All the major comic book adaptations released in 2016 so far have featured revelatory references to 1980s properties: From Deadpool’s fourth-wall-stomping riff on Ferris Bueller to the blink-and-you-miss-it Excalibur shout-out in Batman v. Superman or Civil War’s playful nod to The Empire Strikes Back. X-Men: Apocalypse is no exception, taking some of its teenaged heroes to a mall where they watch (and review) Return of the Jedi. A seemingly throwaway period gag, it traces as illuminating a link as the ones established between Snyder’s film and the faux-Wagnerian hamminess of John Boorman’s reimagining of the Arthurian mythos, or Empire’s complex emotional core and Civil War. Just like Return of the Jedi, X-Men: Apocalypse is a fan-pleasing spectacle that does not live up to a dramatically richer predecessor, trading character-driven action for the flash and bang of special effects extravaganzas. To make things worse, as entertaining conclusions to solidly built trilogies as they are, both movies’ plots fall apart upon minimal examination, compromising the internal logic maintained through the franchise and ultimately leaving the fans with an aftertaste of vacuity and disappointment.
Loosely inspired by the Age of Apocalypse comic book storyline, Bryan Singer’s fourth entry in the mutant franchise picks up a decade after 2014’s Days of Future Past. It’s 1983 and the world has come to a begrudging acceptance of mutants as a quotidian matter, with Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) peacefully running his school, Magneto (Michael Fassbender) settled in a low-profile domestic bliss back in his native Poland, and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) still hiding from the notoriety brought to her by the role she played in the events of Days of Future Past. Of course, this frail truce ends when En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), an Egyptian demigod believed to be the first mutant and who laid dormant for centuries, is reawakened. With the fate of humanity in balance, it comes to the X-Men to stop En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse, leading Xavier, Magneto, and Mystique to cross paths once again.
Brandishing a plotline as streamlined and standard as they come, it’s paradoxical that X-Men: Apocalypse’s main problems boil down to Simon Kinberg’s script. Leaving the overarching conflict aside, the story tries to fit in way too many characters and narrative detours to allow the main plot to build and resolve satisfactorily. For starters, Kinberg brings back two main characters from X-Men: First Class (2011) who had not featured in Days of Future Past, using them as exposition-machines or cannon fodder. Second, it tries to introduce yet another “new generation” of mutants — Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Jubilee (Jana Condor), Psylocke (Olivia Munn) — while inheriting the one that was supposed to take the baton following the 2000s-trilogy-wrapping time-traveling conceit of Days of Future Past. Third, it attempts to bring closure to the current trilogy’s leading trio (Magneto, Mystique, Professor X), as the actors fall out of contract. All this not to mention the many landmines laid by Kinberg’s own continuity-retconning Days of Future Past script or the obligatory (and trailer-spoiled) Wolverine cameo. It’s too much even for a 144-minute film to handle, and Singer and company would hardly be to blame if they had not managed to pull-off a similarly daunting task in Days of Future Past, which had the added difficulty of featuring multiple versions of the same characters, parallel timelines, and even more mutants.
With so much going on around it, one cannot be surprised when the film’s main story turns out as hollow and cursory as Apocalypse’s inexplicable mass-murdering impulses. Oscar Isaac’s titular baddie is evidently powerful, yet does not feels like a real threat. His motivation to destroy humanity is never explained aside from a short 1980s TV zapping episode, which leaves him a severely lacking character by default. Capable of turning men to sand and nearly indestructible, there’s no reason for him to search for henchmen/lieutenants/horsemen — who once recruited are confined to scowling and posing behind him. Unsurprisingly, one of his horsemen barely has four lines in the whole movie, others dilute into the background after promising introductions — Storm is presented in a way reminiscent of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977) Palestinian segment, outlining an interesting character, though she almost vanishes after such a brief moment.
Things do not fare better on the side of the X-Men. Cyclops’s origin is cleverly set up, in a tone similar to First Class’s, but once the action gets underway he cannot shake the aura of being a minor league player when pitted against more seasoned mutants — something applicable to all the new players. Not that the recurring cast members have much to do themselves: Mystique spends about 20 minutes of screen time randomly teleporting through East Berlin, Professor X gets to chill with Apocalypse on a mountain near Cairo after he uses him as a telepathic loudspeaker, and so forth. All in all, the less said about character development the better. Forget about Professor X and Magneto’s ideological fencing, once a staple of the series, which gets but a passing mention in this film’s very last line. Kinberg’s script lacks subtlety, telegraphing every emotional moment to the point they border on self-parody, any foreshadowing dealt with extreme clumsiness and all references to past movies forced on the viewers assuming they have no prior knowledge of the franchise.
Not even the action scenes can save a movie as fragmentary and slapdash as this one. The absence of character motivations and narrative underpinnings already work the conflict pretty thin, and those minimal stakes are further undermined by cheap-looking special effects and a dull staging. For all the world-reaching cataclysm Apocalypse promises, the final confrontation between him and the X-Men revs down to an exchange of multicolored rays within a half-a-block radius. It’s not an isolated event, with Wolverine’s cameo bafflingly shot in the style of many 1980s cheapo horror videos. The campy Ancient-Egypt-set opening scene and an exciting super speed sequence courtesy of Quicksilver (Evan Peters) somewhat redeem the tally, though the latter will suffer from diminishing returns if it continues to be used as gratuitously as done by Singer in this movie. The same goes for the period choice. If First Class tied into the civil rights/mutants allegory and featured an alternate dénouement for the Cuban Missile Crisis, with Days of Future Past reflecting the sleazy politicking of the Nixon era, there’s nothing here to justify the 1980s setting except some questionable wardrobe choices and a few pop culture references.
Then again, perhaps the link we are looking for is more spiritual than the overt history-tampering of previous entries. There are many shades of the Emperor’s cackle-ridden cajoling of Luke Skywalker in Apocalypse, who repeatedly lays his hands on the head of the mutants he’s trying to seduce while he calls them “My child.” His ancient-alien vibe resonating with the echoes of Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon (1980), the movie’s opening crawl taking a musical cue from Tobe Hooper’s 1985 horror sci-fi lunacy Lifeforce… It is easy to picture X-Men: Apocalypse right at home next to the summer blockbusters of the 80s and 90s; its awful puns and “villain appears — is bad — must be stopped” structure fitting in with little problem even as far back as 2008. Thing is, that is something one can also say about Masters of the Universe (1987), Judge Dredd (1995), or, for that matter, the notoriously reviled X-Men: The Last Stand (2006). We have come a long way in what can be done with, and thus expected from, comic book movies in the eight years since the advent of the superheroe film bonanza; not least thanks to Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men films (and to some extent Days of Future Past). That X-Men: Apocalypse fails to deliver even in the terms of old-school action spectacles, undoing some of the good the franchise has cultivated through the past 16 years, adds insult to injury, turning a mediocre movie into a truly dreadful one.