Threequels are a tricky beast – usually overreaching by opting for spectacle or running time over the nuances of their predecessors. Depending on the franchise, the aim is to either conclude a trilogy or keep audience interest high enough for a planned fourth installment. The more successful threequels tend to fall along the lines of the former category – Return of the King, The Bourne Ultimatum (back before further sequels were planned) and more recently, as Bane would put it, the monumental conclusion to The Dark Knight trilogy. Unfortunately, the latest entry in the X-Men canon, Apocalypse, isn't really interested in tying up loose ends. Rather, it's a mixed bag of somewhat satisfying conclusions to arcs that began with First Class along with some lazy storytelling that sets up further films, while offerring no real meaningful character progression. At this point, it is difficult to call Apocalypse a conclusion or a filler.
Because of this approach, it’s frustrating to recommend on one level but also worth the price of admission on another. On the one hand, there are strong performances, younger versions of the X-Men from the original trilogy, a cool cameo, as well as an interesting take on one of the comic's most formidable foes, but with two superior prequels – not to mention a decent standalone Wolverine film – that already went along way to establish the mutant characters in the modern world, Apocalypse suffers from a lack of new ideas, resulting in weak character relationships, and little depth.
Apocalypse himself may be the reason for this. Born during a time when humanity still carryied swords and slings, and worshipped omnipresent Gods to no avail. He is said to be the first mutant and the most powerful, which is why the opening sequence amounts to a parade-gone-wrong in his honor. This makes him want to help all mutants live to their full potential like him, because they are the stronger species on Earth. However, when he wakes up after thousands of years in confinement (lazily, I might add), he sees that the weaker subsections of humanity have dominated the Earth and oppressed mutants, and resolves to reverse the power balance by rebuilding civilization.
There are strong motivations for his character there, but the film doesn’t make Apocalypse feel quite as intriguing as what I just wrote. This villain – and the film in general, really – could have been compelling if there was just a little more depth to his actions, particularly given political context of the previous X-Men films. They used the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War to expose humanity’s fears during each decade and, in response to those fears, how it extended to the oppression of mutants.
But here, even though the film takes place specifically in 1983, humanity is just sort of there, doing nothing in the film to truly incite its villain to rebuild the Earth. In a time when the Soviets had already invaded Afghanistan, when the Middle Eastern crisis was growing increasingly hostile and the American people had to rely on an actor in the President’s chair to guide them through economic and political turmoil, nothing from the time period is so much as even touched on for context thus making Apocalypse more of a clichéd, low rent version of The Avengers than a sequel to the excellent Days of Future Past.
For example, Mystique, played by Jennifer Lawrence, has a very weak arc in Apocalypse as opposed to being the one that incited the last film altogether. She was left a hero in the end after an intense personal struggle throughout that film, but here, she occasionally delivers a line about how she’s not a hero every half an hour and how she doesn’t want to keep to her original blue form. She’s not given much to do here at all.
Michael Fassbender’s Eric has a much more interesting arc than Mystique’s, but it ultimately becomes a repetitive exercise in getting him to antagonize Xavier than anything else. It’s easy to see why he allies with Apocalypse… but he ends up doing exactly what he had originally planned in Days of Future Past. The film tries to flash back to his precious moments with Professor Xavier throughout the prequels that created their special yet estranged relationship, but the film rejects its own excellent ideas for evolving his character, namely concerning his relationship to Quicksilver.
Silver is not only the film’s most amusing mutant, with an even funnier slow motion sequence than in Days of Future Past, but, if the film had had him expose his relationship to Eric when he could have, Eric’s arc would have gone somewhere quite interesting. Unfortunately, Eric is practically right back where he started at the end of Apocalypse, and his final actions are still unclear.
Apocalypse suffers from a lack of storyline focus and new ideas for evolving its best characters, a common problem in threequels that don’t know if they want to conclude the series or pose as filler until a better film later on. It also contains the weakest action sequences of the series. It does establish the 2000s X-Men team of Cyclops, Storm, Nightcrawler, etc. by eventually settling on them as the central protagonists halfway through.
To be fair, it was obviously hard to condense the material they planned for these characters. After all, Jubilee’s scenes were almost all cut from the film, but there remains obvious laziness in evolving the best characters while just trying to establish the future X-Men. Apocalypse himself is interesting, but not given enough time to be truly compelling (unless you think about it afterwards like I did), and while there are some truly entertaining and thought-provoking parts in Apocalypse, the sum does not come together as well as it could have.