The opening of Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Apocalypse is grand and exciting, evoking Cecil B. DeMille with a sublime hunk of Stargate cheese. We witness an Egyptian leader with extraordinary powers named Apocalypse (an imposing Oscar Isaac). Dozens of his followers declare him a false god and stage a coup. Centuries later, Apocalypse and his minions are unearthed and plot to “cleanse” the Earth. Only the X-Men are powerful enough to face an enemy this powerful.
From the very beginning, the high style, dramatic focus and playful intertwining of visual effects and artful staging announce a true filmmaker is at the helm. If only the screenplay were as strong.
There are too many characters, some of whom stand around, appear waiting for something to do. It helps that Michael Fassbender is once again the lead. McAvoy makes a decent Professor X but its Fassbender’s intensity and his investment in Magneto’s anguish that anchors the film. Jennifer Lawrence was great in the previous movie but doesn’t have enough to do here. Her considerable presence and star power are the strongest qualities she brings.
A standout sequence in X-Men: Days of Future Past is one-upped here, as the faster-than-fast Quicksilver (scene-stealer Evan Peters) once again uses his powers both for heroics and his own amusement. Whereas the previous film had a sensational bit utilizing Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle,” this installment finds Quicksilver’s intervention on a massive explosion, set to Eurythmic’s “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).”
Another moment that truly made my jaw drop is a visit to Auschwitz. It’s bizarre to see costumed superheroes walking around the former Nazi death camp. Magneto leveling the camp into CGI rubble is stunning but definitely in poor taste. This movie has as much to do with the Holocaust as My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 and overreaches by bringing such a serious topic into an especially frivolous summer movie. To give Singer credit, his X-Men films have always been about facing prejudice, embracing one’s identity as an outsider and pushing back against bigotry. Yet, his attempts in this and other X-Men movies to incorporate the murder of millions of Jews with the origin of Magneto are forced, never fully realized and, to say the least, mighty tacky.
There’s a pointed bit of mockery that backfires: we see some characters exit a movie theater, apparently discussing the Star Wars trilogy. Someone notes that “we can agree that the third one is always the worst.” It’s a funny jab at Brett Ratner, the director of the much-despised third entry, X-Men: The Last Stand. But by the time the movie gets to its overly busy and thoroughly ridiculous finale, the X-Men movie this resembles the most is Ratner’s.
The film lost me by the third act, which is stuffed with CGI overload, explosions on top of more explosions and silly fight scenes. Much has been made of Olivia Munn, in a Frederick’s of Hollywood-ready costume, playing Psylocke, one Apocalypse’s warriors. Munn has barely a line of dialogue and puts in more of an appearance than a real performance.
While there are rewards throughout for fans (newcomers will be utterly lost), the climactic battle with Apocalypse is unsatisfying. The stakes are certainly high, particularly for planet Earth but really, the finale of the prior two X-Men films had more suspense and crucial character turns.
Apocalypse is better than The Last Stand, First Class and even the redundant, over-praised X2: X-Men United but doesn’t approach the greatness of the most recent and original entries. Singer’s initial 2000 X-Men, with its comparatively “tiny” $90 million budget, isn’t overstuffed, takes chances that work and is still charming and exciting. Apocalypse has thrilling portions and some strong acting but Singer’s franchise peaked with Days of Future Past.