Like in the previous two entries in the latest X-Men series, the newest installment features the characters witnessing and often becoming involved with major historical events. In X-Men: First Class, the characters were firsthand witnesses to the Cuban Missile Crisis while the sequel X-Men: Days of Future Past featured the characters interacting with President Nixon. X-Men: Apocalypse, the latest film in the series, continues the tradition. Most of it takes place in 1983 and features discussions about the building of nuclear weapons in the age of President Ronald Reagan.
The third installment features the beloved X-Men taking on the world’s oldest mutant — a creature who believes he should be in absolute control. Played by Oscar Isaac, the villain known as Apocalypse is an ancient mutant who was buried under centuries of rubble and has only recently returned to the fray. “The world needs to be cleansed,” he says when he sees what civilization has been up to. He plans to destroy civilization and start over.
For the feature’s first forty-five minutes or so, the new film plays out like an introduction to a new cinematic series rather than a third chapter in one.
New younger versions of familiar characters are introduced. There’s Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), a bullied student who realizes that he can destroy whole buildings with only a gaze. There’s Psylocke (Olivia Munn), a mutant with ninja-level skills and telekinesis. And then there’s Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a mutant who can teleport. These are only a few of the fresh-faced characters who receive brief back stories here.
These introductions bog down the feature’s first hour and it’s only in the second hour when Apocalypse’s plan becomes clearer.
“The weak have taken the Earth,” this blue monster states when he watches television and sees nations feuding with one another. He decides that the world is going in the wrong direction amidst political talk of nuclear weapons and superpowers. “No more weapons. No more systems. My more superpowers,” he says.
He’s a peacenik in name only though. He wants to wipe out the weapons, then the people and then begin again. “From the ashes of the world, we will build a better one,” he says.
Unfortunately though, the forgettable character of Apocalypse is too often written as a one-note villain rather than a three-dimensional figure. There's plenty of chatter about what he plans to do but there's no depth in his character to make him really come alive.
It doesn't help that this film too often plays it safe. After directing X-Men (2000), X-Men 2 (2003) and Days of Future Past (2014), Bryan Singer settles in here for a predictable feature that is too busy introducing new characters to really build momentum for this story. With so much focus on new characters, even acclaimed ensemble players like Jennifer Lawrence (Mystique) and Nicholas Hoult (Hank McCoy) are given little to do.
Playing the idealistic Professor Charles Xavier and the tragic Magneto respectively, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender continue to stand out in this series but their relationship here feels very repetitive, as if neither character is moving forward. Xavier is still optimistic about humanity while the pessimistic Magneto faces tragedy once again and his dour outlook returns anew.
As was the case in Days of Future Past, Quicksilver (Evan Peters) has a few great moments that really stand out but unlike that predecessor, this feature doesn’t really reinvigorate the series with the same flair or uniqueness. Too often, X-Men: Apocalypse feels like a misstep for a series that, at its best, offers great action sequences and thoughtful allegory. For a franchise that is often so willing to take chances, this one feels sadly traditional.
As Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) — another mutant who is re-introduced here —notes in a biting line of dialogue, “At least we can all agree the third one’s always the worst.” That sentiment rings true here.
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