2 stars (out of 4)
Magneto. Mystique. Cyclops. Beast.
If these names don’t sound familiar — or fill you with instant, unfettered glee — then sit out this perfunctory installment of the X-Men series. Deep investment in the history of Professor X's hair loss and Jean Grey's psychic skills set is a must.
X-Men: Apocalypse (in theaters Friday, May 27) is the sixth chapter of the Marvel comic book franchise since 2000. (That doesn’t include the two Wolverine stand-alones). The dormant series enjoyed a resurgence thanks to 2011’s 1960s-era X-Men: First Class, which was sleek, clever and birthed two superstars in Jennifer Lawrence and Michael Fassbender. The stakes and the cast increased for 2014’s Days of Future Past, set in the 1970s.
Now we’re in the 1983. And the “Greed Is Good” decade is, well, not great to our favorite mutants. They’re stuck in a meh plot and subpar special effects. The characters are rescued, of course. But their savior is not a superhero — it’s an awesome synth-pop ‘80s soundtrack.
Sweet plots are made of this: A decade has passed since Magneto (Fassbender) tried to assassinate the president. He’s Teddy Ruxpin compared to the titular, all-powerful ancient villain (Oscar Isaac, unrecognizable). Newly unearthed and none too pleased about his centuries-long slumber, the monster aims to build a new world order. He's well on his way, thanks to his ability to transfer his sinister consciousness to others. That’s how he recruits his Four Horsemen — Magneto (Fassbender), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and Angel (Ben Hardy).
Stopping this madman and his disciples isn’t going to be a walk in the laboratory. A flock is required. (Sorry, not a Flock of Seagulls. But you will hear them in the background.) How fortunate that Professor X (James McAvoy) is still running his Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters at his mansion in upstate New York. His prized teen pupils include telepathic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and Cyclops, (Tye Sheridan), who can shoot energy beams out of his eyes. Also ready to fight on Team X: his childhood friend Mystique (Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Quicksilver (Evan Peters, a human highlight reel) and former love, CIA star Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne).
This plans only falls into place after 90 minutes of frustratingly splintered storytelling. You’ll need a notebook and an atlas to keep track of the mutants’ whereabouts, as they’re hiding out everywhere from Berlin to the Midwest. (Apocalypse himself is in Cairo). Only Magneto’s backstory — set in Poland — features any semblance of intrigue: Working quietly at a factory under an assumed name, he can still summon his ability to control magnetism. But he doesn’t unleash his powers for evil until death strikes his wife and daughter. Later, he becomes unglued while revisiting his horrific time in a concentration camp at Auschwitz.
Leave it to the mesmerizing Fassbender to find the gritty pathos within a generic superhero flick. Lawrence, meanwhile, is visibly going through the shape-shifting motions. She may be an Oscar-winning actress, but she can’t mask the look of franchise burn-out.
When the mutants do finally face off, the payoff underwhelms. Don’t come in expecting the soaring thrills of Captain America: Civil War or fearing the heavy-handed dreariness of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Consider this the not-so-happy medium. Sure, director Bryan Singer delivers a few jolts (Hugh Jackman's Wolverine cameo is a stunner). Yet, for the most part, the battle sequences fail to make an impact. It’s 2016. Why must we be subjected to fiery blue lasers, CGI’ed explosions and The Mummy-like chaos in the Egyptian sands? Swap out the characters, and you’d swear you were watching the climax of Singer’s original X-Men film 16 years ago.
The dialogue is even clunkier. “You’ve got your warplanes,” intones Lawrence, behaving like Katniss Everdeen minus the arrows. “Let’s go to war!” Even the movie’s snappiest, most self-aware line — “at least we can agree that the third one is the worst”— elicited more groans than laughs in the theater.
The film ends with the mutants continuing to master their powers. Perhaps for the next go-round they can learn how to add pizzazz to a tired script.
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