It's never really stopped being 2003 in the X-Universe. Even as the X-Men films skipped across timelines in decade-long leaps, they've carried with them the same faint air of apology—a low-level hum of embarrassment softly buzzing inside their time-locked bubble. "This is all really silly, isn't it?" each film seemed to whisper, summer after summer. "Superheroes, right? Mutants? Yellow spandex? C'mon."
Bryan Singer's X-Men have never resembled—visually or characteristically—their comic-book source material, but that hasn't stopped those movies from being (mostly) satisfying, character-driven melodramas. Character-driven melodramas that just happen to be about blue/furry/scaly people and Hugh Jackman with knives in his fists.
To keep that 2003-aesthetic feeling somewhat fresh (we're now going on the ninth X-movie), the series' producers have decided to mash hard on the reset button. X-Men: First Class (2011) was a 1960s-era prequel imagining young Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) as globe-trotting recruiters caught up in international intrigue. And X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) went all Back to the Future, using time travel to unite old and new casts while (miraculously) fixing the series' clusterfucked continuity. And now X-Men: Apocalypse hits the reset button again—and finally lets in the color and humor of today's other, better superhero films, at long last allowing its characters to more closely resemble their comics counterparts. Apocalypse is easily the most "X-Men!" of all the X-Men movies.
Unfortunately, Apocalypse is also a goofy, sloppy mess that has more in common with Singer's poorly regarded Superman Returns than anything else. Apocalypse feels like it comes from the alternate timeline where Singer didn't abandon the X-Men to make a weirdly morose homage to Christopher Reeve's movies, and instead reached into an uneven bag of overheated story bits and fished out a few great X-Men moments.
At least Apocalypse—written by Simon Kinberg, who also cowrote the deservedly maligned X-Men: The Last Stand—is more successful in its excess than Last Stand. Quicksilver (Evan Peters) doesn't just get one show-offy set piece but two, and they're both high points of the film. Cyclops—who was basically a grumpy, do-nothing dickhead in the original films—becomes an actual character, and actor Tye Sheridan makes the most of it. McAvoy and Fassbender have yet to disappoint as Marvel's best couple, and while there's a lot of overblown soap opera swirling about like so much digital detritus, that's just as authentically X-Men as things going "BAMF!" and "SNIKT!" (Both of which happen in very satisfying ways.)
If this was still 2005, Apocalypse's missteps might be more easily forgiven. But in 2016 you can't just show cities weightlessly disintegrating and expect it to wow. You can't just replicate comic poses and bellow cartoonishly (those two things are all that Apocalypse's villainous Oscar Isaac does, by the way), and you really can't turn in 60 minutes of heavy-lidded, half-assed Katniss and call it a fulfilled contract, Jennifer Lawrence. In the past few years, the superhero film has moved so fast along its evolutionary scale that while letting the X-Men be X-Men (for the first time!) is worthy of praise, the rest of Apocalypse's attempts to join the superhero pajama jam come off as gauche.
But even that can be read as the X-Men moving in the right direction—they've never been the "coolest" superheroes. They endure because they're just as emotionally fucked-up and confused as we are. Singer is obviously not the guy to take them into that faithful future, but with Deadpool showing that fidelity to the source material works—and a mess of X-spin-offs dropping in the next decade—maybe other filmmakers will take their thumb off that reset button, allowing the mutant weirdos of comics' freakiest soap opera to fly their flags with reckless abandon.