X-Men: Apocalypse, the third film in the second trilogy (or rebooted trilogy, take your pick), answers the question moviegoers and comic book fans have been asking since James McAvoy’s first sauntered into the X-Men: First Class five years as Professor Charles Xavier, one of the most powerful mutants in the X-Men universe, not to mention “Mr. Peaceful Co-Existence” to Erik Lehnsherr’s (Michael Fassbender) “Mr. End Humanity Before They End Us” (a tired, repetitive conflict that has long outgrown its welcome or usefulness to the series): The how, the when, and the why Professor X loses his hair, becoming the bald, telepathic, wheelchair-bound leader of the X-Men and the head of Xavier’s School for Gifted (Mutant) Youngsters moviegoers and comic-book fans have grown to respect and admire. Spoiler Alert: It’s of little, if any, consequence, the equivalent of a tossed off, throwaway gag, as superfluous, clichéd, and worn-out as practically everything in Bryan Singer’s (Valkyrie, Apt Pupil, The Usual Suspects) underwhelming fourth time as director of an entry in the never-ending X-Men series.
Singer and series veteran Simon Kinberg introduce the supervillain, En Sabah Nur / Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac, nearly unrecognizable under pounds of latex), moments before he transfers his consciousness into a new, younger model, extending his millennia-long reign into a few more millennia. But acolytes turned apostates turn on En Sabah Nur. To them, he’s a false god or no god at all. Within minutes, the apostates are dead, their bodies crushed into horrific shapes, but they win a partial victory: A hibernating En Sabah Nur and his remaining followers are buried under thousands of tons of stone. Five thousand years (give or take a half millennia) later, a newly resurgent cult finds and resurrects En Sabah Nur. Unhappy with the state of the world (a fragile peace between humans and mutants), En Sabah Nur does what countless supervillains have done and will continue to do: Destroy the world to save it or rather, destroy the world and remake it in his image. Insert multiple yawns here.
X-Men: Apocalypse segues to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters where a newly arrived Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan) adjusts to life as a super-powered mutant, meets future girlfriend/love of his life Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), a super-powerful telekinetic, telepathic mutant who one day will rival if not surpass Xavier on the power scale. The Dark Phoenix saga gets multiple shout-outs here, but given how badly Brett Ratner botched it a decade ago (X-Men: Last Stand), it’s probably best left alone an unresolved for the immediate future. Eventually, Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) reappears at the school, Kurt Wagner / Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) in tow, concerned for Eric’s emotional well-being when news of an encounter that leaves multiple police officers dead hits the international news. He’s back in rampage mode, the perfect vessel for Apocalypse’s ambitions to take over and remake the world.
Along with Angel (Ben Hardy), Ororo Munroe / Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and a monosyllabic Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Eric becomes one of Apocalypse’s Four Horsemen. Even after Apocalypse brings over Magneto to his side (all it takes is a push and Magneto readily signs on), X-Men: Apocalypse spends an inordinate amount of time setting up and moving the pieces into position before the final, effects-heavy X-Men battle to end all X-Men battles (until, of course, the next entry in the series). Singer and his visual effects team squeeze every last ounce of the top-heavy budget, upping the scale, scope, and destruction of the last two entries. Yet for all of the consequence-free destruction (X-Men: Apocalypse takes a surprisingly callous, callow, non-critical attitude toward civilian casualties), it carries little, if any, narrative, thematic, or emotional weight or heft. We’ve seen one-dimensional villains or supervillains like Apocalypse far too many times in the past. Plus, you can only use the threat of world destruction as a plot device so many before the law of diminishing returns sets in. Superhero fatigue may not apply where Marvel and the Marvel Cinematic Universe is concerned – at least not for the foreseeable future – but if X-Men: Apocalypse is any evidence, Fox should begin to worry about the future viability of its superhero franchise and make course corrections (if possible).
It’s not all a complete bore or a waste of time, though. Singer can still make individual, effects-heavy sequences practically pop off the screen, especially where Quicksilver (Evan Peters), a time-slowing speedster, enters the film. Like X-Men: Days of Future Past, Quicksilver gets an action sequence where he can show off his abilities, a heist in the second film, a “save the kids from an explosion” extended scene in X-Men: Apocalypse that highlights Quicksilver’s playful, irreverent (to some borderline obnoxious) personality. Unfortunately, X-Men: Apocalypse slips right back into the overly familiar superhero vs. supervillain formula, setting up the final, extended battle in a curiously small corner of a smashed up city. Wherever the X-Men series goes from here – presumably the ‘90s given the pattern set up by X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past – at least X-fans can finally look forward to a stable X-Men team embarking on an all-new, hopefully smaller scaled, more intimate adventure. Optimistically, Turner, Sheridan, and Smit-McPhee will also return and in turn, given the chance to grow into their roles and develop them beyond the broad, ultimately unsatisfying strokes of X-Men: Apocalypse.