Third-movie syndrome hits the new mutant generation in X-Men: Apocalypse, writes MacDara Conroy

What kind of a movie is X-Men: Apocalypse? Is it the gender-swapped riff on Indiana Jones it begins with, plopping CIA operative Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) at ground zero for the resurrection of a centuries-old mutant demi-god? No, because that lasts all of five minutes. Is it the trash-fest teased by a subsequent set-piece in the Berlin underground that both nods to the opening of Bryan Singer’s first X-film and screams as a noisy mashup of Max Mad Beyond Thunderdome and the nightclub scene in Wings of Desire? Nope.

Is it the compressed remake of X-Men Origins: Wolverine replacing the grizzled Hugh Jackman with Michael Fassbender’s chiseled Magneto in the role of the tortured soul who just wants the quiet life but is forced into violence by sudden tragedy? That’s more promising, if painfully unoriginal, but it’s not that either. It’s not even the throwback to the beloved ’90s X-Men animated series promised by the early on-set press shots and casting reveals, as must of that plot was apparently left on the cutting room floor (sorry, Jubilee fans).

Abandoned, too, is the canonical origin story for the titular villain, whether the comic-book version or the simplified cartoon variation. Far from that awe-inspiring incarnation, this Apocalypse – portrayed by a barely recognisable Oscar Isaac – has the look, but not the size, or even the name. (Says he: “I’ve been called many things over many lifetimes: Ra, Krishna, Yahweh.” None of them Apocalypse, though.)

What this film really is, once the short-attention-span chopping and changing between subplots calms down, is a lighter rehash of X-Men: The Last Stand, the closer to the original trilogy that Bryan Singer didn’t make (but screenwriter Simon Kinberg did script). That film, while a mess, at least had a sense of grandeur about its titanic clash of mutant against mutant. This one just keeps the mess.

There’s nothing grand about the supposedly earth-shattering wrath of En Nabah Sur rendered as a Smurf with notions, and his ragtag Four Henchmen sorry Horsemen – Angel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn) and an unnamed Storm (Alexandra Shipp), all three wasted, plus Magneto who spends much of the latter half of the movie floating in a bubble moving bits of metal around amid all the generic urban destruction. How exciting.

But before we get to that, there’s a meandering second act that’s no more than a set-up for the market-researched crowd-pleasers. Speedster mutant Quicksilver (Evan Peters) returns in a rethread of his overrated set-piece from Days of Future Past, right down to the period-specific soundtrack. And Wolverine shows up too, for no real reason other than to conveniently hack and slash at some armour-suited stormtroopers in a corridor to clear a path for the heroes.

And who are the heroes, exactly? The film seems geared to push the next generation of X-Men – Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) – as the future of the franchise, but the baton is never really passed when the old guard of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Magneto and Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) command so much of a film that’s at once overburdened and underheated.

It doesn’t help when the pick of the bunch isn’t cut out for the job. Turner is annoyingly bland as the redhead telepath given so much sultry verve by Famke Janssen in the original trilogy. Her eyes giving nothing away, though her terrible American accent gives her up quite a bit. She doesn’t hold a candle to a Jennifer Lawrence visibly sighing throughout the production.

The other new mutants are better, to a degree. Sheridan’s Cyclops has the most interesting story, though it’s not properly fleshed out. Shipp is decent when she’s the street urchin who meets a reborn Apocalypse as he wanders bustling Cairo; less so when she’s a mute weather goddess by the final reel. Far too much time is devoted to Smit-McPhee’s Nightcrawler who, while ably played by the young Aussie actor, is deployed for mere comic relief to the point of poking fun at his hardcore religious backstory (one done justice by Alan Cumming in X2).

Ultimately it’s up to the returning players to carry the picture, with mixed results. McAvoy has a ball as ever playing make-believe young Patrick Stewart, and Nicholas Hoult brings genuine warmth to the nerdy Hank ‘Beast’ McCoy. But Lawrence and Fassbender are only back for the paycheque, professional yet perfunctory. They have nowt to do and they do it by work-to-rule. Byrne lights up her scenes but disappears for large stretches. They’re all hamstrung by a director in Singer losing his grasp on a picture that apparently does have a script but plays as if slapped together by committee in the edit suite.

As for Isaac? His natural charisma – see his performance in Star Wars: The Force Awakens for proof – is hidden under elaborate garb and make-up, meaning his big baddie (essentially a radicalising terrorist of ambiguous motive) lacks the malevolence the movie sorely needs at its climax, though he’s a damn sight better than Adam Driver’s wet blanket Kylo Ren in that fan service fiasco.

Speaking of Star Wars, Singer’s film seems oddly preoccupied with that blockbuster series, with odd shades of dialogue and even a mid-flick scene where Jubilee (Lana Condor, in a role sadly cut to nothing) and pals discuss the merits of Return of the Jedi, complete with a self-deprecating joke about the third movie always being the worst. In Singer’s case, that really was tempting fate.

X-Men: Apocalypse opens nationwide on Wednesday May 18th