Review: Lots of energy and some strong performances elevate familiar ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’

Bryan Singer”s getting downright playful these days.

Continuity is a very weird thing in the X-Men universe. Since the year 2000, when Singer”s first X-Men was released, we”ve seen them flash forward and backward in time, recasting key roles, while also keeping some of the same cast intact, leading to a series that led my eight-year-old to tell me as we were walking across the 20th Century Fox lot on Friday night, “Daddy, the X-Men movies make my brain go crazy.” You could describe X-Men: First Class, X-Men: Days Of Future Past, and X-Men: Apocalypse as a trilogy, but I don”t think these film really work like that. At this point, each movie exists as its own thing, free to either embrace or discard everything that”s come before it depending on the story they”re telling. Each of the films feels like it”s resetting the entire series, which is business-smart and narratively frustrating, and with this latest entry, it feels to me like Singer has finally settled into his role as the orchestrator of all of this chaos and he”s having fun with it now.

X-Men: Apocalypse begins in distant past, where En Sabah Nur is in the middle of a ritual that moves him from one body to another. The new body is young and strong and looks suspiciously like Oscar Isaac. He also has a mutant power, demonstrated when one of En Sabah Nur”s priests cuts the young man”s flesh, which promptly heals. As the ritual begins, there is a surprise attack by Egyptians who want to see En Sabah Nur dead, calling him a “false god.” His body is buried under a mountain of rubble when the pyramid collapses, and then we jump forward to the ’80s, where Singer gets to introduce some new X-Men in a series of the types of short vignettes that have been used throughout this series to introduce new characters to the universe. We get a bully-versus-Scott Summers scene that establishes Ty Sheridan as the new Cyclops, and we see how troubled young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is as she grapples with a rising power inside her. I”ve given up worrying about what does or doesn”t line up to previous movies at this point precisely because of things like the difference between this movie”s version of Jean Grey and the version of her first meeting with Xavier and Erik in X-Men: The Last Stand or the different way Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) enters the lives of the other characters. It doesn”t matter. Or, rather, I think you can”t get hung up on that if you”re going to meet each of these films on its own terms. At this point, it all feels like a big game of “What if?” using the entire comic history of the Marvel mutant world as source material, cherry-picking things they like as these filmmakers move from storyline to storyline. The new cast of good guys seem well cast, and they're likeable enough. In a film this busy, it's easy to get lost, and Turner, Sheridan, and Smit-McPhee all manage to make an impression.

Like Days Of Future Past, this takes some of the broad strokes of the comic arc of the same name and tells a totally different story. The thing about Apocalypse as a comic character is that he”s got a huge amount of material dedicated to him. Really, this is just a loose adaptation of the comics from the late ’80s that originally introduced the idea of Apocalypse recruiting his new Four Horsemen. Otherwise, it is concerned with the ongoing relationships between the trio that”s been at the heart of the last two movies. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has settled into his role as the Professor, the head of his School For Gifted Youngsters. Raven, aka Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) lives her life on the road, helping mutants whenever and wherever she can, never stopping for very long. And as for Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), the mutant formerly known as Magneto? He”s settled into a normal life in Poland, where he works at a steel mill. He has a wife now, and a little girl named Nina. It”s been ten years since the events in Washington D.C. The world has moved on, but the distrust for mutants is still there. When Apocalypse emerges from his slumber, he sizes things up and swings into action, pulling in Angel (Ben Hardy), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and Psylocke (Olivia Munn). He gives each of them a power upgrade, but all three of the characters are given little or nothing to do. For the most part, this film is about momentum. It is relentless. It slams from scene to scene and throws about forty characters at you in the first half-hour, and it calls back to earlier films aggressively.

