The opening sequence of X-Men: Apocalypse is literally one for the ages. Whereas most superhero movies are content with cryptic flashbacks and redundant origin stories, Bryan Singer attempts to evoke something akin to the grandeur of Cecil B. DeMille by returning to Hollywood’s ancient Egypt. It’s a scene where salacious pagan ceremonies now mingle with copious amounts of computer generated superpowers, and exotic extras punctuate digital armies. Thus enters the retro-mindset of our villainous Apocalypse—a fiend so dastardly that he’s taken a page from Boris Karloff’s Imhotep by drenching Oscar Isaac in an ocean of blue make-up during a body swapping ritual.
It is all so earnestly ambitious and proudly silly that it sums up its own forthcoming mutant epic. For Apocalypse is easily the most sprawling and lavishly comic book-like X-Men movie to date, but its reach more than once exceeds its grasp. Singer and producer/writer Simon Kinberg definitely have delivered their most fan-pleasing effort to date with X-Men: Apocalypse, but its kitchen sink mentality cannot help but mark a step down from X-Men: Days of Future Past (one of my favorite superhero movies of the last decade).
Still, there are charms to be found in such unapologetic grandiosity.
After the prologue, the film rapidly switches gears to the only other time period when excesses were so gleefully celebrated: the 1980s. Indeed, Apocalypse represents a 10-year time jump from Days of Future Past with a story that places a bow on the “First Class Trilogy” by once more spotlighting James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier, Michael Fassbender’s Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr, and Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique; and it also introduces a slew of new faces to carry the franchise forward, including Tye Sheridan as a young Scott Summers (Cyclops), Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, Alexandra Shipp as Ororo Munroe (Storm), and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Kurt Wagner (Nightcrawler). This multitude of characters, plus even more villains, can make the premise appear at times as top-heavy as Isaac’s ceremonial armor.
But suffice it to say that in the years between films, Mystique has become something of a Che Guevara amongst the mutant community with her blue visage now framed in every home and taught in each classroom after she saved Richard Nixon in ‘73. In her wake, mutant and human relations are at an all time high with Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters flourishing in upstate New York, and Magneto settling down in his Polish homeland with a wife and daughter so angelic that the word “doomed” should be scrawled on their front door. This is the world circa 1983 that Apocalypse is awakened to by some Gozer-type worshippers, and it’s one he absolutely detests, especially with the two current global superpowers more inclined to deify their nuclear arsenals than him.
Much of the first half the film hence plays as a balancing act between narratives: Xavier educates the next generation of favorite students, including Scott Summers and Jean Grey, who cannot yet control their alienating mutant powers; Magneto goes headlong into tragedy when the local police force discovers he’s a mutant; Mystique hides in plain sight as Jennifer Lawrence while still fighting the good fight; and Apocalypse essentially forms a glam rock band of destruction that includes Storm, Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and Archangel (Ben Hardy) as his mostly mute “Four Horsemen.”
With so many balls in the air, it is remarkable that Singer can keep the picture upright until all the elements converge well over an hour into the film. At that point, a coherence and confidence takes shape, but the first act is noticeably disjointed, suggesting heavy cuts were made in post-production, likely due to trying to accommodate all of its massive cast in a run time that’s just under two-and-a-half hours.
But its that same cast which is Apocalypse’s greatest asset since the three anchors that shined in 2011’s X-Men: First Class (McAvoy, Fassbender, and Lawrence) still hold the proceedings together here. This third installment is more of an ensemble than the previous two movies, however, with no single character fully taking center stage. Nonetheless, Fassbender steadfastly remains the franchise’s powerhouse and in the briefest of shorthand conveys more tangible humanity in his sorrows than this genre is accustomed to from other entire franchises. In fact, X-Men: Apocalypse continues the trend of being well above par within the blockbuster arena in terms of performance, and newcomers Tye Sheridan and Sophie Turner in particular promise this could continue into the future.
Isaac, as always, immerses himself in his role, demanding regal fealty and submission from the camera despite being buried under mountains of prosthetics and costuming. However, the character’s penchant for self-aggrandizement aside, the narrative itself does little to make its titular big bad stand apart from any number of recent comic book movie villains, and instead of radiating divinity, the rather simplistically motivated (but divinely played) heavy seems mostly delusional. Further, the Four Horsemen, sans Magneto, join his little megalomaniacal cult for no discernable reason.
Ultimately, more than previous X-Men movies, this picture is about building to a big mutant showdown extravaganza, and it is in the latter half where the movie’s powers are more acutely harnessed. Trailers have already given away Hugh Jackman’s amusingly feral cameo, but it’s still quite the highlight in the finished film. And the third act is also filled with the kind of dizzying power displays that comic fans covet. Turner’s Jean Grey, Smit-McPhee’s Nightcrawler, and Magneto have especially never looked more spectacular on the big screen…. though the real scene-stealer remains the ever-underused Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who again gets a pop tune-scored action sequence that lets him walk away with the whole movie.
For purists, this kind of operatic nuttiness is probably what they’ve been waiting for. And yet, with a focus more on superpowered bedazzlement, the film is closer to the glossy sheen of recent overstuffed Marvel Studios fare like Avengers: Age of Ultron than Singer’s previous, more thoughtful X-Men movies. The concession to spectacle is also a bit of an ironic reversal of priorities since this month’s Captain America: Civil War more keenly resembles Singer’s past efforts by focusing on several characters at the expense of the ensemble for a surprisingly heightened (and satisfying) conflict. By comparison, Apocalypse is fairly straightforward, as well as black and white, in its storytelling.
Perhaps prophesying such critiques, midway through X-Men: Apocalypse, Singer and Kinberg have the teen mutants go see Return of the Jedi at the local mall, and Jean Grey knowingly jokes, “We can all agree the third one is the worst.” That self-aware smirk at Hollywood wisdom also holds true for the “First Class Trilogy” too. But the remarkable consistency between all three means Apocalypse is still a pleasant reunion at Xavier’s school, even if it amounts to being primarily a victory lap for the franchise.
This review was originally published on May 7, 2016.