If there’s one constant in the X-Men movie universe, it’s how easily discernable the series’ titular mutants are from the rest of us. Most of these films’ “homo superiors” seem to be blue—and I’m not just referring to the color of their skin (or fur or scales). The uniquely talented students at Professor Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters tend to mope a lot more than your average angsty teen. Unfortunately, that’s also just about the only consistent thing in X-Men: Apocalypse, the sixth film in 20th Century Fox’s 16-year-old superhero franchise, the fourth to be directed by series originator Bryan Singer and the second to fall flat on its blue face.
Singer’s atypically thoughtful X-Men (2000) functioned as a parable about homophobia—heady stuff for a genre that had traditionally been treated as kiddie fare—but that allegorical underpinning was relegated to the closet once Singer departed the series after directing an even better sequel (2003’s X2). Not only did action replace allegory, but the movies’ chronology became a convoluted mess.
Good luck making sense of Singer’s latest if you don’t have a working knowledge of the other films. I’ve seen all six, and it would take half of this review to try to explain how all the movies fit together—or don’t. But needless to say, Brett Ratner’s third, Singer-less film (2006’s trilogy-ender, X-Men: The Last Stand) was such a disaster—with critics and fans alike—that Matthew Vaughn began a second trilogy with 2011’s superb X-Men: First Class by discarding what came before. Vaughn moved the action back 1962, cleverly tying his plot into the Cuban Missile Crisis, while recasting the roles of mutant-kind’s two figureheads with younger actors. Xavier, the peaceful X-Men leader originally played by Patrick Stewart, was now portrayed by the less follicularly challenged James McAvoy; his former friend, the militant Eric Lensherr/Magneto, whose lifetime of suffering was reflected in Sir Ian McKellen’s craggy face, now sported Michael Fassbender’s handsome visage. Singer had the best of both worlds when he returned to the helm with 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, a time-travel yarn that bounced between 1973 and 2023, which allowed him to utilize Stewart and McKellen in the future-set scenes, McAvoy and Fassbender in the past.
Singer and his three co-writers have set their latest, X-Men Apocalypse, in 1983, and they’ve brought most of the mutant gang back. Curiously, none of their characters have visibly aged since 1962. Not Fassbender’s Lensherr, nor McAvoy’s Xavier, his colleague Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) or even Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne), Xavier’s old CIA flame. Why? Why not? Singer certainly doesn’t seem to care. But why ’83? Sadly, it may have been chosen to set up a throwaway gag. Early on, in a bit of meta-commentary, telepath Jean Grey (Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner) has skipped school to take in the latest blockbuster movie with a few classmates. As they exit a theater showing Return of the Jedi, Jean proclaims, “Well, at least we can all agree the third movie is always the worst.” How right she is.
By far the silliest, most comic book-y of the X-Men movies, Apocalypse is overstuffed with inferior callbacks to Singer’s earlier efforts. The first act alone is, beat for beat, an overblown reconfiguration of the 2000 original’s opening. Instead of Rogue, it’s young Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, stepping in for James Marsden) who nearly kills someone with his terrifying new powers. Rather than Wolverine, it’s Angel (Ben Hardy) who’s introduced during an underground cage match, where he’s forced to fight Kodi Smit-McPhee’s teenaged Nightcrawler, a character who was more memorably introduced while infiltrating the White House in X2, when he was portrayed by Alan Cumming. And like Lensherr, this film’s villain and his mutant abilities are introduced via a pre-credit flashback. But unfortunately, En Sabah Nur, aka Apocalypse, is no Magneto.
A big reason for this is that Oscar Isaac, the talented thespian portraying Apocalypse—an all-powerful “false god” who absorbs other mutants’ abilities as he transfers his consciousness across the centuries from one body into another—is buried under mounds of terrible (and yes, blue) prosthetic makeup that render the actor unrecognizable. And while Magneto’s hatred of humanity stemmed from unthinkable acts like the Holocaust, Apocalypse is simply applying an Old Testament mindset to his delusions of godhood.
Meanwhile, another longtime villain of the series, the shape-shifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), has been promoted to hero, reluctantly leading the proto-X-Men against an apocalyptic scourge of cheap-looking sets, even cheaper-looking costumes and CGI that has the fake, plastic look to match the newfound cartoonishness of it all, as more of the Earth’s monuments are destroyed (and populaces presumably killed) than in all of the Avengers, Batman and Superman films combined. For longtime fans, it’s enough to make them blue in the face—or red with anger.
X-Men: Apocalypse *1/2
Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Oscar Isaac, Rose Byrne, Olivia Munn, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Lucas Till, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Hardy, AlexandraShipp, Lana Condor, Warren Scherer, Rochelle Okoye, Monique Ganderton, Fraser Aitcheson, Ally Sheedy and Hugh Jackman. Written by Simon Kinberg, based on a story by Kinberg, Bryan Singer, Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris. Directed by Bryan Singer. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway, Somerville and in the suburbs.