different X-franchises, with X-Men: Apocalypse, they may have proven that the cinematic world of mutants is out of stories to tell.
Set 10 years after the events of Days of Future Past, Apocalypse shows a world that is growing to accept mutants (Mystique earned a lot of good will for saving Nixon’s life) while still struggling with the fear of them (it was Magneto trying to kill Nixon afterall). Xavier’s school is up and running, Mystique is back on the run, helping mutants when she can, and Magneto is living the simple life, enjoying a normal job and new family. Enter Apocalypse, the world’s first mutant and inspiration for most of the major religions of the world, he is back from his slumber and is looking to claim the world once again.
Just in that very basic synopsis, the two major flaws of Apocalypse are shown. First, the conflict between the X-Men and Apocalypse is central, unfortunately Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) is a pretty generic villain whose motivation is lacking (“I am evil because reasons” is his motivation). Second, the filmmakers set themselves up for failure with the decision to jump ahead 10 years after Days of Future Past.
A quick recap of this X-Men trilogy. First Class saw the two sides of the conflict drawn: Xavier and his new school of mutants had finally formed the X-Men, ready to save the world; on the other side, Magneto and Mystique had formed the basic version of the Brotherhood of Mutants, they were ready to do their thing as well. With the sides drawn, the next film would normally jump right into that conflict, except Days of Future Past jumped ahead to 10 years after the events of First Class. We spend Days of Future Past catching up with Xavier, Mystique, and Magneto as they have each gone their separate ways, the sides are drawn up again and there is a final conflict. This was perfectly fine for Days of Future Past, but we walk through the same exact story in Apocalypse, and it is tiring.
Even though our three main characters have gone through these character arcs before, we watch Mystique struggle with whether or not she is proud to be a mutant (see First Class and Days of Future Past), we see Xavier not struggle as to whether or not he is a leader (see Days of Future Past), and we see Magneto struggle with whether or not he is good or evil, revisiting his Jewish roots as inspiration (see any movie with Magneto in it, while his 1940’s backstory is emotionally powerful, there is nothing in Apocalypse that we haven’t already seen before). Singer and Kinberg worked wonders with Days of Future Past, but they are trying to force lightning to strike again by retreading the same exact ground here.
When the film is not a rerun of the storytelling beats of past films, it goes out its way to ignore the continuity of the franchise. Now to be fair, the X-Men continuity is pretty complicated, between all the prequels and timelines it is pretty hard to keep it all straight. But this is the franchise Apocalypse exists in, and it has to play by the rules. Even if the film works as a standalone story, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it exists as the 6th (maybe 9th, depending if you count Deadpool and Wolverine) film in a series, and it blatantly ignores the world building of the other films.
The film wants to have it both ways. X-Men: Apocalypse wants to be part of a cinematic universe, showing us how decades of human history would be affected by mutants. But on the other hand, it can’t handle the pressure of cinematic universe, ignoring what has come before it. The film wants to utilize the father-son drama between Magneto and Quicksilver, but they already made a joke about that in the last film. The film wants to have a romantic subplot between Moira MacTaggert and Xavier, except her memories were erased at the end of First Class. The film wants to have a cool Wolverine action scene in the midst of the William Stryker’s Weapon X program, except (and this is a big one) the end of Days of Future Past showed us that WOLVERINE WASN’T CAPTURED BY STRYKER IN THIS TIMELINE. These details don’t matter to the filmmakers, as they ignore them to tell the story they want to tell, regardless of what came before.
You may think I’m just nitpicking the continuity issues in Apocalypse, but this is not a moot point. The first half of the film is either retreading the same ground as past films or it is ignoring continuity outright. You would hope that the second half would tell an interesting story, justifying the 10 year gap and continuity errors, but you would be wrong.
Once we have finally reintroduced all of heroes (for the third time in three movies), we get to the conflict between the X-Men and Apocalypse, and it is a pretty generic fight as two sides use CGI to overpower each other. While I’ve gone into detail showing how the film disappoints the X-Men franchise as a whole, its biggest sin is that it misuses Oscar Isaac in such a catastrophic way. Whether it be Inside Llewyn Davis, Ex Machina, or (of course) Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Isaac has burst on to the scene as one of the best actors working today. Here, he is placed under a ridiculous amount of make-up, given a character with zero motivation, and is written/directed into a laughably bad performance.
The film is as straight-forward as it gets. On one side, Apocalypse returns and gathers his four horsemen. On the other side, Xavier (again) struggles with forming the X-Men, and reluctantly puts together a team of familiar mutants. The two sides meet, and then the two sides fight. That is the story told here, nothing more, nothing less. Any emotional stakes have already been seen in the franchise before (in addition to retreading past arcs of Mystique, Magneto, and Xavier, the sole arc for Jean Grey is her struggle/fear of her powers, I couldn’t believe I was watching them revisit the arc of X-Men: The Last Stand), and then the stakes of this film are so ridiculously huge (like Apocalypse removing every nuke from the planet) it is hard to care about. The suspension of disbelief is pushed too far in this one.
Overall Thoughts on ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’
So is the film all bad? No, there are aspects to enjoy (Michael Fassbender is incapable of giving a bad performance in my book). Many people point to “the Quicksilver scene” as an attempt to prove the movie is good. Make no mistake, that scene is awesome, but in the context of the film it shows the film’s weaknesses as a whole.
The scene shows up right after a character has died, Apocalypse has shown he has the power to end the world, and the entire Mansion is endanger of exploding. With that emotionally heavy setting as the context, the film kicks in the 80’s pop and we watch an enjoyable/goofy Quicksilver scene. It is thematically taxing and tonally deaf having these scenes written in succession like that, and that pretty much sums of the film. There is so much going on in X-Men: Apocalypse, whether it be introducing new characters, catching up with old characters, attempting to have emotional stakes, or just having a good time with a summer blockbuster, and unfortunately the filmmakers were not up to task of balancing all of the spinning plates.