Review by Curt Holman
“Mutation – it is the key to our evolution,” announced Patrick Stewart’s Professor Xavier in the introductory monologue of 2000’s X-Men. As a film franchise, the X-Men movies have evolved in fits and starts. The first took the major step of bringing Marvel superheroes to the big screen (after Marvel’s warm-up with Blade in 1998), paving the way for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and the blockbusting, inescapable Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Director Bryan Singer improved significantly on the first outing with X2: X-Men United, which featured sharper characterization, better jokes and more exciting set pieces. After some significant missteps, the series made a comeback with the prequel X-Men: First Class, and then ingeniously brought the casts together with the time-travel epic X-Men Days of Future Past. And earlier this year, Deadpool became a colossal hit by ramping up the violence, raunchiness and self-deprecating comedy.
But as the ninth movie in this particular continuity, X-Men: Apocalypse suggests this dynamic has exhausted itself: There’s just not a lot of meat left on those adamantium bones. Suffering from a virulent strain of sequel-itis, Apocalypse revisits the familiar relationships and iconic elements of the franchise without finding a compelling new story to tell.
Most of the X-Men films open with a prologue set in the past (two in the Auschwitz concentration camp). Apocalypse begins way, way back in ancient Egypt, when the all-powerful title character, also known as En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), enacts a ritual to secure his immortality. We learn later than Apocalypse was the first mutant, with the ability to pass his consciousness to others, accumulating their mutant “gifts” as he goes, so he has more superpowers than the audience can possibly keep straight.
Apocalypse’s plan goes wrong, entombing him for centuries until he gets revived in 1983. Like Rip Van Winkle in blue makeup and a semi-mechanical suit, he views the 20th century’s Cold War and commercialism with contempt, vowing to remake the world in his image. Isaac seems surprisingly game for the role, approaching it like he’s in a Boris Karloff Mummy movie, but it still seems like the kind of conventional villain any decent character actor could play.
Until the emergence of Apocalypse, things seem to be hunky-dory. Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) has his School for Gifted Youngsters up and running. Magneto (Michael Fassbender) lives in tranquil obscurity in Poland. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) keeps a low-profile but helps troubled young mutants, who look up to her as a hero after the events of Days of Future Past.
Where that film created a whole new timeline, theoretically erasing the events of several previous movies, Apocalypse seems disappointingly intent on restoring the status quo (partly in ways that I won’t spoil, but are probably only setting the stage for future movies). Magneto becomes radicalized, yet again, by grief and the desire for revenge, and joins Apocalypse as one of his acolytes, The Four Horsemen.
Apocalypse also casts teen versions of grown-up characters from the earlier films, including telepathic Jean Gray (“Game of Thrones’” Sophie Turner), blue-hued teleporter Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and laser-eyed Scott “Cyclops” Summers (Tye Sheridan). The film has some welcome fun when the grown-ups get incapacitated and the youngsters have to come to the rescue.
It’s striking that a film with so many characters, such an idiosyncratic premise and a nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time finds so little to say. Despite some ugly designs, Apocalypse seldom feels as misguided as X-Men: The Last Stand or X-Men Origins: Wolverine – it sets a crisp pace and has some strong actors, although Lawrence’s weariness with Mystique is hard to ignore.
But where Singer and the scripters seemed energized by the early film’s metaphors for prejudice against outsiders and Future Past’s time-travel gimmick, here, you’re just aware of all the work to keep things going. Even Evan Peters’ scene-stealing speedster Quicksilver seems to be covering the same ground. It culminates with the kind of bloated, belabored fight-em-up that can take the air out of even the best superhero movie.
New X-Men solo movies, including vehicles for Wolverine, Deadpool and possibly Gambit, are coming up in the next few years, but X-Men: Apocalypse suggests that the Professor X/Magneto/ancillary character team has run its course. Even evolution can come to an end.
X-Men: Apocalypse. C. Directed by Bryan Singer. Written by Simon Kinberg. Stars Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, Oscar Isaac. Rated PG-13