Right before I went to see X-Men: Apocalypse, a longtime comic fan of the series called me on the phone and asked if I thought he could follow the newest movie featuring Marvel Comics’ mutant superheroes even if he had not seen 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past.
Having now sat through Brian Singer’s latest attempt to bring the often-philosophical source material to life beyond its comic book origins, I would have to say “Maybe so / Maybe not.”
Without trying to force a sports analogy on the proceedings, X-Men: Apocalypse is very much like following a college team that has lost some of its key players and is counting on some incoming recruits: You cannot help but miss who is out of action, and sadly sometimes the new squad is just too young to live up to the previous standard.
That’s not to say this is by any means a bad superhero movie, but it just never stands on its own to forge a new identity separate from the one that worked so well together before.
Following on the retroactive events of the previous X-Men film, this story focuses on reconciling that narrative while adding a new take on characters from the earlier films and inserting a few new ones along the way to battle a new evil, the titular immortal original mutant Apocalypse (Oscar Issac in what has best been described as Mighty Morphin Power Ranger makeup) as he reincarnates in the 1980s bent on world domination.
Returning vets Professor Xavier (James McAvoy), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) must battle the villain’s acolytes that include Storm (Alexandria Ship), Angel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn) and conflicted anti-hero Magneto (Michael Fassbender) in a mess of CGI which only sometimes connects the story.
The far more interesting subplot involves the new take on mutants arriving at Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters learning to master their mutant superpowers, but Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are quickly thrown into the main adventure.
As was the case in the last X-film, Quicksilver has a few standout scenes, and we once again get a window into Magneto’s tortured pathos. But other than that the varsity players seem tired and ready to move beyond their contractual agreements.
Most of these characters have been previously interpreted on the big screen in other X-Men movies, with considerable insight and character development, and the new players fall short of that legacy. Storm, no longer played by Halle Berry, seems like she is afraid to speak. Jean Grey, originally brought to life by Famke Janssen, comes across as a fawn lost in the woods. Cyclops, presumably a younger James Marsden, is too juvenile. Nightcrawler is too much like German Michael Jackson. Angel falters under the weight of his wings, and Psylocke seems either constipated or surprised whenever she’s on screen. Sorry kids, you need more practice.
While there is the requisite amount of fan service for the comic book crowd (including a “Look, it’s me!” cameo by a certain favorite mutant berserker), it doesn’t add to the overall narrative. And, yes, Marvel maestro Stan Lee has a cameo (this time with his wife), and there is a post-credit scene mysteriously setting up the next film if you know your comic book lore.
Singer does a good job with a story that winds from Cairo to Ohio, East Berlin to Auschwitz, Poland to upper New York state, but at times he tries too hard. The first hour has too somber a tone and the only fun to be had is when Quicksilver literally speeds things along an hour in. Most of the film was shot in Ontario with CGI magic replicating other locations, but what is really missing from the endeavor is any sense of heart and unity between the vets and the rookies. The audience hopes that will happen when the JV players unite with their revered predecessors in the third act, but it all quickly becomes a slavishly concocted superhero procedural with several false finales that send the game into an elongated overtime that left me looking at my watch.
The end result is that die-hard fans of the comics (and the previous films) may find it all too divergent from the source material, while casual fans of the franchise may not get invested enough in this year’s team to even care.
One annoying aspect of it all is that Singer inserts one scene at a movie theater which can only be to throw some shade at his fans. The new mutants sneak off to see Return of the Jedi and upon leaving snarkily remark “At least we can agree the third one is always the worst.”
Sorry Mr. Singer, but the joke is on you. This may not be technically be his third film in the overall Marvel mutant sage, but it is the third outing of this group since 2011’s X-Men: The New Class. Let’s hope the JV gets more time to both grow and have fun when the inevitable next part of the X-Men saga enters the neon 1990s.
Directed by Brian Singer
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Oscar Issac, and a whole lot more.
Running time: 144 minutes, Rated PG-13 for acts of superhero violence and destruction.
Grade: C+: The junior varsity has fun while the returning players seem past their prime in this often mess of a story.