A big, dumb superhero movie can — and should — be a lot of fun when done right.
X-Men Apocalypse, for as big and dumb as it is, isn't much fun at all. Instead, the mutants' latest outing undercuts its occasional hints of heart and humor with an excessive runtime, self-serious story and, yes, a lot of big dumbness.
Much of the blame here can be pinned on the titular villain, Apocalypse, whose aim of bringing on the end of days is both catastrophic and inept. The movie opens in ancient Egypt — which triggered a post-traumatic physical reaction from me, thanks to my memories of Gods of Egypt — where we're quickly made aware that this isn't the usual X-Men story about a band of misfits and the society that hates them. This time, the stakes are much higher, as Apocalypse is shown to be an age-old threat of biblical proportions. (In case the flashback sequence where the mutant deity is immortalized doesn't make that clear, the credits that immediately follow include icons like the Mona Lisa and a swastika before revealing the film's title, as if to suggest that Apocalypse fits neatly into the pantheon of major historical symbols.)
The trio of mutants have settled into their new lives after the dramatic public incident at the end of Days of Future Past: Magneto lives in Poland under an assumed name with a perfect family; Mystique is hiding out in Berlin; and Charles' suburban School for Gifted Youngsters is growing with an influx of humans and mutants alike. The latter setting invites the movie's most fun moments thanks to new students Jean Grey, Cyclops and Nightcrawler. Seeing these younger, classic characters on the screen is exciting enough, and they help freshen up a cast whose older members' trials are starting to wear a bit thin after two movies of infighting.
The debut of these mutants, along with the return of standout Quicksilver and Charles' abandoned love interest Moira McTaggart, pays off far better than that of the other newbies, though. Apocalypse might be a mutant, too, but there's nothing endearing or interesting about him as a character. Instead, Oscar Isaac's talents are wasted as the omnipotent, power-hungry Egyptian god, whose superheroic skills are never properly defined. Of course the X-Men are obligated to stop him, though, since he's both one of their kind and trying to destroy the world. When Apocalypse recruits Magneto for his team of doombringers, it feels like an obvious, if contrived, tactic to further connect the dots and get the X-Men on the case. But when the film shifts focus from expanding the mutant family tree to establishing Apocalypse as a threat, it begins to falter.
X-Men is at its best when embracing its fun, silly side
Apocalypse is hard to take seriously due to his ridiculous powers, lack of motivation and garish makeup. In lieu of any compelling traits, his motto seems to be "the bigger, the better." That's why we see him ordering his Horsemen of the Apocalypse to destroy landmarks like Auschwitz and the Sydney Opera House, then dragging out the movie's climactic fights for what feels like an eternity. It all leads to the mutants' final face-off against the villain, which is equal parts ridiculous, bizarre, and nonsensical.
The worst part of these extended scenes is that they push X-Men: Apocalypse into dry, painful tedium. The film is actually perfectly enjoyable when it's not taking itself so seriously. Quicksilver's super-powered moment in the spotlight, as it was in the last movie, is a joy; there are several good laughs and character moments featuring the core X-Men team; and the relationships between Mystique, Xavier, Magneto and the other good guys are especially resonant after all this time we've spent together. Considering that several of the main characters are blue and one shoots force beams from his eyeballs, the X-Men series is best when pointing at its own comic-book silliness and embracing its stars as lovable weirdos.
It's also a series that's very much about family: how, somewhere, there's a place for all of us outcasts. That theme still rings loud and clear throughout the film, but all the time spent away from that strong, central family is where X-Men: Apocalypse goes wrong. And that's a lot of time — a majority of the film's two-and-a-half-hour runtime. Every overly long scene featuring the bland Apocalypse or his hardly established cronies could have been better spent on the X-Men's acclimation into mainstream society, or their intimate moments, or their increased mastery of their powers.
In a way, it's hard to blame the team behind X-Men: Apocalypse for introducing an immortal and all-powerful threat, explosion-heavy fights, and other oversized additions. Filling a finale with tons of new things is a common "third movie" problem, which is lampshaded by Jean Grey during one of the all too brief joke-y side scenes. But this movie serves as a cautionary tale that going bigger rarely equals better. It would have been nice to spend more quiet time with the X-Men crew during what may be their final send-off. Instead, we got to take a very, very long world tour with their forgettable foe.