The X-Men film series stands completely alone in the world of film franchises. When the first X-Men film was released in 2000, it was pretty much the only player in the game. Marvel had yet to unleash the multi-headed, many-tentacled being they call the MCU and the rules had yet to be written with regards to the way a franchise “should” be. That has resulted in a series that skews closer to the kind of continuity comic books generally live by: characters get rebooted, killed off, resurrected, reintroduced and ignored all the time. Bad calls (like the ill-fated third installment, directed by Brett Ratner) get written around or off completely, timeline continuities are fucked with and the general concept of a coherent universe is more or less ignored.
That certainly seemed to be the case with X-Men: First Class, the 2011 film that “rebooted” the franchise by flashing back to the events of the Cuban missile crisis and the early lives of Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and Professor Xavier (James McAvoy). We’ve lived with these actors in these roles long enough, it seems, to forget that the films were always meant as prequels — that, though it might take a few more movies to get there, they were all ultimately leading to the ones with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. (I seem to recall some sort of parallel universe explanation in one of the previous films, but at this rate it almost feels like a parallel-universe explanation of my life where my hair colour differs slightly from universe to universe.) It seemed footloose and fancy-free with all of the ’60s and ’70s haircuts in the previous two installments, but X-Men: Apocalypse is the first sign that the ship might have become too big to steer comfortably.
The year is 1983. Exiled after the events of the last film, Magneto is living under an assumed name in Poland with a wife and young daughter. Professor X is still running his school for gifted students, though a newer crew of young mutants make up the crew, with Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) now a teacher. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is also in hiding after the events of the last film pegged her as a more-than-reluctant hero. Shit actually hits the fan when CIA operative / Prof X’s sometime paramour Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) finds herself investigating a rogue cult of mutant worshippers that not-so-accidentally resurrect the mutant Jesus / the mutant devil (it’s complicated), Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac).
Sophie Turner, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Tye Sheridan in X-Men Apocalypse
Suffice to say there are a shitload of new characters (re) introduced here, including young Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), whose brother Havok (Lucas Till) introduces him to the mutant community after his laser-beaming eyesight makes life in the regular world too difficult; Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), a telekinetic mind reader who lives life terrified of her own powers; Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a German emo kid with blue skin and teleportation skills and three other mutants we’ve also met before (Angel, Storm, Psylocke) who are introduced as henchmen of Apocalypse and given roughly a dozen lines of dialogue combined.
Where X-Men begins to buckle under its own weight is in the sheer amount of characters and of character backstories present here. The film takes nearly an hour to get any sort of narrative wheels in motion and once again presents us with a dull antagonist in the form of Apocalypse.
It should be a finable offence to waste an actor of such talent as Oscar Isaac on a villain in Power Rangers-level facepaint and a digitally modified Brando-esque whisper/wheeze. Granted, the dude is several thousands of years old, but the film never really succeeds at making Apocalypse more than a generic bad guy, and yet he’s supposed to be THE bad guy upon which all bad guys are historically modelled.
Oscar Isaac as Apocalypse
X-Men: Apocalypse is also increasingly concerned with its own inner squabbles — where the two previous films integrated the Cuban missile crisis and Nixon into its storyline, this latest installment is more interested in setting up and deflating various conflicts and struggles between characters. The great strength of the X-Men has always been its expansive cast of characters, but there’s a finite amount of soap opera drama a movie can withstand and still hold together. Poor Magneto has, at this point, suffered so many vengeance-worthy atrocities that cause him torment and anguish that he could have his own-standalone series where he remakes the Death Wish movies.
When X-Men: Apocalypse finally gets going after a solid hour of world-building, it’s certainly not terrible. Singer continues to be the most efficient visual stylist working in superhero films at the moment. His battle scenes are clean and cogent and exciting without causing seasickness and seizures, and the fact that the X-Men have so many different mutant powers means that the fight scenes have variety by default. The acting is generally decent, though most of the cast isn’t given that much to do, and once again Evan Peters’ Quicksilver is given the standout sequence in the film, a slo-mo action sequence in which he saves the students of the school from an explosion set to “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).”
I’m just not sure what the end game is. The producers have announced that the next film will be set in the ’90s, which gives them only one film before the whole damn thing circles back onto itself. ■
X-Men: Apocalypse opens in theatres on Friday, May 27. Watch the trailer here: