From a purely technical standpoint, everything has gone off without a hitch for the rollout of X-Men: Apocalypse. Ever since director Bryan Singer first tweeted in December 2013 about Fox’s plan to make the movie, he and the studio have done an exemplary job of hitting all the marks of a modern superhero-movie marketing campaign. They dropped hints about the film before 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Pasthad even hit screens; they’ve sustained a steady flow of teaser images on social media; they’ve released three action-packed trailers over the past five months. The flick hits theaters on May 27, and hardly a day has gone by in the last few weeks without a bit of PR-department-approved news about it.
So where’s the hype? Early reviews have been tepid, but the movie was having trouble getting anyone amped up well before the critical embargo was lifted. Captain America: Civil War and Apocalypse released trailers one week apart from each other back in March—why does the former have more than 60 million YouTube views while the latter couldn’t even crack 18 million? Why hasn’t there been a massive pre-release spike in Google searches for “apocalypse” like there was for “deadpool”? Why did millions of geeks tune in for a fan analysis of a single Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer while no breakdown of an X-trailer even came close to those numbers?
None of this is to say there’s no enthusiasm for the movie, nor that it’s on track to be a bomb like Fox’s disastrous Fantastic Four. It has a lot going for it: a cast filled with top-notch performers (Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Michael Fassbender); a quirky 1980s setting; characters with existing name recognition; and the pedigree of a well-reviewed profitable predecessor in the form of Days of Future Past. And yet, though buzz is a difficult thing to quantify, it’s hard to avoid the sense Apocalypse—grandiose name aside—feels small. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons it’s fighting an uphill battle for relevance in a crowded superhero landscape.
The plot is behind the times.
And not just because it’s set three decades ago. When the X-Men franchise began with 2000’s X-Men, it almost single-handedly kick-started the superhero-movie revolution by giving audiences something they’d never seen before: a group of individuals with miraculous abilities and sleek uniforms who have to overcome their differences in order to fight a man who wants to take over the world. Sixteen years later, Apocalypse has that same setup. It even has some of the exact same characters doing the difference-overcoming: The movie stars younger versions of Cyclops, Jean Grey, Storm, and Professor Xavier, as well as other folks who have popped up in past X-installments.
This is a year where most superhero pictures are moving beyond the team-fights-bad-guy archetype. Civil War and Dawn of Justice both focus on good guys fighting each other, Suicide Squad is going to be about a team of villains, and Deadpool was a fourth-wall-breaking sendup of the whole genre. Apocalypse’s trailers make it feel rote by comparison.
At this point, the X-Men universe is hopelessly confusing.
Shared cinematic universes are all the rage in Hollywood right now. Disney’s Avenger-filled Marvel Cinematic Universe is the best-known example (although the X-Men emerged from Marvel Comics, Fox owns their film rights), Warner Bros. has launched the DC Extended Universe, Paramount is embarking on a shared universe based on Hasbro action figures, and Universal is even starting one based on its midcentury lineup of monster movies. A key element of each of these is precision: There’s an overarching continuity and timeline that unites every movie. That can be a major boon for a studio, because it makes sprawling franchises rational and consistent and it rewards fans who want to obsess over details and get excited about the evolution of the fictional status quo.
The X-Men project, however, began well before the shared-universe trend, so it hasn’t had the totalitarian oversight of those other franchises. X-Men continuity is, to put it bluntly, a total mess. Major story elements from 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand and 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine have been completely ignored in subsequent movies. The 1960s setting of 2011’s X-Men: First Class doesn’t sync up with the events of X-Men. Days of Future Past featured a bunch of confusing time travel that may or may not have changed the fabric of reality—the ending didn’t bother to explain what had been erased and what had been retained. Anyone who cares about continuity will likely be alienated by the movie’s plot; at the same time, anyone who hasn’t seen past X-movies will be totally confused about what’s happening in this new one. It’s the worst of both worlds.
The franchise doesn’t have a TV component (yet).
One of the reasons Disney and Warner Bros. have been able to keep audiences fixated on their superhero properties is that they don’t just exist on the big screen—they’ve infiltrated television and streaming services, too. Disney is only putting out two Marvel movies this year, but it has two Marvel series on ABC, two on Netflix, and three on Disney XD, adding up to well over 60 additional hours of in-universe storytelling to keep the pump primed throughout the year. Warner’s DC Comics–based TV shows aren’t actually in the same shared universe as their movies, but there are still DC superheroes are zipping around week after week, maintaining interest in the overall brand.
The X-folks have no such luck. There have been fevered battles over the X-Men’s TV rights in the past, keeping the characters out of live-action shows. Disney and Fox have apparently reached a détente, and a pair of shows tangentially related to the X-Men are in development. But as of now, there’s nothing to keep the franchise in shape during the off-season.
The movie suffers from dangerously low Jackman levels.
Quick, who’s the star of the X-Men series? Did you say Cyclops? Archangel? Nightcrawler? Of course you didn’t. You almost certainly said Wolverine, as played by the eternally sexy Hugh Jackman. The actor has been a throughline for 16 years, appearing in every X-Men movie, including two solo outings (and an upcoming third). You could always count on him for charismatic grunting and much-needed, charmingly grizzled comic relief.
But you’ll notice that he’s entirely absent from most of Apocalypse’s promotional materials. Not only is he not one of the stars, he’s apparently barely in it, only popping up for a brief cameo. In fact, now that Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen aren’t part of the whole X-endeavor anymore, this film doesn’t have any of the franchise’s most famous original leads. Without a wise-cracking Wolvie, it feels like the movie’s missing a limb.
It somehow made Oscar Isaac unattractive.
I mean, come on. You’re really gonna cast the internet’s boyfriend in a major role and then dress him up like a third-rate Power Rangers villain? Not only is it a waste of star power wattage to obfuscate one of Hollywood’s most marketable men, it’s also just generally a bad idea to make your antagonists look silly. Isaac plays the main baddie, Apocalypse, and one of the early bits of backlash to the movie has been a minor outcry from fans who felt he looked and sounded dumb. Aesthetics have always mattered a lot in the world of superhero entertainment, going back to Superman’s colorful debut in 1938. If you don’t nail something as fundamental as the look and sound of your big nasty, you’re going to undercut your impact.