X-Men: Apocalypse

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday May 27, 2016

'X-Men: Apocalypse'
'X-Men: Apocalypse'  

It's 1983, and a group of teens wander out of a matinee showing of "Return of the Jedi," arguing over the relative merits of the three films in the original "Star Wars" trilogy. One likes "The Empire Strikes Back" best; another speaks up to defend "A New Hope" as his favorite. Someone else jokes that the third installment in any franchise is always the weakest.

Ha, ha, and -- upon further reflection -- ha. If Bryan Singer, who directed the first two "X-Men" movies (in 2000 and 2003, respectively), is taking a Wolverine-style swipe at Brett Ratner (who stepped into helm "X-Men: The Last Stand" (2006), the third installment of the original trio), then Singer must, in all honesty, offer up his own back for a critical lashing for the ham-handed, barely cogent disappointment that is "X-Men: Apocalypse." The new film is, after all, the third in a trilogy of its own, and Singer himself only returned to the X-Men with 2014's prequel/sequel time-travel epic "Days of Future Past," after Matthew Vaughn re-launched the X-Men in 2011, with a new cast, in "X-Men: First Class."

Where "First Class" (set in the 1960s) and "Days of Future Past" (set in the 1970s as well as a dystopian time period roughly around now) offered retro-sleek vitality, reinvigorated style, and a dose of realpolitik, "Apocalypse" feels like a trip to the B-grade comic book back issues bin. As mentioned above, the setting is 1983; it's the time of Reagan, and -- ten years after the events of "Days of Future Past" -- an era of gradual, grudging acceptance for mutants. Dr. X (James McAvoy) has got his school for the "gifted" running smoothly and his own personal issues sorted out (well, mostly), and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is living happily Poland with a wife and daughter. But we know the future...a future of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in the two principal roles, not to mention a presidential candidate whose hair and nonsense-spewing motor mouth constitute bona fide super powers. We know these happy, peaceful times are not meant to last.

The plot centers around the resurrection of a powerful mutant -- perhaps the world's first -- named En Sabah Nur, a.k.a. Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac, his formidable talents wasted on another big-paycheck, soul-corroding blockbuster). This big, bad dude has taken over the bodies of many mutants across the ages, and he's absorbed their powers in so doing; he's like Sylar from "Heroes," only less apt to put skin and hair products to good use. He was conquered and left buried more than three thousand years ago, but a cult devoted to his memory manage to find his tomb in the long-collapsed rubble of a gigantic pyramid and bring him back to life.

With one glimpse at the corrupt world of 1983, the newly-risen Apocalypse decides that things have pretty much gone to hell and a reckoning is called for to wash away mankind's iniquities and restore mutants to positions of supreme and unquestioned dominance. He sets about assembling a small army of followers: The winged Angel (Ben Hardy), the meteorologically talented Storm (Alexandra Shipp), the violet energy-wielding Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and -- yes, of course -- Magneto, who is back to his old tricks after suspicious Polish villagers sic the local police on him.

A concerned Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) knows Magneto is in trouble when he crops up in global headlines. She attempts to enlist Xavier's help, but after a devastating attack levels Xavier's school it's up to her, new recruit Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) to rescue Xavier, pull Magneto back from the brink of darkness, and defeat a super-villain so powerful he uses downtown Cairo as raw material to psychically 3D print himself a new gargantuan pyramid and base of operations.

The film is already overstuffed, but manages to cram a few more characters into the mix. CIA bigwig Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne) has a substantial role to play, as does Quicksilver (Evan Peters); chalk them up on Team Raven. Also, the arrogant, careerist Col. Stryker (Josh Helman) elbows his way into the action, mostly as a way for the filmmakers to justify throwing in a cameo appearance by Wolverine (Hugh Jackman).

At least super-people fighting among themselves is an X-Men staple, so it feels like a natural fit in this case rather than another example of the newest, and already tired, trend in superhero flicks. The trope didn't work out well for "Batman v. Superman," where it was out of place; here, it just feels like more of the same old. Only "Captain America Civil War" got it anywhere close to right this blockbuster season, mostly because that film was about something. (Something other than CGI pyrotechnics and crunchy, gritty Dolby sound design, that is.)

If there's any meat under the burning gristle of "Apocalypse," it's hard to identify. For such a simplistic storyline, the complications seem endless -- and, more often than not, only loosely bolted on. The timely gay rights/anti-gay backlash subtext is overt (much as the gay angle was obvious in the first two X-Men movies), but that's not enough in and of itself to conjure up substance. Story points whirl with the speedy, frenzied abandon of the shrapnel that litters the film's inevitable (and tiresome) climatic battle, and in the end no one seems quite sure what all the fuss was about -- not even Apocalypse himself who, upon beholding one of the good guys, exclaims, "All has been revealed!" Really? Well, buddy, I wish you'd share. We could use some enlightenment here.

Oh, and by the way, if you're hoping to be rewarded by sitting through twelve minutes or so of scrolling credits, forget it. There's no "there" there: No final scene, no teaser for the next movie. It's a relief, really. Maybe we can tie a bow on the X-Men and find a whole new box of toys someplace else.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.