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Review: X-Men: Apocalypse is a step back for the X-Men franchise

X-Men: Apocalypse.
X-Men: Apocalypse.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Apocalypse, the titular villain in X-Men: Apocalypse, has a funny tic.

Every time he uses one of his superpowers — he's acquired many over the years — he lets loose a low moan. The sound is like the last few seconds of an aggressively mediocre orgasm or the first few seconds of a trip to the toilet. And it's uncannily fitting that it's the same sound I made when Apocalypse, the third film in the rebooted X-Men franchise, ended.



Apocalypse presents no threat to Captain America: Civil War's title of best superhero movie of the year. Nor does it challenge Batman v Superman as the worst. It almost feels like a mashup of the two — the gristly bits of Civil War and the sterling parts of BvS.

Parts of this film hint at greatness, as if it's going to turn a corner and stop being flagrantly average. But ultimately Apocalypse still comes undone, barely sputtering to the finish.

The film is messy and disorganized, a disparate mix of superhero flash dulled by a soulless script and a terminal lack of logic. Classic characters like Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) finally get depictions that celebrate their comic book origins, but their well-deserved moments in the spotlight are damaged by the mechanical roles written for Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). And there's the strangely utilized Oscar Isaac as a Apocalypse: a promising and charismatic actor encased in a costume that looks like something you'd find tucked away in Joel Schumacher's erotic red room.

Apocalypses are supposed to be grand events of world-breaking disaster and spectacle. This one, of the X-Men variety, does represent an end of sorts — just not in the way it intended.

The problem with X-Men: Apocalypse is Apocalypse

The one great thing the X-Men franchise has going for it, in both the comic books and the movies, is that it's been blessed with really, really good villains.

The greatest of them is Magneto, a man whose gruesome experience during World War II crystallizes a pessimistic, violent worldview. Mystique (who straddles the line between villain and antihero depending on the movie and the comic) and William Stryker — a premier villain in the comic books and the main antagonist of Bryan Singer's X2 — embody a similar kind of charisma, a set of beliefs that forge action.

Their stories, the good X-movies and best storylines from the comic books, succeed because these villains aren't just being evil for evil's sake. It's easy to understand why they act a certain way, even though you don't agree with them.

Apocalypse, an all-powerful and enduring cornerstone of the comic book franchise, was supposed to be next in line. But this film lets him down immensely.

Apocalypse, a.k.a. En Sabah Nur, is the first mutant, as Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) explains to the X-Men's leader, Charles Xavier, and has gained immortality and a vast array of mutant powers by transferring his being into different mutants over and over for many years.

His routine consists of picking four protectors, imbuing them with power, and then, when the spirit moves him, finding a new mutant to body swap with. But the last time he did this, a band of ancient Egyptian rebels interrupted the process, rendering him unconscious for thousands of years. In Apocalypse, he somehow wakes up in the '80s and decides, after literally touching a television screen and absorbing the information of several television shows, that he wants to find four new horsemen and wipe out the world to show people what true power means.

"Everything they've built will fall! And from the ashes of their world, we'll build a better one!" Apocalypse screeches.

Like one of those humans on an HGTV series who is insistent on an open kitchen, Apocalypse has many desires that totally lack any logic behind them. The film doesn't explain what kind of world he wants to build or whether he fully understands that if he demolishes the current world, all of his future servants, both humans and mutants, will perish.

Nor does the movie really explain why this ancient, all-powerful mutant would limit himself to four bodyguards. In the comic books, Apocalypse gives his four mutants specific powers that mimic the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — Death, War, Famine, and Pestilence — but that's absent here.

Does he have power restrictions? Is there some tradition he's adhering to? Does he prefer even numbers? Even if the film had included a throwaway line to say he can't give power to more than four, that would still be better than leaving it unclear.

Whatever the reason, it didn't work out the first time this process was interrupted, and you would think he'd want to avoid a second 5,000-year coma.

But the main problem with Apocalypse is intent. There movie doesn't do enough to characterize his motives.

We know Magneto wants to kill things because he watched his family die. We know Mystique is at odds with humans because they can't see past her appearance. We know Stryker wants to kill mutants because his son was born as one. We know Sebastian Shaw wanted to start a third world war to give way to a world where mutants rule.

We only know Apocalypse wants to destroy the world because he watched some bad television and grunted. And having that kind of explanation at the center of a film where everyone's fighting for their lives is X-Men: Apocalypse's fatal flaw.

