If you’ve seen one cinematic apocalypse, you’ve seen them all. At least that’s the feeling conjured by “X-Men: Apocalypse,” the latest entry in one of the more reliable comic-book franchises around, this time disappointingly succumbing to an exhausting case of been-there-done-that-itis.
Director Bryan Singer pioneered the contemporary wave of superhero movies with 2000’s “X-Men,” and made a welcome return to the series just two years ago with the time-jumping “Days of Future Past.” Perhaps he should’ve quit while he was ahead. Even though “Apocalypse” hardly reps the franchise nadir (an in-joke midway through this ’80s-set pic throws deserved shade at Brett Ratner’s woeful “X-Men: The Last Stand” as one character exits “Return of the Jedi” and laments “the third one’s always the worst”), this is easily the least compelling, surprising and satisfying of Singer’s entries.
While the best “X-Men” movies are defined by their keen intelligence, casual wit and deep reserves of emotion (with an affinity for social commentary bordering on Very Special Episode territory), “Apocalypse” serves those virtues up in minimal doses, settling for an extravagant display of visual effects that would have scarcely been possible 16 years ago. That should be enough to secure robust box office overseas, but domestic results could fall notably short of “Future Past’s” sterling $234 million gross.
The wildcard in audience acceptance (and the box office ceiling) for this latest outing is the lack of fan favorite character Wolverine (at least as far as viewers know). The genetically-modified man of war’s absence from Matthew Vaughn’s well-reviewed prequel “X-Men: First Class” was blamed for that film’s relatively underwhelming performance.
Follow-up “Future Past” mixed cast members from both “First Class” and the original “X-Men” trilogy, including Hugh Jackman’s hirsute hero, but “Apocalypse” returns to the core “Class” ensemble of James McAvoy (as Professor Charles Xavier), Michael Fassbender (as his frenemy Erik Lensherr, a.k.a. Magneto), Jennifer Lawrence (as shapeshifter Raven/Mystique), Nicholas Hoult (as brainy and brawny Hank McCoy) and Rose Byrne (as CIA agent Moira MacTaggert).
That lineup isn’t short on talent or charisma, and the addition of series newcomers Oscar Isaac (as titular mega-mutant baddie Apocalypse), Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner and Kodi Smit-McPhee (as younger incarnations of the original trilogy characters Cyclops, Jean Grey and Nightcrawler, respectively) only bolsters the ensemble’s appeal. Except this time Singer and scribe Simon Kinberg give the players precious little to sink their teeth into.
From the opening prologue, set in the Nile Valley circa 3600 BC, it’s clear that Singer aims to take audiences on an eye-popping roller-coaster ride, though in doing so, he leaves behind any pretense of coherent storytelling or character development, as an aging Apocalypse prepares to transfer into a younger body with the help of four devoted minions. The character narrowly pulls it off, as the massive pyramid he had constructed crumbles spectacularly around him, killing his followers and entombing him for the next several thousand years.
The film skips ahead to an Ohio high school classroom in 1983, where life is literally a blur for young Scott Summers (a.k.a. Cyclops, winningly played by Terrence Malick discovery Sheridan). His vision is starting to go, and after a rage-fueled encounter with a class bully unleashes a powerful laser beam from his peepers, Scott is whisked away to Professor Xavier’s school for “gifted” kids by big brother Alex (Lucas Till, another “First Class” holdover).
That’s where McCoy takes Scott under his wing, and (shades of Anna Paquin’s Rogue in “X-Men”) the young mutant is introduced to a world where he can finally be himself — not to mention find a simpatico soul in Turner’s blossoming telekinetic heroine. Several other key characters — including Raven, Nightcrawler, MacTaggert and Evan Peters’ scene-stealing Quicksilver — each make their way to the school in due time.
A parallel storyline tracks Apocalypse’s 20th-century resurrection and subsequent recruitment of four new followers: African orphan Ororo (Alexandra Shipp), fierce Psylocke (Olivia Munn), winged outcast Angel (Ben Hardy) and Magneto, who has been quietly living under an assumed identity in Poland since his failed attempt to assassinate President Nixon in “Future Past.”
Despite a handful of references to President Reagan and the Cold War, “Apocalypse” steers clear of ’80s politics, and instead leans on familiar pop culture references (“Knight Rider,” a Ms. Pac-Man arcade game) and smartly utilized contempo music cues. Metallica’s “The Four Horsemen” scores a wounded Angel’s rebirth via Apocalypse, and Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” accompanies an elaborate sequence of Quicksilver slowing down time to rescue Professor X’s students from an explosion. (It’s meant to outdo the “Time in a Bottle” sequence from “Future Past” but only reinforces what an ingenious and singular way Singer found to demonstrate Quicksilver’s power the first time around.)
Professor X’s school isn’t the only thing that blows up in the ruination-happy “Apocalypse,” but the storytelling never ignites. Apocalypse remains a one-note villain throughout, despite Isaac’s best efforts to imbue the godlike foe with authoritative menace underneath mountains of prosthetic makeup (whatever new fans the exceptional actor gained from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” will hardly recognize him here).
The back-and-forth between Xavier (in the “mutants and humans can live together” camp) and Magneto (in the “mutants and humans can never live together” camp) has grown increasingly tired over six films, even if we’re now witnessing a midpoint in their relationship. Similarly, Raven’s mixed feelings about becoming a role model for mutants everywhere after saving the president in “Future Past” is ho-hum stuff several notches below Lawrence’s formidable skill level.
Although the “X-Men” ensembles are usually large, there are simply too many characters for the action-heavy “Apocalypse” to properly juggle. It’s easy to forget even McAvoy or Fassbender when they’re off screen for too long, and the film functions best when it lets the fresh young trio of Sheridan, Turner and Smit-McPhee take center stage. Still, it’s Peters who emerges as the cast standout in just a handful of scenes, by bringing an offbeat sensibility to a production that otherwise plays campy cartoon material a little too straight.
“X-Men: Apocalypse” certainly represents a high level of Hollywood craftsmanship, from Grant Major’s imposing production design in sequences set across multiple continents to Louise Mingenbach’s multifarious costumes (some lifted directly from comic-book pages, including Munn’s skimpy skintight garb). Regular Singer d.p. Newton Thomas Sigel’s contributions are seemingly enhanced by the work of visual effects designer John Dykstra in nearly every shot, but Singer’s steadfast editor-composer John Ottman once again delivers on his double duty, somehow finding a way (with fellow editor Michael Louis Hill) to zip between a multitude of storylines without drawing attention to the cuts, and scoring the action in a galvanizing, but never overpowering, fashion.