Starring: James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Oscar Isaac, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Evan Peters, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Alexandra Shipp and Olivia Munn
Running time: 136 Minutes
Directed by: Bryan Singer
Year of release: 2016
Personal note: I grew up reading the X-Men comics in the 80s and 90s, during Chris Claremont’s legendary run which established most of the superhero team’s most iconic characters and moments. X-Men: Apocalypse plants its feet very firmly in that era, which should please old-school fans to no end. Of course, old-school fans aren’t the only ones interested in superhero stories these days, and with a wealth of possibilities to choose from, this latest X-Men adventure may feel a little pro forma. It’s the fourth studio-backed superhero film this year, after all, and between the game-changing success of Deadpool and the DC/MCU behemoths squaring off this spring, a well-made piece of competent summer adventure can easily trigger the kind of fatigue that early reviews hove noted.
That’s not quite fair, for while X-Men: Apocalypse doesn’t shake the genre up the way other movies might, it still finds the right combination of fun, excitement and thoughtfulness that makes the best of this franchise. Overstuffed? Yes, a bit. But so was Civil War and Batman v. Superman, and no one felt that they suffered from it. Director Bryan Singer has always excelled at ensemble storytelling, and while a few characters get lost in the mix here, they’re not unduly missed.
In exchange, Singer finds a way to revitalize one of the X-Men’s more problematic villains, mixing him in with a smooth piece of comic-book nostalgia and some solid action to make a reliable entry in the durable franchise. Given a chance to erase previous mistakes after the reboot of Days of Future Past, Singer hits his stride early on and never looks back.
It’s 1983, ten years after the debacle at the White House that shut down the Sentinels program and spared the planet the destruction that would have ensued otherwise. Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) has reopened his School for Gifted Youngsters and sees it thriving with the addition of new students like Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). But he’s still playing things cautiously, more apt to sit and watch events unfold than put his charges in harm’s way. His old foe Magneto (Michael Fassbender) has adopted a similar approach, laying low in communist Poland and trying to quietly raise a family. That just leaves Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) to keep fighting the good fight: finding mutants in trouble like Nightcrawler and helping them escape their persecutors.
That equation is upended with the reawakening of Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), an immortal mutant, possibly the world’s first, who decides that this modern era works just fine for his despotic conquest. Attracting a quartet of “Horsemen” to his side, he launches an ambitious plan to bring the world to its knees. One guess who stands in his way.
Singer develops a number of terrific set pieces to punctuate the straightforward narrative, including a few showstoppers that keep excitement levels high. But as always, he focuses far more on the characters than the mayhem, which gives the story the requisite depth and shows us why these figures have endured so long. Can someone like Magneto just walk away from his past, and would it be such a bad thing if we just let him go? Can Mystique – now viewed as a hero after saving the day at the end of Future Past – reconcile her still-radical agenda with the needs of a mentor and teacher? Does Charles have it in him to take a more aggressive stance towards obvious threats, and what will that cost him if he does? Apocalypse focuses the bulk of its attention on dilemmas like these, and reaps rewards from them in the most unexpected place.
Consider, for example, the relationship between Jean Grey and Scott Summers, long viewed as part of a triangle with Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. You’d think that their stand-alone romance would be dull as dirt – things never got interesting until the bad boy showed up – but in the film’s hands, something very different happens. Both of them are afraid of the destructive nature of their powers, and that fear makes them feel like outcasts even in a school full of them. They gravitate towards each other as kindred souls, bringing new perspective to one of the most famous love triangles in comics.
Apocalypse himself becomes a far more interesting villain here as well. The comics presented him as boringly omnipotent, with a dull agenda and a visual look that makes no sense given his origins. Singer cuts through the detritus (aided by Isaac, whose chameleon-like skills have only begun to be tapped) to find the essence of the figure, giving him the stature the comics always struggled to convey with none of their flailing. Similar feats pepper the whole of the running time, and when you combine them with Singer’s knack for designing action around the characters’ various powers, it makes the film’s shortcomings fade into obscurity. (Evan Peters’ Quicksilver gets a terrific curtain call, among other moments, and Nightcrawler develops an ongoing feud with Ben Hardy’s Archangel that pays off handsomely in the climax.)
Which isn’t to say the film is free of problems. Logic holes pop up here and there, and with so much going on, Apocalypse resorts to sloppy hand-waving to get rid of them. With so many characters, some are bound to receive short shrift, and their presence here feels a tad gratuitous. It hits hardest with Apocalypse’s Horsemen, though Alexandra Shipp’s Storm has an imperious presence and fights hard to make herself known. The rest are largely reduced to colorful henchmen, and similar figures on the other side are left wandering as well. (Jubilee fans, be warned.) The film’s in-jokes can get a bit much as well, and while we’re glad the studio can joke about the disappointing The Last Stand, taking time to swipe at it feels like trying too hard.
That said, X-Men Apocalypse remains a solid wrap-up to the second X-Men trilogy. With Deadpool, this franchise has the potential to go in a very interesting new direction, and I’d encourage Fox to follow up on those instincts. But this entry still has its share of pleasures, and if you have to search a little harder to find them, that doesn’t mean they’re not worth the effort. The X-Men have a way of doing that, something this film understands just as well as its predecessors did.