X-Men: Apocalypse lives up to its name, putting the entire globe in jeopardy, but also proving high stakes spectacles work if you tap into the dread of them. There’s a sequence here where an all-powerful ancient superbeing launches every nuke in the world and it’s shot with such solemn gravity, taking in the faces of regular humans looking up in awe at their imminent possible demise, that it has weight and terror many films of this ilk either skip right past or take for granted. When Bryan Singer’s X-Men was released in 2000 it was considered acceptable stakes for a sci-fi action movie to merely menace a small gathering of dignitaries in New York. But recently, with movies like Batman v. Superman and the Transformers and Avengers regularly tearing up entire cities, there’s been something of a superhero stakes race, threatening ever more danger and destruction for less and less of an effect. When everything’s the end of the world, nothing is.
Now, returning for his fourth time directing this series, Singer knows every other superhero movie somehow takes outsized cataclysms and boils down to the same punching and shooting. Apocalypse understands we really want to see psychic energy swords, teleportation, shape shifting, bolts of lightening, and two telekinetic beings fighting each other on a mental battlefield. It ends with a symphony of superpowers, creatively sent into battle against others in clever combinations. And this CGI slugfest is earned by taking time to introduce its menagerie of mutants, adroitly and organically integrating a dozen or more characters, giving them each great splash page show-off moments as well as an emotional grounding for interwoven arcs. Singer crafts compelling images interested in the visceral horror and whimsical delight of having these powers, never losing sight of either’s impact on the characters in the face of glowing effects-heavy sequences.
This is all part of Singer’s approach to the X-Men, now in its ninth iteration, counting spinoffs. He set a template for the movie world of mutants trying to find acceptance and family. Saving the world is simply an outgrowth of their interpersonal dramas, calamities brought about by their angst. As this movie begins – on a reset timeline after the time-travel loop-de-loop of Days of Future Past – Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is running his school for mutants, including new students like Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and Scott Summers, who will become Cyclops (Tye Sheridan). Teachers include Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Havoc (Lucas Till). Meanwhile, chameleon Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is running an underground rescue operation for abused or captured mutants like young teleporter Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), while Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is in hiding, living a quiet small-town life in Poland. They just want to live comfortably and secretly with their powers, and Singer, with a screenplay by Simon Kinberg, finds time to seriously consider their attempts at understanding their powers.
Alas, peace is not to be, as the aforementioned superbeing who wants to destroy the world awakens with much fanfare. He is Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac under a pile of blue makeup), the world’s first mutant, an ancient Egyptian worshiped as a God for all his wild powers, then buried comatose under a pyramid for thousands of years. When he wakes up to be the villain of this 1983-set alt-history, he wants to destroy the world, but only because he’s lashing out from jealousy and a God complex. While a CIA agent (Rose Byrne) investigating his return warns Professor X about the looming danger, Apocalypse wanders around gathering up rogue mutants for his army, using his power to tempt them to the dark side by amplifying their gifts. He finds: Storm (Alexandra Shipp), an orphan who can control the weather; Angel (Ben Hardy), a cage-fighter with an impressive wingspan; and Psylocke (Olivia Munn), a psychic with energy blades. As he picks them up, he gives them makeovers and snazzy costumes he conjures out of thin air, a neat, convenient trick.
Apocalypse – a fairly one-note villain, but at least he’s new – gains in power, eventually convincing Magneto to join his crusade to remake the world by bringing it to an end, the better to start over with proper mutant worship again. Magneto is torn between a desire to avenge his tragic past – which adds another heart-wrenching trauma early on here – and a need to prove his power and the potential for mutant dominance. He excavates his pain in a sequence at Auschwitz that’s borderline tasteless before gaining eerie pop power as the conflicted villainous man pulls the entire concentration camp apart in a cloud of debris as exorcism. Fassbender does admirable work bringing real sorrow and grief to his portrayal of Magneto, and makes it fit seamlessly into a big Hollywood sci-fi action confection in which a team of superhero teens led by a bald man in a wheelchair must stop an ancient blue God from ending humanity. Singer maintains an engaged and gripping thriller pace slowly drawing many strands together to the inevitable climactic conflagration.
It sounds complicated, bringing so many characters together and sending them into conflict with each other in a tone that’s both gravely serious and goofy fluff. But Singer pulls off this balancing act while confidently shrugging off baggage of prior films and wearing expectations of so much muchness lightly, engaging in straight-faced comic book appeal without pandering to nerds or apologizing to everyone else. He cares about using the characters in interesting and creative ways, whether it’s sending Quicksilver (Evan Peters) through an exploding building, in a fine repeat and escalation of the last film’s show-stopping slow-mo sequence, or setting Cyclops loose at a target, reveling in the surprise force of his uncontrollable laser-vision. Apocalypse puts aside Civil Rights subtext for a gripping globetrotting adventure on its way to an electric light show spectacle shot for wonderment and dopey-cool impact. But because Singer and his team treat the whole project earnestly – cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel shooting brightly and steadily, capturing performances and effects alike in images that takes in the whole movement and expression of the actions – it has a convincing result.
In a time when superhero movies are churned out as mere content, Singer still makes movies. Apocalypse isn’t short on incident or timeline triangulation. But rather than hitting preordained marks and providing coverage with enough space for teasing future features, he shapes a narrative, building characters to care about with problems to invest in, sending them through varied crescendos and climaxes in setpieces rewarding viewers’ interest with real consequences and fine setups and payoffs contained within the borders of its runtime. (There are echoes and cameos to flatter franchise knowledge, but they aren’t integral to their effect, and add to a genuine comic sense of unashamed retconning.) He deploys polished and poised frames that stand back and handsomely photograph superpowers while understanding that having them and using them takes an emotional toll. It’s fun and involving, all of an exciting, entertaining piece. This isn’t like Captain America: Civil War where characters pop up, show off a power, and then disappear with a tease for their own offshoot. It’s one of the best X-Men movies yet, a full and satisfying ensemble spectacle unto itself.