There’s a lot going on in X-Men: Apocalypse. An ancient god-king-mutant-thing named En Sabah Nur awakens after centuries of dormancy, and decides to obliterate the modern world out of sheer disgust. Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) proudly presides over a thriving school for young mutants. His new students Scott Summers (Mud’s Tye Sheridan) and Jean Grey (Game Of Thrones’ Sophie Turner) try to control their superpowers. Blue-skinned, shape-shifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) roams the world, helping endangered mutants. Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is living peacefully in Poland, under an assumed name and with a new family. Apocalypse, the third X-Men movie in the semi-reboot arc that began with 2011’s X-Men: First Class and the 2014 sequel X-Men: Days Of Future Past, crowds the screen with characters from those films, then introduces new ones.
But while they all have different powers and pasts, they’ve all wound up in the same dead-eyed, sullen place together. Fox’s X-Men movies have never had the snappy banter and sense of play of their Marvel Cinematic Universe brethren, but they’ve had more tonal variety than most non-MCU superhero films. And the massive success of Fox’s Deadpool (which incorporated two X-Men not seen here) suggested a possible new direction for hero action in general. Its rambunctious humor was a big hit with audiences, and it reminded filmmakers that fans don’t need all their heroes to be like the glowering, repressed trauma victims seen here.
Apocalypse's leaden tone may just be X-Men fatigue. Co-writer / producer / director Bryan Singer has been heavily involved in the Marvel mutant movie mythos since he directed 2000's X-Men. And he's never had much interest in the humanity under his characters' super-humanity. His X-Men movies have revolved around grand operatic conflict and spectacle, with operatic feelings to match. (Think: Magneto raging in the concentration camp in X-Men, or botched jokes like Joss Whedon's line "You know what happens to a toad when it's struck by lightning?") The unvarying, oppressive tone is deadly to a series that's always been about the powers of uniqueness. The X-Men are mutants from around the world, emerging from wealth or poverty, acceptance or rejection, confidence or self-hatred. They're meant to be a bright patchwork quilt of experience and personality. Singer's films keep turning them all into the same dingy, grey throw rugs.
Ten years have passed since Days Of Future Past, and the story has caught up to the 1980s, a setting mostly rendered via poofy hairstyles and the occasional glimpse of a boom box, or a Knight Rider episode on TV. When CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) investigates an Egyptian cult, she inadvertently awakens En Sabah Nur, who decides to raze the world so only the strongest will survive. He gathers mutants to serve as his apocalyptic horsemen — weather-controller Storm (Alexandra Shipp), energy-manipulator Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and Angel (EastEnders' Ben Hardy). When he reaches out to Magneto to join him as well, Charles Xavier and his students are pulled into the conflict.
Apocalypse's miscalculations start with casting charismatic, versatile actor Oscar Isaac as En Sabah Nur, then writing his character as a one-note heavy that a robot could play. The slathered-on makeup, facial prosthetics, and rigid costume don't help — by the time wardrobe's done with him, that could be Helen Mirren in there — but the real limitation is En Sabah Nur's flat, unimpressed delivery, and his plodding lack of urgency. Over and over, the film grinds to a halt as he monologues about decadent modern society. Suddenly the way Captain America: Civil War let punching stand in for talking makes more sense.
His opponents are equally ready to explain themselves in sleepy, repetitive speeches. Mystique's cynicism, Magneto's losses, Scott and Jean's fears, even Charles' optimism all come out via expressionless monologues. The entire film feels like a Prozac ad, where everything has gone emotionally gray, and the world is waiting for a serotonin hit. But at least these characters get to talk. Storm, Psylocke, and Angel barely get a word in. They look terrific in costume — finally, the X-Men movies have a Storm with a little energy and attitude, and the iconic mohawk look — but they're breathing set décor, and Singer has no interest in what drives them. That makes their inevitable climactic fights rote and empty. There's a battle here on the scale of the much-anticipated hero throwdown in Civil War, and none of the characters seem engaged. Characters like Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Nightcrawler are innovative, flexible fighters, and their face-offs should have the creativity and intensity Singer brought to Days Of Future Past. Here, they're just another thudding way for X-Men to express their buried anger.
Apocalypse does try to give all its iconic characters some fan-friendly face time, and it takes time to insert differentiating beats like Nightcrawler's devout Catholicism, or Wolverine's emotional connection to Jean Grey. (Hugh Jackman, who's reportedly nearly done playing Wolverine, makes an extended cameo.) A few of the iconic characters — particularly Mystique and Charles Xavier — are allowed to develop in meaningful ways. There are plenty of fine, isolated tiny moments, and a handful of gripping set pieces, particularly when Charles and En Sabah Nur face off in a mental landscape, or Angel and Nightcrawler are forced into an oppressive cage match.
But relative to previous X-Men movies or to 2016's other superhero films, Apocalypse feels like a throwback to a less sophisticated age, and a faint echo of better series installments. Its most colorful sequence, with the high-speed Quicksilver (Evan Peters) casually toying with the slowpoke world around him, is directly cribbed from Days Of Future Past, but with less-convincing special effects. The core conflict between Charles Xavier and Magneto has been fought so many times that it feels shorthanded here, and it doesn't help that Magneto's decisions are motivated by the laziest, hackiest superhero trope of all time. The "hero group fights out-of-nowhere force that wants to end the world" was starting to feel worn by the time the MCU used it in Thor: The Dark World, and again in Guardians Of The Galaxy and Avengers: Age Of Ultron. That's not even counting Batman v Superman and the 2015 Fantastic Four reboot, which went to the exact same well.
And just as superhero films like Ant-Man, Deadpool, and Civil War were pulling back from massive CGI destruction and endless loss of life, Apocalypse returns to the trend, with an orgy of city-annihilating sequences with no appreciable human stakes. With "apocalypse" right in the title, large-scale catastrophe was always openly on the table. But when the characters meet shattered neighborhoods and collapsing skyscrapers with the same clench-jawed seething they brought to sunny-day conversations about their peers and powers, it's hard to take any of their posturing seriously. Not all superhero action films need the MCU's banter or Deadpool's smarm. But you can't play a symphony with a single note. With Apocalypse, Singer never gets around to varying his single, gloomy, dreary tune.