Both Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse are superhero extravaganzas with severe traffic control problems, but while the former keeps things flowing reasonably smoothly, the latter film, set to arrive in theaters just weeks later, resembles a bumper-car nightmare. Narratively jumbled and jammed with so many characters that you give up keeping them all straight while simultaneously lamenting not seeing more of those you might actually want around, Bryan Singer’s fourth entry in the enormously profitable series he inaugurated 16 years ago undeniably builds to a cataclysmic dramatic reckoning. But mostly it just feels like a bloated if ambitious attempt to shuffle as many mutants and specially gifted characters as possible into a story of a resurrected god ready to take over the world. Series fans will no doubt have many bones to pick with the choices made here, but that won’t stop the film from soaring at the box office; Singer’s last franchise outing, X-Men: Days of Future Past two years ago, was, at $748 million worldwide, the highest grosser in the bunch to date.
X-Men: First Class, Matthew Vaughn’s particularly good installment five years back, worked actual world history — the Cuban missile crisis — into the franchise in arresting ways. Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg continue in that vein here, but less advantageously. The opening sequence, set in 3600 BCE in the Nile Valley, looks like nothing so much as unused footage from the recent, unlamented Exodus: Gods and Kings, and, after a giant pyramid comes crashing down, the next 40 minutes careen around like a hard-hit pool ball from Poland to Britain and Cairo and CIA headquarters.
As most fans will already know before they rush out on opening weekend, the point of all the international agitation is the arrival, or rebirth, of Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac, resembling an ornate member of the Blue Man Group), who’s been in hibernation for 5,600 years and, as of his reawakening in 1983, is nothing if not well-rested. His deity complex is out of control and his powers appear so unlimited that it’s questionable why he needs additional help in order to have his annihilating way with the world.
But even the strongest general needs an army and every apocalypse needs its four horsemen, so in addition to three lieutenants of limited usefulness, he also lures the undeniably talented Pole Magneto (Michael Fassbender), stirring his anger by taking him to Auschwitz and helpfully informing him that, “This is where your people were slaughtered.” You don’t need to be Claude Lanzmann to be somewhat appalled by the appropriation of this place and the memories it summons for the purposes of a mutant summit meeting.
On the more sedate grounds of the School for Gifted Children, telepathic original X-Man Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is surrounded by mutants of great potential, and Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) has been at work creating a very advanced combat plane.
After considerable time has been given over to shuffling in a whole bunch of characters of dubious ability to help in a street fight, much less in one against a villain whose evil has been maturing for several millennia, Apocalypse shows who’s in charge by launching the world’s entire supply of nuclear missiles and sending them tumbling into outer space. But just when you think the narrative is now set to accelerate on a straight and narrow track toward an exciting climax, a really buff wild man with long sharp claws and unkempt hair turns up for no discernable reason other than to make a token appearance.
Once Apocalypse begins fulfilling his promise to “wipe clean this world” by destroying world cities, shown in the usual pornographic detail for this sort of film, the X-Men and women go about doing their thing once again. But the weight of so many characters defrays the impact and interest, just as it deprives key veterans of the franchise, most notably Jennifer Lawrence (more often seen as Raven than Mystique), of much chance to contribute.
Despite the undeniable presence of a huge amount of action, X-Men: Apocalypse is decidedly a case of more is less, especially when compared with the surprising action and more interesting personal interactions (including the temporary subtraction of some characters) in other big Marvel franchises.
Production: Bad Hat Harry, Kinberg Genre, Hutch Parker, Donners’ Company
Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Evan Peters, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, Luca Till, Josh Helman, Ben Hardy, Lana Condor, Zelko Ivanek, Anthony Koneehny
Director: Bryan Singer
Screenwriter: Simon Kinberg, story by Bryan Singer, Simon Kinberg, Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris
Producers: Simon Kinberg, Bryan Singer, Hutch Parker, Lauren Shuler Donner
Executive producers: Stan Lee, Todd Hallowell, Josh McLaglen
Director of photography: Newton Thomas Sigel
Production designer: Grant Major
Costume designer: Louise Mingenbach
Editors: John Ottman, Michael Louis Hill
Music: John Ottman
Special visual effects: John Dykstra
Casting: Roger Mussenden
Rated PG-13, 143 minutes