The X-Men saga’s latest installment continues to evolve . . . but does it still possess its superpowers?

By Michael Aushenker

X-Men: Apocalypse
Directed by: Bryan Singer 
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, action and destruction, brief strong language and some suggestive images 
2 hr. 24 min.

If ever there has been a superhero franchise that has so effectively rebooted and regenerated itself, it’s this 20th Century Fox enterprise inspired by the classic ’70s-launched Marvel Comics title The Uncanny X-Men. Bryan Singer’s original X-Men —considered the first true modern Marvel blockbuster — started strong and intelligent before fizzling out into generic superhero fare halfway through its runtime. His 2003 X2: X-Men United topped his original and, for years, stood tall as the best X-Men film, given Brett Ratner’s forgettable third one in 2006 and the first of a pair of god-awful Wolverine spin-offs in 2009.

Then came Matthew Vaughn’s solid 2011 prequel-sequel X-Men: First Class, which, despite jumbling characters from different eras of X-Men comics, upped the franchise’s ante mightily, introducing us to a truly magnetic performance by Michael Fassbender as Magneto plus a game James McAvoy as young Professor Xavier, all against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

Truth be told, I was initially worried when Vaughn dropped out as director to let Singer return to the X-Men fold with 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past because Singer had flubbed the rival company’s Superman Returns and helmed the unwatchable fairy tale epic Jack the Giant-Killer. Yet, with Days, Singer brought his A-game to these Mutant Olympics and superseded every prior X-Men film with his tour de force time-travel yarn emulating the classic Chris Claremont-John Byrne comics run featuring the Mutant-killing Sentinels.

With the bar raised high, Singer now returns with Apocalypse, in which history’s first Mutant, ancient times’ Apocalypse, arrives in the present day, enlisting four Mutants (Storm, Angel, Psylocke, Magneto) to do his bidding and challenge our ever-expanding (and changing) repertoire of super-powered pupils from Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Apocalypse’s goal is to raze civilization and start over clean, so Professor X’s team springs into action. Returning in Apocalypse are Fassbender and McAvoy plus Jennifer Lawrence (Mystique), Nicholas Hoult (Beast), Ben Hardy (Angel) and Days scene-stealer Evan Peters (Quicksilver).

For my money, these edgier Marvel movies offer a refreshing tonic to the commercially successful yet creatively mediocre, overly jocular and sanitized Disney/Marvel product. 

Apocalypse does for the 1980s what Days did for the 1970s and First Class for the 1960s. In other words, it embraces a bit of decade kitsch. The movie references Ms. Pac-Man, groups Journey and Rush, and movies such as Return of the Jedi. One misfire: the big Quicksilver scene, which attempts with the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” to update his electric “Time in a Bottle” moment from Days. This time, it smacks of a lesser rehash.

Critics have slammed Apocalypse as the second worst (after Ratner’s) X-Men installment, but if there are any signs of franchise fatigue, they’re not as serious as the film’s extinction-level-event climax. Certainly, it may be the weakest of the current trilogy, but the original three movies feel more dated now. Even if it’s not First Class- or Days-level, Apocalypse delivers much Mutant goodness. Kodi Smit-McPhee gives us the best cinematic version of Nightcrawler to date. Alexandra Shipp embraces her role as the new Storm with gusto, infusing her with personality and spunk. Halle Berry, while beautiful, always played her blandly, more like a statue of Storm than the vibrant African-born Ororo Munroe. There are also a new Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), and they’re both good.

Other highlights: Oscar Isaac as Apocalypse delivers a monumental, bombastic baddie that could easily have been too cartoony. Lawrence reprises her badass Mystique, McAvoy has nicely grown into his role as Xavier, and Fassbender straight kills it again as Magneto. If there’s one reason to see this movie, it’s for the Steve Jobs actor’s masterfully nuanced and empathetic performance as the militant Mutant.

Apocalypse further mucks up the various characters’ age contradictions between movies. But if you can ignore these continuity details, compared to other franchises, this is one superhero sequel in which the quality drop-off is negligible. So go see X-Men: Apocalypse on the big screen before the evil Mutants on Facebook ruin it for you.