Before Apocalypse gets going bringing about, well, the apocalypse, students from Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters sneak out to see Return Of The Jedi. “Well, at least we can all agree, the third one is always the worst,” says Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey afterwards, with startling prescience. But whether the remark is a dig at Brett Ratner’s unlamented The Last Stand or a self-deprecating assessment of this lacklustre second sequel to First Class isn’t clear — like much of the storytelling here.
The early scenes are promising, with a structure that nods back — the first of many callbacks — to director Bryan Singer’s first X-Men. This too opens with a flashback to historical mutant activity, followed by a teen developing traumatic abilities and a cage fight that leads to a mass brawl. But there’s an immense number of existing characters to assemble and new characters to introduce, so for the rest of the first hour we’re passed from one person to another at a zippy pace. Newcomers Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are immediately charming, while Nicholas Hoult and James McAvoy slip seamlessly back into their roles, although the former has little to actually work with — a perennial danger in a film with such a huge and talented cast, and such enormous ambitions.
Inevitably, not every character fares as well. Evan Peters’ Quicksilver, so effective in Days Of Future Past, attempts to recapture the same unicorn and just seems stuck in time, not helped by some baffling choices that hamstring his character’s arc. Turner’s Grey often comes across as unpleasant rather than insecure, while Jennifer Lawrence makes Mystique more unrelentingly grim than ever. This sombre freedom fighter lacks the slightest resemblance to Rebecca Romijn’s kinky, sardonic killer or even Lawrence’s own ballsy First Class performance. She’s just Katniss with superpowers — which is a shame, because the movie could have used a little more kink, and a little less inspirational speechmaking.
But the big problems lie with the bad guys, Apocalypse and his Four Horsemen. Alexandra Shipp’s Storm gets far too little to do given how well she does it, Ben Hardy’s Angel makes no impact at all and Olivia Munn, as Psylocke, is ferocious but entirely without nuance. When we rejoin Michael Fassbender’s Magneto, he’s retired from plotting against humanity and lives in a rural idyll where he raises extraordinarily fluffy chickens with his lovely wife and daughter. You can have three guesses what hackneyed development might lead him back to evil-doing. But you’ll only need one.
The more the film harks back to other X-instalments, the more you’ll wish you were watching those instead.
But the worst on a number of levels is En Sabah Nur, or Apocalypse. He is an ancient and powerful mutant who can hop from one body to another, picking up fresh powers as he goes — which may explain why his abilities remain extraordinarily undefined. An opening lifted straight from Stargate sees the already-ancient being transferred into the body of a young Egyptian who looks just like Oscar Isaac, but only for a moment. Soon he’s slathered with prosthetics, with a character design that even Thanos would reject as unattractive. Isaac does his best to give some weight to proceedings and occasionally succeeds, but Apocalypse’s precise beef with the 20th century remains unclear, and any ultimate goal beyond “power and punishment” rather nebulous. We’re told that his great ability is to persuade mutants to his side, but even taking into account the damaged nature of those he targets, his arguments seem weak.
There are huge nits to pick elsewhere. Like Jurassic World last year, ultimate responsibility for releasing this titan actually lies with one of our ostensible heroes, although no-one ever acknowledges it. And the appalling climax of the film, when whole cities are blasted to swirling, bloodless CG dust and their populations apparently vaporised, results in the death of millions of people who don’t warrant so much as a momentary look of horror. In a film that makes a point of recalling the Holocaust, that shows spectacularly bad taste.
Compared to the energetic, bold Days Of Future Past, it all seems so leaden. How many times can Professor Xavier remind us that there is good in Magneto — by now a mass-murderer several times over — before one of them pulls a lightsaber? How many overly familiar exhortations to heroism can Mystique really deliver and expect to be taken seriously? And did they need to replay entire scenes we’ve seen multiple times before? Aside from a few moments with Nightcrawler — in his achingly perfect Thriller jacket and Flock Of Seagulls hair — there’s no levity here, no tonal variation. The more the film harks back to other X-instalments, the more you’ll wish you were watching those instead.