In “X-Men: Apocalypse”, a few characters debate about the “Star Wars” trilogy, with one of them declaring the third movie to be the worst. This is an in-joke to 20th Century Fox’s “X-Men: The Last Stand”, which felt overstuffed with action and too many characters. While it’s a stretch to compare “X-Men” with “Star Wars”, there are several moments that makes one pause.
Directed by Bryan Singer, the new is a sequel to “X-Men: First Class” and “Days of Future Past”. Set in 1983, mutants have been public knowledge for ten years and mostly tolerated by society. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is still running his School for Gifted Children in Westchester, New York. Among the students are telepath Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), the younger brother of Alex Summers (Lucas Till). Scott is troubled and withdrawn due to being unable to control his optic blasts. Jean is also somewhat of an outcast, because she is powerful enough to read minds.
Charles’ foster sister Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) is travelling the world to help her own kind. Having saved the world back in 1973, she is revered as a hero by the mutant populace- a title which she dislikes. In Germany, she rescues former circus performer Kurt Wagner (Kodi Smit-McPhee) from a life of abuse. Meanwhile, Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) is in Egypt on a CIA assignment, where she witnesses the awakening of Apocalypse/En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), an ancient being regarded as the first mutant.
Upon waking, Apocalypse decides the world has been corrupted by false gods and must be destroyed, so he can rebuild civilization. To do this, he begins recruiting street thief Ooro Monroe/Storm (Alexandra Shipp), cage-fighter Angel (Ben Hardy) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn) as his Horsemen.
Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) has put his tragic past behind him. No longer Magneto, he resides in Poland as a factory worker and has a family. He appears to have moved on from waging war on humanity and seems at peace. After preventing a mishap with his powers, he is exposed and loses his family. Apocalypse arrives to offer Erik a place as the Fourth Horseman, which he accepts. Now, it is up to Charles, Raven and the X-Men to stop Apocalypse’s plan of world destruction.
The cast does fine with the material they’re given, but it feels stretched thin at times. As an older, mature teacher, McAvoy channels Patrick Stewart’s Xavier in his heartfelt moments with the students and friends. Fassbender gets to have several dramatic moments of agony, despair and rage. His portrayal of Erik is a man who tried living in peace but feels doomed to suffer. Lawrence feels more confident as Mystique, yet she doesn’t have much more to do than guide young mutants. One cannot help but wonder if she is just phoning her performance in.
Once again, Evan Peters steals the show as Quicksilver with an elaborate rescue sequence set to the Eurythmics’ song “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”. Nicholas Hoult reprises his role as mutant teacher/tech expert Hank McCoy/Beast but doesn’t get much to do for most of the plot. Likewise, Lucas Till’s role is solely for the purpose of playing big brother to Sheridan’s Cyclops. Rose Byrne is the person who kicks off the plot and sides with the mutants for the film. She has good chemistry with McAvoy, and it is a shame McTaggert’s relationship with Charles isn’t explored further.
The newcomers are a welcome addition to the series. Sheridan plays Scott Summers with more of an edge than James Marsden’s reserved portrayal in the previous films. His agony over his power offers insight into what it means to be a mutant. Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey is troubled over being able to read minds, feeling that something powerful is growing inside her. While she resembles Famke Janssen, Turner gives a vulnerable, nuanced performance.
Smit-McPhee steals the show with his humorous portrayal of Nightcrawler and provides a lighter balance to the film. Shipp’s portrayal of Storm is more aggressive and edgy than Halle Berry’s version, and it is cool to see her sport a mohawk in 1980s style. Buried under prosthetics, Oscar Isaac is physically convincing as Apocalypse, but he is given little material to work with. Whereas he should be scary, Isaac gets to deliver speeches and philosophize on rebuilding the world. Olivia Munn is fascinating as Psylocke during fight scenes, but she isn’t given a lot of backstory or depth. Finally, Hardy’s Angel is visually impressive but sidelined for most of the film. What could have been interesting is sadly underused.
Singer is good at presenting action, but the overstuffed quality of the plot feels a little too much. The globe-trotting nature of the story feels similar to “First Class”, and the big focus on destruction is an improvement over the “mutants versus humans” plot of past X-films. We are also treated to another appearance by Colonel William Stryker (Josh Helman), whose sole purpose is to capture the mutants and experiment on them. This leads to a surprise cameo by Hugh Jackman as the Wolverine of Weapon X. While this scene might be exciting to watch, it feels like fan service to those expecting Jackman to show up.
“X-Men: Apocalypse” has some good performances and amazing visuals, but it suffers from the problems that “Last Stand” depicted in balancing characters. Nevertheless, the movie feels like a satisfactory conclusion to this trilogy. Here’s hoping Fox will take the X-Men in a new direction for the future.