Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Apocalypse begins with a creative use of the 3D field—the layered image of a slide projector in close-up—and a callback to the most vital theme of this franchise’s previous installment: the custodianship of historical record. The setting is a classroom, and a teacher lectures middle school students on the importance of a particular time, as it had been revised in the free-wheeling, time-traveling narrative of X-Men: Days of Future Past. The year in discussion is 1973, when vigilante mutant Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) accidentally exposed her kind to the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, Singer’s latest and likely last trip to the X-Men universe has its sights set lower than the altering of history. Partly this is to be expected: Days of Future Past drew a lot of its power from the need for revisionism, not only within the narrative context of the characters (who faced their usual world-ending threat, in some far-flung future), but for the franchise itself, cruelly mangled by Brett Ratner’s blood-thirsty X-Men: The Last Stand in 2006.
Days of Future Past found a comfortable resolution for both its sets of characters, those from the original X-Men films and the new class introduced in Matthew Vaughn’s franchise reboot, X-Men: First Class. In fact, Days of Future Past represents maybe the most canny management of any franchise this decade, for the way it navigates multiple, fraught timelines, bringing each to a satisfying conclusion. And maybe that’s why Apocalypse seems to have such comparatively lower stakes. Here, Singer’s X-Men are just young enough to pre-date the popular TV show of the ’90s which introduced many of the current generation to Marvel’s heroes. The film is set in the 1980s, about a decade after the events in the earlier timeline of Days of Future Past, and it sets itself up as a consideration of enduring prejudices against mutant-kind.
But this direction is eventually utilized less as a portal for examining relevant social issues of the day, as previous X-Men stories have done, and more as a setup for the far less interesting God complex of the series’s latest villain, the vaguely alien, long-dormant demagogue En Sabah Nur, a.k.a. Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac). Isaac’s baddie is standard-issue for the superhero genre, as he wants to cleanse the world of the weak and rebuild it anew in his all-powerful image. Coming off the hotbed of political implications inherent in the humans-versus-mutants conflict of Days of Future Past, and teased out a little more at the beginning of Apocalypse, the pivot away from mortal, complexly defined adversaries to the immortal, omnipotent one here is disappointing.
The film is best when engaging its actors’ strength, and the interpersonal dynamics that have been patiently developed over several installments of varying quality. Even the cast’s new additions (namely Sophie Turner as telepath Jean Grey and Tye Sheridan as Scott Summers, a.k.a. Cyclops) seem equipped to give their roles a depth of feeling the genre hasn’t been accounting for lately—despite a sometimes weak script. Singer also furthers the tonal balance he accomplished in Days of Future Past, balancing coherently choreographed action set pieces with well-timed comedic beats, and one riotous use of slow-motion audio-visual montage that could’ve felt like an opportunistic recycling of the most talked-about scene from the last film, but in its execution seems just as successful in its own right.
The issue with Apocalypse isn’t, as it turns out, that the franchise left itself with too little to work with after the tidy ending of the previous film, but that Singer suggests so many possible directions to go in and still chooses the least interesting one. Apocalypse and his end-times aspirations drive the film in the direction of a disaster movie; large portions of the last act are devoted to terraforming Cairo, where Isaac’s genocidal warlord plans to start his “new world.” Which is to say that instead of changing the narrative of the superhero film, as Singer’s already done for the narrative of the franchise he returned to, the filmmaker yields to its most generic, commercially viable plot progression.
The final battle sequence is a twentysomething-on-one battle royale that shows just how much the film has come down from its promising start. Instead of emphasizing the dynamics of the filmmaking, or the 3D image, Singer sets up wide shots of each X-Man, in fighting stance, launching their respective assaults. All the thematic interest and character dimension that’s defined the best of this series falls away for a conventional action display. Somewhere in there, you’ll swear you hear, “Avengers, assemble.”