The fastest way to sink any movie is to focus on more than one character. “Captain America: Civil War” barely works because we’re already familiar with the characters. Despite this, most of the characters simply pop up long enough to fight and disappear again. The real conflict is between Captain America and Ironman. When they fight in the end, Ironman is fighting because Captain America is protecting the Winter Soldier, who killed Ironman’s parents. So there’s a clear emotional motive to fight, although the rest of the characters simply exist for the sake of Captain America and Ironman.
While “Captain America: Civil War” is cluttered with too many characters, it redeems itself by staying focused on the main conflict between Captain America and Ironman. “X-Men: Apocalypse” is an example of a movie cluttered with too many characters and the inability to stay focused on any particular conflict.
The basic goal of the villain in “X-Men: Apocalypse” is to transfer his body to another body. So the villain has a clear goal, but what goal does the hero have? Who exactly is the hero? With so many X-Men running around, the hero appears to be Jennifer Lawrence’s character, but she’s not the one directly trying to stop the villain from achieving his goal and she doesn’t appear to have any goal of her own other than to help lead the younger X-Men into battle.
Because “X-Men: Apocalypse” lacks a clear hero, the story suffers as a result. The real conflict is between the villain (Apocalypse), who wants to transfer his body to another person, and professor Charles Xavier, who the villain wants to transfer his soul into. That conflict is an either-or situation. If the villain wins, the hero loses his body. If the hero wins, the villain loses by not transferring into another body.
Because “X-Men: Apocalypse” fails to focus on this conflict, the rest of the story is muddled with X-Men characters popping up all over the place and failing to pursue any goal other than to fight for no apparent reason. There are simply too many characters we don’t learn much about so their appearance and inconclusive goals create an unsatisfying ending.
What does Charles Xavier want? It’s not clear. What does Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence’s character) want? It’s sort of hinted that she doesn’t want to be seen as a hero to the younger X-Men, but how does that relate to the villain? The hero must achieve his or her goal by battling the villain. What does Mystique achieve by fighting the villain? She actually loses in her battle against the villain.
Magneto has more of an emotional change as he starts as a caring person who loses his wife and daughter. Yet even this storyline makes little sense. Magneto works in a factory in Poland and uses his powers to save a man’s life when a large metal container is about to fall on him. Because of this, the workers talk to the police and the police confront Magneto. The police accidentally kill Magneto’s wife and daughter so Magneto kills all the police.
Then Magneto goes to kill all the workers in the factory as well, including (presumably) the man whose life he saved earlier. Does this make any sense? No, so this further weakens the story. Why would Magneto risk exposing his powers to save a man’s life and then turn around and want to kill this same man later?
Every story is really about one goal where every character is working to help the hero achieve that one goal. “Rocky” was about a down and out boxer wanting to show the world he’s not a loser. Not surprisingly, his girlfriend, Adrian, is a mousy character who also wants to show the world she’s not a loser, and Rocky’s trainer is a grizzled veteran who wants to prove he can coach a winner. One goal, multiple characters pursuing similar goals that all work to help the hero achieve a single goal against a villain who threatens to keep them all from achieving any of their goals. That’s unity and focus in action.
What’s the one goal of your hero? Then every character has to pursue similar goals and the villain must risk stopping all of their goals. If Apollo Creed knocks Rocky out and defeats him soundly and easily, then Rocky will look like a loser, Rocky’s trainer will feel like a loser, and Adrian will feel like a loser being associated with a man the whole world sees as a loser. The villain threatens not just the hero but everyone the hero loves. That’s they the hero must win and that’s why we feel emotionally satisfied when the hero does win.
In “X-Men: Apocalypse,” what does the hero want? Which character is supposed to be the hero? How does the villain’s goal threaten to keep the hero from achieving his or her goal? It’s hard to say since knowing who the hero is isn’t clear and knowing what the hero wants isn’t clear. If the villain wins in “X-Men: Apocalypse,” how will that hurt the hero and the other characters helping the hero? It’s not clear, and that’s why “X-Men: Apocalypse” is such a muddled and unsatisfying movie.
Stay focused. Make sure we know who the hero is, make sure we know what the hero wants, and make sure we know how the hero and all his/her friends will fail if the villain wins. It’s a simple formula that Hollywood screws up time and time again.