As we’ve noted before, the pleasure of a superhero blockbuster lies in watching familiar, inevitable tropes refashioned in mildly refreshing ways. The people making these films are tasked not with outright originality but with clever recombination. How do we make the good guys defeat the bad guys—because they will defeat the bad guys—in a way that feels earned? How do you choreograph a centerpiece battle scene that feels balanced and involves all the characters when one of the combatants can only shape-shift and the other side controls the weather and wields a huge blade made out of psychic energy? How efficiently can we whisk our minor mutants from their homelands across Europe and Africa while leaving plenty of time for the main course? How can Bryan Singer devise yet another disorienting POV shot hurtling through the tubes of the mutant genome/complex machinery/ancient ruins?
Most pressing, in this case: how do we get anyone to care about another generic, omnipotent supervillain?
If you thought the answer might be “cast Oscar Isaac,” you were unexpectedly wrong. It’s been days since I watched the film, and only after consulting IMDB did I realize he was the guy behind the heavy-browed, brooding prune named Apocalypse. Not a beam of Isaac’s usual charisma makes its way through the three inches of bruise-purple cake frosting. By some impressive feat of writing, they took an immortal mutant demigod and rendered him so dull that you can’t be bothered to either hate him or root for him. He gets resurrected in a ritual that wouldn’t look out of place in Temple of Doom. The character that results is humorless, confusingly written, patched together from antiestablishment clichés, and fond of dry eugenics-flavored monologues. At one point, consciously or not, the movie even calls attention to how idiotic Apocalypse looks by granting Magneto (Michael Fassbender, again a high point) a gem of a diss: his first reaction upon seeing the franchise’s new villain could be paraphrased as “lmao wtf are u.” As the wiser eyes of the internet have already observed, if you tweak the color very slightly my dude looks suspiciously like Ivan Ooze from Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
The movie centers around the newly arisen Apocalypse waking up in 1980s Cairo and recruiting a new team to do roughly what his name entails: stir shit up, cull the weak humans, allow mutants to reign supreme over the scorched earth. (He’s been attempting this periodically for millennia, transporting his consciousness into new bodies when old ones wear out.) Most of the movie consists of Apocalypse sowing chaos and the good mutants fixing things back up, with Magneto, as usual, straddling the line between the two camps.
But Apocalypse doesn’t make much sense, even setting the “suspend your disbelief, this is just a superhero movie” standard of sense. Which is to say that his character doesn’t seem to abide by any internal logic. While he seems to have control over every particle of his body and the world he walks through, he is suspiciously obsequious to human technology. He can enhance mutant powers, warp through space, and generate ornate costumes out of nothing, but still needs the services of several lame Horsemen beyond Magneto, the pretty-looking but forgettably acted Angel, Storm, and Psylocke. He appears to have powerful telepathy of his own, but still lusts after the powers of Charles Xavier—a plot point that feels contrived simply to give the villain a goal outside of plain destruction. His plan for doing so never really coheres, even as we watch nukes fired into the sky and bridges torn up and a metallic neo-pyramid erected. We get all the self-serious bloviating and none of the emotional payoff.
Apocalypse’s powers do occasionally make for some nice visuals, which is largely what you pay for in this kind of movie. Early on, several unsuspecting guys in Cairo get decapitated by dust just because the glum plum willed it. He’s not alone: Magneto does similarly heady work with a child’s locket a few minutes later.
The good guys provide some action as well, as they crusade once again to save the world and prove that not all mutants are out to destroy humankind. Nightcrawler is a godsend for fight scenes, adding a layer of spatial strategy to scenes that would otherwise consist largely of big bright beams blasting and missing their mark until eventually the beams clash. (Don’t worry, there are still so many freakin’ beams, many courtesy of the reintroduced Cyclops, who is okay as an angsty teen.) Quicksilver gets another funny, extended slow-mo sequence—the most crowd-pleasing shot of the movie—but when he attempts an encore in the final battle, it feels so tonally off as to be distracting; it’s bizarre to see his character, who saves so many mutants, relegated to pure comic relief. We do get a brief, brutal (by X-Men standards) cameo that I won’t reveal but that you can easily guess if you’ve made it to the end of the trailer. Unfortunately, at its climax, the movie pulls the now-familiar move of retreating from the physical battlefield into a sterile abstracted mental plane, just so that Professor X and young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner, adequate but somehow just a little too muted to convince me of tortured, first-tier mutant energies roiling within her) can get their moment in the sun.
You know everything that’s going to happen in this multimillion-dollar color-by-numbers before you see it, except maybe what Apocalypse is capable of, which still won’t make any more sense by the time its over. What are the limits to his power? Even in the comics, the question is answered only in piecemeal fashion, and I’m tempted to say Apocalypse should have been have been left there rather than elevated to primary blockbuster bad guy status. At the outer fringe of his powers, though, he surely can sap the life out a cash-flush franchise that had been having plenty of fun in its last two installments.