It was Bryan Singer's first X-Men film back in 2000 that kicked off the modern glut of superhero cinema, showing that these costumed comic-book weirdos could, critically and financially, be really successful on the big screen. Singer hung around for the highly-acclaimed 2003 sequel, then he decamped to Warner Bros for his much-maligned revival of the man of steel. The X-Men continued without him, first in the (poorly received) hands of Brett Ratner and then in some wonderful early-days antics from Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman in First Class. Singer came back for the next film, Days of Future Past, which mixed the old guard with the new kids on the block, and now he continues with the younger generation for Apocalypse. But eight films in (if you include the two solo Wolverines; nine if you count Deadpool), the series feel as if it has gone off the rails somewhat – and this latest outing is distinctly average.
The plot sees our heroes dealing with the usual threat of global annihilation from a megalomaniacal villain – in this case an ancient Egyptian named En Sabah Nur, aka Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac). He's supposedly the original mutant, and has the power to absorb the power of other mutants, and he is revived after centuries of slumber to "cleanse" the world (ie, totally wipe out humanity). So he sets about recruiting four "horsemen" to assist him: Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Angel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn) and Storm (Alexandra Shipp). And it's up to the "good" guys – Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Havok (Lucas Till), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters), led by Professor Charles Xavier James McAvoy – plus a-foot-in-both-camps Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) to stop them and save the planet.
Sadly, for a film with a big plot, massive scope and a zillion characters, too much of X-Men: Apocalypse is a big yawn. The biggest problem is that we have seen it all before – and there is only so much global CGI destruction you can take. Superhero films now seem to consist mainly of said heroes (and villains) throwing bits of cities at each other, all cleverly done inside the computers of a team of talented artists sitting in an office somewhere. Everyone is doing it – the Avengers, Batman, Superman, Deadpool, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Ant-Man (although he and Yellowjacket DID end up throwing toy trains at each other, which was hilarious) – and it's all become a bit "yeah, seen it already, meh, show us something new whydontcha". There's also far too many characters and story threads to juggle in the (overlong) running time – somehow, First Class and DOFP did it all so much better. The only character who gets a decent amount of story time is Magneto, in hiding with his wife and daughter in Poland, although ultimately he does end up reverting to type. The timeline, too, is all rather confused (who knows who and who met who when now?) and the fact that Apocalypse is set about 20 years after the events of First Class, yet the characters look to have barely aged, is rather disconcerting.
The cast all do their best – returning players as well as newbies such as Turner, Sheridan, Hardy and Shipp, although the always-wonderful Munn gets very little to do as Psylocke but stand around looking hot in a costume that's not much more than a bathing suit – but the script generally lacks any real oomph, and unlike many of the presious X-Men films, it doesn't really feel as though it is about anything – there are no pivotal themes, ideas or philosophies at play. The biggest waste, though, is Isaac as the eponymous villain of the piece. He's so slathered with prosthetics and makeup that he is virtually unrecogisable (I actually didn't even know it was him until I was told the day after the screening).
It's solid and entertaining enough – and certainly more fun than Batman v Superman, but not quite in the same league as Civil War. As X-Men films go, it's no X-2 or First Class, but it's better than The Last Stand. But with so many superhero films coming out each year now, they need to do more than just smash lots and lots of pixels together inside a computer to keep us coming back to the cinema. With some of the cast saying this is their last outing, it will be interesting to see where the X-Men go from here – maybe smaller would be better?