I’ve only enjoyed 1 out of 4 of the major superhero releases that have hit theaters so far this year. Well, 2 out of 5 if the new Ninja Turtles movie counts (I am silly & weak). Either way, those are not great numbers & I’m starting to wonder if I’m the problem, not the films themselves. X-Men: Apocalypse, Batman v. Superman, and Deadpool all have their rabid defenders (especially that last one, unfortunately), but they each gave me a distinct “What am I even doing here?” anxiety while watching them in the theater, as if I had accidentally stumbled into the wrong prayer service at a funeral home. I was hoping that Apocalypse was going to be a repeat of the Days of Future Past scenario where critical consensus was little harsh on what was mostly a decent, ambitious-but-messy superhero plot. Instead I found myself scratching my head for the entirety of its massive 147 min runtime, questioning why I left the house in the first place & silently wishing the apocalypse promised in the title would actually end this franchise for good. Of course, producers don’t think that way & Apocalypse wound up functioning as not one, but two franchise reboots for a property that’s already hit the reset button twice in the last five years.
The worst thing about that reset button is that it frames X-Men in a world without consequence. It’s fairly common for a superhero movie to have a seemingly insurmountable Big Bad threaten to End It All for vaguely hateful personal reasons that apparently call for the destruction of all life. Apocalypse‘s titular Big Bad even conforms to the recently omnipresent trope of the supervillain threatening to end humanity in order to “save the world” or whatever. As we saw at the end of Days of Future Past, though, this is a series where the slate can be wiped clean with the mere wave of a hand, so that threat is thoroughly empty. New, hip teens can be brought in to replace the aging X-Men of yesteryear with essentially no notice or pretense. If Apocalypse destroys Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters or the entire planet that hosts it, it’s no matter. A couple CGI-aided actors in leather jumpsuits can stand around in an empty field and put it all back together using only their minds & magic fingertips. So many tiny parts are interchangeable in the X-Men series that the big picture never changes at all. A character’s sibling can die in an explosion, leading to single moment of solemn reflection, but then be forgotten forever because nothing truly matters. Another character may have gotten not one, but two origin stories before in the very same franchise, but why not toss out a third for the sake of a violent comedy bit? Who gives a shit? Wipe away a memory, create an alternate universe, regress a character’s age & allegiance until they look like a Hot Topic/Disney’s Descendants knockoff of their former selves: there’s a million ways to erase history for in-the-moment convenience & X-Men: Apocalypse‘s single spark of ambition is the way it’s hellbent on exploiting them all.
Apocalypse frames its story around some Gods of Egypt-type nonsense in its early machinations, but its true gimmick/reason for existing is to make a superhero version of VH1’s I Love the 80s. How do we know it’s the 80s? In case the Cold War communism & Hot Tub Time Machine-style “Look at these goofy clothes!” visual cues aren’t enough, a character helpfully declares, “Welcome to the 80s,” a line that’s so amusingly mishandled that it recalls a moment in Tremors 4: The Legend Begins where a character anachronistically explains, “Well, this is The Old West . . .” 2011’s X-Men: First Class was an actually-refreshing mashing of the reset button, revitalizing an exhausted franchise by giving it some 60s mod spy media swank & a few fresh faces. Days of Future Past brought in some 70s political intrigue & sci-fi wankery that managed to keep the period piece angle fresh. I’m not sure what, if anything, the 80s setting brings to the table in Apocalypse: Cyclops wearing Ray-Bans? A trip to the mall? The film even missed an opportunity to include “Walk Like an Egyptian” on the soundtrack, which seems like a huge oversight considering the its dual timelines. The temporal setting plays like a vague afterthought handled mostly by the costuming department instead of directly influencing the plot or form. I’m interested to see how the 90s nostalgia is handled in the next installment’s natural progression, but Apocalypse‘s That’s So 80s™ stylization leaves little room for a promising future (past) there.
