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X-Men: Apocalypse is what happens when a superhero franchise runs out of ideas

Just like Sony's stale Spider-Man series, the X-Men have seen better days.

X-Men: Apocalypse
Oscar Isaac as X-Men: Apocalypse's unfortunate title villain.
20th Century Fox

To really understand X-Men: Apocalypse, you have look back to director Bryan Singer’s first film about the team of superpowered mutants. Released 16 years ago this summer, X-Men was the first fully formed entry in the modern superhero movie canon, and it played a major role in launching the current comic book movie boom.

X-Men succeeded largely on the strength of its faithfulness to the tone and character of the comics. It boasted strong performances in the main roles, particularly from Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart as the leaders of dueling mutant factions, as well as from newcomer Hugh Jackman, who delivered a career-making performance as the grizzled, tri-clawed mutant Wolverine.

Singer’s approach blended cleverly staged comic book action and soap opera–style character drama with an air of cultural inclusivity, casting the mutant heroes as all-purpose social outcasts struggling to gain acceptance in a world that demanded conformity. His 2003 sequel, X2, expanded and improved on these ideas with high-concept action and a deeply political sensibility; it's still one of the high points of superhero filmmaking.

Singer started work on a third X-Men film but left before production began to direct Superman Returns, an elegant but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to revive the Superman franchise. He then tooled around in Hollywood for a few years, working on films like Valkyrie and Jack the Giant Slayer before returning to the X-Men franchise in 2014 with the widely praised Days of Future Past.

Singer, in other words, has been working on the X-Men franchise for the better part of two decades. And it’s finally starting to show.

Apocalypse is the sixth film in the main franchise and the ninth in the X-Men universe if you count solo outings from Wolverine and Deadpool; it's also the fourth one Singer has directed. And while it’s not quite an awful movie, it is a deeply tired one, in which the kinetic spark and social engagement that animated Singer’s previous entries has been entirely drained, replaced with a glum sense that everyone involved is merely going through their contractually obligated motions.

It’s a movie, then, that should serve as a warning to other filmmakers and studios as they pursue a strategy that bets heavily on superhero movies and other long-running film series: This is what happens when a franchise runs out of ideas.

Apocalypse squanders what should be a very strong cast

Almost every element of Apocalypse feels like a wasted opportunity, but the characters and performances are probably the biggest disappointment. The movie manages to fail almost all of its cast members.

Oscar Isaac plays the title character, the movie’s main villain. He's one of the most promising and appealing young actors in Hollywood today, blessed with the skill to effortlessly switch between moody indie-film character parts and effortlessly charming leading-man roles. Yet Apocalypse manages to make him both uninteresting and faintly ridiculous, dressing him up in goofy purple face paint and piling on prosthetics until he looks like a castoff from a Star Trek fan film. Worst of all, the movie disguises his voice, giving it a deep, computer-generated rumble — he sounds like he’s talking through a 1980s synthesizer.

But maybe that's fitting, since the character — an ancient mutant with vaguely defined, godlike powers and no discernible motivation whatsoever to explain his pursuit of world domination — feels more than a little like a bad prog-rock concept album figure come to life. He’s a cheesy villain, not a relatable character with a reason for his actions.

That’s a big transition from Singer’s previous X-films, which grounded their mutant battles in culturally relevant debates about how outcasts should engage with the rest of society. Most of those debates were housed in the relationship between the leader of the X-Men, Professor X, who argued for an open and productive relationship with human society, and the mutant rebel leader Magneto, who tended to support a more aggressive, oppositional stance against humans.

But in Apocalypse, that conflict is almost entirely absent, and so is the rivalry between Professor X and Magneto that has long served as a backbone for the series. Without it, or anything else to define them, both James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, who have played the two mutant leaders in recent installments of the franchise, end up delivering flat, unconvincing performances.

Just about every player in the movie seems adrift: Returning supporting cast members like Nicholas Hoult and Rose Byrne have almost nothing to do except deliver snippets of exposition, and the slew of new heroes are unmemorable at best, grating at worst.

