2016, rated PG-13, 144 minutes
Early on in the latest installment of the X-Men series, “X-Men: Apocalypse,” Professor Charles Xavier, played for the third time by very tired looking James McAvoy, reads to his students a truncated passage from T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King.” He intones: “Let us now start fresh without remembrance, rather than live forward and backward at the same time.”
On one hand, for those familiar with the original text, this quote might reinforce the futility of vengeance as a motivating force, which appears to be the predominant force that motivates the bad guys in these movies. But the choice of this passage acts also as a backhanded admission that little details — like character arc and narrative continuity with the previous films — should be left unexamined, as we quickly discover they have completely left the rails.
It seems like a long time since director Bryan Singer (“The Usual Suspects”) introduced the X-Men to the big screen 16 years ago. His success at the time, along with his sequel, “X2,” helped pave the road for many of today’s popular superhero franchises. In what seems retrospectively a terrible decision, Singer left the series to direct the much-maligned “Superman Returns” in 2007. That left well known hack Brett Ratner to take the wheel for the third X-Men chapter, “The Last Stand,” and drive the whole enterprise directly into the ground.
In an attempt to set things back on track, the very talented Brian Vaughan retooled the whole saga as a prequel, reintroducing many fan-favorite characters as younger, fresher versions. Set in 1963, “X-Men: First Class” was something of a triumph, bringing in new faces, including the inestimable Michael Fassbender (“Steve Jobs,” “Prometheus”) and genre sweetheart Jennifer Lawrence (“Hunger Games”). Singer returned to helm the follow-up, “Days of Future Past,” which tethered the new cast to the old, as our familiar mutant crew screwed about with a kind of psychic time-travel to jump back to 1973.
Technically, at least for the filmmakers, this probably seemed like a great device to knit the two trilogies together, and it worked on many levels. However, it’s also had the unfortunate side effects not only of muddying any sense of through-line from one set of realities to the other, but worse, of forcing the story to literally trace back over its own steps, repeating story elements, recycling themes, and becoming, in a word, monotonous.
Following an apparently arbitrary pattern, “X-Men: Apocalypse” drags the action into the early 1980s. The intervening decade does not seem to have aged any of the principal characters a day, and a few of them have even regressed. Lawrence’s shape-shifting Mystique, long the champion for standing without shame as the person one is born to be, has for some unexplained reason slid back into slinking around in her “human costume,” hiding her true form. Fassbender’s metal-bending Magneto, tortured throughout the series by childhood traumas suffered at the hands of oppressive human authorities, is inexplicably given a secondary family to avenge. Hugh Jackman makes an obligatory cameo as Wolverine, once again shown escaping the infamous Weapon X program. This adds exactly nothing to the mythos, nor does it forward anyone’s journey in any way. On the contrary, it actually flies in direct conflict with the end of the last film, in which Wolverine was presumably saved from this fate by Mystique, impersonating the soldier who’d captured him. But, as the good Professor counseled, we’re apparently not supposed to remember that.
At least Oscar Isaac gets to hide under his makeup. The rest of the cast looks visibly embarrassed to have been roped into this useless and overblown encore.
As if to draw our attention to this, whole lines of dialogue are lifted from previous films. In one case, a single conversation is edited together out of interchangeable scenes from three separate movies, underscoring with excruciating precision how mindlessly repetitive and uninspired this whole ordeal has become.
Speaking of uninspired, there’s the Big Bad: Apocalypse. If any hard work was done on this movie (it sure wasn’t the script, or the music, or the special effects), it may have been in making one of the most formidable and versatile actors of this generation, Oscar Isaac, look really, really bad. Isaac, who recently shined with celebrated roles in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” “Ex Machina,” and “Inside Llewyn Davis,” growls unrecognizably under pounds of paint and latex, rendering him incapable of expressing anything more than one pouty emotion. His single motivation is simply to take over the world. That’s it. To what purpose is never described, nor are the powers at his disposal to do this, though after rising from a 3,000-year imprisonment, he does show some remarkable skill with styling his followers’ hair, designing sexy one-piece swimsuits, and even, no kidding, face-painting. Seriously, he paints a guy’s face.
It simply boggles how we’re supposed to accept that this five-foot-nine Smurf-blue Power Rangers throwaway is somehow a threat to anything other than maybe the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man’s position as most ridiculous cinematic world-destroyer in the long tradition of cinematic world-destroyers.
At least Isaac gets to hide under his makeup. The rest of the cast looks visibly embarrassed to have been roped into this useless and overblown encore. Fassbender at first fares better than some, by simple virtue of being Michael Fassbender. But by the end, even he’s left literally hanging, hovering from wires gritting his teeth for 10 straight minutes while the other supers randomly blast powerbeams at each other. (In Xavier’s case, a Matrix-like struggle of internal psychological fisticuffs is represented by, well, actual fisticuffs.)
As Magneto, Fassbender has been tearing whole cities to the ground, murdering millions of people across the globe, and becoming precisely the genocide he’s always fought against. The fact that, just a few moments later, he’s back at Home base laughing along with the heroes acts as a final and definitive reminder that we’re expected to forget not only what happened in the previous movies, but what happens in this one as well. And that really might be for the best.