Well, there goes the planet. Again. And not really. Superheroes, especially the metaphorically rich X-Men, used to find more to do than expositionally fretting about the evil villain’s plan to end the world, but now it’s become a lame game of comparing powers. Mine’s better than yours! Well, mine’s bigger! In the superhero team's latest go-round, the fittingly named, terribly dressed Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), an ancient Egyptian mutant who awakes from a long slumber after a fun, energetic prologue, clearly thinks his powers are the best and biggest of them all. Naturally, that means it’s earthly demolition time. His name practically demands it.
Apocalypse’s first order of business is to recruit four mutant followers whom he imbues with enhanced powers. A good way to beef up your team, but Bryan Singer’s direction is so superficial that the enhancements appear to be almost entirely cosmetic. So Storm (Alexandra Shipp) gets her iconic white hair, Angel (Ben Hardy) gets metal-coated wings—so much cooler than stupid feathered wings—and Psylocke (Olivia Munn) just loses most of her clothes. This is all so they can basically stand behind or beside Apocalypse as they teleport around in a transparent purple sphere and talk about how much world-ending havoc they’re going to wreak.
Oh boy, the wreaking! You better get ready for it. This is going to be mass destruction on a mammoth digitally-dialed scale the likes of which you haven’t seen since, oh, well, at least last week. Remember when you last saw cities get destroyed by vaguely generic CGI and things like bridges buckled and buildings crumbled on the big screen? Well yeah, now you can watch it again. Except it’s even blander than usual because this is precisely not where Singer excels.
He’s never been a Roland Emmerich or a Michael Bay, so why attempt such an impersonation now? Singer’s first X-Men movie was a study in action efficiency, comic book panels come to life so that each fight sequence had a few indelible images and then the bout was over with the cinematic equivalent of turning the page. His second X-flick was bigger, longer, but still impactful in terms of action because Singer once again presented the battles as compact collections of intriguing images instead of constant flurries of nonsensical activity.
Now it’s just pixels and particles with little attempt made to differentiate between various textures and shapes. As a result, the superpowers take on a soupy redundancy, as if Apocalypse playing with sand is visually the same as Magneto toying with floating shards of metal. Cooking your superhero pic in a computer is the norm nowadays, but whereas Marvel Studios’ extensive green screen work looks like it was carefully prepared in the cinematic kitchen, X-Men: Apocalypse just looks like it was microwaved.
Perhaps the radiation went to everyone’s head. This is nearly 150 minutes of character introductions and reintroductions and promises of world-ending mayhem and other promises of world-saving heroics. It’s basically a recruitment reel on both sides of the fight, including a drawn-out and laughably predictable segment that restores a briefly reformed Magneto (Michael Fassbender, more wasted than ever) to his glorified status as one of the world’s angriest mutants.
We also witness the return of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, equally wasted) and the youthful rebooting of several characters originally introduced in Singer’s first two X-flicks. The kids only have so much to do, but they’re the key. Tye Sheridan and Kodi Smit-McPhee lend their frightened teen versions of Cyclops and Nightcrawler a believable sense of adolescent disorientation.
Sophie Turner is a bit wooden in her portrayal of Jean Grey, but not to the point that she can’t make an impression. If only the script cleared the way for her arc instead of frantically focusing on every character and constantly cutting away to Apocalypse and his cronies for split second reminders that they’re still standing there.
This is what’s most baffling about X-Men: Apocalypse, that it all seems quite simply fixable in spite of the avalanche of errors. This should be Jean Grey’s movie through and through, but in reality, it’s only her movie when Singer runs out of distractions. In the midst of this mess is a clear story about a powerful young girl who fears her abilities, but bravely fights to control them, finally realizing that she’s capable of truly great things. She’s afraid that she’ll hurt people only to discover that she can actually save them.
The ending is begging to be a gloriously moving moment for Jean, an act of personal catharsis that could separate this movie from the myriad multiplex-filling superhero flicks out there nowadays. And it’s surprising that this potential avenue ended up so far out of Singer's reach, considering the gentle sensitivity with which he attended to Rogue’s arc in the first X-Men movie. The care he handled that storyline with is precisely what’s needed here and making this the tale of Jean’s triumph would dramatically ground what is a rather fruitless exercise in fluff.
But no, we need to meet and re-meet every other character imaginable, topping it all off with an obvious cameo and a limply employed subplot surrounding the romantic relationship between Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) that was previously developed in X-Men First Class and best left there. There’s also the seemingly endless shots of destruction that aren’t even an impressive display of expensive effects work.
This is a case of having the right pieces, but clouding them with countless other diversions. Why spend so much time on Charles trying to once more pull Magneto back from the brink of disaster if the umpteenth serving of this conflict is going to be summed up with a dialogue exchange carried over word-for-word from the first X-Men movie, back when these characters and their relationship were actually worth caring about?
Singer seems to be trying to emulate his own X2, which juggled and forwarded multiple arcs without diluting any of them, but that movie worked as a balanced expansion and extension of the more intimate franchise-launching X-Men. Apocalypse is covering territory we’ve seen explored many times before and it attends to multiple arcs out of some misplaced sense of duty instead of telling the stories of characters with something new to offer.
So Jean’s story is buried under loads of weightless CGI rubble as a ridiculous-looking villain floats around spewing his evil ideology while thirtysomething James McAvoy inches ever closer to looking like Patrick Stewart and Olivia Munn strikes a pose in her underwear. Oh, and don’t forget the city carnage. You can never have your fill of shots showing digital cities being flattened, unless you’ve actually watched other blockbuster movies of the past few years. Nearly destroying the world sure is bland when it’s threatened week after week. Saving it, of course, is where the juicy details lie, but the emotion on display here is all recycled sap.
Singer once made the X-Men interesting by wrapping the franchise around a conversation about the perception of superiority and the scars of prejudice. With nothing more to add to the subject, he now seems preoccupied with what it looks like when one powerful mutant telepathically smacks another powerful mutant. It’s the kind of thing we’ve seen too frequently too recently, a comparison of abilities that isn’t personal, meaningful, or memorable. Now these characters are just action figures tossed into the digital fray. Perhaps a punch is worth a thousand pixels, but surely heart and originality are worth more.