“At least we can all agree the third one is always the worst.”
So says a character in X-Men: Apocalypse, the latest actioner using mutants to hold a mirror up to contemporary society’s prejudices. It’s a dig at X-Men: The Last Stand, the third in Fox’s original trilogy and long considered to be the worst of the series. (Well, assuming you don’t count the abysmal X-Men: Origins — Wolverine.)
It’s not just X-Men: The Last Stand, though. While in most movie trilogies, the second entry in the worst, superhero trilogies are an anomaly. Since the first movie is usually bogged down by an origin story, the second movie is almost always the best — recall Superman II, X2: X-Men United, Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier — while the third is almost always the worst.
When 2011’s X-Men: First Class rebooted things, showing how the characters once played by Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, and Rebecca Romijn began, it caught people off-guard with how good it was. Days of Future Past, being the second movie, proved to be the best X-Men yet, topping the first in always every way. X-Men: Apocalypse is the third in this new trilogy. And you know what they say about the third one.
X-Men: Apocalypse begins with an epic opening sequence in ancient Egypt, in which a powerful mutant is entombed beneath a pyramid, slumbering for millennia until awakened by a mutant-worshipping cult. This 5000-year-old being (Oscar Isaac), known by names as varied as Ra and Yahweh — and Apocalypse, to the X-Men here — is disgusted by the hedonistic nature of people in the 20th century and decides to purge the world of humanity and start anew.
In 1983, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is running the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters, teaching the X-Men of tomorrow how to control and build their powers, along with Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult). Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) has shed his Magneto identity and is living in Poland with a wife and daughter, while Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) travels the world, freeing oppressed mutants.
With the help of returning CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) — who helped Charles and Erik save the world in First Class but had the memories removed — Charles and Mystique work to build the “gifted youngsters” into child soldiers, as the only ones who can stop Apocalypse.
At the same time, Apocalypse assembles his four disciples, including Erik, re-embracing the Magneto within, and new addition/fan-favourite Psylocke (Olivia Munn).
X-Men: Apocalypse works hard to succeed as both a standalone picture and the third in a continuing series, succeeding more often than not. The real problem is just that it has nothing to say.
All the best X-Men movies have used action and fighting as a candy coating to help their moral discussions and lessons about xenophobia go down easier. For the first time in six core X-Men movies, though, Apocalypse is interested only in telling a fun story. Even the dopey X-Men: The Last Stand was still high-minded enough to examine issues like conversion therapy.
What’s worse, if Apocalypse wishes to dedicate itself to action, it should at least be smart enough to not be senseless. Not only are some plot tangents in the script purely because they’re “expected” — surprise, surprise, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine shows again up for no germane reason — but a sequence involving a visit to Auschwitz feels outright exploitative and inappropriate.
Oscar Isaac is completely wasted as Apocalypse, unrecognizable save for his mouth and chin. What’s the point of casting the familiar face from Inside Llewyn Davis and The Force Awakens if his voice and appearance is “enhanced” to the point of anonymity?
McAvoy is as wonderful as ever, perhaps at his best yet as Xavier. Like Ewan McGregor in the Star Wars prequels, McAvoy gets more confident and comfortable in the role with each movie. Fassbender is reliably good, as well, although can’t quite shake a note of being “done” with the X-Men movies by now. You get the feeling that he’s giving it his all as the consummate professional he is, but that he’s not enjoying himself anymore.
Jennifer Lawrence, meanwhile, doesn’t bother hiding it. She very clearly feels she’s outgrown the franchise — when X-Men: First Class came out, the first Hunger Games was still a year away — and shows up out of contractual obligation. Her acting this time around just consists of treating Mystique like she’s Katniss in blue makeup.
New additions to the series Tye Sheridan, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Sophie Turner, and Alexandra Shipp all fit in nicely. Olivia Munn is the standout, though, with her enhanced warrior Psylocke. Dressed like she stepped out of Aeon Flux and sword-fighting with the mutant equivalent of lightsabers, Psylocke emerges the standout character among a cast of several great new ones.
Regardless of its issues, X-Men: Apocalypse is a good movie. It’s technically the weakest of the new trilogy, but a lot of the reason for that is just due to how strong First Class and Days of Future Past really are. Apocalypse may be the worst of the three, but it still beats the pants off of X-Men: The Last Stand.
3½ stars / 5