Out of the now eight X-Men movies – three from the original timeline, three from the prequel timeline, and two (soon to be three) Wolverine spin-offs; we’re not including Deadpool – the best one is still plainly and obviously X2. After the retroactively-quaint first film in 2000, director Bryan Singer really hit it out of the park with its sequel. That film holds the personal journey of its characters in equal regards with the action spectacle. These films work best when they use real human drama to build their cinematic worlds, and whether that’s Wolverine’s attempts to discover where he came from or Magneto’s battles with his past, X2 highlight this well, giving audiences exciting action that wasn’t just a swirling mass of CGI pixels. They even had a mutant “coming out” scene that brought the comics’ gay subtext right out in the open.
In X-Men: Apocalypse, director Bryan Singer – back for the fourth visit to Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters – certainly attempts this, but comes undone due to a disastrous third act that sees common sense thrown out of the window and replaced by computer-generated nonsense. It’s hard to invest in the characters this time when, yet again, Magneto (played with intensity by Michael Fassbender) is being lured to the dark side only to be redeemed by the pleas to his inner humanity. How many times are we going to have to see this storyline play out? It’s also hard to care about the likes of Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique when she looks bored on screen. Almost every line seethes with the contempt that comes from contractual obligations. It’s also hard to care about a film that has the foresight to cast Oscar Isaac — a breakout star in last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but who has been giving great performances for years in projects like Ex Machina, Show Me a Hero, and Inside Llewyn Davis — as the villain En Sabah Nur but then covers him in hideous green and purple make-up, rendering him unrecognizable and sapping him of all the personality that he brought to those earlier roles.
Thankfully, the cast of young actors they have assembled offer the film a welcome tonic. The romantic dynamic between Tye Sheridan, one of the best young actors around, and Game of Thrones‘ Sophie Turner is a relief, as is the surprisingly comic and playful Nightcrawler as portrayed by Kodi Smit-McPhee. Yet again, however, the best character and the best scene involve Quicksilver (Evan Peters) using his abilities to race around an exploding mansion saving other mutants from imminent death. It’s fun and funny and visually-impressive because it slows everything down enough for us to actually see the artistry on display. This scene stands out from the rest of the movie, which, by its end, is just a clusterf**k of messy, ugly, whiz-bang visual effects amid a story that makes little to no sense. And tasteless, too — like when Psylocke (Olivia Munn) stands in the middle of Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz in her bandage-bikini costume, her legs spread apart as if her genitals have a force field attached to them. Because nothing quite speaks to the horrors of the Holocaust like becoming a wank fantasy for teenage boys.
When Hugh Jackman — who does appear here, but only briefly — retires from the mutant game with next year’s final Wolverine movie, it might be good for the entire X-Men universe to take a break. They’re looking tired, and whereas back in 2000 they were a breath of fresh air, nowadays they routinely look like they’re playing catch up to other bigger franchises.