We’ve long worried that there is a superhero bubble that’s about to burse and that audiences are finally going to get sick of seeing movies about costumed crimefighters and it feels like if there’s ever going to be an audience backlash against these movies it’s probably going to be in 2016. The year isn’t even half over and we’re already at our fourth major superhero release and have two or three more to go (depending on whether you count Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles). Even crazier is that most of the superhero movies this year aren’t just about one superhero; they’re about superhero crossovers and teams. Superman had to be going up against Batman and Wonder Woman, Captain America had to be in the midst of a star-studded civil war, and later we’ll be watching a group of super villains team up into a suicide squad. As such it almost seems like one of the worst years for a film from the original cinematic superhero, the X-Men, to come out. That’s unfortunate because this franchise should have been rushing in on a wave of momentum given that their last film, X-Men: Days of Future Past, was seen as something of a comeback high by a lot of filmgoers and critics.
This installment of the X franchise picks up about ten years after the end of the “past” section of the last movie and depicts the era in which the primary cast of the original X-Men movies are first being recruited into Xavier’s Academy. Scott “Cyclops” Summers (Tye Sheridan) has just been recruited as the film opens and will soon meet a young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). This is fortuitous as Xavier and every mutant he’s in contact with will soon be tested by an ancient Egyptian mutant named Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) who has recently awoken and begun recruiting disaffected mutants like Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Archangel (Ben Hardy), and Storm (Alexandra Shipp) to be his “horsemen” and eventually he comes across the continually disaffected Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to be his second in command. Soon this young cadre of mutants as well as some fence sitters like Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), side characters like Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and older allies like Beast (Nicholas Hoult) will be forced to rise to the occasion and take down this existential threat to human and mutant alike.
X-Men: Apocalypse is certainly a less ambitious movie than its predecessor in that it lacks X-Men: Days of Future Past’s cool time travel hook. In many ways its business as usual for the X-Men franchise so your enthusiasm for this movie will probably vary by how much you’ve liked previous installments and how excited you are for more of the same. This prequel trilogy continues to flesh out how we got to where we started with the series (even if it isn’t doing a terribly convincing job of making the characters age as the story moves through the decades). The film also does very little to catch newcomers up with what’s been going on so this may not be the best entry point for newcomers to the series. What the film does do pretty effectively is treat longtime fans of the series to a lot of nods to what they’ve liked in the past and to reward them for having kept up with the franchise for as long as they have. Did you like the Quicksilver stuff from the last movie? There’s more of that. Did you hate X-Men 3? There’s a thinly veiled dig at that movie. Do you need more Wolverine in your life? Well rest assured that Hugh Jackman has a prominent cameo.
If there’s a major flaw to be found here it’s that some of the returning cast feel a bit shoehorned into the film. For instance, Mystique’s role in the whole series seems to have grown larger than it was ever intended to be, in part because the films feel obligated to give more and more screen time to Jennifer Lawrence (who wasn’t particularly famous yet when she was first cast in the role). I’m also not sure that Magneto really belongs here either as his character would seem to be more complex than someone who would just team up with a supervillain like Apocalypse who is just evil with a capital “E.” Speaking of Apocalypse… he’s not great but he was better than I expected. The character has always been a bit stock going back to his role in the comics. He’s basically X-Men’s answer to Thanos, who was himself kind of a ripoff of Darkseid, and given that I would be inclined to give the movie credit for doing the best they could to not simply make him a super-generic brooding villain. I don’t know that this was the best use of Oscar Isaac’s time, but ultimately I do think the movie does more with this kind of villain than some of the Marvel movies like Thor: The Dark World and Guardians of the Galaxy were able to do with similar characters.
As for the new cast… most of them are pretty good but there wasn’t much in the way of a starmaking standout here. Tye Sheridan is a decent Cyclops, Sophie Turner is a decent Jean Grey, Kodi Smit-McPhee is a decent Nightcrawler, Alexandra Shipp certainly looks like a pretty good Storm but is quickly put into a henchman role that doesn’t give her a lot to do. None of these performances are bad at all, but this certainly isn’t the embarrassment of young acting riches that X-Men: First Class managed to stumble into. I do look forward to seeing what all these characters are up to in the 90s, as for the current 80s exploits we’re witnessing here… I mostly enjoyed it. I seem to be in the minority on this given that the movie is currently sitting at 48% on Rotten Tomatoes, and I don’t really get why… well, maybe I do. I don’t think there’s much of anything awful or even bad about the movie but nothing about it really stands out either and I can see why people would maybe want to punish the series for treading water a bit in this installment. Personally, I think there are much bigger offenses that other movies get passes for. Also, I can’t help but look at weaker entries in this series and genre like X-Men: The Last Stand and this year’s Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice (a movie whose ineptitude will make a lot of other superhero movies this year look damn good by comparison) and feel that this has a lot more going for it.