Throughout my whole adult life, there have always been X-Men films, so when the 20th Century Fox fanfare segues into the X-Men fanfare as it does every time, I can’t deny I get a little thrill from it. There’s something of the elder statesman about the X-Men franchise, now in its sixteenth year without any serious rebooting or recasting; in the same time frame, we’ve seen three Peter Parkers, two Clark Kents, two Bruce Waynes and two sets of the Fantastic Four family. Even the Great Marvel Cinematic Universe has only been going for eight years.
I’m being generous with my definitions, of course, given that the franchise got a refreshing boost with First Class, which brought in younger versions of characters to an earlier timeframe but maintained threads of continuity with previous films and continued to make use of the older cast. This loosely-held continuity that doesn’t hold up to any sort of scrutiny may frustrate the sort of people that write Wikipedia entries, but it’s allowed the series room to breathe without demanding all films be watched in order to understand the latest.
Where the series has been weakest is in its struggle to make much of its characters other than Wolverine, and Magneto and Professor X in both their younger and older forms. Other characters come and go and some are more memorable than others, but they’re always fundamentally in orbit of at least one of the above three. It’s a weakness in X-Men: Apocalypse as well, which again introduces a new batch of mutants and again gives us little reason to look forward to seeing more of them instead of more of the favoured trinity.
On the up side, Evan Peters’ Quicksilver returns, and him and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s dorky Nightcrawler bring a welcome sense of fun to proceedings. On the down side, while bringing a young Jean Grey and Scott Summers back into the series ought to be a big deal, neither of them leave any impression beyond one of bland competence, and there’s no chemistry in their comics-mandated relationship. Much is made of Grey’s burgeoning power, but it’s only because other characters remark on it that you’d know it was there. The series inability to move beyond Wolverine also doesn’t help as his appearance here comes across as both inconsequential and contrived, as if the cast fell out of this film and went on a half-hour detour into one of Hugh Jackman’s.
Oscar Isaac makes a decent fist of the titular Apocalypse, but he’s more chatty than apocalyptic. His most terrifying power seems to be sapping any character out of his disciples; the cherubic Angel is more interesting as an oiled-up cage fighter than he is later as Apocalypse’s wordless bodyguard, and I’d love to watch the story of young Storm and her ragtag bunch of criminal street urchins. Olivia Munn, so nondescript they don’t even bother naming her in the film, acts as if she was never quite sure when the cameras were filming, standing around awkwardly while Magneto silently hovers doing some magnetic things. Apocalypse claims to empower the powerful, but instead they’re all subsumed. Perhaps that was the point.
There’s nothing particularly surprising about X-Men: Apocalypse. Those who’ve performed strongly in the past continue to do so here: Fassbender’s Magneto angsts and rages over things while McAvoy’s Professor X worries at the scenery like a nervous terrier and wipes his weepy eyes. Weaker elements persist: Jennifer Lawrence continues to leave her enthusiasm at the door and Wolverine’s cameo is telegraphed well in advance. Quicksilver’s Big Fun Scene is big and fun, but because of his Big Fun Scene in Days of Future Past it’s also now expected. Not much is made of the film’s 1980s setting either; shoulder-pads and rolled-up jacket sleeves aside, it could have been set anytime.
Still, this is no Last Stand or Origins, and while it can feel a bit like a box-ticking exercise at times, the fact remains that the X-Men franchise is pretty good at doing the things the X-Men franchise is pretty good at doing. The series must surely hit a wall at some point, but with sixteen years under its belt, I don’t want to try and predict when it’ll happen.