I know, it’s been a really long time since I last saw an X-Men movie; it was hard to justify going to see Apocalypse in theaters after it got mixed reviews (movies, despite being affairs where you sit in relative silence for two hours, are largely social experiences that are less fun if you can’t get someone to go with you, and I’m the only person in my friend group who really enjoys the X-Men franchise), and as things tend to go when you’re in a transitional year, some stuff just falls by the wayside. Fortunately, a friend of mine is sharing his HBO Now account with me, so I was finally able to catch this movie for the low, low cost of the time it took to watch it. All things considered, that’s probably a good deal.
X-Men: Apocalypse is not as good a movie as X-Men: Days of Future Past, which is helps you recognize the quality of Days of Future Past since it’s a movie that was written specifically to untangle the continuity snarl of the movie franchise (this purpose is a bad foundation for a movie to begin with). Apocalypse has the much more enviable position of getting to be the actual soft reboot of the franchise, and from that position it wastes too much of its time retreading the relationship triangle of Charles, Erik, and Raven (Apocalypse also has the unenviable position of being the third movie in the franchise’s second trilogy, meaning that there was likely a lot of pressure from all sides to make the story tie off loose threads with the arc begun in First Class). Those characters are well established and given a lot of depth, but they crowd out the younger characters who are very definitely Apocalypse‘s main strength. There’s certainly a bit of character fatigue happening with the older generation, and it’d be nice to give them a rest; it’s not like Fox doesn’t remind us with every movie just how many other characters are available for use in X-Men stories.
This point is probably my biggest complaint about the movie (and about the X-Men film franchise in general): just like every entry before it, Apocalypse is packed with characters from the comics, and they get under served in the story because of the character density. The triad of Charles, Erik, and Raven get plenty of space; Wolverine gets his obligatory cameo where everyone can say, “Hey, it’s the Wolverine cameo!” and then move on with the story; even Beast, who’s been a main character since First Class, gets some decent development here; after that you have the younger generation of characters like Scott, Jean, and Kurt who are so engaging to watch but who never feel like they have enough time; left over in the dregs are all the characters that appear just to be window dressing. Apocalypse’s horsemen are made up of Storm, Psylocke, and Angel, and all three characters are woefully underwritten (Storm fares slightly better since the studio needed to establish her enough to be a presence in future movies, but she really doesn’t do much as a character for the majority of this movie). Quicksilver is a lot of fun, but he’s totally static besides the development that he now knows Erik is his father (he’s also not enough of a jerk; if you’re going to have Quicksilver, he needs to be really arrogant and snooty towards other characters). Apocalypse himself is perfectly fine as a wannabe god, even if he’s pretty one-dimensional beyond that (not a big deal; he’s a pretty one-dimensional villain in general). All of these characters add up to a really crowded story where someone is going to be poorly served, and it unfortunately falls mostly on the characters that we expect to be the major players in future installments.
If you let go problems with character development and just focus on the movie as a spectacle feature where you get to see folks with superpowers do cool stuff, it’s still a lot of fun. The overall tone feels like the closest the X-Men franchise has gotten to a lighthearted adventure story since its inception (relatively speaking; this is still a movie where its big set piece for the end of the second act is the launching and destruction of the world’s entire cache of active nuclear missiles), and it’s clear that the filmmakers don’t really want the audience to think deeply about the larger implications of what’s happening on screen (the movie’s climax involves Apocalypse building himself a new pyramid in Cairo while Erik magnetically rips apart dozens of major cities all over the world; you’re not supposed to think, “they are killing a lot of people,” so much as, “cool“). Even the smaller scale action is tonally dissonant, like when Wolverine slaughters a bunch of Weapon X soldiers in front of the kids and they for the most part don’t react like someone who’s just witnessed extreme violence. The only conclusion you can draw is that this is meant to be a spectacle first, and a character story second (I just realized that’s getting dangerously close to the way you should appropriately describe any Michael Bay movie, and I feel a little sadder about this film). Go in expecting to see some really fun action sequences and just acknowledge that you’re really only supposed to be emotionally invested in about two thirds of the cast.