Apocalypse’ marks a step down for the X-Men

Magneto (Michael Fassbender) wreaks havoc in X-Men: Apocalypse.

Two and a half stars

X-Men: Apocalypse Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Oscar Isaac. Directed by Bryan Singer. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday citywide.

When Bryan Singer returned to the X-Men franchise to direct X-Men: Days of Future Past in 2014, it marked both a strong comeback for the superhero series and a fitting end, with Singer uniting the casts of the original three movies and 2011’s semi-reboot X-Men: First Class in a time-spanning, reality-warping story. His return was so triumphant that 20th Century Fox announced plans for him to direct another X-Men movie before Days of Future Past was even released, but Singer’s X-Men: Apocalypse struggles in part due to the narrative success of its predecessor. Once you craft a satisfying, epic finale to a series, how do you keep things going?

Disappointingly, Apocalypse answers that question partly by repeating what has worked for the series before. Thanks to the time-traveling story of Days of Future Past, the already shaky continuity of the series has been thrown out (except, frustratingly, when Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg decide to rely on it), so Apocalypse has the chance to rewrite the histories of well-known X-Men like Cyclops, Storm, Jean Grey and Angel, all recast with new actors and slightly different backstories.

There’s so much introducing and reintroducing that the first hour of Apocalypse’s bloated, nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time is devoted entirely to setup. A prologue set in ancient Egypt establishes the ultra-powerful Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) as the movie’s main bad guy, but it takes a long time for his evil intentions to turn into imminent threats. In the meantime, X-Men leader Professor X (James McAvoy), his longtime frenemy Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and their mutual ally Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) have their own problems to deal with, as the characters have dispersed in the decade since Days of Future Past took place.

McAvoy, Fassbender and Lawrence are all strong, and the dynamic among the three main characters serves as the emotional core of the movie. But Singer and Kinberg throw in so many other characters that it dilutes the focus, and many of the most highly anticipated heroes and villains end up as background filler. Although 21 years have passed since the events of First Class, very little seems to have progressed in the lives of these characters, and there’s no sense of the rich history that should accompany the sixth movie in a series.

As a villain, Apocalypse himself is a dud, mostly standing around looking menacing—and ridiculous, as even an actor as skilled as Isaac can’t make this big purple guy seem less silly. The climax has the highest stakes of any X-Men movie, but it makes very little impact, and it features some surprisingly poor special effects. The X-Men have always represented a more thoughtful and grounded superhero franchise, and Singer has trouble placing them in the middle of a world-ending blockbuster. With everything they’ve been through, this latest adventure comes off as an afterthought.

Tags: Film
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