Michael Fassbender shines, but the other stars fade

X-Men: Apocalypse. (Fox)

The heart of the rebooted X-Men franchise has always been the surprising and compelling chemistry between its biggest stars: McAvoy as Professor X, Lawrence as Mystique, and Michael Fassbender as Magneto. Even when the plots of the first two movies grew unwieldy (basically when they tried to incorporate the Cuban Missile Crisis and the intricacies of time traveling), the main trio grounded both films with their performances and made the movies about their characters' emotional lives.

Simon Kinberg's screenplay for X-Men: Apocalypse forgets this franchise constant.

The three actors rarely share the screen as a trio. Instead, McAvoy's Xavier is written as a smarmy, romantic lead, complete with dopey sidekick Alex Summers (Lucas Till). It's unclear what kind of dark magic Till has tapped into to make it to his third X-Men movie, but it's clearly very powerful.

Meanwhile, Lawrence's Mystique is written as an off-brand Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. Lawrence, clearly bound to the franchise by contractual obligations, has to prattle off Everdeen-esque lines like, "Forget everything you think you know — you're not students anymore! You're X-Men!" with a spiritless stare.

Fassbender's Magneto is given much meatier stuff to work with. It's the first time we see him happy, allowing us to imagine what it would be like if Magneto were the best father in the world. Then, thanks to even more familial tragedy, we see him revert to the Magneto we all know — the solemn, pained figure from the first two films whom Fassbender has seemingly lived in forever.

Fassbender is more than pulling his weight here, but Apocalypse isn't a Magneto spinoff film — it's structured around Isaac's unfortunate title character.

Isaac has the impossible task of trying to emote behind layers of purple body paint, prosthetics, and plastic tubing. His face is in a constant slump, as if he's waiting to tell you he isn't angry, just disappointed. When Apocalypse isn't letting out one of those strange grunts, he's about as imposing as a stern roommate.

Apocalypse's shortcomings eclipse not only Fassbender's performance but also the promising mutant debuts from Turner's Grey, Shipp's Storm, and Kodi Smit-McPhee's Nightcrawler. All three are granted scenes that do their characters justice, adding welcome bits of humanity and, in Smit-McPhee's case, doses of much-needed brevity. You could build a nifty franchise around the three.

Other mutants, like Olivia Munn's Psylocke and Ben Hardy's Angel, also make their rebooted debuts (both characters appeared in X-Men: The Last Stand, but because of timeline jumping in Days of Future Past, the events of The Last Stand thankfully never happened), but they don't get to do much. Psylocke sits around snarling in an unflattering outfit while Angel just poses like a dated David LaChapelle model.

The X-Men franchise's strength has always been its cast. Apocalypse completely forgets that.

The one thing Bryan Singer is good at isn't enough to save the film

One of the most shocking disappointments plaguing Apocalypse is how bad and cheap a lot of it looks. The Apocalypse character aside, there are multiple instances in the movie when Apocalypse's group of mutants are just standing in a "team pose" that was clearly filmed against a green screen. And some parts of the grand battle are visually predictable and so weightless that the scene becomes stagnant.

It's embarrassing that though the film reportedly had between a $178 million (there were reports that it was even higher) budget to play with, the result is a handful of aggressively flat fight scenes.

What makes these deficiencies so surprising is that as a director, Singer has proved that he understands how comic book superheroes and their superpowers work. His opening sequence for X2, featuring Nightcrawler teleporting in and out of the White House, was brilliant. The way he's envisioned Cerebro, the tool that allows Charles Xavier to see every mutant on earth, is enthralling. And people are still talking about his Quicksilver scene in Days of Future Past, though I'd argue his true success in that film was translating a character like Blink — who can teleport by using pink daggers made of energy — into a live-action movie and making her more visually impressive.

Nightcrawler and Quicksilver both get superpowered showcases in Apocalypse where Singer successfully recreates their magic. And it's clear he's in his comfort zone with certain characters more than others. But those standalone moments aren't enough to salvage the overall visual feel of the film, which generally sees Singer going for the predictable.

Perhaps my disappointment is linked to Singer's failed potential. The director has showed varying degrees of promise and even flashes of brilliance in working with the X-Men franchise — X2 is still one of the best superhero films ever created — but Apocalypse doesn't ever display a willingness to be daring.

Singer was supposed to give us the end of the world, and what seems to be a sendoff to the franchise's original trio of stars (Lawrence, McAvoy, and Fassbender haven't said whether they're coming back). Instead, Apocalypse follows the superhero script by the numbers, beat for beat, until its bitter end. And both the franchise and its cast deserve better.

We’ve hit peak lens flare. Here’s how it started.