Sophie Turner, for example, appears as a young Jean Grey, a role previously played by Famke Janssen. Turner is usually solid as Sansa Stark on HBO’s Game of Thrones, but here she comes across as both whiny and emotionally blank.

Tye Sheridan, who plays a teenage Scott Summers, seems entirely out of his element, and he has none of the preppy swagger that James Marsden brought to the role in the first three X-Men films. Ben Hardy, Alexandra Shipp, and Lana Condor as Angel, Storm, and Jubilee, meanwhile, fill out what looks to be a new, young team of X-Men, but barely make any impression at all.

The characters' motives are largely missing and/or illogical

The problem for all the characters is essentially the same: None of them have any basis for doing what they’re doing, which eventually turns out to be battling each other in a clunky, computer-generated finale that casually destroys a handful of major global metropolises. They’re just going through the motions of appearing in a superhero movie, because that’s what movie superheroes do, and superhero franchises have to go on forever.

Even Apocalypse’s best moments are weighed down by a sense of obligation and repetition. A cameo by one of the franchise’s most beloved characters delivers a bloody, violent kick but doesn't offer anything new or interesting about said character. There's an elaborate, extended sequence showing off Quicksilver’s powers, but it doesn't inspire the same unexpected thrills as the similar sequence that wowed us in Days of Future Past. It’s entirely perfunctory.

Several older characters, including Grey and Summers, appear in the form of newly recast young actors via the magic of the complex time travel–related continuity reset at the end of Days of Future Past. But the specifics of the how the new continuity works, and how all the different timelines fit together, are terribly unclear. They appear to have been worked out mostly to allow for the cheaper, younger cast to step in and take over.

Viewed this way, the motivations start to make more sense — not as narrative but as franchise imperative. X-Men: Apocalypse’s story and characters only make sense as a series of business decisions. It’s less of a movie and more of a two-and-a-half-hour announcement of a new franchise marketing plan.

The movie only exists because the X-Men franchise must go on, at least in the studio's eyes

This is one of the big dangers for the extended franchise model of filmmaking — that characters and series will be kept alive not because there’s a story to tell, but because the franchise must be kept alive.

We’ve already seen this happen with Sony’s ho-hum efforts to reboot the Spider-Man series — leading to two competent but essentially repetitive Amazing Spider-Man films that struggled to justify themselves. Like X-Men: Apocalypse, they were franchise placeholders, existing only because some movie with Spider-Man in the title had to exist.

Industry leader Marvel has largely avoided this problem, in part by expanding its universe to include a wider variety of characters, some of whom are not obvious bets for standalone movies, and in part by letting those characters play off each other in ways that generate character-driven tension and conflict.

Indeed, one reason Spider-Man was so successful in Captain America: Civil War was that we got to see the character interacting with the larger cast of Marvel universe characters, playing his youthful sensibility off the older heroes. It wasn’t exactly a risky move, but it placed him in an environment we’d never seen him in before — in contrast to Sony’s dull reboots, which insisted on showing him in situations we’d seen so, so many times already.

Ultimately what these sorts of long-running fantasy film franchises thrive on is a continual injection of fresh ideas and a willingness to try new things. It’s not an accident that Marvel Comics has long referred to itself as the House of Ideas. Marvel’s films have their flaws, but they are stuffed, maybe even overstuffed, with ideas. Not all of those ideas work, but enough of them do. (This is part of what made Deadpool work as well.)

X-Men: Apocalypse, in contrast to both Marvel and Singer’s earlier X-films, is a by-the-numbers production with no ideas at all, just a dutiful sense that something like it has to exist. It's primarily an advertisement for the franchise’s future, and it’s not a promising one — especially given the recent news that Singer has been put in charge of expanding the X-Men franchise into an entire Marvel-style universe of films. It’s clear at this point that Singer doesn’t have enough material for even one more X-Men movie, let alone a whole universe of them.

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