The X-Men movie franchise has been a mixed bag up to this point, with nine films that have ranged from bona fide hits (Deadpool, X-Men: Days of Future Past) to projects that fans would probably rather forget (X-Men Origins: Wolverine). The majority, however, rest somewhere between the two extremes, offering a balance of good and bad that can differ wildly depending on who you ask.
It’s in the latter category that X-Men: Apocalypse, the latest installment of the franchise, seems destined to end up.
Directed by Bryan Singer, who has helmed four of the six films that make up the original X-Men trilogy and the recent, rebooted trilogy, X-Men: Apocalypse pits the popular mutant team against one of its greatest foes, En Sabah Nur — a mutant villain known as “Apocalypse.” Possessing the power of countless other mutants who sacrificed their bodies and abilities to him ages ago, Apocalypse wakes from entombment beneath Cairo in the 1980s, and after seeing the world as it is, decides that it’s time to burn it all down and start over. Bummer.
Apocalypse seems intent on letting its audience know that the franchise is passing the torch to a new class of X-Men.
Cast in the role of Apocalypse is Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Ex Machina actor Oscar Isaac, who does a surprisingly good job of being over-the-top sinister without becoming outright silly, which is no small feat given how easily the character could slip into the latter. Apocalypse is joined in his destructive crusade by the master of magnetism, Magneto, played once again by ever-reliable franchise actor Michael Fassbender. Assisting them are three newcomers to the rebooted franchise, including The Newsroom actress Olivia Munn in the role of telekinetic ninja Psylocke, Alexandra Shipp as the weather-controlling Ororo “Storm” Munroe, and Ben Hardy as the winged mutant Angel.
Apocalypse and his “Four Horsemen” are opposed by returning franchise characters Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), Hank “Beast” McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), Raven “Mystique” Darkholme (Jennifer Lawrence), and Peter “Quicksilver” Maximoff (Evan Peters). They’re joined by a group of new, young mutants familiar to X-Men fans, with Tye Sheridan as Scott “Cyclops” Summers, Game of Thrones actress Sophie Turner in the role of Jean Grey, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the teleporting mutant Nightcrawler.
X-Men: First Class actress Rose Byrne also reprises her role as CIA agent (and non-mutant) Moira MacTaggert.
While the film takes some dark turns, X-Men: Apocalypse does a nice job of striking a relatively consistent tone in the sweet spot somewhere between the brighter, more lighthearted Marvel Studios movies and the dour, dark vibe of Warner Bros.’ live-action DC Comics universe. It’s a tone that has served the franchise well so far (with occasional exceptions for spinoff projects like Deadpool) and allows the films to explore the sort of serious themes the X-Men comics were known for dealing with — prejudice, civil rights, etc — while retaining the fantastic elements that make the team’s adventures so entertaining.
Although Apocalypse opts to focus on more simple, well-worn themes — revenge and redemption — it avoids being too heavy-handed, and lets the characters and the action drive the story forward rather than lecturing the audience.
Of the newcomers not named Oscar Isaac, Sophie Turner offers the most compelling performance of the bunch as Jean Grey. Along with shouldering the weight of what seems to be some big storylines to come, she also holds her own in scenes that pair her with McAvoy, Lawrence, and some of the other, high-profile cast members. Sadly, neither Olivia Munn or Ben Hardy do much to elevate their characters beyond background players, and despite getting plenty of opportunity to shine, the other newcomers don’t offer a whole lot, though it’s exciting to think of their potential in future films.
Much like in X-Men: Days of Future Past, the real standout in Apocalypse is Peters’ fleet-footed mutant Quicksilver, who’s given another memorable sequence that showcases not just his superhuman ability and sense of humor, but also some brilliant cinematography and visual-effects work from the film’s behind-the-camera team. Clearly, Singer set out to up the ante after the clever “Time in a Bottle” sequence from Days of Future Past received so much praise, and the result is an even more complicated sequence that begs to be watched a few times over.
The real standout in Apocalypse is Peters’ fleet-footed mutant Quicksilver.
Although McAvoy, Fassbender, and Lawrence continue to anchor the rebooted franchise (and do as good a job of it as one would expect from actors that have one Oscar win and six nominations between them), Apocalypse goes out of its way to indicate that this might not be the case for long. Even more than it explores themes of revenge and forgiveness, Apocalypse seems intent on letting its audience know that the franchise is passing the torch — to the point where it occasionally doubles back on plot points just to hammer home that there’s a new class of X-Men.
Of the three films that make up the rebooted franchise so far, X-Men: Apocalypse manages to feel like the most self-contained story of the bunch. Still, despite having the freedom to to take its characters in new directions without the obligation of supplying origin stories or resolving conflicting continuities, it doesn’t seem inclined to make any major changes to the status quo beyond adding some new faces to the team’s roster. When the dust finally settles, it feels as if narrowly averting the end of the world has simply been business as usual for the characters.
In this and so many other ways, Apocalypse feels the most like the comics that inspired it than any of the X-Men movies so far. The players in the story — good and bad — are assembled, the conflict ensues, and disaster is only avoided with the help of some moral heel-turns from conflicted characters and heroes tapping into reserves they never knew they had. When the villain is finally defeated, all the pieces of the story reset in preparation for the next adventure.
It’s a narrative formula that has worked for countless comic-book story arcs over the years, and when it’s done well — as it is in Apocalypse — it serves the movies based on them just as successfully.
In a franchise that has remained reliably entertaining — though not always great — over the course of the previous eight films, X-Men: Apocalypse does nothing to buck that trend, offering a compelling story that moves along at a good pace with some unique, exciting sequences that set it apart from its peers. It doesn’t live up to the epic, nothing-will-be-the-same promise of its title, but it does right by the series in giving fans an adventure inspired by the comics in many of (if not all) the right ways.