Film review: X-Men: Apocalypse has too many heroes, loses cred

X-Men: Apocalypse, starring Jennifer Lawrence, finds Fox studios losing territory in the superhero franchise market. Photo: 20th Century Fox X-Men: Apocalypse, starring Jennifer Lawrence, finds Fox studios losing territory in the superhero franchise market. Photo: 20th Century Fox

When Marvel first sold the film rights to its biggest properties —Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four—it was not yet aware of the gold mine that awaited it with The Avengers series. And at first, Sony and Fox were doing interesting things with their acquisitions; the first two Spider-Man movies by Sam Raimi are industry-defining milestones for both comic films and action films in general, and Bryan Singer’s X-Men and X2 proved that team-driven, caped-hero flicks could work visually, emotionally and financially. And with Fantastic Four…well, they tried.

Now 18 years after the release of Blade—arguably the risky move that started us down this path—we’re seeing weekly caped hero vs. caped hero megabudget extravaganzas featuring battles of cataclysmic scale. Where a film like X-Men: Apocalypse would once have been a dream come true for fans of the first entries in this series, what we end up with is less of a galloping epic and more like returning-director Singer limply checking off a series of demands from Fox studios heads as they attempt to play catch-up with Marvel, even though the former company had an enormous head start.

Here’s the plot: Apocalypse—played by the normally engaging Oscar Isaac in makeup indistinguishable from an evil wizard at a Renaissance faire—was the first mutant who aspires for godhood in ancient Egypt. He goes to sleep for a while. He wakes up. He still wants godhood, so everyone fights about it. Many thousands die, except for good guys with names you remember. Wolverine shows up in the middle, kills a bunch of anonymous soldiers, says nothing, leaves. One paragraph just saved you 140 minutes of your life.

Paradoxically, as the titles of these comic book behemoths get more and more dire—Dawn of Justice, Civil War, now just straight-up Apocalypse—fewer characters of consequence seem to be dying permanent deaths: Phoenix and Stryker in X2, darn near everyone in X-Men: The Last Stand. Evidently, Fox’s strategy for emulating Marvel’s success is to focus on building a shared universe full of characters with name recognition. The thing they neglected, however, is that Marvel takes the time to make good individual movies in between the world-destroying epics because, ultimately, the name recognition matters less than the quality of the product.

The worst part about X-Men: Apocalypse isn’t its failure as a film. It’s that it corners its own fanbase into questioning whether the first two entries were even good enough to merit this sort of grandeur to begin with. Sure, they introduced the balance of camp and gravitas that can be found in much of Marvel’s output, but bending the tone of the original franchise past its breaking point for little reason beyond reminding the world that this franchise still belongs to them is doing nobody any favors.

Bottom line, X-Men: Apocalypse doesn’t look good. It’s not fun. It barely makes sense. Yet inevitably, there will be further entries with even larger battles with even lower stakes. It took three successive failures for Sony to give up on its once-great Spider-Man franchise, allowing Marvel to use the character to terrific effect in Civil War. We can only pray that Fox does the same, pulling the plug on this once-interesting now-lifeless franchise.

X-Men: Apocalypse PG-13, 140 minutes
Violet Crown Cinema, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

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