It’s a good thing the X-Men and the Avengers and all the other superheroes zipping through the multiplexes these days exist in (mostly) parallel universes. If they were all in the same skies at the same time, we’d have the costumed equivalent of 5:30 p.m. rush hour on the outbound Eisenhower.
As it is, the 2016 superhero slate is all about the All-Star matchups. Batman took on Superman, the Avengers split up for a nasty intramural skirmish that included even more new characters — and now the X-Men are back on the big screen for a sequel/prequel/stand-alone adventure featuring at least eight characters with dual identities, giving these lucky actors IMDB resume credits such as “Scott Summers/Cyclops,” “Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver” and of course “Hank McCoy/Beast.”
And the invaluable Oscar Isaac as “En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse,” SWEET!
However, this is a decidedly mixed bag, just barely meriting a recommendation. Some 16 years after the original “X-Men” helped usher in the new and greatly improved era of superhero movies, “X-Men: Apocalypse” breaks no fresh ground and veers in so many directions I could have used a handy reference guide with categories such as “Familiar Characters From Previous Films Now Played by Younger Actors,” “Introduction of Some New Characters” and the all-important “Why So Many Comic Book Villains Want to Destroy the World When It Seems Like It Would be More Fun to RULE the World.”
This isn’t A-level “X-Men,” but it’s a visual feast, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, it’s brimming with stellar performances, it has some legitimately moving teamwork segments — and it contains perhaps my favorite scene of any movie this year. (More on that in a moment.)
“Apocalypse” is set in 1983, some 10 years after the events of “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” (Before we get to the 1980s, we have to endure yet another action movie prologue set in ancient Egypt. Boy oh boy, was ancient Egypt a busy place!)
Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto (Michael Fassbender in a superb performance), is living in Poland under an assumed name, laboring as an ironworker in what appears to be the most unsafe factory in the world, and coming home each night to his loving wife and adoring daughter. For the tormented Erik, it’s as close to paradise as he’ll ever come — as long as nobody finds out he’s a mutant.
It’s hardly a spoiler alert to reveal Erik does not spend the entire movie reading bedtime stories to his little girl. What IS surprising is the quietly powerful and even realistic tone of this story line. It could have made for a fine short film on its own.
An unrecognizable Oscar Isaac is Apocalypse, who awakens from the slumber of many thousand years and is appalled by the corrupt, hedonistic state of the world. Apocalypse goes on a recruiting trip, lining up the Four Horseman (as in “The Four Horseman of…”) who will help him destroy the world and remake it in his own image, or some such thing. Sounds like a real treat of a world.
Meanwhile, back at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters in beautiful Westchester County, N.Y. (can you imagine the tuition if one didn’t get a full scholarship?), Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, excellent once again in the role) mentors a class that includes young Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), who has yet to learn how to control the deadly beams that shoot from his eyes, and the telepathic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner from “Game of Thrones”).
Those two are starting to develop a thing for one another. Talk about sparks flying.
The signature scene in “Apocalypse”: As an explosion rocks Xavier’s school, Quicksilver (Evan Peters) uses his super-duper-duper-duper speed to save dozens of students, all to the tune of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” by the Eurythmics. It’s a beautiful, funny, exciting, altogether magical sequence — as entertaining as anything I’ve seen at the movies in a long time.
Directed by “X-Men” stalwart Bryan Singer, “Apocalypse” pops onscreen and has more dramatic reach than many a superhero movie, from Professor X’s bittersweet reunion with CIA operative Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne), whose memories of their earlier time together have been wiped clean, to the young Storm (Alexandre Shipp) reassessing her loyalties to that ever-complex relationship between the professor and Magneto.
Oddly enough, the worst performance in the film comes from Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence, who alternately barks out her lines or delivers them in flat tones. Either she’s bored playing this character or she simply misfired. It’s not good.
After the recent releases of “Deadpool,” “Batman v Superman” and “Captain America: Civil War,” the timing isn’t the best for “X-Men: Apocalypse.” Even the hardcore geeks who like to get their Comic-Con on might be feeling a little superhero fatigue right about now.
Still. You owe it to yourself to see Quicksilver do his thing.
20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Bryan Singer and written by Simon Kinberg. Running time: 135 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of violence, action and destruction, brief strong language and some suggestive images). Opens Friday at local theaters.