For example, one of the ongoing threads in the film involves Charles and his interest in Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne), who had her memory erased at the end of X-Men: First Class. They play it for laughs for the entire first act. It gives McAvoy something new to play, which is good, because many of his scenes feel overly familiar. I”m not sure how you avoid that when you”ve made as many films as they have, and there”s even a sequence here where they edit together a conversation from three different movies, and it feels like it”s all just the same conversation. I”m not sure how many more variations of Charles and Erik speaking earnestly about the future and violence and how much the world will hate them anyone can actually create. Most of the energy spent on Erik in the first half of the film involves first showing how he”s walked away from the ongoing mutant-vs-human cold war, then taking that away from him so that he”ll be driven to the brink. One of the best pieces of casting in the entire franchise is Fassbender as Magneto. He makes every single scene he plays feel like it”s the most important scene in the film. That”s a big help when you know your actor is going to spend something like a half-hour of the film hanging in front of a blue-screen while CGI things fly around them. Fassbender gives his performance enough weight that it feels like it all matters. Jennifer Lawrence is the same way. She plays her version of Mystique with enough steely vulnerability to make it feel like she means it.

Ultimately, it feels like each of the film”s set pieces is a modular thing, complete unto itself, interchangeable. When Quicksilver (Evan Peters) shows up, he”s got a scene that feels like a very deliberate step up from his big showstopping moment in the first film, and here”s where I see the most growth from Singer as a director. The guy who directed X-Men and X2 was learning how to block action and direct special effects. Now Singer”s comfortable enough to really take advantage of an idea, and for the second film in a row, the Quicksilver scene steals the movie as a result. There”s a cameo from a familiar character that is fun, but again, it feels like a scene that you could lift out and move anywhere, and it would work exactly the same way. I enjoyed the energy of the film, and the cast is pretty solid throughout, but there”s a big problem that is inherent to the idea that we have to make these films bigger and bigger to outdo things that have come before. If you”ve got a villain whose name is Apocalypse, that implies a certain sort of large-scale mayhem, and the film certainly delivers on that promise. At this point, though, the bar has been raised so high that I don”t see how the world within the movie ever returns to the status quo. When you see just how horrible the damage is that is done by the mutants in the film, it feels like the world would be right to fear and hate them. How could you not? We are treated to scenes of catastrophic global destruction, and at the end of the film, we see the aftermath of that destruction. There”s no way the world would ever even remotely discuss peace with mutants after this happened. There”s no way Charles just goes back to running his school. It”s just too grand, and that”s by design. That”s how you increase the stakes in these superhero blockbusters. I also feel like Apocalypse is a bit of a dud as an actual character. Isaac feels buried in the prosthetic make-up, and much of what he talks about is this generic villainspeak talk about cleansing and revenge and power. It”s a shame, because when he”s used right, Isaac can be terrific.

So, yeah, what works best is the individual moments. Fans of the films and/or the comics will all find lots of little nods and callbacks that should make them happy. There are some key moments that fans will want to discuss and dissect in fine detail, which is always a good sign. These movies all feel like one big ongoing movie to me at this point, and I don”t mean that as a negative. If you buy a ticket for X-Men, you”re going to get X-Men. You”ll see some of your favorite characters handled in a new way, and you”ll see promises for things that they could do in future films. Sophie Turner, in particular, should be excited about some of the groundwork that they lay in this one, and we”ll see if Singer takes the mulligan and actually starts building his way towards some sort of Phoenix-oriented event film down the road. For now, I largely enjoyed my latest visit to mutantland, but I”m willing to admit that the movies are increasingly starting to blend together for me. Toshi, my ten-year-old, is head over heels in love with this franchise, and he left the theater absolutely overwhelmed because of all the little bits and pieces that he loved.

I can imagine Bryan Singer making an X-Men movie every few years for the rest of his life. Sometimes he”ll get it right. Sometimes it won”t quite work. But it”s clear that he is all-in at this point, and there”s always something to like about one of these films. If familiarity is a problem for you, then you”ll definitely have your issues with the film, but as franchise management goes, this is largely effective spectacle.

X-Men: Apocalypse will give your local Dolby Atmos theater a real workout when the film opens everywhere on May 27.