If you’re of a certain age, then there’s a good chance you’ll remember the 1990s X-Men cartoon with some fondness. You know, the one with that amazing opening title sequence?
Looking back it wasn’t all that great, but the rose-coloured glasses of nostalgia can help you see past the mostly terrible voice acting and spotty animation. For all its faults, the cartoon gets full points for faithfully retelling some of the X-Men’s greatest comic book stories – which is more than can be said for most adaptations, animated or otherwise. I should stress here though that faithfulness is not always a good thing when we’re talking about the X-Men franchise – a series so up its own ass with incestuous family trees, ridiculous costumes, alternate reality loops, and characters created via time paradoxes, that it’s really quite difficult to keep anything straight.
There is a very good reason why director Bryan Singer tried to avoid all that in his 1998 film adaptation of X-Men, eschewing yellow spandex and time travel gobbledegook in favour of a more grounded and believable approach. And it worked! That film’s modest success (by today’s blockbuster standards) helped pave the way for pretty much the entire superhero movie genre as we know it. It also stood in stark contrast to the X-Men comics of the time, which due to all the aforementioned time travel business, were a convoluted mess that has since been retconned and rebooted several times. Now nine movies deep – a few of which are barely even counted as official canon – the X-Men film franchise finds itself in very much the same place: weighed down by almost two decades of on-screen continuity and struggling to remember where it all began.
Speaking of beginnings, X-Men: Apocalypse starts things off thousands of years before any of the previous X-movies. The cold open, set in Ancient Egypt, introduces the titular villain En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), an all-powerful mutant in the process of transferring his soul to new body in order to become immortal. Pretty standard evil demigod stuff. Things go poorly though and ol’ En Sab, aka Apocalypse, ends up being buried in the rubble of a great pyramid for a few millennia. Despite the film’s massive budget, the whole opening feels like a bad episode of Stargate – and things don’t improve much from there.
Cut to 1983, and the characters first introduced in 2011’s X-Men: First Class are going about their lives as usual. Charles Xavier’s (James McAvoy) School for Gifted Youngsters is now a fledgling refuge for teenage mutants; the shapeshifter Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is haunting the dark corners of Eastern Europe rescuing enslaved mutants; and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) is trying to live a quiet family life off the grid in Poland. Naturally this happy stasis doesn’t last long. Apocalypse is soon awakened, assembles his “Four Horsemen” – Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and Magneto (Fassbender) – and is eager to wreck shit for typical dickish demigod reasons. It’s then up to the X-Men, old and new, to come together despite their differences and stop him.
Did I mention the movie takes place in the 1980s? Because it’s a fact the film will not let you forget, from the production design and costuming to the endless references, catchphrases, and musical interludes, the movie packs in every ’80s trope you can imagine. The colourful backdrop mostly aids the story in fun ways, but it can also make it feel cheap and tacky at times. One scene in particular, set at the Auschwitz concentration camp, quickly becomes quite off-putting because of the ridiculous costumes being worn by the characters. I never expected to see a weird metal bird man and a girl in a one-piece swimsuit and heels strutting around such a horrible, solemn place, but that is a thing that happens in X-Men: Apocalypse. Sure, you can write it off by saying it’s the ’80s or that the Horseman’s stylist is an ancient blue weirdo, but it just feels gross and robs what should be an incredibly cathartic scene of all its potential power.
Apocalypse undoes much of what made earlier X-Men movies so great. Sure, it’s more faithful to the classic X-Men comics than its predecessors, but that in no way makes it a good film. Gone are the quiet character moments and pathos of the earlier X-films, particularly X-Men and X2, and in their place are globe-threatening stakes (a la the DC and MCU films) and bombastic set pieces full of computer-generated visual effects and destruction. Even Days of Future Past, despite its army of characters and complex time travel plot, had time for those quieter moments. There’s nothing like that here. Apocalypse is brisk and booming. It all looks great, but few people watched the previous X-Men movies just to see things blow up. The one bright spot, as in Days of Future Past, is the set piece starring the speedster mutant Quicksilver (Evan Peters). A+ usage of The Eurythmics.
Bryan Singer’s latest crack at the X-franchise has its bright spots, but it’s a mostly joyless, bloated affair. X-Men: Apocalypse is essentially the title sequence from that ’90s X-Men cartoon stretched out for two and a half hours. Loud, flashy, and extremely true to the comics, but lacking in pretty much every other way. In attempting bring the series full circle, Apocalypse instead destroys everything that made it great.