There's a scene in X-Men: Apocalypse, which is set in 1983, where some of the characters are talking as they leave a screening of Return of the Jedi.As they debate which is better – Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back – one of them says "at least we can agree the third film is always the worst." This obvious dig at X-Men: The Last Stand could also be applied to Apocalypse, which is the final part of a trilogy that includes X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past. The two previous films were excellent – the first, directed by Matthew Vaughn, introduced a fresh young cast of rising stars and the second saw Bryan Singer return to the fold and effectively reboot the franchise with a time travel plot that eliminated the mistakes made in The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. So it's a shame that Apocalypse flounders on the usual problems of too much destruction, too many characters and too little plot.It was always going to be hard for X-Men: Apocalypse, coming after the impressive Days of Future Past and opening in a year that includes Batman v Superman and Captain America: Civil War. The former might suffer from an excess of characters and a lack of humour but Zak Snyder certainly knows how to orchestrate wholesale destruction; and the latter was the perfect example of how to deliver a large cast of characters in an exciting way, whilst still retaining a coherent plot and a sense of humour. The makers of Apocalypse were undoubtedly prepared for those two tentpole releases from rival studios but they couldn't have foreseen that their biggest competition would come from a small R-rated film set in the same X-Men cinematic universe.
Deadpool was a total shot in the arm with its irreverent style, violent action and adult humour and, as a result, it took $750 million at the global box office and became the most successful X-Men film ever. Whilst no one was expecting the same adult approach in a big-budget PG-13 movie like Apocalypse, the result does feel rather tired and stale compared to the previous film. The blame almost certainly lies with director Bryan Singer and writer Simon Kinberg, both of whom are responsible for the cinematic X-Men universe. Kinberg also had a hand in the truly awful Fantastic Four and whilst Apocalypse is far better than that film, it must still be considered a disappointment.
The story picks up ten years after the events of Days of Future Past and takes place in the revised timeline created by that film. Professor X (James McAvoy) has, with the help of Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), established his school for the gifted, Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is now married with a child and trying to live a normal life as a steelworker in Poland and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is still helping persecuted mutants. Their respective worlds are shattered by the return of an ancient super-mutant, one of the first, called Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) - who was teased at the very end of Days of Future Past, in a scene that showed him building the pyramids with his powers. Incidentally, you should stay until the very end of the credits of Apocalypse for another scene that presumably sets up the next X-Men film.
The basic plot is taken from the Age of Apocalypse storyline in the comics, although the title was changed to avoid confusion with Avengers: Age of Ultron and Transformers: Age of Extinction. Interestingly the basic premise of a super-mutant and his followers facing off against other mutants in a battle for control of the planet is very similar to the main storyline in the third season of Agents of SHIELD, which sees a super-inhuman and his followers facing off against SHIELD for control of the planet. For those that don't know, 'inhumans' are essentially mutants in the Marvel Cinematic Universe but Marvel can't call them mutants because that term comes under the deal in which Twentieth Century Fox bought the film rights to the X-Men.
As the final part of a trilogy that includes First Class and Days of Future Past, Apocalypse feels like a disappointment.
As a villain, Apocalypse's motives and even his actual powers remain under-developed and although Oscar Isaac tries his best under layers of make-up, you never really accept him as a credible threat. This lack of character development is a constant issue in the film with Storm (Alexandra Shipp), who is a major character in other X-Men movies, getting little in the way of backstory and Angel (Ben Hardy) getting none at all. Psylocke (Olivia Munn) fares better, even if she does look like she walked out of a 1980s S&M club, and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) adds some much needed humour to the film, proving to be as effective a character as he was in X2: X-Men United. The backstory to Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) is well handled, as is his relationship with his bother Havoc (Lucas Till), but the jury is still out on Sophie Turner's Jean Grey. The Game of Thrones star is certainly pretty but her version of the character felt crushingly dull, especially compared to Famke Janssen in the earlier films.
Even the more established characters seem under-developed at times with Magneto's new life feeling completely out of character and Jennifer Lawrence playing Mystique as a blue version of Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. Not that Lawrence appears as the blue version of Mystique very often in this film, presumably because she was sick of walking around naked. Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who stole the film in Days of Future Past, has another stand-out sequence but this time it feels like too much and you have to question exactly how fast he actually moves. In fact the seemingly limitless powers of certain characters was difficult to take, particularly in the case of Magneto, but at least by establishing Jean Grey's powers Singer has set himself up for another go at the Dark Phoenix saga after the botched version in The Last Stand.
Too often in Apocalypse the filmmakers deliberately reference other X-Men films and this only serves to remind us of how much better they were. The new film seems to lack the interplay between the characters and the wit that made some of the other X-Men films so enjoyable and the bloodless destruction of cities feels strangely unmoving. In fact that was one of the major failings of Apocalypse, it failed to engage the viewer on an emotional level in the way that Captain America: Civil War did so successfully. The film also has some fairly mediocre effects and it's design choices often left a lot to be desired, with Apocalypse himself looking decidedly rubbish. Some of the costumes are also poorly conceived with certain characters looking like they walked out of a Duran Duran music video and, despite its 1980s setting, we're pretty sure Professor X wouldn't let a Miami Vice-era Don Jonson influence his sartorial choices.
You also have to question exactly how old some of the characters are supposed to be, given these events are taking place twenty years after First Class. In the case of Mystique it's easy to explain away because she can appear as anyone but Michael Fassbender doesn't look like a man knocking on the door of fifty. X-Men: Apocalypse does at least manage to keep a few surprises up its sleeve, unless you watched the film's final trailer, with one stand-out sequence in particular that must have pushed the limits of the film's rating. However it often seems uninspired, with the relationship between Professor X and Magneto endlessly repeating, Quicksilver's character arc feeling unfinished and Jennifer Lawrence phoning her performance in as she fulfils her contract and leaves all this nonsense behind her.
The film finishes with the X-Men once again assembled but if Singer and Kinberg plan on making more films and apparently the next one will be set in the 90s, they really need to shake things up and create a story that's a bit more original.
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