In a spring already filled with superheroes, with friend fighting friend and villains being mostly hidden behind-the-scenes, there’s something comforting about a larger-than-life, over-the-top villain. En Sabah Nur, the first mutant, an eternal mutant “god” who claims himself as the inspiration for most religious figures, is about as over-the-top as you can bet. When Apocalypse emerges, it will take everything the X-Men have to defeat him. It’s a much more classic superhero setup, and it makes for a great time at the movies.
X-Men: Apocalypse picks up after the events of Days of Future Past and X-Men: First Class before it. The film series, doing a soft reboot of the X-Men movie universe through some time travel shenanigans, has also been jumping from decade to decade, this time giving them eight years (in the film timeline) between the world-saving confrontation on the White House lawn between Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and the events of Apocalypse. The world has, as a whole, become slightly more accepting of mutants, allowing Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) to reopen his school for gifted youngsters, teaching and training mutants to be productive members of society.
Of course, while that makes for some nice, relaxed moments, this isn’t a high school comedy, it’s an action movie. So when the ancient evil Apocalypse, a thousands-of-years old mutant with a host of powers taken from others emerges after millennia of slumber, school’s out and the real test begins.
The movie is fun. There’s a clarity to director Bryan Singer’s vision here that shows how two decades of working with the mutants of the Marvel universe has made him grow. While some of the emotional moments are a little ham-fisted, they’re not anything that would be out of place in a Chris Claremont-written classic X-Men comicbook. It’s clear Singer (and writer Simon Kinberg) have been paying attention to other superhero movies, as well, letting humor shine, and help to grow your love of characters, so that the emotional punches hit as hard as the superheroic ones. The chair-gripping action scenes are incredible; while the takes never feel very personal, they do feel high enough that you just got to be excited. Yes, Apocalypse takes control of some mutants that are traditionally heroes, but when it counts, you’re watching heroes battle a big, bad villain, and it’s easy to just cheer for the good guys, which is something all of the versus and wars can miss sometimes.
With only one tiny misstep (we won’t do spoilers in this review), Kinberg’s take on Magneto is nearly perfect in this film. It’s remarkable, seeing how destructive and murderous he’s been, that Kinberg’s script, Fassbender’s acting, and Singer’s directing manages to make audiences connect so deeply with the character. Here’s a guy we literally watch massacre others right there, on screen, but still hangs on to our empathy so completely. In the end, you just want Magneto to be stronger, to be better, and to follow the lead of Xavier. The fact that, despite the way the trailers make it seem, Apocalypse doesn’t have total control over his horsemen (Angel, Psylocke, and Storm round out the group) makes them all much more interesting characters, and makes you think about the choices they’re each making, and why.
Quicksilver, after a bonkers debut scene in Days of Future Past, returns to completely steal the movie once more. Other superhero movies can probably just stop with speedsters for awhile, because no one is beating Quicksilver in X-Men: Apocalypse. He gets two speedy scenes this time around, with the first, a real marquee moment, ramping up the one from the last film by a factor of about 10. There are moments of true heroism, a sort of speedy intelligence, and of course his sense of humor throughout it all. The unique way of showing both his speed and the way his mind is actually moving even faster than his body is so ingenious, it must be nearly impossible to not copy by other filmmakers. I can just hear the folks working on other speedster films collectively going “well, crap” when watching this scene. Quicksilver’s motivations and emotional arc may be even better than his jaw-dropping action. Pietro, thanks to his sense of humor, willingness to help in the face of seemingly impossible odds, and emotional connection to others (and the audience) really becomes the X-Men’s “Peter Parker” in this film. It’s one of those things you don’t know you’ve been missing until you have it, but without a young Kitty Pryde in that sort of role, it’s nice to have him here.
The other young stars, playing younger versions of previously-established Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) are universally great. They all give you just enough of the previous takes that you can believe they’d grow into the characters we saw in the first few movies. Ben Hardy’s Angel is perfectly serviceable, but he’s really there more for action than any kind of character development. That’s really the only such case, though, as the other four have more character development in about an act and a half of this film than they did in the original trilogy together. Shipp stands out as Storm, with more backstory and care placed to make her unique than most other characters in the film. While Jean’s certainly a bit… accelerated, those who have been reading the adventures of young Jean in the last few years of X-Men comics will see a lot they recognize in the character. Nightcrawler is another standout, and while he doesn’t get a full arc to speak of, he’s intriguing and exciting. Smit-McPhee has an innate charm that just made me happy to see Nightcrawler on screen whenever he was. Tye Sheridan's Cyclops is a little more brash than the stick-in-the-mud stereotype.
Oscar Isaac’s Apocalypse is pretty much exactly what he needs to be. While you don’t necessarily empathize with him or his motivations, you certainly see him as charismatic and godly. It felt like the aloof nature of the character and his performance was purposeful. Occasionally, he’d talk directly with a mutant and try to guide them along, like a slightly condescending parent – Apocalypse truly believes he’s fair above all others, and that shows.
The final standout of the film we’re not going to spoil here. Let’s just say that tease at the end of the final trailer is insanely well paid-off, and will leave you more excited for that character than you’ve been since his debut.
X-Men: Apocalypse has a lot of action, balanced with humor and emotion that make you think of more than just “When’s the next superpower?” There’s a ton of fan-service, especially for longtime fans of the X-Men (whether from comics, videogames, the 90s animated series, or the films) and in-jokes (including one laugh out loud one at their own expense) that should make X-fans extremely happy. From the climactic battle all the way through the final scene of the movie, my inner ten-year-old was screaming out loud. The audience of oft-jaded press and guests were whooping and left the theater smiling – a telling indication of a flat-out fun time.
X-Men: Apocalypse has something for just about everyone, and has just about everything for franchise fans.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars