Step 1: Get ready for more of the same. Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Apocalypse is the third installment in the series revolving around the younger versions of our favorite X-Men characters, and while it isn’t as stellar as the first two – First Class and Days of Future Past – Apocalypse still manages to thrill you with its mutant action and impeccable characterizations.
Step 2: Tell the story. Apoc takes place about 10 years after Days of Future Past. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) are successfully running Xavier’s School for the Gifted, which takes in young mutants who want to learn how to control their abilities AND get an education. Here we meet the young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), whose telekinetic powers are so strong it concerns Charles, and Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), who has just found out his eyes are now powerful laser beams. Not exactly the ideal thing for a teenage boy.
Meanwhile, Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is still saving mutants from being exploited and rescues a young Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and brings him to the school. Raven also has found out that Erik/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is in trouble again, and she wants to go help him with Charles’ assistance. But, of course, they are all sidetracked when an ancient mutant named Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) rises in Cairo after being trapped for centuries, ready to destroy all the weak humans and take over the world. And Apocalypse doesn’t work alone. He needs his “Four Horseman” by his side, so he recruits four powerful mutants to assist him, and in 1983, those four include a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Angel (Ben Hardy) – and Magneto, naturally.
Step 3: Love us some Mystique. The cool thing about Mystique is that her future has been altered. When we first meet her in the original X-Men movies, she is a villain, working with Magneto to take down those humans oppressing the mutants. Then in X-Men: First Class, a new Raven emerges, one with a lonely past but defiant in staying true to who she is. We see her leaning towards Magneto’s side, knowing how that turns out, but in Days of Future Past, the timeline is skewed by Wolverine and their success in saving mutants in the distant future. So now, in Apocalypse, Mystique is a hero to both the human and mutant community. It’s not something she necessarily wants – and she is still fighting for mutant rights – but she is no longer angry at humans. She becomes the Captain America of the X-Men, leading the team and telling them to embrace their abilities so they can defeat the evil. Lawrence has continually given this character enormous depth and meaning, and by making her the mutant champion, instead of an enemy, she shines.
Step 4: Hear Charles and Magneto debate the same thing. Charles has taken the time between their last encounter to build his school and teach the young mutants, and while McAvoy continues to play it brilliantly, giving small glimpses of the Patrick Stewart older man he’ll become, he has less impact in Apocalypse than he did the previous installments. The actor is actually kind of wasted in this, and manages to mostly sit around, dictating, reacting – and having the same argument with Erik over using their abilities for good to help humans, rather than harm them. Yawn. It doesn’t do McAvoy justice, especially since he’s given so much life to the role. We do see, however, how he becomes bald (and it’s not just a hair preference).
On the flip side, Magneto is a wanted man in Apocalypse for his evil deeds in Days of Future Past, but he has tried desperately to shed that persona and live a normal life. Without giving anything away, a set of circumstances turns Erik back into his vengeful Magneto once again, now just ripe for the picking by Apocalypse. While this also just seems repetitive, Fassbender continues to be the most fascinating player in this “new generation,” showing just how tortured Erik really is from all the horrors of his past. That’s why we can never completely hate Magneto for his actions (and we feel similarly for Ian McKellan’s older version) because we’ll always ultimately felt empathy for him – even when he’s tearing up the world.
Step 5: Follow Quicksilver and Wolverine. Evan Peters simply wins as Quicksilver. Period. There’s no way Age of Ultron‘s Aaron Taylor-Johnson had a chance to outdo Peters’ interpretation of the Marvel character, especially after his debut in Days of Future Past, so it’s probably best they killed Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver off. In Apocalypse, Peters once again shines as Quicksilver, doing his schtick (and saving a bunch of mutant kids from a bomb blast), stealing every scene he is in. And now that he knows he is Magneto’s son, this should be interesting in upcoming X-Men movies. And it’s no secret Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine makes an appearance in Apocalypse (because it’s in the trailers), but the way he does it is so completely awesome, you’ll definitely cheer when he shows up. Hint: It does have something to do with Col. William Stryker (Josh Helman) – remember, he’s the government guy who turned Wolverine’s claws into iron.
Step 6: Yawn at the villains. Isaac has the unenviable task of bringing the first mutant ever to life, but like McAvoy, he’s wasted, weighted down by all that brooding mutant elitism – and that prosthetic makeup. Apocalypse just isn’t compelling and there’s nothing new Isaac brings to the table. Same goes with two of his Four Horseman (excluding Storm and Magneto). While Munn looks kickass as Psylocke, she really only has one fight scene to speak off, while Hardy has no chance to give Angel any sort of depth, although he, too, looks fierce. This is a big missed opportunity to elevate standard comic-book bad guys.
Step 7: Praise Jean Grey. Along with Magneto and Wolverine, Jean Grey has always been one of the most compelling figures in the X-Men universe – the one mutant who truly has enough power to either rule them all or wipe them out. Famke Janssen will always have the credit of being the first Jean and for making an indelible impression, but Sophie Turner may have outdone her as the younger version. The Game of Thrones star proves she’s a real badass and has probably the most spectacular scene in the whole film when she takes on Apocalypse. It shows shades of the Dark Phoenix, but one wonders if her future, in which she does become evil, will now be changed by the altered timeline.
As for the other newbies, Sheridan does a nice job as the young Scott, trying to control those laser beam eyes while also falling for the older Jean, while Shipp gives us a whole new take on Storm. Did you know Ororo Munroe was Egyptian? I sure didn’t, but if Halle Berry ever has a chance to play Storm again, Shipp gives her lots to work with. The standout, though, is Smit-McPhee as the sweet-natured and religious Kurt, with his wide-eyed innocence and willingness to do teenager things. Again, his future has been skewed (remember in X2, he is under Magneto’s control), and now he is part of the X-Men team.
Step 8: How Bryan Singer handles it. The director absolutely understands this X-Men universe backwards and forwards, and does a wonderful job in keeping things familiar and relevant to all the characters. But where he fails in Apocalypse is in trying to give us something new and different. The film feels like a retread, with little propelling the story forward. Perhaps that’s the intent, a way to herald in the new generation of X-Men that we were first introduced to in the 2000 X-Men, but it feels lazy, in its execution and bloated action sequences. But he seamlessly blends all those great characters together, which allows X-Men fans to to look past the shortcomings and have fun with Apocalypse nonetheless.