Set years after the time crisis of Days of Future Past and the aversion of the dark, dystopian future promised by the Sentinels, the Xavier School is thriving once more. New generations of mutants have taken up residence to hone their skill and self control, and it's a time of relative peace for the enclave of fledgling superheroes. However, something sinister lurks in the dark places of the world, awakening for the first time in thousands of years. It looks upon the world as it is with disdain, and now seeks to reshape it in its own demented image...
As the first big step towards establishing a new franchise after Days of Future Past all but utterly ended the original saga, Apocalypse naturally had a great deal riding upon it; needing to maintain a balancing act of both avoiding repeating events on the same scale as its predecessor and yet still feel like a step forwards despite this. This is a challenge to be sure given Apocalypse's best material stems from the world-ending, time travelling crisis Age of Apocalypse, and tapping into that would have given audiences a keen sense of deja vu. As such, the story here instead focuses more upon a new generation overcoming the past, and the conflict between new ideals against an old order, and what must be done in the face of a changing world. It's a quintessentially X-Men style story, and the strong character pathos helps to clinch this.
While past tales suffered from the unfortunate failing of being either overly Wolverine or overtly Xavier focused, the attention this time is more evenly distributed throughout the team. Despite boasting one of the largest casts short of Captain America: Civil War, the careful juggling act made here helps to ensure the majority of the heroes have at least one memorable bit within the story. While the focus of the film is certainly upon Apocalypse, Magneto, Xavier and Raven, the likes of Quicksilver, Cyclops, Jean Grey and Night Crawler all have their moments to shine. While they certainly don't get nearly as much of the individual time as they might deserve, the way in which the film presents the team dynamic as an organised force helps keep them important to the story. Their clash of personalities, powers and innate approaches to conflict all helps to keep the story flowing onward, and few among them are actually lost in the mix of things.
The film also takes its time to work towards Apocalypse as the main villain. Of all those the X-Men have faced, from Magneto to Mr Sinister, Apocalypse has often held a special place as the destroyer. When he rears his head, it's akin to dropping an atom bomb on the story line, as he can easily walk through the heroes in question. This unfortunately often left him as little more than physical muscle in many later stories from the mid-90s onward, so instead the film focuses more upon his messiah-like elements. We see his history from the start, how he was formed and the power he once wielded, allowing audiences to quickly see just what kind of monster awaits the heroes. As such, when it focuses upon the mutants during a time of relative safety, it allows this threat to actively hang over the story like a dangling sword. You just know at any point it will drop, but seeing what it's capable of, the true destruction right around the corner, keeps you engaged at every turn.
It also helps that Apocalypse is something of a departure from his usual self for both better and worse. While he lacks some of the more bombastic scenery chewing moments the character is best known for, he's less Sauron than he is an evil prophet, a tempter who twists the despair or pain of others until they're his weapons. While hardly the most subdued or original approach, and admittedly lacking some of his innate strength, this gives Oscar Isaac room to show off his skills as an actor. A wise decision to be sure as his performance seriously elevates the quality of his character, even when the film is piling on the cliches. Yes, we'll get to that in a bit in a minute.
As you might guess from most X-Men films these days, the tone here is notably dark, focusing heavily upon the themes of loss, prejudice and abuse of power. It's intended to be a very bleak and desperate chapter in the team's history, and for many of their number it serves a trial by fire. However, what needs to be emphasised above all else is that there is balance here. Rather than making Batman vs Superman's mistake of piling on the misery and subduing many moments of joy or genuine mirth, there is genuine levity to help break up the film's darkest bits. These range from the sort of brief one-off jokes Marvel associated films are best known for to even just brief bits of the characters having genuine fun. Yes, this might sound like a minor and very obvious element, but given how often it has been screwed up of late it seemed worthy of being mentioned.
As for the fight scenes, well, you have a woman with a psychic katana cutting a car in half, a superhuman with illusions of godhood slamming a man into the ground, and the Quicksilver scene to end all Quicksilver scenes. Really, if nothing else, the X-Men films have always remained extremely fun and inventive when it comes to the use of their powers, and the cinematography shows every glorious second of it. There's a constant sense of energy and dynamic, flowing movement to each shot, and the entirety of the last massive battle easily rivals Captain America's recent melee.
Still, we mentioned this film had more than a few flaws, so what are the problems here? For starters, the story unfortunately starts to pick up more than a few cliches as it speeds along. A few are to be expected for most superhero films given the age of the storylines they are often working from, and the innate nature of the genre. However, it doesn't take long for some very old and extremely tired general tropes to start showing up again and again. This starts to hit the core of the story especially hard, and robs many dramatic scenes of their weight. Worse still, it even reaches the point of abrupt character deaths, sadly wasting some rather underdeveloped characters and resulting in some of the most forced drama seen in an X-Men film yet.
The writing hits the villains especially hard, as many quickly start to become little more than obstacles for the heroes. While the X-Men themselves hold up well despite their numbers, those aligned with Apocalypse really are little more than basic muscle within the film, and lack the engaging qualities which could have given them staying power. It's all the more unfortunate to consider given how each of them is a famed figure within X-Men lore, and several plot points seem to come out of nowhere thanks to this lack of development. This is to say nothing of Apocalypse himself of course who, despite the aforementioned qualities and positive aspects, nevertheless fails to truly escape his role as generic doomsday villain. By the end, even with a few great speeches, Apocalypse himself becomes little more than an obstacle for the villains rather than a true character or arch-nemesis for them to combat.
Sticking with the villainous problems, we then have Magneto. Despite being a high point within the franchise no matter who was playing him and when, the character here is simply wasted on some astoundingly trite writing. Ham handed and extremely forced, even those willing to accept the alarming moment which forces him to side with Apocalypse will have difficulty adjusting to certain actions on his part. Some become so overt it borders upon hilarity, and his eventual last minute twist is sadly all too predictable. Rather than being an asset to the film, the X-Men's old foe seems to have been added purely for the sake of inclusion and little else. It's definitely a waste of great talent and story potential here, and the very act of adding him back into this tale is so forced that it honesty seems like a last minute addition on the director's part.
Above all else however, X-Men: Apocalypse falls into the old problem of retreading the same territory too many times. The themes, ideas and great concepts all stand out as promising starting points - and a few do even offer some insightful moments - but before long it falls into the same fight, same ideas and same elements we've seen so many times before. When it came to genuinely breaking new ground, unfortunately it seems that the film squandered its potential in favour of playing it safe. True, perhaps it's better to do that than really try to break the mold sometimes, and ingenuity isn't its own reward. That said, when the last act repeats so many ideas and events as the original 2000 film, it's hard not to ask if they couldn't have done something better.
Despite all its flaws however, this is still a solid film. Again,it's certainly not a great one to be sure, and First Class remains the best of the relatively recent bunch, but its by no means terrible. If you're after a fun diversion for a few hours, or even just wish to see many classic X-Men in their rookie years, it still holds up extremely well, but it certainly doesn't surpass Days of Future Past.