2016 has been a year of firsts for the superhero genre. Deadpool was the first R-Rated success story. Batman v Superman was the first chapter in DC’s fledgling film universe. Even Civil War was the first time iconic Marvel heroes had fought on a large scale. Soon, Doctor Strange will be the first installment for a brand new superhero. So why, with all these stellar firsts, can we not shake the feeling that the X-Men franchise just took a massive step in the opposite direction?
We’re of course referring to X-Men: Apocalypse, the 8th (or 9th depending on how you categorize Deadpool) film in Hollywood’s longest-running superhero saga. The movie itself wasn’t particularly bad per se. In fact, there plenty of moments where it ventured into some genuinely exciting and entertaining territory. But those ventures were the equivalent of dipping a single toe into the water (with that toe being yet another stunning slow-mo sequence from Evan Peters as Quicksilver). The year is 1983, and it’s been approximately 10 years since the events of Days of Future Past. Professor Charles Xavier still has a full head of hair, Cyclops is just a young kid with eye problems, and the world is still terrified of mutants.
Even by setting itself in a different era though, Apocalypse feels as though it’s dragging us kicking and screaming back to the beginning of the franchise. The time travel-centric Days of Future Past completely reset the X-Men timeline, retconning virtually every bit of story we’ve seen since the first film debuted back in 2000. And while that’s a great way to keep your franchise on life support indefinitely, it’s tough to get invested in a story that feels like a rote rehashing of director Bryan Singer’s past X-Men movies.
The story in its most basic form is this: A 6,000-year-old immortal mutant is unearthed from deep beneath Egypt, with designs for the complete destruction of humanity as we know it. He assembles a team of four mutants to assist him in this mission, whose powers he enhances to serve his needs. That group includes Magneto, Storm, Psylocke, and Angel. On the other side are the X-Men at their youngest, led by Mystique, and backed up by Cyclops, Jean Grey, Nightcrawler, Beast, and CIA operative Moira MacTaggert.
The issues with the plot are two-fold. First off, the clutter of characters doesn’t serve the film well. Traditionally, X-Men movies are at their best when they hone in on one specific relationship. The debut film in the franchise was driven by Wolverine and Rogue’s close bond as outsiders. X2 was about Wolverine battling with his past. First Class dove into the complexities of Professor X and Magneto’s friendship. Days of Future Past was largely about Mystique and Professor X’s journey toward redemption. Apocalypse though gave us about 10% of back-story for 90% of its characters, while leaning hard into large-scale CGI destruction as the driving force behind the stakes.
The second issue with this film relates to its role in advancing the X-Men story. The greatest superhero movies are the ones that feel like a step forward within their respective franchises. Apocalypse couldn’t quite hit the mark on that one though, and instead was more of the same from a 16-year-old saga. Consequently, it’s hard to see how its story drives the franchise into anything resembling new, exciting territory. Rather than evolving the narrative, it retcons all the pre-First Class X-Men movies. And by the time the credits role, the “new” timeline has been started over from the exact same place.
This is all made that much more frustrating by the ending (if you don’t want that spoiled for you, we suggest concluding your journey on this review now). Things wrap up with Magneto and Professor X’s usual back-and-forth concerning their competing philosophies on humanity, with Charles even parroting an exact line from the first X-Men movie. Magneto then peacefully walks away, while no one in the room seems to hold any level of concern for the fact that this guy literally almost destroyed the entire planet (ten years after he tried to assassinate the god damn president of the United States). It brings us right back around to the same old cycle of stories, and undoes a fair amount of the progress we got from Days of Future Past. Where the main series will go from there is a mystery, but we imagine it’ll feel all too familiar when it’s all said and done.
X-Men: Apocalypse releases nationwide on May 27, 2016.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickNorthwest