It’s not the fault of X-Men: Apocalypse that its villain, with his plan to destroy the world and all the puny people in it, feels extra tired just now. The filmmakers surely didn’t know that a very similar plot would play out in DC’s televised universe this season: On Arrow, a TV show based on comic-book character Green Arrow, the terrorist kingpin Damien Darhk wanted to do away with most of humanity.
But this isn’t Apocalypse’s only bit of overfamiliarity. Like Captain America: Civil War, Apocalypse has too many people on its teams (why introduce a magnetic new Storm, Alexandra Shipp, and then make her such a minor character?). Like all those Zack Snyder movies, Apocalypse is awash in property damage, filling the screen with ribbons of debris and collapsing buildings.
In short, X-Men: Apocalypse spends too much time not feeling particularly like an X-Men movie, which is a little crushing for those of us who love the X-Men best among all those semi-functional superhero families. Its most egregious bit of comics failure is arguably the addition of two new female characters for the sole purpose of killing them to give a man his motivating anguish. There is a term for this — fridging — and it’s extremely lazy storytelling.
Somewhere in the middle of this super-sized muddle of tropes is the movie that could’ve been. When the X-Men movies (new and old) are at their best, they’re character-driven: think of Rogue’s loneliness, Xavier and Erik’s complicated friendship, the unwillingness of Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven to rely on anyone. When Apocalypse has room for these moments, it shines.
Jean (Sophie Turner) sits alone on school grounds, fully aware that everyone else is afraid of her. Every scene with Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) sparks with their friends’ knowledge — and disapproval — of what he did to her memories. Raven, standing defiant, comes to accept that the kids around her need her, whether she likes it or not. With Apocalypse, we got another superhero movie; more of these moments, and we would’ve had an X-Men movie.
And we could’ve had an X-Men movie about Jean Grey (X3 doesn’t count; thank Days of Future Past for that). Lost in the overstuffed shuffle is a powerful theme about coming of age and accepting yourself and your power — a theme that should’ve been front and center.
Turner is playing through a similar, though much darker, character arc on Game of Thrones, and to watch her on that show is to see what this movie could’ve been: a feature starring one of the X-Men’s most important members, played by a vibrant young actress who can speak volumes with a sullen stare. Jean’s story is about taking the things that make you you and figuring out how to use that, how to be that, even if it’s scary and people don’t know what to make of you.
The emotional payoff for Turner’s character in Apocalypse seems lifted from another movie — a better movie. One we can only wish we’d seen. (Broadway Metro, Valley River Cinemas, Cinemark 17)