X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (Movie Review)

*** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for sequences of strong violence, action and destruction, brief strong language, and some suggestive images)
Released: May 27, 2016
Runtime: 144 minutes
Director: Bryan Singer
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Oscar Isaac, Sophie Turner, Evan Peters, Tye Sheridan, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, Olivia Munn

I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I seem to like the superhero movies that most people don’t, yet I find the ones embraced by audiences and critics alike to be fairly dull and uninspired – even cynically constructed.

If you’ve seen the Rotten Tomatoes aggregate for X-Men: Apocalypse (it’s not good), then you can guess where I landed. The consensus is that it starts strong but limps to the finish. That’s only half right, and thankfully not about the second part. Not only did I really like this entire entry in the X-verse, but when stacked up against the other Superhero Battle Royales of the past two months (Batman V Superman and Captain America: Civil War) it’s the best of the three – and not just in a general sense. X-Men: Apocalypse is better at executing the core elements that all three movies share: balancing a high volume of characters, coming to blows over philosophical differences, and actually convincing us that these differences aren’t just philosophical but personal.

The title X-Men: Apocalypse has a dual meaning. Yes, the fate of the world is at play (natch), but it’s also a direct reference to the film’s villain. The prologue opens with a 5500-year-old flashback, in which we see the origins of the first Mutant (a.k.a. the titular Apocalypse) in ancient Egypt. He’s awesome in the legitimate sense of that word, omnipotently possessing all strains of mutant power. Flash forward to the early 1980s (when this latest prequel takes place) and we find the core X-Men team disbanded as a result of the previous film’s events (a succinct classroom slide show gets you up to speed if you haven’t seen that movie or, if you’re like me, barely remember).

These mutants live throughout the world, incognito amongst normal humans, trying to live normal lives. A few, though, are captive; circus freak side shows, forced into cage battles for spectators. We know this won’t last for long, but having them dispersed is more than some perfunctory baseline starting point. Their lives – along with a new teen, a.k.a. Cyclops, struggling to control a power he doesn’t understand – are actually explored at some length, creating a psychological basis for each character (Magneto continues to be the most compelling), and how they’ll respond to Apocalypse when he inevitably re-emerges from his dormant state of the past five-plus millennia.

Though the stakes are indeed apocalyptic (even Stan Lee’s cameo is serious, not goofy), for the first hour it’s not so much the world that hangs in the balance but, rather, the mutants place in it. And that’s really interesting. Not just their role in society (as we’re seeing with the Avengers) but as a species. Their crisis of identity isn’t political; it’s existential.

Consequently, the conflicts and differences between them are inherently more personal. They’re not clunky contrivances (see: Manchurian Winter Soldier) or resolved through insipid sappy coincidences (see: My mom’s name was Martha, too!). Motives for fighting each other are more substantial. Showdowns in the current DC and Avenger movie mythologies – which pitched themselves as being about irreconcilable philosophical differences – actually relied heavily on misunderstandings and covert manipulations.

This movie doesn’t pull punches like that. These X-ers understand and disagree with each other on very clear terms, for very different ways of looking at the world and their place in it, and Apocalypse’s manipulations aren’t covert; they’re brazen, on the scale of a God complex. So when these X-ers brawl, it’s more than some glorified wrestling match between super-siblings that, deep down, still love each other. The intent, quite simply, is to kill. The script substantiates these divisions, and the actors completely and totally sell them.

There’s not enough space here to do justice to how good this entire cast is, so I’ll be unfair and highlight three: Tye Sheridan (Cyclops), Evan Peters (Quicksilver), and Sophie Turner (Jean Grey – and also Sansa Stark from Game Of Thrones). These three are potential stars-in-the-making, and they make the best of their showcases here. (It’s no surprise that Steven Spielberg has already snagged Sheridan as the lead for his upcoming Ready Player One.)

If director Bryan Singer (who returns for his 4th X movie, continuing from the previous Days Of Future Past) has mastered anything, it’s juggling so many characters. That is to say it doesn’t feel like he’s juggling them at all. There are a lot of characters here, but they don’t feel like they’re competing for screen time, nor does the balance feel delicate or mandatory. With depth, motivation, and agency, they’re not merely pawns in a plot machine. At this point, most superhero movies feel obligated to balance large ensembles, but no one’s doing it better than Singer.

Another strength: this is Universe building that doesn’t feel like Universe building. It’s because Singer stays focused on this moment in time. He’s not distracted by how his narrative needs to connect to the next two or three down the road. And if you’ve missed previous chapters, no worries; Singer laces in just enough flashbacks on a need-to-know basis, and does it in a way that feels valid and organic (even character-driven), not crass shoe-horned expositing.

If there’s a flaw, it’s in the mixed returns that the titular villain yields. By no fault of Oscar Isaac who plays him (according to Singer’s exacting vision, no doubt), Apocalypse can, at times, be a pretty glaring melodramatic miscalculation. The more maniacal he gets, the more you’re reminded of the cheesy traits that long kept comic books marginalized as an art form and not taken seriously.

Even so, Isaac is able to bring a chilling menace, too, that’s truly formidable. The less operatic he’s required to be, the better Apocalypse is. Also, Singer ingeniously uses Apocalypse beyond being a destructive catalyst and extends his purpose to causing some of these young mutants to evolve from their nascent stage into the full-fledged powers (and look) fans know them by. That was a clever stroke on Singer’s part, and a cool one. Not as clever are the religious symbols and references. They’re not offensive, mind you, just flip.

X-Men: Apocalypse isn’t just brooding and serious; it’s also a highly entertaining trip to the movies. Evan Peters (Quicksilver), in particular, brings a hip goofiness to the mix while, as Professor Xavier, James McAvoy is given several opportunities to display his more subtle comic instincts when around an old romantic flame. The film also boasts not one but two set pieces that will be highlights of the entire summer season: the spectacularly conceived Quicksilver “rescue” sequence (both in scope and wit), as well what unfolds when, er, “Weapon X” is let loose.

Oh, and did I mention that, just in terms of pure cinema, this is really solid blockbuster moviemaking? There, I just did. In an age when comic book movies are obnoxiously corporate, the X-Men brain trust of Bryan Singer and writer/producer Simon Kinberg brings passion (rather than just a business plan) to their franchise, and that’s increasingly rare. The result is a tentpole that goes beyond completing a checklist, allows room for surprises, and isn’t afraid to actually put things on the line.

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