The X Men have been through a lot over the past two decades, and I don’t mean just the missions the actual students at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters have been on. Following several missteps in the bloated The Last Stand and the universally panned Origins: Wolverine, Matthew Vaughn breathed fresh life into the mutant saga with First Class, and after Bryan Singer came back on board to wipe the slate clean with Days of Future Past, it seemed as though the directions available for the third film in the new series to take were boundless. Unfortunately, Singer’s Apocalypse is a cluttered superhero movie that tries to fit way too many plotlines into what could have been an interesting discussion on its opening lines – a mutant so overpowered that it thinks itself a god – making it feel rushed and thrown together despite its long runtime. The franchise that pretty much kicked off the current age of superhero films seems now to be choking on the clichés it helped make popular, making its audience feel the exhaustion of the genre, like no other film before it.
Apocalypse continues the alternate timeline created by the events of Days of Future Past, where the world has witnessed the heroism of mutants through the act of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) saving the U.S. President from Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who has since gone into hiding. But hatred for mutants is nowhere close to non-existent, as we see Angel (Ben Hardy) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) going at each other in yet another underground cage-fight, something that has become a staple of these films. Set in the 1980s – and filled with references to the decade – the film shows us a troubled Mystique, not willing to accept the ‘hero’ status that the world has given her, as she feels that their war has not ended. We are also reintroduced to characters familiar from the original series – Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) – as they begin their time at the school, under Professor Xavier (James McAvoy), still busy recruiting gifted kids into his school with Havok (Lucas Till) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) at his side. It is into this world that is awoken an ancient being known as En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), the world’s first mutant, who has imbibed enough powers over the years to believe himself a god. Being the first in the new series to break free of a rooting in political history, there are multiple storylines, character arcs and themes at play in this crowded film which comes off as nothing more than fan service, and a very messy one at that.
There are two major reasons why this film fails to stack up with the great superhero films of today, some even within its own franchise. For one, it tries the Herculean balancing act of blending strikingly different storylines, involving different characters from the comics, into one piece and thereby losing out on a central thematic and emotional core. While First Class, despite all the political narrative surrounding it (and even enhanced by it), boils down to the triangular relationship at its heart – that between Charles, Erik and Raven – and Days of Future Past furthers this relationship as seen through Logan’s eyes, there is no central narrative to be found at the heart of Apocalypse, which constantly jumps from Magneto’s pain to Mystique’s doubt to Xavier’s love interest and to brief glimpses of the individual pains of each student, having no connection to each other. Giving equal time and attention to each character is a good thing, but when each such arc and motivation stands almost isolated from each other, it is extremely difficult for the audience to feel attached to any one, and that is where overwhelming action sequences become necessary to keep hold of the viewer’s attention. There is also an immense amount of character building through subtext, which would not be clear to anyone not familiar with the character arcs in the original series, which timelines do not exist in the present series.
The second problem is that, despite being portrayed by a talented method actor like Oscar Isaac, the eponymous villain fails to be anything more than the blue-skinned and overly stylized caricature of every supervillain who wants to simply take over the world, a dated genre cliché that just does not cut it in this age of superhero films. In trying to set up character arcs and relationships for the future films, Apocalypse simply does not spend enough time building up its villain or the motivations of his four Horsemen, whose recruitment seems to be more about the makeover and wardrobe change than anything else (also leading to a hilarious scene where the Horsemen stand around En Sabah Nur as he painstakingly crafts new costumes for them). While the trailers and opening lines of the film suggested a deeper discussion about the desire for power that comes with having almost unlimited powers, the film gives us nothing more than a tyrant who has not only replaced Magneto in place, but also in motivation, as he too resorts to a plan of ridding the Earth of man-made weapons and tools. The film even manages to detract from the only building character in the film – Magneto, played brilliantly as ever by Fassbender – in the second half, as he is sidelined to taking out human structures, and with the few interactions between him and Xavier repetitive of the films before it, failing to take his relationship with any character in new directions. The film does not bring anything new to the saga of the X men, playing it safe by showing more of what pleased fans in the past, like the Quicksilver sequences which, though extended feel inferior to the excellently directed one in its predecessor.
Ultimately, X Men: Apocalypse is a film bogged down with trying too many things at once, and thereby losing out on furthering the relationships between characters that have been progressing over the past two films. There are satisfying action sequences and set-pieces, which are, however, now expected from these films, but in deciding to highlight the powers of each mutant instead of the emotional essence of each character, they fall flat, especially against a generic villain. In adding tangential plotlines and characters that really have no place in this story, the film feels as if trying too hard to please its fans, and creating uncountable number of gaps in narrative logic – not only of this film, but of the series itself, which has only recently been rewarded a clean slate. Despite having individually great moments and scenes directed with care, they fail to come together in a coherent narrative. Bryan Singer has created a film that hardcore fans of the X Men comics will love to sink their teeth into, but would exhaust the casual audience with repetitive themes and the several bloated stories struggling to find voice.