X-Men remains cinema’s most venerable comic book continuity, retaining a single (admittedly loose, frayed) narrative thread through from 2000’s original right up to the new Apocalypse – twice the length of even the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s eight years atop the superhero throne. Is it any wonder, then, that it’s all beginning to feel a little tired?
Director Bryan Singer is back for his fourth X film, after taking care of the first two, before returning for 2014’s Days of Future Past, undoubtedly the franchise’s peak. Outside of his hands, the films have ranged from middling (First Class) to execrable (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), but it looks like even his powers are now fading.
This time around the team of plucky young mutants, led by James McAvoy’s Professor X, must unite in the face of Oscar Isaac’s En Sabah Nur (a.k.a. Apocalypse, though no-one ever actually calls him that), allegedly the first mutant and inspiration for all the best bits of Egyptian mythology, now awakened after a few millennia-nap. We first meet him in a slightly naff 3,000 BCE prologue, which at least suggests some interest based on the boundless weirdness of the ancient Egyptian belief system, but by the time he reaches the modern day he’s just a prosthetic-caked Oscar Isaac with some ill-defined plans to conquer the world.
To do that, he recruits the Four Horsemen (of the Apocalypse, geddit?): Magneto, Storm, Angel, and Psylocke. Michael Fassbender is back as the former, though is given almost nothing to do except scowl for a couple of hours. Newcomer Alexandra Shipp shows a lot of promise for future installments with her punky, vibrant performance, but Ben Hardy and Olivia Munn are given so little to do as Angel and Psylocke that they might as well not have turned up.
The heroes fare a bit better. Nicholas Hoult is as charismatic as ever as Beast, and Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner has an interesting, introspective take on Jean Grey that gets a bit lost by the end. Best of the bunch are Evan Peter, returning as Quicksilver, and Kodi Smit-McPhee, consistently endearing as the preternaturally awkward Nightcrawler. Jennifer Lawrence, meanwhile, looks like she’s here to collect a paycheque, and her Mystique has never been so dull.
An apocalyptic threat brings with it apocalyptic destruction, naturally in the form of skyscrapers tumbling and cities being levelled. We’ve seen it all before, and Singer unwisely opts to draw the camera back for these big effects extravaganzas, as if to offer destruction on the biggest scale and widest panorama he can manage. The real effect is to rob it all of both visceral impact and human consequence, replicating the dull, detached destruction of Man of Steel’s final act.
Outside of a few witty Quicksilver sequences, the action is mostly rote. It’s fine, and it might even have been impressive a few years ago, but it doesn’t really cut it any more, not when Marvel are raising the bar for superhero slugfests with the likes of Civil War. Where that film juggled its sprawling cast into an all-out brawl, Apocalypse prefers to split everyone up into manageable 1-on-1 fights, and thus misses out on the chance to really explore the different players’ powers.
Above all, Apocalypse smacks of missed potential. Singer is better than this. The cast are better than this. Apocalypse himself should be a better villain than this. This won’t be the last we’ve seen of the X-Men by any means, but let’s hope that by the time we see them next, they’ve got a few new tricks to perform.
Words by Dominic Preston