With the first generation of superhero-film action stars beginning to age out, it’s quite clear that studio executives are searching madly for the “restart” switch. Within the last 20 years, we’ve gotten two versions of Superman, three versions of Spider-Man, and three versions of Batman…all of which are supposed to exist in discrete “universes” wholly divorced from one another.
“X-Men: Apocalypse” – beneath its spectacular effects and summer-blockbuster adrenaline – tests the limits of the “reboot it all” strategy. While it’s certainly very entertaining, it both lacks the emotional resonance it strives for and suggests the presence of fairly serious problems for the franchise moving forward.
Set in the 1980s, “X-Men: Apocalypse” takes place in light of the continuity-resetting developments of 2014’s “Days of Future Past”. Because this gets confusing, here’s the gist of how the X-Men timeline looks at this point (I’m not including the Deadpool/Wolverine spinoffs):
OLD TIMELINE: First Class —> Days of Future Past (1970s scenes) —> [X-Men —> X2 —> The Last Stand] —> Days of Future Past (future scenes)
NEW TIMELINE: First Class —> Days of Future Past (1970s scenes) —> Apocalypse (1980s)—> Days of Future Past (“new future” closing scene)
As you can see, the first three X-Men movies have basically been wiped from the slate – so we have a new Jean Grey, a new Cyclops, and younger versions of eternal rivals Professor Xavier and Magneto. The cast is great, as it’s always been – James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence headline things. Story-wise, “Apocalypse” cribs a bit from the “Underworld” school of plotting: the big baddie here is a revived En Sabah Nur, the “first mutant” who possesses deity-level powers and was worshiped as a god in ancient Egypt. As one might expect, En Sabah Nur attempts to purge the earth of human civilization and once again be revered as divine. Many explosions follow.
Let’s start with a big positive: this is the first X-Men movie where the franchise’s superhumans aren’t actually holding anything of their power back. If you (like me) have longed to see everything these characters can do when they’re throwing down with full force, “Apocalypse” is immensely satisfying: this movie is laden with truly breathtaking, cataclysmic destruction. (Trivial quibble: I would have dearly loved to hear the “Phoenix Rises” musical cue when Jean finally unleashes her powers. It’s great. Look it up.)
That being said, “Apocalypse” sadly doesn’t come close to the heights of its immediate predecessor.
Freed from the dense narrative labyrinth of “Days of Future Past,” director Bryan Singer’s characters are stuck in an endless holding pattern. Young kids face social exclusion and need to be taught how to control their superpowers? Check. Magneto and Xavier express fundamentally different visions about how the world should relate to mutants? Check. Barely tested kids have to become “X-Men” and forge a coherent team identity? Check. Military attempts to weaponize mutants? Check. Wolverine smirks and scowls and slices some things up? Check. The effects might get better, and the continuity may get denser, but Singer is telling virtually the same stories as he was in 2000 – and things are wearing threadbare. (Some of the repetition is truly egregious. Gritty cage fights between “wild” mutants? Saw that in the first X-Men movie. Fights with William Stryker’s henchmen in a bunker suffused with green-tinged lighting? Seen it twice before -yes, we get a third version of Wolverine’s origin story here.) For all its concussive fury, “Apocalypse” feels fundamentally inconsequential in the grand scheme of X-Men storytelling. According to comic lore, En Sabah Nur is allegedly the worst enemy of the X-Men . . . here, however, deja vu proves to be a far greater threat.
In short, it truly isn’t clear what narrative Singer is trying to tell – a problem arising in large part from the film’s lack of a clear protagonist. Though some comic purists have decried previous films’ fixation on Wolverine, that’s because fans like Wolverine and are rooting for him to succeed. But here, “Apocalypse” takes such a broad view of its ensemble cast that it becomes alienating. Is the film about Xavier and Magneto finally finding common ground? Is it about young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) learning to use her powers? Is it about an ancient mutant god trying to take over the world? “Apocalypse” is stuffed to the gills with plot material, but very little actual plot.
In the spirit of my past critical reviews, here’s how “Apocalypse” could’ve been fixed fairly easily to address these problems. For starters, viewers already know (based on the final scene of “Days of Future Past”) that the events of “Apocalypse” will not be so disruptive as to kill off any main characters or result in seismic changes. Accordingly, in order to keep the stakes high, set “Apocalypse” as a sequel, rather than a prequel, to that present-day “Days of Future Past” closing scene. (“The Sentinels didn’t destroy our heroes, but maybe En Sabah Nur will!”) Bring back Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen, Halle Berry, Patrick Stewart, Kelsey Grammer, Ellen Page, and Ian McKellen to face their worst-ever enemy. Not only does this offer a chance to redeem the much-derided “X-Men: The Last Stand,” it keeps the emotional stakes high by retaining the characters audiences have invested in. If Marvel recast its Captain America or Iron Man and attempted to pull off a similar continuity-swap, I guarantee their profitability would take a hit: people want to see Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. play those roles, not some fresh-faced newcomers. (Same principle applies to Indiana Jones; James Bond is the rare franchise that has managed to successfully keep reinventing itself). Sure, it might be expensive to bring that cast back, – but let’s be real, any X-Men summer movie is going to make truckloads of money, and great reviews will only compound that.
If you’ve stuck with the X-Men series since day one, you’re already on your way to see this and no number of critical reviews will dissuade you. And if you don’t care about an overarching narrative and don’t mind revisiting old tropes, “Apocalypse” is certainly great fun. But having seen how good X-Men movies can be, “Apocalypse” feels like a tragically missed opportunity.
(If we get an Old Man Logan movie, though, all of this will be forgiven. Please, Fox. Please. I don’t ask for much.)
Fun and eminently watchable, but destined to frustrate continuity wonks beyond measure.
Normalized Score: 1.6