Back when the first three X-Men films came out, I opted to skip the third. X-Men: Last Stand wasn’t being directed by Bryan Singer and I’d heard very mixed to negative things. My roommate at the time did see the film in the theater and tried to convince me it was the best X-Men film of the three, I wasn’t buying it. Years later, I finally saw the Brett Ratner helmed flick and was proven right. It was dreadful. Too much crammed into too small a movie. So, when X-Men: First Class, directed by Matthew Vaughn, came out I approached it with trepidation only to be pleasantly surprised. The follow up, Days of Future Past, felt like a nice compliment and I enjoyed having X-Men in period pieces. It’s very different than most of the other comic book films out now. This led to me being pretty psyched about an 80s X-Men movie incorporating the villain Apocalypse.
X-Men: Apocalypse has a lot of plots going on. It continues the ideological struggle between Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr, it gives us the origins of our favorite X-Men (Cyclops, Jean Grey, Nightcrawler, Storm, and more), it picks up some loose threads from way back in First Class, and it features the ancient mutant Apocalypse whose plan is to…well, um…I’m not quite sure. Lots of elements work in this film, but the weakest of them all is Apocalypse, portrayed by Oscar Isaac. Isaac does the best he can with the material he was handed but it’s very generic, nondescript villainous motivations. Apocalypse wants to cleanse the earth of all humans…because why? He doesn’t like them, he believes mutants are superior, but there’s no idea given as to what would happen next if he succeeds.
Apocalypse, while I love him visually, is a very complicated character in the comics. I honestly cannot tell you a single one of his plots or plans and I have read multitudes of stories featuring him. He’s become a stand in when you need a big evil mastermind villain in an X-Men story. Characters produced by stories he’s been featured in have been much more interesting then the big baddie himself. Archangel, Caliban, Psylocke, Genesis, and more have all been touched by Apocalypse and become very interesting. I highly recommend Rick Remender’s run on X-Force that did some amazing things with Apocalypse, but mostly with the characters that surround him. The film opts to combine elements of Apocalypse, The Shadow King, and the incredibly obscure Living Pharaoh to try and make him a villain that pulls you in.
When you look at the third act climaxes of the previous films, very rarely are they world ending events. The Cuban Missile Crisis from First Class probably comes the closest. For the rest of the series the stakes and conflict are all about the future of mutant-kind. Villains plot to wipe out all mutants or trigger the mutant x-factor in all humans or unleash an army of mutant hunting robots. Hell, even The Last Stand kept things focused on one location and with a threat that only affected mutants. This is what has set apart the franchise from many of the other comic book series. To now have a finale that involves the very foundations of the Earth being cracked apart and a blizzard of CGI chaos cause X-Men: Apocalypse to feel very dissonant with the rest of the series.
Not even the Horsemen of Apocalypse are all that interesting. Storm (Alexandra Shipp) comes the closest but I suspect she’ll get more development in a subsequent film. Angel and Psylocke are cardboard cut outs with only hints of actual personality, a shame. Magneto is likely the one villain everyone will love, and I do agree Michael Fassbender brings much more to the character than we would expect from this film. However, I don’t feel that we’ve seen Magneto progress as a character since First Class. Once again, we go through the same beats of tragic loss, mindless revenge and anger, moment of clarity, and then parting ways/til we meet again. The promise of a Brotherhood of Mutants at the end of First Class was never fulfilled and the character feels stuck in a rut. Even a solo Magneto film could do a lot to grow the character because it is tiring seeing Charles and Erik argue the same points over and over.
What’s good about the film are the new kids. I previously mentioned Storm, but the rest are great as well. They don’t get enough screen time and we can hope, that if another film is greenlit, we have them featured front and center next time. Evan Peters as Quicksilver continues the actor’s track record of being wonderful in everything he does. The first act of the film is bloated with plot and they do manage to come together, it just takes a while and is hard to keep yourself interested when everything feels so disconnected. This is due in part to Bryan Singer being such a weird director. In all his films there are some really brilliant moments, even here we’re treated to some great set pieces, but they’re surrounded by really dull movies.
Singer has said he is taking a break from the X-Men, and after four films that is probably a good idea. Many people thought the lesson of The Last Stand was that only Singer knew how to handle these characters. But the real lesson came from First Class, that they just required someone who understood them fundamentally and was willing to take risks (changing the time period of the film). The X-Men are not the easiest comic book franchise to adapt to film and I think a pair of fresh eyes, that are allowed to play and experiment, as we saw with Deadpool, could produce some great films.