In a year where the superhero genre has arguably hit the heights of greatness (Captain America: Civil War) and the depths of the cesspit (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), X-Men: Apocalypse provides a safe middling entry to the list. The weakest of Bryan Singer’s four contributions to the franchise so far, it is nonetheless a thoroughly decent film and certainly far from being a failure.
The film starts off quite strongly. The origin story of En Sabah Nur (an unrecognisable Oscar Isaacs) is handled deftly, as is the move forward to returning characters in the 1980s. Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) and an incognito Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) show the two sides of the idyllic mutant existence, one creating a utopian haven for young minds with the help of Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till), the other living a quiet life with love and home comforts. Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) provides the balance between the two, showing us that the world may have come to terms with the existence of mutants but that does not mean the stigma has ended.
The X-Men franchise has always been an obvious metaphor for outcasts, something that openly gay director Singer has not shied away from touching upon. The introductions to new characters like Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smidt-McPhee), Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Ororo Munroe/Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Betsie Braddock/Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and Warren Worthington/Angel (Ben Hardy) show a variety of ways in which this distrust manifests. So far, so good.
The film continues on a high with the return of En Sabah Nur, the recruiting of his four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – including Fassbender’s standout scene – and the beginnings of his master plan. The return of Peter/Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and a set-piece at the X-Mansion keep the entertainment levels up. Where it begins to flounder, however, is a middle act diversion to Alkali Lake which, while justified within the narrative of the film, could easily have been left out. Not only does it mess with one of the points set up with the new continuity of Days of Future Past, it also leaves the audience feeling a little uneasy about what we know will turn into a budding romance.
The knock-on effect of having the action switch locations ends up diluting the final act as well. While the world-ending potential of Apocalypse is pitched just right, the impact of his Horsemen never quite live up to the hype. Only one of the four truly shine, with two of the remaining three left with wasted potential and one only saved by a solid homage to their future role in the franchise. You cannot help but feel that, had Alkali Lake not happened or at least not taken up as much time, the ensemble cast could have been hashed out a lot better. The new X-recruits are the real scene-stealers, with one in particular going a long way to erase the remnants of the sour aftertaste left behind by The Last Stand.
To be fair to Singer, he handles the set pieces with aplomb. The final fights – and there are multiple ones – feel important enough for us to be invested in each individual outcome. And while there are legitimate complaints about the lack of character development for some of the Horsemen, their action sequences cannot be faulted. Singer might have fallen short in selling their emotional journeys, but his love and respect for the comics and the early animated series shine through when he lets their powers loose. And the post-credits scene has a nice shock for die-hard fans.
In the end, what prevents the film from being great instead of just good is the lack of time invested in exploring character motivations. A change of heart by one key player in particular, while leaving the cinema hooting with glee because of the outcome, feels rushed. X-Men: Apocalypse hits the high notes and bombastic choruses spot on, but sadly falls short in the simpler, connecting melodies.
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Images sourced from X-Men: Apocalypse