Desperate times call for desperate measures — except in superhero movies. The genre's very existence depends on half-measures: Characters die, only to return when narrative expedience demands it. Every supposed conclusion is actually the setup for yet another sequel or reboot.
When last we saw the uncanny X-Men, Bryan Singer was retconning much of what had occurred in the previous two films via a convoluted (if entertaining) time-travel deus ex machina. In that sense, Days of Future Past represented the best and worst of superhero movies all at once. We complain when a 300-page book adaptation is split into multiple films, but that's been the comic-book-movie model since its inception. In the name of strengthening whichever cinematic universe these stories take place in, only so much is allowed to happen in a given film.
X-Men: Apocalypse is the third movie released in the last two months to feature superheroes fighting among themselves. In its way, it's also the best. Batman v Superman was a mess; Captain America: Civil War's infighting felt like an endless game of rock, paper, scissors in which rock didn't beat scissors, paper didn't beat rock, and scissors didn't beat paper. Marvel's assembly-line approach to the Avengers mythos is streamlined and consistent, but other than having a godlike character literally named Vision it tends to lack just that.
So while X-Men: Apocalypse is uneven and grandiose, it does at least reach toward the heavens and present its heroes with an existential threat from without.
That would be En Sabah Nur, the Ur-mutant played by Oscar Isaac who in his current form is called (you guessed it) Apocalypse. From the past come whispers of him, the kind of godlike figure faceless subjects chant for and all others fear; for once, the legends are true: Apocalypse is the wellspring from which all other mutants flow. Little distinguishes a superhero franchise from one film to the next beyond its villains, and on that front this latest X-Men does feel like a high-water mark.
We're first introduced to Apocalypse several thousands of years ago in Egypt, flanked as always by four lesser mutants — or horsemen, as they're called in order to extend the metaphor — who protect him as he transfers his consciousness from one vessel to the next. The ceremony is interrupted by would-be assassins, forcing Apocalypse to go into a sort of hibernation. He is perhaps the most powerful being of his kind ever, which means that, upon his conveniently timed awakening in the present day, it'll take slightly more work for Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) and his students to dispatch their newest foe than it usually does.
Apocalypse has actual gravitas about him, an aura that gives the impression of a dormant adversary who's risen from slumber to reclaim what's his. Isaac suffers through what must be the most grandiose declarations a supervillain has ever uttered onscreen ("You can fire your arrows from the Tower of Babel, but you can never strike God") and almost makes you believe them. There may be no actor in Hollywood with more goodwill at this moment, essentially making him the only candidate for the role — few others could convince us not to laugh out of sheer politeness.
Everything else is much the same. Magneto is still wavering between good and bad, with Michael Fassbender rendering his suffering as tortured as ever; Professor X is still urging his old friend back to the light. There are new faces, each played by capable young actors — Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, Tye Sheridan as Cyclops, Kodi Smit-McPhee as Nightcrawler — whose task within the film is the same as it is at Xavier's Academy for Gifted Youngsters: showcase their unique talents while also conforming to the us-against-them milieu.
The longer X-Men has gone on, the deeper it's mined its own past for meaning. Mutants are inherently more fascinating than most superheroes by virtue of the fact that they were born this way and are known publicly by a fearful populace; their code names are more a shared language among themselves than secret identities. Apocalypse isn't the end — how could it be in a genre that, by definition, is ongoing? But it is the rare comic-book film that, like its antagonist, absorbs the knowledge of its lesser peers and inspires a few moments of genuine awe.
Directed by Bryan Singer
Opens Friday, area theaters