The X-Men franchise was instrumental in leading the film world towards the current state of superhero saturation and, 16 years on from the first instalment, the series has endured. There have been sequels, prequels, spinoffs, reboots and whatever Days of Future Past was, eventually leading up to X-Men: Apocalypse, an enjoyable but uneven addition to the series.
It’s 1983 – ten years after the events of previous film Days of Future Past – and though the US and Russia are both threatening to flex their nuclear muscles, there’s relative peace in the mutant community. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) – the crippled, telepathic hero of the series – is running his School for Gifted Youngsters, providing a place for young mutants to learn and hone their abilities. Xavier’s old-friend-turned-enemy-turned-friend-again Erik Lensher aka Magneto (Michael Fassbender) – the Holocaust survivor who can control and manipulate metal – has returned to Poland, found a job in a steelworks and started a young family.
Whether in the shape of McAvoy and Fassbender or their older predecessors Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, Xavier and Magneto have always provided the central conflict of this series. There is always respect there and often friendship but Xavier’s hope of peace and coexistence is at odds with Magneto’s more militant ideals. So when an ancient mutant named Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac, hidden beneath a ton of makeup) resurfaces after centuries of dormancy, it’s no surprise that Xavier and Magneto end up on opposing sides of this all-powerful being’s plan to wipe out mankind and let the mutants rebuild the world from the ground up.
The pros and cons of the film – which marks series regular Bryan Singer’s fourth outing in this universe – are very much the same as usual in this series. What Singer excels at is giving characters big moments and showing off their powers in inventive, interesting ways. Quicksilver (Evan Peters), the superfast mutant who stole the show in Days of Future Past, gets another film-stealing sequence here that’s technically impressive and loaded with visual wit and humour. The film also recasts classic characters Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and each one gets a standout scene, from Cyclops destroying a beloved part of Xavier’s estate or Jean realising the full extent of her powers at a crucial moment.
Singer knows and loves these characters but while he gives some of them the room to make a big impression with relatively slim screen time, others are hung out to dry. It’s a tough act to balance such a packed ensemble and here Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg have struggled to involve all of their characters in compelling ways. Some characters, like new arrival Jubilee (Lana Condor), get nothing to do at all while others, like Rose Byrne’s Moira McTaggart, hang around watching all of the action take place.
Two of the stalwarts of this latest run – Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) – don’t fair too well either, with Hoult’s screen time limited and Lawrence, clearly disinterested in this series, giving one of her least charismatic performances. McAvoy and Fassbender both shine, particularly Fassbender who is gifted a more complex character arc, but are side-lined in unnecessary ways for much of the film. How many times do we need to see Magneto stuck holding a huge structure of some description for a large chunk of his screentime? There must be something more interesting they can do with him.
That lack of invention spreads to the film’s climax too. For all the impressive sequences in this film, they ultimately jut build to a finale that feels dull and uninspired, placing the key players in the same space to have a clumsy showdown that’s full of beams and explosions and carnage but very little inventiveness. A scene set entirely inside Xavier’s mind is full of potential to do something special and different but rarely strays beyond a standard punch up.
Though Apocalypse is a solid and enjoyable film, it feels like a let-down after the series high of Days of Future Past and struggles to find a plot that can contain all of these characters in a way that’s coherent and does them justice. What’s promising for the series is how well the newcomers slot into their roles – particularly Sophie Turner as Jean Grey – which could provide a long life for the franchise if Singer and co can find something worthy of both the actors’ and the characters’ talents.