Describing the timeline of the X-Men film franchise as nonsensical is an understatement on par with summing up the the theory of evolution as “pretty complicated”. When director Bryan Singer tinkered with the series’ continuity in 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past to smooth out chronological inconsistencies – and roll back a few storytelling missteps – across the previous five movies, he only made things harder to follow.
Things only get worse with X-Men: Apocalypse, the latest film featuring Marvel’s Merry Mutants, which seems completely at odds with the previous films it’s intended to bridge together. Sadly, this isn’t even the major problem with the film – no, the bigger issue is that Apocalypse is hobbled by a story that’s overstuffed with characters and spectacle and light on actual emotional heft.
Kicking off in ancient Egypt, Apocalypse introduces us to En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), the world’s first mutant who rules under the decidedly harsh ethos of “survival of the fittest”. Betrayed by his followers and entombed alive in an ageless sleep, our bad guy is finally woken in the 1980s and immediately sets out to destroy civilisation and remake it according to his own brutal design.
To help with this, En Sabah Nur recruits and augments the powers of four mutants, whom he dubs his Four Horsemen: Angel (Ben Hardy), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and Magneto (Michael Fassbender). In response, Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) scrambles the X-Men – including Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) – to stop En Sabah Nur’s doomsday vision from becoming a reality.
But even with the help of former ally Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), the team may finally have met its match, and the end of the world seems nigh.
Like I warned earlier, don’t come into this movie expecting what you see to jibe with the events of X-Men and X2. The timeline and world established in those movies straight-up doesn’t fit with Apocalypse, and while I’m certainly not an advocate of adhering to continuity at the expense of telling an entertaining story, it’s frustrating to watch a movie so heavily reliant on the franchise’s history run roughshod over it.
That’s far from the biggest issue with the script, though. Screenwriter Simon Kinberg gets too bogged down trying to shoehorn into the story as many fan-favourite characters as possible, leaving no room for anyone to shine, much less connect with the audience. New characters are given barely enough room to be properly introduced or developed, and the returning characters struggle to properly make their mark because they’re too busy sacrificing their own screen time to squeeze in the newcomers.
Because of this, most of Apocalypse‘s emotional beats fall flat. We simply aren’t given enough time to explore what anyone is feeling in any real depth or comprehend the emotional stakes involved before we’re whisked off to the next big set piece.
But what set pieces they are. By their nature, superhero flicks generally feature a fair amount of worldwide destruction and landmark smashing, but Apocalypse is the first attempt to do the superhero disaster movie since 1978’s Superman. Here, the visual effects artists outdo themselves, delivering some of the most ambitious large-scale devastation ever seen on film, although the CGI is occasionally less than convincing elsewhere in the film.
If the effects work deserves praise, so do the efforts of Apocalypse‘s cast, who bravely ply their craft amid a sea of green screens. McAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence, and Hoult are all dependably strong in their third outing as their respective characters, while Sheridan, Turner, and Smitt-McPhee are the stand-outs of the new cast. Together with Evan Peters, who returns as audience favourite Quicksilver, they inject some much-needed humour into the otherwise po-faced proceedings.
That said, as the film’s big bad, Oscar Isaac is a bit hit and miss. It’s not really his fault; Isaac is a great actor and he handles En Sabah Nur’s more subdued scenes effectively. But whenever our villain goes “full Skeletor” (to quote Singer himself), the result is rarely as impressive as intended. Maybe it’s the generic, “evil mastermind” dialogue Isaac is spouting, maybe it’s the bizarre booming tone his voice takes on when he spouts it, or maybe it’s his vaguely ridiculous costume – all that matters is that it’s a little hard to take En Sabah Nur seriously.
Despite its many flaws, X-Men: Apocalypse will almost assuredly earn a sequel (early buzz is that the next entry will be set in the ’90s). And honestly? That’s a good thing – so long as next time around, Singer and his team keep the roster of characters under control, and tell a story that’s as packed full of emotion as it is popcorn spectacle.
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