Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Director Brian Singer is back at the helm of X-Men: Apocalypse (opening Friday, May 27), the sixth X-Men film overall and his fourth (he directed the first two X-Men films, and 2014's installment, X-Men: Days of Future Past). Despite what you might have read up to this point (the studio uncharacteristically lifted the "no-review" embargo on this latest film, allowing early reviews to post several weeks ago), X-Men: Apocalypse is a worthy entry into the saga, and is by far the best comic book film thus far in 2016. It's also far from perfect, and is maybe the least-balanced of all of Singer's X-Men films. And "Best Comic Book Film" of the year so far should be taken with a grain of salt, given the critically-hated but actually just below average Batman v. Superman and the critically-adored and horribly over- rated Captain America: Civil War. Still, Apocalypse is by far more enjoyable than either of these two films.
But first let's get caught-up. The previous film, Days of Future Past (DOFP) was a mind-bending game-changer to the X-Men story-line and to the entire Marvel mutant universe. In a nutshell, a time-travelling Wolverine - sent into the past by Kitty Pryde - was sent back into the 1970s, and in saving the world from the deadly Sentinel robots, he irreparably altered the future and changed the world. In fact, we can now assume that the original X-Men trilogy happened in an alternate universe, a timeline that will never happen. Yes, DOFP not only reset the franchise and passed the torch to the younger First Class set of heroes, it essentially erased the previous movies. It concluded with Wolverine, in the year 2023, as a certified teacher at the Mansion, with Jean Grey and Cyclops still alive and well. Yes, in this new universe, anything and everything is possible. And to avoid confusion moving forward, just embrace the idea that the Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan and Rebecca Romijn versions of Professor X, Magneto and Mystique, respectively, as we have come to know them at least, do not yet exist in the current X-Men universe. And while it is a total dick-move to tell fans that three X-Men and two Wolverine movies no longer exist in the official canon, we move forward in confidence that our favorite mutants are in good hands.
So X-Men: Apocalypse takes place in this new-timeline, circa the 1980s, where Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) still have philosophical disagreements but have yet to...mutate...into mortal enemies. A new threat awakens in the form of a mutant called Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), and it is not clear if this villain had been defeated in the original timeline and just never mentioned before, or if something in the new timeline causes him to arrive on the scene for the first time. He is thought to be the world's very first mutant, called En Sabah Nur, who in Ancient Egypt, takes place in a ritual meant to transfer his spirit into the body of another, younger host. Yes, Apocalypse is basically an immortal being and harbinger of evil, who surrounds himself with four "apostles" meant to protect him. Think of Death and the Four Horsemen, as they appear in the Bible...or as this film suggests, perhaps it is the Bible that stole the idea from the legend of Apocalypse.
During this ancient soul-shifting ceremony, an uprising occurs that traps Apocalypse deep below the Earth's surface, where he apparently spends the next several thousand years. But not even Apocalypse would miss the 80s if given the chance. He awakes and enters the world with the intent to rule it. As an all-powerful mutant, he has the ability to absorb powers of other mutants, grow larger or smaller, and by touching a TV screen, instantly learns everything there is to know about the modern world. He finds and recruits a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn) to be his "Horsemen" and he sets out to dominate. And if you're saying to yourself, "I thought Storm was a good-guy/gal," well, welcome to the new X-Men universe where again, the future is yet to be written.
One thing that stayed the same though, is that Magneto is not meant to have a good life. This new timeline has him attempting normalcy with his wife and daughter in Poland, but a horrible tragedy takes them both from him. Magneto once again is given growing reason to distrust and hate humans. But Magneto fans may find that they probably liked other film versions of him much more, as he is pathetically under-used and over-simplified this time around. The interaction between Magneto and Professor X has been a staple of X-Men for several decades, but sadly Magneto just blends into the chaos, and if you didn't know any better you'd think that he was no more important than say, Beast (Nicholas Hoult). Hopefully this isn't the intention for his character on this re-imagined timeline.
Of course, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) plays a big role in this new universe too, and we find her still unsure of her "hero status" due to the events in DOFP and First Class. Game of Thrones' Sophie Turner - who plays Sansa Stark - is the young and incredibly powerful Jean Grey, and brothers Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Havok (Lucas Till) are reliable soldiers for Professor X's latest army of mutant heroes. Rounding out the group this time is Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who is recruited from some underground fight club, and Quicksilver (Evan Peters) who had a scene-stealing super-slow-motion scene in his last appearance, and who is given another one here in order to completely milk this effect. How and why human Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne) is allowed to tag along with this group of mutants is anyone's guess. I know Professor X is in love with her, but she is just an unnecessary character given little to do and providing even less for us to care about.
It's this sort of under-use - like with the character of Moira, or Magneto, or even Mystique - that really hurts X-Men: Apocalypse. It's an over-stuffed cast populating an over-stuffed universe. And even Singer is not able to herd them all up in any cohesive way. But despite the backlash, I found Oscar Isaac to be a fascinating Apocalypse. Here's a game-changing mutant brought along who is seemingly infallible. It takes the combined strengths of all of these misfit mutants in order to bring him down, with the world hanging in the balance. If the theme of teamwork and acceptance aren't the basis of the X-Men story, then I don't know what is. Characters die and things feel at stake, which is a far cry from, say, the bubble-gummy pop-action in movies like Captain America: Civil War, where there are never any real consequences to any of the characters' actions. The visuals in Apocalypse are stunning and there is a lot of entertainment to be had, minus the snarky-sarcastic tone found in pretty much every other Marvel movie these days. Further, this was a valiant effort to adapt one of the most popular villains in the X-Men canon, and to that end, justice was served.
We now know that the X-Men can kick-butt against insurmountable odds, but the growing "positive" relationship with humans is becoming annoying. X-Men has always been a reflection of humanity, of the discrimination against those viewed as "different," and I hope the future of this franchise doesn't devolve into fighting "next week's villain." If there is anything that they should keep from the original trilogy, it's the idea of Magneto and Professor X entrenched in a proverbial game of chess, where their contrasting life-views dictate their every move as they battle each other for the upper-hand. Here's hoping that they don't stray too far from their roots.
X-Men: Apocalypse is maybe the least-smart, least-cerebral of the X-Men films to date, but it is not nearly the worst (here's looking at you, X-Men 3). Oh and by the way, look for a un-credited cameo by a beloved mutant and of course, a post-credit scene that sets up not one, but two, upcoming mutant films.
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Run Time: 2 hours, 24 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult,
Oscar Isaac, Rose Byrne, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Lucas Till, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Ben Hardy, Alexandra Shipp, Olivia Munn
Directed by Bryan Singer (X-Men: Days of Future Past, Valkyrie, Superman Returns, X-Men 2, X-Men, The Usual Suspects)
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