Everyone knows the third movie is always the worst.” So proclaims mutant telepath Jean Grey in the middle of X-Men: Apocalypse, just around the point when we’ve already for ourselves that that also applies here. Ironically, this happens in a scene in which she and some other teen mutants have gone to the mall to see Return of the Jedi, a scene that exists solely so that she can make this joke… and it’s plot detours and tangents just like this one that are among the many disappointments of the film.
It’s the 1980s now, in this — yes — third installment of the X-Men historical comic-book drama trilogy, after 2011’s groovy Bond-ian 1960s-set X-Men: First Class and 2014’s elegant time-travel-into-the-1970s adventure X-Men: Days of Future Past. But it feels more than a little bit like we’re revisiting 1999’s action adventure The Mummy, with mutants instead of a faux Indiana Jones (though, to be fair, there is a whiff of Indy in one bit, too). The very first mutant ever, who was buried alive in 3,600 BC by people fed up with having to worship him as a god, has been resurrected. A superscary dude called En Sabah Nur, he is basically immortal and can absorb powers from other mutants; he absorbed a lot over the centuries before his entombment… so much so that it’s actually a little implausible that he remained out of commission for almost four millennia. But never mind. En Sabah Nur is also called Apocalypse, and that is what he is after, so he can rule over the Earth when there’s nothing left of it. Why he would want that is a mystery, except that he’s a Villain, but he must be stopped, of course.
Unlike the previous films in the trilogy — and most of the earlier X-Men movies — this one is about precisely nothing other that pure pulp comic-book soap-opera rigmarole. And that’s fine, but it doesn’t make for a terribly memorable moviegoing experience. Apocalypse’s many flaws might be more forgivable if it resonated on some other, deeper level and left us with something to think about. The series’ metaphor of “mutation” for a lack of privilege and power and the response to it as a way to explore human bigotry may be obvious, even trite at this point, and perhaps that’s why it’s missing here: it’s been done. But Days of Future Past was fueled by some marvelous and subtle interplay between hindsight and foresight both on personal and political levels, deployed in ways that we could take from and apply to our own private histories and to our hopes for where the future it taking us all. There’s nothing like that here. At all.
What’s left? Screenwriter Simon Kinberg and director Bryan Singer — both returning from DOFP — give us one really fresh and exciting sequence in which the superfast (and supersnarky) Quicksilver (Evan Peters: The Lazarus Effect, Kick-Ass) dashes among the first seconds of a massive explosion rescuing people. There’s a nice running motif in which the cynical Raven (Jennifer Lawrence: Joy, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2), who has dropped out of mutant culture, is reminded that so many young mutant girls look up to and even idolize her; young women as role models is not a thing we see onscreen very often. And the new young cast is universally fantastic: Sophie Turner (Barely Lethal, Game of Thrones) as Jean Grey, Kodi Smit-McPhee (Slow West, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) as the blue-skinned teleporter Nightcrawler; Tye Sheridan (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, Joe) as laser-eyed Cyclops; Alexandra Shipp (Straight Outta Compton, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel) as Storm.
But all of that is overshadowed by too many clichés, implausibilities, and missed opportunities. Magneto’s (Michael Fassbender: Steve Jobs, Frank) personal development comes at the price of the lives of a wife and daughter, something so trite as to be unforgivable. (I don’t care if this was what happened in the comics; other ways to motivate male characters exist that have not become infuriatingly hackneyed.) Professor Xavier (James McAvoy: Victor Frankenstein, Muppets Most Wanted) is so ludicrously forgiving of the most outrageous and devastating actions by his fellow mutants that he ultimately comes across not as gentle and merciful but as a parody of kindness. The superpower of one of Apocalypse’s henchmen, Psylocke (Olivia Munn: Ride Along 2, Mortdecai), appears to be little more than posing around the end of the world in a fuck-me dominatrix costume. (Again: it doesn’t matter if that’s what she looked like on paper. Find a better way to make it work onscreen.) Apocalypse’s apocalypse is a lot of cheesy CGI urban disaster that goes on way too long… and yet appears to impact no one at all. Perhaps most unfortunate of all is the utter waste of the terrific actor who is Oscar Isaac (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Mojave) as Apocalypse: it could be almost anyone under all that makeup. He would have been much scarier blasting his malevolent glares out of his unadorned face.
Because this is 2016, early days of the Fanboy Wars, this must be said: I liked Apocalypse a lot more than Batman v Superman and a lot less than Captain America: Civil War, and no, Disney did not pay me to say any of this. But the previous films in the trilogy set the bar very high, and this one doesn’t even come close to hitting it, never mind vaulting over it.