With the plot of Apocalypse not worth much thought or examination (a mean baddie from ancient times fails to destroy the world in the 80s & Wolverine pops in for brief contract-fulfillment), it’s probably best to discuss the film in terms of how it handles its many rebooted, retweaked characters. Honestly, though, there’s not a whole lot going on there either. Jennifer Lawrence looks downright miserable as Mystique, grimly going through the motions in the guise of a disaffected 80s punk. Newcomers Sophie Turner & Tye Sheridan are disappointingly dull in their respective roles as Jean Grey & Cyclops, especially considering the promise of their just-getting-revved-up careers, but at least that’s somewhat faithful to the charisma vacuum established by Famke Janssen & James Marsden in past entries? Wolverine is thankfully relegated to a cameo role here after getting more than his share of screen time in past entries, but since that role once again returns to his Origins it plays disappointingly like a Groundhog Day purgatory of a mutant/actor who can’t escape his past. Quicksilver’s literal show-stopping gag from the last film is repeated here as a special effects centerpiece, but I have a hard time caring about it much either, given the character’s winking-at-the-camera “Ain’t I a stinker?” PG Deadpool humor. The immensely talented Rose Byrne also returns only to be a continual butt of a joke that’s never quite funny. Only Michael Fassbender’s turn as Magneto registers as exceptional in any way, but the emotional severity of his work feels like it’s in an entirely different movie than the grey mush that surrounds him, so when he yells, “Is this what you want from me?! Is this what I am?!” at an indifferent god, it plays as overwrought & entirely out of place.
That leaves the conundrum of Oscar Isaac’s villainous performance as Apocalypse, which, while not necessarily great, stands out as the film’s sole source of entertainment value for me. Guardians of the Galaxy had a weird way of stealing Lee Pace’s sex appeal by turning him blue & covering up his luscious eyebrows. Apocalypse does one better and blues/obscures Oscar Isaac’s entire beautiful face, even accentuating his nose with a phallic cleft that recalls Dan Aykroyd’s prosthetic dick nose in the cinematic abomination Nothing But Trouble. Isaac’s performance is even stranger than his make-up, though. I swear he’s doing a dead-on, goth-bent impersonation of Tony Shalhoub throughout the film as he continually breaks the fourth wall & delivers Anonymous/Redditor-type monologues that would make Ben Kingsley’s Iron Man 3 baddie The Mandarin blush at their inanity. Isaac & Apocalypse are underutilized & more silly than threatening, but they’re easily the most entertaining aspect of a film that’s largely a pleasureless void. This may go down in history in Isaac’s worst performance in a so-far phenomenal career, but I gotta admit it was a lot of fun to watch.
I may have missed a few details here or there while periodically rolling my eyes during X-Men: Apocalypse, but I saw enough of the film’s zany 80s wardrobe, seriously questionable CGI, and wildly out-of-place body horror (don’t worry; there’s no permanent consequences for physical dismemberment here either) to get the gist. The movie sucks. Worse yet, it knows it sucks, as evidenced by Jean Grey’s admission after a screening of Return of the Jedi, “At least we can all agree the third one is always the worst.” Not only is that statement oddly anachronistic (the endless sequel cycle was not quite solid yet in 1983 outside Jaws & Star Wars), it also draws attention to the mess X-Men has made of itself at large. Is this the third entry in the franchise (starting, presumably, with First Class)? Feels more like the ninth for me, considering everything that’s branched off from Bryan Singer’s original adaptation in 2000. In the 16 years that have followed, the series has seen some highs & lows of note (those two Wolverine standalones being especially rough), but I don’t know if it’s ever felt this lifeless or devoid of purpose. What are we still doing here? What’s the point of any of this if it all can be fixed & rebuilt with the light shake of a CG Etch-A-Sketch? Why was the series’s eternally malleable gene mutation theme not put to any metaphorical use here, despite it being the one thing that distinguishes it from the rest of the superhero pack? Without that metaphorical distinction, what reason does the audience have to show up in the first place? I don’t have the answers & it doesn’t seem that Bryan Singer does either.
At best X-Men: Apocalypse feels like it’s treading water until it can deliver a Totally 90s™ nostalgia trip in its upcoming sequel. And it knows that it’s delivering a mediocre product in the mean time, as evidenced by statements before & after the screening noting that the movie’s production created thousands of jobs for hardworking folks who are just doing their best, as if buying a theater ticket for yet another drab superhero disaster is somehow an act of charity & not a total waste of hard-earned money. I remain dubious to that point.