"X-Men: Apocalypse" traverses many of the resolute themes at the heart of Marvel and 20th Century Fox's cinematic "X-Men" franchise, from the mutants' universal desire for societal acceptance to their ongoing conflict between seeking vengeance against wrongdoers and using their powers for the betterment of the planet. It is a testament to how resonant these ideas are, then, that they haven't yet grown stalequite a feat considering they were also at the core of 2011's super-cool, '60s-set Cold War mod caper "X-Men: First Class
" and 2014's less stylish, still involving part-futuristic/part-1970s time-traveling adventure "X-Men: Days of Future Past
" (not to mention the previous interconnected trilogy, 2000's "X-Men
," 2003's "X2
," and 2006's "X-Men: The Last Stand
"). "X-Men: Apocalypse" ups the ante to a larger scale, the immediate threat not merely confined to one part of the globe but to Earth as a whole. If director Bryan Singer (2013's "Jack the Giant Slayer
") and writer Simon Kinberg (2015's "Fantastic Four
") have dared to bite off more than they can chew, they retain surprising cohesion even as they juggle a gargantuan ensemble of no less than 15 central characters. There is also something to be said for any 147-minute movie that feels like it runs an hour, tops.
Ten years have passed since "Days of Future Past
," and in that time Professor Charles Xavier's (James McAvoy) School for Gifted Youngsters has prospered as a safe haven for mutant children learning to embrace and responsibly control their powers. While bigotry against mutants has lessened, it still very much existsa truth which has allowed them to live their lives even as they are aware the other shoe can drop at any time. For telekinetic Auschwitz survivor Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who has put away his explosive anger to lead a quiet, blue-collar existence with wife Magda (Carolina Bartczak) and 6-year-old daughter Nina (T.J. McGibbon), that time arrives when his true identity is discovered and a cruel tragedy once again strikes close to home. His reignited rage coincides with the resurrection of the first and most powerful of all mutants En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), buried deep in a Nile Valley pyramid since 3600 B.C.E. As this ancient figure begins recruiting four new disciples for his reign of cataclysmic terror, Charles seeks the aid of a special person from his past, CIA senior officer Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne). Together, they and their alliesCharles' shape-shifting stepsister Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), the super-strong Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), the fast-as-lightning Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and students Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee)set about tracking down Apocalypse and putting a stop to him before the entire world is decimated.
As "X-Men: Apocalypse" continues inching forward in time and the presumable aim to segue into the 2000 original
draws closer, there is the unique opportunity to explore the younger versions of recognizable characters as their histories and experiences inform who they become. While there are simply too many cast members to give them all the development they deserve, Singer and Kinberg are nothing if not ambitious in their lofty aims. With the exception of an odd bit of editing early on where Raven and agile teleporter Nightcrawler flit from one nighttime alleyway to the next over multiple scenes without explanation of where they're going or what they're accomplishing, the film is expertly structured and enthrallingly paced. Adding teenagers Jean Grey, Scott Summers/Cyclops, Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler and Ororo Munroe/Storm (Alexandra Shipp)who fans will know grow into roles formerly played by Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Alan Cumming and Halle Berrynot only reinvigorates the proceedings, but gives the series both fresh blood and a simultaneous air of nostalgia.
Just as "X-Men: First Class
" did for 1962, "X-Men: Apocalypse" features a similar pop-enthused spirit for its 1983 time period. Costume designer Louise Mingenbach (2015's "Insurgent
") has a field day decking the characters out in era-appropriate fashion and hairstyles (lots of pastels, some shoulder pads, and a fantastic perm for Jennifer Lawrence's Raven) without wading into jokey exaggerations. The same goes for background details (a Ms. Pacman pinball machine, a television playing "Knight Rider," a Ronald Reagan poster) that add color and historical significance to the setting in question. In a movie not left wanting for action or top-of-the-line visual effects, a set-piece arriving just past the midway point is a sublime, giddy, "how'd-they-do-that?" stunner, as Quicksilver shifts into hyper-speed mode to save hundreds of innocents from certain death as an explosion threatens to engulf them. Displaying a gift for physical comedy while seeing his role satisfyingly expanded from "Days of Future Past
," Evan Peters (2015's "The Lazarus Effect
") stands out as Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver.
In a picture well-cast across the board, James McAvoy (2013's "Trance
") continues to be its steadfast, valiant center as the wheelchair-bound Professor Charles Xavier, pleading his case for why the X-Men must hold onto their morality and use their extraordinary abilities for good. His reunion with Rose Byrne's (2015's "Spy
") CIA official Moira MacTaggert, whom he hasn't seen in twenty-one years, is a welcome callback to the events of "First Class" and the warm, too-fleeting romance they shared. Jennifer Lawrence (2015's "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2
") sports great hair and natural leadership as Raven, still torn between her loyalty to Charles and the more anarchic beliefs of Erik. If there is a disappointment with her participation here, it is how little butt-kicking Lawrence gets to do in her blue-skinned, red-haired mutant form. Perhaps it was a contract stipulation that she only have to wear the full body make-up when absolutely necessary.
As adolescent outsiders who have found acceptance at Charles' school if not quite gotten a full handle on their powers, Tye Sheridan (2011's "The Tree of Life
"), Sophie Turner (2015's "Barely Lethal
") and Kodi Smit-McPhee (2014's "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
") charismatically slide into their newcomer parts. As Psylocke, one of Apocalypse's apprentices, Olivia Munn (2014's "Deliver Us from Evil
") gets little to do and less to say, but a rousing action sequence she receives during the climax makes it worthwhile for her. And, as major heavy En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse, Oscar Isaac (2015's "Ex Machina
") is totally unrecognizable, disappearing with malevolent relish behind mounds of transformative prosthetics.
As the third act revs up and Apocalypse's forces begin uprooting cities worldwide, the heroes of "X-Men: Apocalypse" face enormous imminent stakes of the sort which could mark the end of everything. Director Bryan Singer misses the prime chance to put this into a more emotional perspective by touching upon the human consequence of said destruction, but he nevertheless saturates the narrative in an absorbing urgency and affectingly stays focused on his engagingly distinct roster of protagonists. The film has a way of grabbing the viewer from the start and not letting go until the end credits, its visual panache and lucid control of storytelling both in front of and behind the camera consistently impressive. Standing as a microcosm of anyone who has felt excluded or ostracized for who they intrinsically are, the X-Men continue to fight for their freedoms as they wait for the rest of society to catch up.