If there's one comic book movie franchise that has managed to rival the absurdly complex continuity of actual comic books, it's the X-Men series. Just take a look at the latest installment, X-Men: Apocalypse: it's the eighth film in the series (as long as we're counting the two Wolverine movies, anyway), the third film in the half-rebooted version of the series that began with X-Men: First Class and it lands smack in the middle of the X-Men timeline.
Part of this complexity is rooted in the fact that the series has never been particularly decisive about which creative direction it wants to take. Ever since X-Men: The Last Stand, pretty much every installment has attempted to nudge the franchise in a new direction, offering a new batch of characters here, a different creative approach there, a change of scenery over here. This narrative restlessness has been frustrating at times, but it also seems thematically appropriate: the series continually evolves in order to survive.
Apocalypse finds the series working its way back to the moment it began, as director Bryan Singer introduces younger versions of the characters who anchored the first X-Men movie. Yes, Matthew Vaughn's First Class gave us the origins of Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy, The Last King of Scotland) Erik Lehnsher/Magneto (Michael Fassbender, Shame), Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult, Mad Max: Fury Road) and Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games), but now we've reached the point where Ororo Munroe/Storm (Alexandria Shipp, Straight Outta Compton), Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, Mud), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner, Game of Thrones) and Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee, Let Me In) enter the picture.
We'll get to them in a minute, but first, let's turn our attention to the film's new villain: En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), an incredibly powerful mutant (possibly the very first mutant) who has gained immortality by shifting his consciousness into different bodies and who was once regarded by humanity as a god... perhaps even the God (“I've been called many things over many lifetimes: Elohim, Ra, Krishna...”). Alas, he was eventually betrayed by his followers, and buried alive in an Egyptian tomb. Now, thousands of years later (1983, to be specific), En Sabah Nur (who we'll henceforth refer to as “Apocalypse”) has returned... and he's not particularly pleased by what humanity has become.
He is, however, intrigued by the abundance of mutants that now exist, and quickly realizes that their assorted skills could be of great use to him. One of Apocalypse's many talents is the ability to enhance any mutant's powers, which quickly proves an effective selling point for his campaign of destruction: join him, level up. Unfortunately, signing up with Apocalypse means getting onboard with his mission. “This world needs to be... cleansed,” he mutters, uttering the last word in some ancient language. Storm – who enters the film as Apocalypse's first recruit – asks for a translation. “Saved,” the ancient being replies.
If such words inspire thoughts of Old Testament retribution, well, they're supposed to. There were times when the film reminded me Darren Aronofsky's Noah, which told the story of another angry God who offered life to a chosen few but determined that the rest of the planet deserved apocalyptic punishment. However, there's also an argument to be made that En Sabah Nur – despite his grandiose historical and religious stature – is ultimately closer to the “god” of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier: not quite the real thing, but persuasive enough to inspire great fear.
Meanwhile, the rest of the film's first hour or so spends its time catching up with beloved characters, introducing new ones and then watching as the mutants pick sides. I could detail every subplot for you, but considering the sheer size of the cast, I'll let you discover the details on your own. I will note that the most interesting early thread belongs to Magneto, who has been hiding out in the wake of his villainous actions in Days of Future Past and has settled into a humble domestic life in Germany. He has a wife, a child, a factory job and – believe it or not – a real sense of contentment. Fassbender is superb in these scenes, particularly once the character begins to realize that he's not going to be able to shake his past quite so easily. It's no surprise that eventually joins forces with Apocalypse (the latter's pro-mutant/anti-human position is the sort of thing Magneto has often embraced), but as usual, he proves a complicated, unusually sympathetic villain. His actions are rarely justifiable, but given the things he has experienced in his life, they're at least understandable. This film reminds us that he spent his childhood in Auschwitz, where he saw humanity at its absolute worst. That's a tough thing to shake, no matter how earnestly Professor X appeals to his better nature.
Naturally, the eternally noble Xavier (played quite beautifully by McAvoy) becomes the default leader of the Forces of Good, as we learn that his formidable telekinetic abilities may be the one thing standing between Apocalypse and global destruction. The philosophical differences between Charles and Erik have occupied the center of many of these movies, and this time around, they play out on a larger scale than ever before. Indeed, Apocalypse may very well be the most operatic comic book movie ever made; a near-overwhelming collision of grandiose thematic ideas, big emotions, soaring music (John Ottman turning in his strongest contribution to the series to date) and extravagant visual effects (this is one of the summer's most visually inventive blockbusters). Many scenes in the film feel like magnificent two-page spreads; narrative crescendos filled with dazzling imagery, all-caps dialogue and intense feeling. I found Singer's weighty theatricality remarkably effective, but it's easy enough to imagine other viewers rolling their eyes at a blue, latex-covered Oscar Isaac sternly declaring, “NO... MORE... SUPERPOWERS!”
Admittedly, certain things are a little clunky even if you can get onboard with the film's thunderous tone. With so many characters in the mix, there were bound to be a few that got short-changed. Sure enough, Angel (Ben Hardy, EastEnders), Jubilee (Lana Condor) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn, The Newsroom) don't really get actual characters to go along with their (admittedly nifty) abilities. Less forgivable is the fact that Singer and co. still don't seem entirely certain of what to do with this version of Mystique, who is once again stuck in a game of tug-of-war between Professor X and Magneto. Lawrence is talented, but this series has made exceptionally poor use of her. Also, the film's timeline is incredibly confusing: we're supposed to believe that twenty-one years have passed between First Class and this movie? The film seems aware of this problem, too: when Xavier tracks down his old flame Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne, Spy), he marvels that, “she hasn't aged a day.” Oh, and this series still has a penchant for terrible one-liners (“Wreak havoc!”).
On the plus side, many of the newcomers work out quite nicely: Turner and Sheridan have a a handful of lovely moments together, Smit-McPhee's Nightcrawler is an engagingly odd take on the character (if not quite as immediately compelling as Alan Cumming's work in X2) and the charismatic Evan Peters once again shines in his second outing as Quicksilver (one big action setpiece reprises and enhances a terrific sequence from Days of Future Past, all the way down to the period-appropriate musical accompaniment). Isaac's work has been mocked by many, but I found it quite effective: he speaks with the calm authority of a being who's been around since the beginning of time.
So if Apocalypse isn't actually God, who is? Or is there a God at all? The question lingers over the film, as Singer makes a point of repeatedly spotlighting characters seeking divine intervention. One character rages at God, demanding answers to unanswerable questions. Another offers a humble prayer during a moment of crisis. After narrowly escaping death, one character observes that, “God must have answered our prayers.” Still, in each of these cases, it's clear that the real credit/blame goes to mutants. Perhaps the idea is that their powers represent the God-given abilities within all of us, and that “God's will” is ultimately decided by the manner in which we choose to use those abilities. Or perhaps God operates in the same way Xavier does, using his powers to both help us and obscure our view of what's really happening. Or perhaps, as John Lennon once said, “God is a concept by which we measure our pain” (a view Magneto might appreciate).
These are big ideas floating through a big movie, but the film's defining moments are smaller and more human: Charles looking inside Erik's mind and being overwhelmed by the pain he sees, two students bonding over their inability to make friends with others and Erik singing a tender lullaby to his young daughter. The idea at the heart of the film is simple, but delivered with powerful conviction: we all need human connection. While it lays a strong foundation for whatever comes next (and given the history of this series, whatever comes next will undoubtedly shake things up once again), this feels like a complete story with a beginning and an ending... an increasingly uncommon occurrence in the genre. Despite some occasional missteps, this is one of the richest and most ambitious superhero flicks of recent years.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 147 minutes
Release Year: 2016