There's a bit in X-Men: Apocalypse in which Cyclops, Jean Grey, Nightcrawler, and Jubilee are walking out of a theater after seeing Return of the Jedi. Cyclops and Jubilee are arguing about whether Empire was better than Star Wars, and Jean remarks that "we can all agree that the third one is always the worst". This, of course is a jab at X-Men 3: the Last Stand, which I'm sure we can all agree is still the worst of the X-Men movies. It's also the first one that Bryan Singer didn't direct. But what might - or might not - be lost on Singer and his writers is the little bit of irony that Apocalypse is also the third movie in a series: the prequel series that started with X-Men: First Class.
X-2 and Days of Future Past remain the standout excellent films in this particular franchise. I don't think that Apocalypse ever degrades quite to the train wreck that was The Last Stand - not even close. But it does fall victim to some of the same traps that The Last Stand fell into: namely that it perhaps tried to fit too many stories into one, and doesn't tell any one of them particularly well. Much like The Last Stand, this one even starts to fall on its face when it goes into "Dark Pheonix" territory. Thankfully, they avoided turning that into a major plot thread though.
Perhaps the clumsiest storyline here was the Four Horsemen themselves. As per the comics, Apocalypse must recruit four powerful mutants, amplify their powers, and then use them as his own personal bodyguards. Other than Magneto, these characters' introductions and development all had to be rushed through. It seems a bit ironic that in these movies, it always seems to be the characters that we're most familiar with who get the most set-up and exposition; while the new characters receive little-or-no explanation or development. I never really bought into these horsemen though, or why they would be willing to help this obvious villain. I get that he tricked some of them with promises that he would "save humanity from itself", and he earned some loyalty with others by healing them and making them stronger, and that he used Magneto's grief and anger to his advantage, but the moment his plans started shifting away from "destroying corrupt systems and governments" towards outright "destroy the world", I just couldn't believe that none of the others batted an eye! Was there some kind of mind control going on as well? But he doesn't have mind control powers; that's why he wants Professor X.
Aside from Magneto, The Four Horsemen felt undeveloped and lacking in motivation.
Maybe if the movie could have established that Apocalypse had somehow brainwashed them, then I'd be more willing to accept it. Alternatively, if Apocalypse's agenda were to enslave humanity and the weak (rather than destroy them), then I'd be more forgiving of the Horsemen lacking clear genocidal tendencies. Even better, could have been trying to establish some new "nation of mutants", built upon his native Egypt, and that nation would then disrupt the Cold War by challenging the United States and Soviet Union as a third, mutant-powered super power. This would have gelled better with Magneto's ideology (possibly even setting up for his inevitable creation of Avalon / House of M / Asteroid M / Genosha), would have allowed for other characters to get some development instead of Magneto, would have made better use of the historical setting, and probably would have grounded Apocalypse's agenda more within the context of the series' larger narrative.
I had critiqued X-Men: First Class for building Xavier and Magneto's friendship on a shaky foundation. Instead of being colleagues at university, Xavier first meets Magneto while Magneto is trying to murder someone in a fit of vengeance. If that weren't bad enough, this movie doubles down by having Magneto willingly join Apocalypse in his attempt to destroy the entire world. No brain-washing, no mind control, no coercion. And then Magneto predictably turns on Apocalypse at the last minute, and Xavier just shrugs it off and lets Magneto get away scott-free, despite having probably just killed hundreds of thousands - if not millions - of humans and mutants alike. Seriously?! I could accept the analogous situation in Days of Future Past because the scale and stakes were so much more limited, and you could argue that Magneto was specifically attacking people who he perceived as a direct threat to his own safety. But Apocalypse just drives Magneto so far into "evil" territory that it's hard for me to buy back into Xavier and Magneto being friends.
This brings up the second greatest failing: I also had trouble buying into the stakes of the movie. The film sets the stakes ridiculously high and indulges in some unnecessary destruction porn. Despite the brutality of some of the scenes of this movie (Wolverine finally spills some blood for a change), the destruction all felt so distanced. Whole cities were being destroyed and millions killed, yet the movie doesn't show a single civilian actually suffering, nor does it tie any sense of loss to the main characters themselves. All we see is some shots of extras looking scared, and then cuts to scenes of skyscrapers being torn apart happening fifty miles away. It just didn't work for me. Why bother if there isn't going to be any sense of loss or tragedy? The destruction (and rebuilding) of the X-Mansion gets more attention than the leveling of entire cities.
Evan Peters' Quicksilver is once again the beneficiary of the stand-out action sequence.
On the upside, Apocalypse does stay true to many of the themes of the X-Men franchise. Instead of the allegorical plots about bigotry and prejudice, this one is more about how the strong abuse the weak - whether the strong be physically stronger individuals, or it be governments. There's a sub-theme (centered around Mystique) about hero worship and the importance of having strong role models. The themes of "gods versus mere mortals" is also the reason that the Pheonix allusions didn't feel nearly as out-of-place as they did in The Last Stand, even though they do still feel contrived and hackneyed here. I also liked the little joke of Apocalypse learning everything about the modern world from an episode of Star Trek ("Who Mourns for Adonais?"). Despite these small thematic strengths, the weak motivations of the villains suck all the ideological conflict out of the movie, and so the whole thing feels sadly shallow compared to the other X-Men movies.
Apocalypse is long, and there's a lot of characters, but most of them are established characters that we don't need to spend too much time on, and each one has their role (mostly). Quicksilver once again has the stand-out scene of the film, which is exceptional, not only for its visual splendor, but also for how it both showcases his power and informs his character. I was expecting Quicksliver's climactic role to go in a different direction considering the little bit of retconning that the movie decided to do (and this movie did a lot of retconning!), but he was still one of the stronger characters in the film. There weren't any new characters, unless you count the younger versions of Cyclops, Nightcrawler, Angel, and Storm as "new". Only Psylocke was new, and she felt completely pointless, undeveloped, and superfluous to the film. Even Jubilee (who appears in a whopping two scenes) felt more developed and even integral to the plot than did Psylocke. Olivia Munn's perfomance (along with Jennifer Lawrence's) is also pretty weak and lifeless.
And so begins the era of "villain of the week" X-Men movies, which is something that this series has so far been fortunate enough to avoid. This year it was Apocalypse, in a couple more years, it'll be Mr. Sinister. Hopefully that one will play out on a more manageable scale, and with a more understandable set of villains.
I felt like even Jubilee was more relevant to the plot than Psylocke.