X-Men: Apocalypse is a conundrum upon itself. A reflection of the superhero genre that is neither pithy and smart nor very boring. It’s a strange film indeed, one that thinks it’s pushing forward into new territory but is really just regressing in the most futuristic way possible. This is the ninth film in the series and it feels, in many areas, like the first. Or at least the first of a new line of movies that will forever recycle its limbs like a gecko chasing its own lopped-off tail.
This is the fourth superhero movie of the year and the third to feature an all-star juggernaut cast that goes crash-bang-boom against itself. The first was terrible – a grim, washed-out explosion-fest that had the charm of a nasty itch. The second was perhaps one of the greatest superhero movies I have seen. The third is simply confused. Like all the X-Men movies, Apocalypse is a farmer who has no idea how to corral his sheep into the barn.
There are so many characters here that I gave up counting after 233. There’s Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner); Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Storm (Alexandra Shipp); the teleporting Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee); Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence); Angel (Ben Hardy); Quicksilver (Evan Peters); a lot of newbies; and of course Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who have been locked in a personal struggle since time immemorial. You’d think that after 16 years these characters would’ve advanced beyond the dour socio-political differences that govern their lives, but no – here in 2016, after nine films, Xavier and Magneto are still arguing over apples and oranges, and it seems to be sucking the mirth out of everyone else. Next to the X-Men, Captain America and Batman look like cheerleaders on spring break.
The plot, such as it is, has been issued and recycled more times than I care to count. An all-powerful mutant called Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), whose powers apparently include sewing, returns from a 5,000-year-old crypt to wreak havoc upon the Earth in a manner most unpleasant, which today means tearing it to bits using CGI tricks. The X-Men must once again unite to remind all the children just how very important teamwork is.
Apocalypse is revived by fanatical Egyptians, stalks Cairo’s dusty 1980s streets, and later learns bizarrely through the television that humans are capable of nothing more than total genocide. Think back to The Fifth Element (1997). Remember that heartbreaking scene of Leeloo sobbing in front of the computer as she studied mankind’s hateful ways? This is just like that, only without the heartbreak, or the orange hair. It feels more like a contrivance to spur Apocalypse on toward annihilation. Why didn’t he tap into footage of Mother Teresa or Gandhi instead?
Never mind. The movie races past exposition like a bullet train. There are so many personal stories to unhinge, so many characters that need screen time that I imagine the director, Bryan Singer, spinning them all like plates on poles, only this time, after his fourth go, the plates have started to crash.
Many of the subplots make little sense – why does one of the villainesses look like a Mortal Kombat princess? – and the movie’s big idea of progress is Xavier losing his hair. Yet for all its blindness, the movie is embarrassingly entertaining. It is proficient, confident filmmaking, at least in technical terms. The action is loud and absurd, like any good superhero movie. The acting is supremely serviceable. The heroes come together to do good and to look unhappy doing it. It’s great, sardonic fun. It just isn’t one of the X-Men’s better outings.
And for goodness sake, someone shove these characters into the next millennium. Look at Captain America: Civil War. See where those characters have gone, are going, and will go. There’s a new horizon waiting for them. Xavier and his band of unmerry men have been tumbling around in the same forlorn universe for over a decade. Give them a break. They’re already going bald.