The X-Men movies have a fairly high average quality for a franchise going in to its sixth entry. In fact, with the exception of a Brett Ratner directed monstrosity of bloat and pettiness, there isn’t a truly bad film to be found in the bunch. For a stretch of my college career I would have told you X2 was the best superhero movie ever made. I would have been wrong— Unbreakable was a lot better and Spider-Man 2 has held up better over the years if we’re talking strictly licensed fare. But this is a franchise that means something to me so it’s a shame to see them start to slip a little bit. Not that X-Men: Apocalypse is a bad movie or anything, but it’s a frustrating one in many respects and one that could be pointed to some years down the road as the beginning of the end of X-Men as a quality, bankable, brand.
I’m not certain when it became the decree from on high that every X-Men film had to be a period piece but with three in a row and a fourth on the way that definitely seems to be the way things are going. It felt revolutionary with First Class, these characters are timeless in their way and putting them in some historical context is a great way to show off the multi-faceted nature of the material (it’s also a great way to not have to pay some of your more expensive actors but that’s neither here nor there). Days of Future Past was also fun; the time-travelling Wolverine made it all feel a bit more earned, plus it was a great excuse to retcon away some of the worst bits of X-Men: The Last Stand that no one cared for. Now it’s starting to feel a bit unnecessary with another movie another decade later. I’m no longer feeling like these are timeless characters and instead they’re starting to feel dated; like the X-Men are nothing but a nostalgia act. The best X-Men comics I’ve ever read have felt cutting edge, like they were happening six months from now not thirty years in the past. I get that all storytelling eventually feels dated, but at this point I would much prefer them working and reworking things so that older stories felt new instead of constantly telling me how old and quaint the X-Men are.
I understand that if we accept the premise that every X-Men movie has to be a period piece, that recastings will have to be a constant part of the franchise (although all the people from First Class sure don’t look 20 years older but whatever) and I generally like the new blood. Sophie Turner is a great young Jean Grey, although it’s certainly possible the casting is trading on some good will borrowed from Game of Thrones. My only critique of Tye Sheridan as Cyclops is he’s a bit of an emo stick-in-the-mud, but that’s also my critique of Cyclops the comic book character so maybe he’s actually perfect. My only real beef is with casting Oscar Isaac as Apocalypse. You have one of the most charismatic actors in Hollywood riding a hell of a run and you put him in a big suit under a ton of makeup and have him just recite dialogue that would have felt cliché in comics 15 years ago. It’s a staggering waste of an incredible talent. Even my fiancée, a dyed-in-the-wool Isaac fangirl, didn’t even recognize him in the movie until I pointed him out.
It’s not the kind of thing I like to complain about, but I was quite struck with how much the final battle looked like it was taking place in a studio lot. I know that they can’t actually film in a destroyed Cairo or anything but a bunch of people in costumes with no bystanders and some generic looking rubble looks a bit too much like a SyFy channel original movie for my taste. I don’t even know how to fix it and I’m sure I’ve seen a dozen action sequences shot in lots this year alone, but something about this one had me thinking the tour tram could drive by the background at any moment.
I know I’ve crapped on this movie a bit here but I want to emphasize that the stuff the works works so well. Michael Fassbender is amazing as Magneto, displaying a tortured depth to the character that honestly surpasses Ian McKellen’s wonderful but more scenery-chewing effort. Jennifer Lawrence has made Mystique into a character more interesting than her comic book counterpart, and while I’m not entirely sure it lines up narratively with all her other appearances she carries the film through all its bumpy stretches. All of the stuff that’s been working since the reboot still works… it’s just the connective tissue is getting worse and the formula feels a bit more tired. This series needs a kick in the ass, and not in the way a film set ten more years in the future is going to do. Maybe the next Wolverine will be great though.