Rarely have I experienced such disappointment partway through a movie as I did with the newest X-Men universe movie X-Men: Apocalypse. It starts out just phenomenally well, set in ancient Egypt about 3000 BCE and the visuals, the story, and the introduction of the powerful mutant En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac). A powerful mutant in a simpler society, he rules with an iron fist, until the locals bury him and his entourage deep in a pyramid, to sleep until the 1980’s, when the rest of the film is set. There are not only elements of Indiana Jones, but a strong dose of Young Sherlock Holmes in this first act, and it all just plays really well, with some extraordinary visual effects.
Then the rest of the film begins to unspool and, well, it’s another overly complicated X-Men adventure, with too many characters and too little exploration of their motivations and the continued ethical dilemma of whether the Mutants have an ethical or moral responsibility to protect and work with non-mutant humans, or whether they are a superior life form and should be rulers, as En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse clearly believes.
Since splinter groups fighting each other seems to be the theme de jour in superhero movies (Batman v. Superman, Captain America: Civil War), it’s not particularly surprising when the X-Men break down into two factions. Again. We’ve already seen this good mutant vs. bad mutant storyline play out in previous X-Men movies like X-Men: First Class (2011).
This time the bad mutants — the “Four Horsemen” — that are those recruited by a surprisingly easily resurrected Apocalypse are Magneto (Fassbender), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Angel (Ben Hardy) and Storm (Alexandra Shipp). Apocalypse gives each some upgrades and renames Angel to Archangel along the way too, and the new wings? Way cooler than the original ones.
Standing on the other side of the divide are the usual gang of good X-Men, albeit in the 80’s younger generation of actors world: Xavier (James McAvoy), Scott/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean/Phoenix (Sophie Turner),Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Peter/Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and, surprise, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). They reunite with Hank/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and go after En Sabah Nur, who has convinced an anguished Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to wreak worldwide mayhem on the Earth as a way for Apocalypse to destroy and rebuild Earth with all humans subjugated by their mutant overlords.
One of the more interesting additions to the universe is Moira (Rose Byrne), a CIA agent who showed up in X-Men: First Class as Xavier’s love interest, but then had her memories wiped. She serves as the bridge between non-mutant and mutant, government, including notably William Stryker (Josh Helman) and civilian. She’s also a charming character who has a depth that almost all of the mutants are missing at this point in the X-Men franchise.
Still, even just listing all the characters in this movie is a task, and it’s no less complicated to keep track of them in the film itself. And that’s the problem with this franchise overall: it’s too big and works best when it’s a small group of a few mutants at a time interacting and solving problems or trying to make the world a better, safer place. X-Men Origins: Wolverine was one of the best in the franchise for just that reason, though it had plenty of its own problems as a film.
The story proceeds at a good clip, but the climactic battle between the good mutants and bad mutants has a hard time simultaneously showing them as super powerful (particular those whose powers have been enhanced by Apocalypse) and still having a believable resolution to the mayhem. It’s an inherent problem with all superhero characters, and why kryptonite showed up in the Superman universe years after he was first introduced as a character: invincible characters can’t be beaten.
If the only two superhero group versus group movies in 2016 were X-Men: Apocalypse and Batman vs. Superman, then X-Men would stand as the better of the two, muchly because of the splendid opening sequence in ancient Egypt. But with Captain America: Civil War in the mix, X-Men: Apocalypse ends up as a distant second. See it, because of course it looks great on the big screen, but don’t expect much more than yet another X-Men movie in a tired franchise.