BRYAN Singer directs a dreary instalment of the X-Men superhero franchise, shackled by Young Adult tropes and familiar set-pieces, writes Alistair Harkness
X-Men: Apocalypse (12A) | Rating: **
The title is appropriate. X-Men: Apocalypse annihilates almost everything good about the mutant superhero franchise. Directed once again by Bryan Singer, who kicked off the series – and arguably the current age of superhero cinema – with the first two films, it’s hard to escape the feeling that he’s hoisted himself with his own petard here. Having returned to the fold with 2014’s time-travel-themed X-Men: Days of Future Past, he cleverly followed on from Matthew Vaughn’s entertaining 1960s-set X-Men: First Class by merging the cast of the first three movies (led by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) with their younger counterparts (led by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender). But he also erased the timeline of those earlier movies, Star Trek style, leaving the way clear for future instalments to do as they please. This new one maintains some continuity by bringing back McAvoy, Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence, but it seems to exist largely to pass the baton on to an even younger (and doubtless less expensive) set of actors.
Thus we get new, barely pubescent-seeming versions of Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan). We also get the psychically troubled Jean Gray, played by Famke Janssen first time round and now played by Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner, who looks and acts as if she’s auditioning for a Divergent movie. Indeed the overall vibe of the film is akin to an angst-ridden Young Adult adaptation. That shouldn’t be unduly problematic given the source material, but it does soften the series by replacing any inherent weirdness or sex appeal the films had with sulkiness. Even Jennifer Lawrence can’t escape this expurgation. Returning for the third time as blue-skinned shape-shifter Mystique, the Hunger Games star is now burdened with a character arc that once again requires her to play the role of the reluctant saviour. She’s like a Smurf Katniss Everdeen.
The film itself picks up the action a decade on from the Nixon-era setting of Days of Future Past. A dreary prologue introduces the eponymous threat, who turns out to be the very first mutant: a creature with all sorts of self-healing, shape-shifting and body-swapping powers. The body Apocalypse chooses to take right at the start belongs to Oscar Isaac, seen briefly as an ancient Egyptian, but soon encased in a ridiculous, form-hiding combination of metallic face-paint, body armour and dreads. He looks like a cross between the Predator and Skeletor. He could literally be played by anyone.
As the plot jumps ahead to 1983, Apocalypse has some beef with mankind’s reliance on nuclear weapons and sets about gathering fellow mutants for his ill-defined cause. Meanwhile, Magneto – now one of the world’s most wanted mutants – is hiding out in Poland, trying to live a quiet life with his wife and child. Their presence should immediately tip you off to the groaning tragedy that will set him back on course to hating humanity. For his part, Fassbender looks thoroughly bored, unenthusiastically unleashing that abracadabra acting style required to convey Magneto’s mutant powers.
McAvoy also has to do a lot of brow furrowing and temple-pinching as Professor X, but at least he brings some levity to proceedings. Elsewhere, the film just rehashes set-pieces we’ve seen before. Even a last-act cameo from a snarling Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) feels more desperate than dangerous. In retrospect, the most perceptive moment comes early on. Leaving a screening of The Return of the Jedi, Jean Grey quips: “It think we can all agree that the third movie is always the worst.” Though undoubtedly a sly dig at Brett Ratner’s little loved X-Men: The Last Stand, it’s worth bearing in mind that X-Men: Apocalypse is the third movie in this particular iteration. If the shoe fits…