“At least we can all agree, the third one is always the worst,” quips Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey after sneaking away from the X-Academy to see Return of the Jedi with her fellow gifted youngsters. Sadly, the same can be said of X-Men: Apocalypse. It’s not quite up there with The Last Stand in terms of lacklustre X-Men trilogy closers, but it lacks the periodic verve of First Class and Days of Future Past, burying some otherwise strong performances and resonant themes under a bloated cast and a barrage of weightless action.
Apocalypse kicks off with a brisk opening sequence set in 3600 BC where our titular villain, here known as En Sabah Nur, attempts to take over the body of an Egyptian slave who looks remarkably similar to Oscar Isaac. Rebels arrive to thwart the ceremony, burying our baddie beneath a collapsed pyramid for thousands of years. He awakes during the “horror show” of 1983 and sets about recruiting his four horsemen to aid his plan to cleanse the world of weakling humans – everyone’s got to have a hobby.
It’s 10 years after the events of Days and since then the existence of mutants has become a fact of everyday life. James McAvoy’s school of gifted youngsters is finally up and running, Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique is a reclusive hero who spends her down time rescuing mistreated mutants from underground fights, and Michael Fassbender’s Magneto is attempting to live a normal life with his new family in Poland. That is until Apocalypse’s re-appearance forces them to rejoin the world once again.
From the outset it’s clear returning director Bryan Singer is not lacking in ambition. The sets are extraordinarily detailed, from the exquisitely decadent ancient Egyptian pyramids to the sharply designed 80s backdrop – someone has had a lot of fun letting their imaginations run wild. The special effects, too, are technically impressive, particularly the shots of the world’s landmarks being disintegrated into colourful dust clouds.
But while Singer may have succeeded in creating a global scale to match anything we’ve seen in Days or Captain America: Civil War, he forgets to inject the personal stakes necessary to give the apocalyptic spectacle some much needed weight. As a result, the world-levelling carnage feels strangely empty, a vacuous blur of CGI destruction that dazzles the eyes but fails to engage the brain.
In terms of narrative, Apocalypse struggles to balance all of its globe-hopping plot strands into a coherent whole and would likely have benefitted from a truncated cast. McAvoy, Lawrence and Fassbender slip effortlessly back into their roles as elder mutant statesmen, the latter’s Magneto being given an especially heartbreaking (and bitterly tragic) emotional arc.
The new class, too, are appealing additions. Jodi Smit-McPhee has heaps of fun as a Bamfing Nightcrawler, Tye Sheridan is a far more complex and engaging Cyclops than James Marsden could ever muster, and Game of Thrones’ Turner brings all the requisite angst and sophistication to a frighteningly powerful Jean Grey.
But with such a sprawling cast, some characters are inevitably shortchanged. The three non-Magneto horseman are the worst effected, with Storm, Angel and Psylocke being shoved into the background almost as swiftly as they are recruited, with nowhere near enough time given for them to develop any recognisable character traits.
Apocalypse is similarly in desperate need of fleshing out. Isaac does his level best to instil a little gravitas in his ancient mutant, but buried as he is under masses of prosthetics and impressive armour, he struggles to convince of the baddie’s motivation and powers. His abilities remain spectacularly undefined and it’s never quite clear why he needs his four horsemen to complete his mission (except that even genocidal maniacs need friends).
When his catastrophic plans eventually come to fruition, the action again lacks urgency. Taking place in an oddly underpopulated world, there’s little recognition of the consequences involved in destroying the human race, making it hard to appreciate the enormity of the stakes. It’s almost feels as if the end of the world barely matters to the characters involved.
X-Men: Apocalypse fails to match the intelligent themes and slick style of its predecessors, getting bogged down in introducing too many indistinguishable new faces instead of focusing more on its impeccably cast core ensemble. Yet there are more than enough charming character moments from the new class to suggest that, far from running out of steam, the future is bright for this mutant franchise.
Runtime: 144 mins; Genre: Superhero; Released: 20 May 2016;
Director: Bryan Singer; Writer: Simon Kinberg;
Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac
Click here to watch a trailer for X-Men: Apocalypse