Halfway through X-Men: Apocalypse, a group of young mutants walk out of a screening of Return of the Jedi. “If we can agree on one thing,” Jean Grey (Sophia Turner) says, “It’s that the third one is always the worst.” While the remake is clearly a jab at the lackluster X-Men: The Last Stand, it ends up being a self-referential remark, as X-Men: Apocalypse is the weakest of the prequel trilogy. That being said, it’s a kinetic, fun ride, and while it lacks the dramatic weight of the previous two installments, it avoids many of the cynicisms that plague modern blockbusters.
It’s 1983, and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has successfully established a home for mutants with his school for gifted students. Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) has also found peace, abandoning his violent past to form a family away from civilization. But the mutants are once again brought into conflict when Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), an ancient mutant, has arisen from rest to raise a legion of mutants to take the planet back from humanity.
But Xavier has new allies, in the form of Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan). The young actors do exceptional work here, brining the humanity to the franchise which is so often given spectacle, and in between the extensive action there are smaller, more intimate moments that raise, or even establish the stakes. Turner in particular nails the dramatic work, with a particularly strong emotional revelation in the film’s climax, while Smit-McPhee gives the film some of its best humor.
James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender continue to be the best thing in the entire series, and the relationship between the iconic characters has evolved to a healthy climax in the film. Fassbender’s opening scenes being some of the highlights of the entire franchise, a heartbreaking addition to an otherwise fluffy movie. Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult are serviceable, and while they give fine performances, there ultimately there to populate the action sequences. On the other hand, Evan Peter’s Quicksilver is a welcome addition to the film, juxtaposing a levity to the dramatic heft brought by the principal cast.
Unfortunately, the villains of the film are less compelling. Oscar Isaac hams it up as Apocalypse, and while there’s little depth to the character, he is genuinely menacing and poses a threat to the heroes. However, the remaining team of Apocalypse’s mutants, Magneto notwithstanding, are barely developed and pose little emotional attachment once the climax is reached. However, the ending battle does have a spectacle barely reached by the X-Men films, and has enough payoffs from the subplots established earlier in the film.
The thing is, there’s nothing really bad in X-Men: Apocalypse, but the film suffers from its editing. Certain subplots are brought up, such as Xavier’s capture or the bonding between Cyclops and Jean Grey, and aren’t brought up again until much later in the film. It’s ultimately a collection of numerous good scenes, and while they fit together well, the flow awkward at points.
X-Men: Apocalypse is awe-inspiring at points, and while it’s not perfect, there’s a passion that Bryan Singer brings to the material that elevates it. It’s undeniable that at points characters feel aimless and the story is bloated, but it’s almost impossible to deny the ecstatic joy that comes from seeing a group of beloved characters in a confluence together, existing in a real, mirror world. If there’s one thing to be taken away from X-Men: Apocalypse, it’s the appeal of these characters in any circumstance, and the ability to depict a comic world within a modern environment. Grade: B+
For more thoughts on X-Men: Apocalypse, check out my appearance on “After Credits”: