X-Men: Apocalypse mostly takes place in 1983, ten years after the events of Days of Future Past. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is still running his school, helping young mutants control their powers. Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is hiding out in Poland, trying to live a peaceful life with a new family. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is shunning the spotlight that came with saving the world back in 1973 and is traveling in secret, saving mutants around the world from bad situations. Meanwhile in Egypt, a powerful ancient mutant awakens from thousands of years of slumber and resumes his plans of reshaping the world in his image.
This movie has a lot of business to get to, and it doesn’t always do it gracefully. It takes a good long while for the story to really come together, the film taking several detours through sections of X-Men lore. It feels at times that the film is more concerned with bringing certain elements to screen rather than telling a good story. This is a movie that ends up with too many characters on screen, most of them having little in the way of meaningful characterization. While the film still has its moments, the whole thing feels like a pretty tedious endeavor in the end.
So much of this film is about putting pieces into place. It reintroduces these old characters and gives them arcs that they’ve played out before. Three movies in and this version of these characters are basically still grappling with the same issues. They go a long way to bring Magneto back to where he was two movies ago, introducing new characters just to give him basically the same trauma he had years ago. Mystique is still finding it difficult to accept who she is, and is still being told that she shouldn’t hide her true appearance. Professor X barely has an arc and spends a big chunk of this movie dealing with his feelings over an old flame.
And then there’s the villain, who never really feels as dangerous as he ought to be, as he spends the so much of this movie just looking for mutants to join his posse. For a guy so powerful, he seems really invested in finding people to back him up. The movie spends most of its time delaying the confrontation between the heroes and the villains, suffusing the plot with extraneous nonsense that doesn’t serve these characters at all. It introduces a bunch of characters, most underserved by the writing. A couple of characters, Psylocke and Angel may as well have remained nameless henchmen.
There is so much business that the relationships that the film wants to the audience to invest in, come out lacking. At one point, the movie makes a big deal out of the Professor sending Jean Grey a message only she can hear “I know where he is,” she says. They then follow this with a pyramid rising in the middle of Cairo, making the message moot. The whole world, at that point, knows where he is. There are big character moments in this movie that feel truncated, the major shifts in character never really making sense, in spite of the caliber of actor depicting these shifts. As good as Fassbender, Lawrence and McAvoy are, even they struggle with the clunkiness of the script.
This leads to an underwhelming climax where the visual effects become the main character. There are basically no more people on screen, the characters becoming conduits for computer generated energy flying around the screen, their motivations and personalities irrelevant as all manner of power surround the environment. And while it is all technically impressive, very little of it is meaningful. X-Men: Apocalypse is living on old glories, either from the comics or the older movies. It doesn’t have much of its own story to tell.