In “X-Men: Apocalypse,” characters and emotion barely save clunky story

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In the latest X-Men installment, "X-Men Apocalypse," good character work by the central actors rescues a cluttered plot. 

Photo Credit: Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

The “X-Men” franchise experienced a critical and commercial resurgence thanks to 2011’s “First Class” and 2014’s “Days of Future Past.” This year’s “Apocalypse” is a stumble in the series’ upward trend. Lacking the tight focus of “First Class” and the thematic power of “Days of Future Past,” this X-Men picture manages to coast by, but only just.

Returning from the previous entries is Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), whose school for mutant children is now a full-fledged institution. His former friend and nemesis, Magneto (Michael Fassbender), is now a factory worker and loving husband and father hiding out in Poland. The two find themselves on a collision course when an ancient mutant known as Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) emerges to conquer the world.

 

Apocalypse is driven by godly ambitions. He is the inspiration for many deities, and he chooses mutant followers to be his Four Horsemen. Magneto joins them after local authorities kill his family, while Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) assembles a team to face off against Apocalypse when the Four Horsemen kidnap Xavier.

Younger versions of classic X-Men appear in sizable roles. There’s Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), a telepath who is frightened by her enormous powers and must learn how to control them. Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan) — aka Cyclops — and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) make welcome returns, too.

While “Apocalypse” may appease some diehard X-Men fans with its enormous cast, director Bryan Singer and writer Simon Kinberg don’t juggle their characters well enough to justify stuffing in so many of them into the film. The plot drags for the first hour as the film tries to introduce everyone in the story and unite its disparate elements. The result is formless, murky and occasionally boring.

Singer does squeeze in some good character work during the first act, though. Most of the central characters are afraid of something — Xavier fears letting his students fight the world’s battles, Magneto fears the evil humanity is capable of, and Mystique fears the responsibilities of becoming a hero.

Of all the players, Fassbender shines brightest as a broken Magneto, who is chased by the sins of his past and driven to sin once against by the injustices he’s experienced. At one point in the picture, Apocalypse brings Magneto to Auschwitz, where Magneto lost his beloved mother. Magneto experiences a gut-wrenching moment here that stands as one of the most tragic scenes of the “X-Men” films.

On the other hand, Quicksilver (Evan Peters) doesn’t work as well as he did in “Days of Future Past.” Singer attempts to give the speedster some dimension by revealing Magneto is Quicksilver’s dad, which motivates the son to join the X-Men in an attempt to rescue his father. This relationship was hinted at in “Days of Future Past,” but Singer drops it straight into our laps without any proper context in “Apocalypse.” The film doesn’t dwell long enough on Quicksilver’s character or the parental revelation for his quest to hit home, which means the pivotal encounter between father and son rings hollow and forced.

When “Apocalypse” stops meandering and begins driving toward its overdone climax, it’s almost too little too late. Apocalypse’s plan wreaks havoc across the entire world, but scope doesn’t create drama — having human perspectives to anchor us in the events does. Singer neglects to deliver that crucial element, leaving the film less like Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds” and more like a dumb, loud Roland Emmerich disaster flick.  Apocalypse doesn’t necessarily spell doom for the X-Men, but weightless spectacle will. It’s only by the grace of its characters that this film proves watchable.

"X-Men: Apocalypse"

  • Running Time: 143 minutes
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Release Date: May 27, 2016
  • Score: 3/5 stars