In the pursuit of ever higher stakes, X-Men: Apocalypse stretches to exceed the epoch-spanning scale of X-Men: Days Of Future Past. Where that 2014 hit – the biggest financial success of the franchise so far – was about travelling into history to save the future, X-Men: Apocalypse sees an ancient enemy waking up to cause global havoc in the year 1983.
Oscar Isaac plays the Apocalypse of the title – the earliest mutant who ruled as a god in the ancient world. Stirring from his slumber, Apocalypse draws together a band of minions, among them Angel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn) and Storm (Alexandra Shipp), before turning his attention to the most wanted mutant of them all – the now reclusive Magneto (Michael Fassbender).
Having retreated from the world following the events of X-Men: Days Of Future Past, Magneto again finds his life upended by forces outside his control, and after a bit of manipulation by Apocalypse, joins the glowering villain in his plot to cleanse the Earth of the weak – that is, ordinary people like you and me.
On the other side of the good-evil divide, wheelchair-bound Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) is still the benign mentor at his School for Gifted Youngsters, where another class of fresh recruits – including the psychic, telekinetic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), wide-eyed teleporting gargoyle Nightcrawler (an unrecognisable Kodi Smit-McPhee) and laser-eyed rebel Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) – slowly learn how to control their powers. When Xavier realises the extent of Apocalypse’s abilities, he draws together his team of mutants, which also includes veteran heroes Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) to help cancel armageddon.
This, at least, is the plot in the broadest of strokes. As in X-Men: Days Of Future Past, Bryan Singer loads his basket with so many heroes, villains and plot-strands that the film itself seems to be straining to keep up with them all. How do you introduce all these characters, reiterate their back stories for new viewers, track their arcs and keep the story moving forward smoothly all at the same time? It’s a tricky feat to pull off, and X-Men: Apocalypse struggles with the process more than X-Men: Days Of Future Past did.
The roster of characters is such that some inevitably shine where others are eclipsed. Nightcrawler is positively adorable – an awkward, innocent slip of a character whose powers are matched only by his naivety. Sophie Turner, on the other hand, seems to recede into the background as a young Jean Grey struggling to come to terms with her paranormal abilities. Franchise newcomer Angel, here pitched as a troubled death metal fan, gets a handful of combat scenes.
Singer also struggles to balance the light and shade, the playful and dramatic in a way that recalls his effects-overloaded 2013 fantasy Jack The Giant Slayer. An intense plot development is undercut by a downright goofy action sequence; emotional moments are interrupted by the arrival of the purple-faced Apocalypse and a few members of his ‘Four Horsemen’, who look increasingly like a New Romantics band as the film goes on.
There are occasional moments where X-Men: Apocalypse really shines, though. A scene with Magneto in a woodland clearing is effective both emotionally and in terms of visceral impact, and it’s superbly framed by Singer’s regular photographer Newton Thomas Sigel. A few opening sequences in the ancient past have a real old-Hollywood sense of pomp and grandeur. Yet Apocalypse’s initial bursts of imagination soon dwindle; once again, we’re faced with a two-dimensional villain intent on laying waste to entire cities. It doesn’t help that an actor as talented as Oscar Isaac is required to project his natural charisma through a mountain of face-paint and latex.
By X-Men: Apocalypse’s second half, the action’s devolved into a faintly depressing miasma of green-screen backgrounds and swirling clouds of CGI debris. Like a cross between a Star Wars prequel and Roland Emmerich’s 2012, Apocalypse is a superhero-infused disaster movie. There are flashes, there are bangs, there are acts of bravery and feats of wire-assisted athleticism. But the film’s lack of dramatic weight means that Apocalypse’s fireworks fail to dazzle; instead, they simply hang there on the screen, waiting to be forgotten.
X-Men: Apocalypse is by no means a terrible film – the quality of the cast, from Fassbender to McAvoy to Lawrence to Kodi Smit-McPhee to Evan Peters (again great as Quicksilver) ensures there’s always someone worth watching in the quieter moments. But compared to this year’s last big superhero movie, Captain America: Civil War, Apocalypse feels less assured, less fleet-footed at moving between the earnest, the dramatic and the outright camp. When a superhero gets all these elements right, the result can seem effortless; when the balance is wrong, the difference is plain to see.
Even the period setting, something the last two films gleefully played around with, seems a little rote and thinly sketched here – there’s a Ms Pac-Man cabinet here, a retro jacket there, but little of the sense of affection or context we saw in Days Of Future Past or X-Men First Class in particular. In its attempt to exceed the scale and stakes of its predecessor, X-Men: Apocalypse stretches itself to breaking point.
X-Men: Apocalypse is out in UK cinemas on the 19th May.