Director: Bryan Singer
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Oscar Isaac, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender
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“The third one’s always the worst,” quips Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) halfway through X-Men: Apocalypse – just in case you hadn’t already guessed that director Bryan Singer didn’t like Brett Ratner’s The Last Stand from the fact that he invented an entire film (Days of Future Past) to eradicate it from existence. After the timey-wimey complexities of that convoluted retcon, though, X-Men: Apocalypse marks a return to simpler ideas: a giant, blue guy trying to destroy the world and a school-load of good mutants trying to stop him. And some jokes about that Brett Ratner sequel.
X-Men: Apocalypse, though, does a very good job of almost rivalling Ratner’s hot CGI mess with its own hot (more coherent) CGI mess – a reminder that writer Simon Kinberg penned both, as well as DoFP (and, incidentally, This Means War and Jumper). Sure enough, things descend into one big virtual punch-up over the two-hour-plus runtime, but there’s much to enjoy in the carnage.
Things begin extremely promisingly, with a prologue set in 3600 BC, when Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) is doing the things that all mutants used to do in ancient Egypt: lording it over the locals, hanging out in fancy pyramids and transferring his consciousness into other mutants whenever he gets old so he can keep on living forever. A swift bit of sabotage later and he’s trapped forever, only to be unearthed by a devoted team of fanatics – because there’s always a devoted team of fanatics – in the 1980s.
Singer has always had a talent for mining history for entertainment, from Valkyrie to X-Men’s opening scene in World War II. It’s great to see, then, that after Matthew Vaughns’s First Class, X-Men jumps forward 20 years from the Cold War to full-on nuclear scare – even if the cast barely look like they’ve aged two weeks, let alone two decades, scenes in a Dr. Strangelove-esque war room and an inspired use of ballistic missiles make the context as witty and relevant as ever. “I’ve never felt power like this before,” gasps James McAvoy’s Professor X – in the face of Apocalypse’s abilities, the idea of mankind ending the world seems suddenly puny. That interplay between fact and fiction pays off in greater dividends when we catch up with Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who revisits the Holocaust flashbacks of X-Men for a cathartic piece of destruction.
But while X-2 and that initial entry played upon social insecurities to subtle effect, Apocalypse only dwells briefly (and unsubtly) on any serious themes, instead preferring to get on with ushering in its titular armageddon. And so we’re treated to what is essentially a two-hour montage of our purple people-eater teleporting around the world in a massive bubble, recruiting henchmen (and henchwomen) to his Ivan Ooze lookalike competition. Oscar Isaac, perhaps for the first time in his career, is the weakest link in the ensemble, frowning and sighing his way through a part that never delivers on its symbolic promise – ideas of worship, evolution, genetics and power are all thrown up in the air, then cast aside like Rogue in Days of Future Past.
Instead, it falls to the younger cast to keep us amused, from Tye Sheridan’s uncertain Cyclops to Sophie Turner’s timid telepath. Evan Peters once again walks away with the whole show as Quicksilver, essentially repeating his cameo from the last film with a breathtakingly explosive set piece. That it’s played for laughs, rather than peril, though, is symptomatic of the film’s overall lack of weight, never quite managing to sell the scale of the story on offer – the dodging of Quicksilver’s paternal issues leaves Peters’ comic relief lacking some much-needed emotional baggage.
Much like Singer’s previous mutant mash-up, though, Apocalypse simply moves at too fast a pace to be derailed – even a confrontation in Professor X’s mind palace avoids being laughable. That sounds like damning with faint praise, but as the world of comic book movies continues to expand, we’ve seen how easily superhero flicks can become stupid, sour or simply generic. For a franchise that’s been going 16 years to still deliver thrills, laughs and spectacle, even in one of its weaker entries, is no small feat. After all, this is still better than that third one.