X-Men: Apocalypse starts off looking more or less like Gods Of Egypt, which is to say you might start regretting your ticket purchase three minutes into the film. The opening sequence shows a glittering and ridiculous ancient Egypt in which a handful of mutants seem to be in charge. This is a necessary backdrop for a story involving Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), the first mutant and one who’s known to have ruled in ancient times. But you can’t help feeling like you’re in for a cheesy experience as you watch supernatural characters collapsing pyramids (setting up a mystic ritual to infuse Apocalypse with more power) and casting spells that make pyramids glow with engraved script.
It’s all over pretty quickly, however, and before you know it you’re back in the familiar presence of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) and Co., in a film that begins to feel very much like its immediate predecessors. The members of the younger X-Men cast that started off in X-Men: First Class have really grown into these roles (despite constant speculation that stars like Jennifer Lawrence might want out of the franchise), and the result is that there’s a real sense of continuity in the franchise. Given the success of First Class and sequel X-Men: Days Of Future Past, that’s probably a good thing for most viewers.
The plot takes shape in ways both familiar and new. On the one hand, we see the same old contrast between Xavier and Lensherr. The former is attempting to run his X-Men academy in the most peaceful way possible, and the latter is doing his best to live apart from the X-Men and the conflicts they seem to attract—this time even going so far as to start a family. But not everything is the same. Following the events of Days Of Future Past, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is viewed as a hero, causing younger X-Men to come out of the cracks in their admiration of her. It’s also made the public more aware of mutant activity.
The main wrinkle is that Apocalypse wakes up, having been trapped under a collapsed pyramid for millennia. Thirsty for more power and disgusted with the world he wakes up to, he begins a calm but ruthless quest to gather his “four horsemen,” a team of fellow mutants with whom he can destroy and rebuild the world. Such characters prove easy to find given the heightened profile of the mutants following Days Of Future Past, and this is where we see a few new characters (such as Alexandra Shipp and Olivia Munn as Storm and Psylocke, respectively). At the same time, Lensherr proves unable to escape his reputation as Magneto. When authorities come to arrest him, his wife and daughter are killed, and this make him the perfect teammate for Apocalypse to target. Thus, the stage is set: it’s Xavier vs. Lensherr, mutants battling mutants, and ultimately, X-Men vs. the Apocalypse (just to put things in 2016’s hero vs. hero terms).
It’s a somewhat-simplistic analysis, but frankly the performances make this film work across the board. Despite the cheesy opening and his absurdly overdone costuming, Oscar Isaac is surprisingly strong as Apocalypse. He presents a detached, almost-aloof villain who’s as powerful as a god and thoroughly separate from humanity. It’s a bit of a bizarre role, but Isaac practically whispers his way into making it work.
And the X-Men are simply terrific. Sophie Turner is delightful in her first turn as a young Jean Grey; Nicholas Hoult does his best work yet as Hank McCoy/Beast; Tye Sheridan is an effective new Cyclops, and Kodi Smit-McPhee an inventive new Nightcrawler; Evan Peters’s Quicksilver provides some of the best comic relief we’ve ever seen in a superhero film. And watching McAvoy, Fassbender, and Lawrence feels like watching Michael Phelps win a gold medal at the Olympics. You expect them to be the best, but watching them do it is still a thrill.
Apocalypse is ultimately not a perfect movie by any means, but it sure is a fun one. Given some lackluster previews and questionable early reviews, it’s one of the nicer surprises of the year in cinema so far that this film actually left me wanting more X-Men.
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