Written by David Holland
The X-Men franchise is a bit unpredictable. Unlike the MCU, which discovered a formula to keep even its worst installments from being truly terrible, the X-Men movies run the gamut from the spectacular to the spectacularly bad, sometimes one right after the other. After using “First Class” to reset the franchise and “Days of Future Past” to reset the timeline and erase past mistakes, the X-Men were once again on top, only to once again create a movie that was absolutely… fine? I guess?
This is yet another film that I had mentally categorized as “bad” without much of a second thought, so was nice to go back and watch it again while keeping an eye out for stuff to include in this section. A lot of what worked in “Apocalypse” is the same stuff that has worked in the previous movies in this series: McAvoy’s Xavier and Fassbender’s Magneto are the anchors again, and both continue to bring their A-game. Performances by some of the new X-Men are worth mentioning too, especially Kodi Smit-McPhee’s awkward teenage Nightcrawler and Alexandra Shipp’s Storm, whose comic roots as a young thief in Egypt get some screen time, which is pretty cool.
There are some genuinely emotional moments in this movie. Magneto’s family is probably the most gutting, but Xavier’s optimism in his students and defiance of Apocalypse is another. I think the first and second acts of this installment are actually better than the third, which is probably one of the reasons it isn’t higher in the rankings of this franchise.
Apocalypse didn’t work. That’s the shortest answer here. This movie, while not a part of the MCU, is emblematic of what has been called Marvel’s “villain problem”. Some comic book villains are so well written and performed that audiences instantly connect with them – Loki, Killmonger, or the Joker, for example. But others are more forgettable – Malekith, Kaecilius, and the various Generic Evil Businessmen of the Stark universe.
Apocalypse is supposed to be this inexorable force, almost like Thanos. And this is a villain with high expectations – comic readers, video game players, and 90’s era cartoon watchers have been desperate to see Apocalypse on the big screen. But this version suffers from the same problems as Christopher Eccelston’s Malekith. Both involve making up actors so far beyond recognition, that the work done by genuinely talented performers becomes flat. Loki captured our hearts in Thor because Tom Hiddleston delivered a complex performance which garnered real sympathy for the villain, even though he did terrible things. There is no doubt Oscar Isaac could give a similarly powerful performance, but beneath the 40 pound suit of latex and glue which didn’t even allow him to turn his head, Apocalypse feels two-dimensional. And yes, that’s right, Oscar Isaac played Apocalypse. I had no idea until I looked it up.
Not only that, but Apocalypse’s goals and motivations are so outlandishly absurd, that we feel no connection with him. The movie has other flaws, especially the fact that with all the emphasis on Apocalypse’s Horsemen, they spend most of the movie standing near him looking intimidating. But the failure to bring Apocalypse to life in a compelling way is the movie’s primary mistake. It keeps a film that had promise and actually does have good moments from reaching higher than mediocrity.
“Apocalypse” doesn’t have a story to tell beyond pulling a popular character out of comic lore and putting him onscreen for the first time. A movie that doesn’t know why it exists can’t be anything more than popcorn fodder.