Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac
If you've seen one cinematic apocalypse, you've seen them all. At least that's the feeling conjured by "X-Men: Apocalypse," the latest entry in one of the more reliable comic-book franchises around, this time disappointingly succumbing to an exhausting case of been-there-done-that-itis.
Director Bryan Singer pioneered the contemporary wave of superhero movies with 2000's "X-Men," and made a welcome return to the series just two years ago with the time-jumping "Days of Future Past." Perhaps he should've quit while he was ahead. Though "Apocalypse" hardly represents the worst of the franchise, it's easily the least surprising and least satisfying of Singer's entries.
While the best "X-Men" movies are defined by their keen intelligence, casual wit, and deep reserves of emotion, "Apocalypse" serves those virtues up in minimal doses, settling for an extravagant display of visual effects that would have scarcely been possible 16 years ago. That should be enough to secure robust box office overseas, but domestic results could fall notably short of the sterling $234 million gross of "Future Past."
The wild card in audience acceptance for this latest outing is the lack of fan-favorite character Wolverine (at least as far as viewers know). The genetically modified man of war's absence from Matthew Vaughn's well-reviewed prequel "X-Men: First Class" was blamed for that film's relatively underwhelming performance.
Follow-up, "Future Past," mixed cast members from both "First Class" and the original "X-Men" trilogy, including Hugh Jackman's hirsute hero, but "Apocalypse" returns to the core "Class" ensemble of James McAvoy (as Professor Charles Xavier), Michael Fassbender (as his frenemy Erik Lehnsherr, a.k.a. Magneto), Jennifer Lawrence (as shape-shifter Raven/ Mystique), Nicholas Hoult (as brainy and brawny Hank McCoy) and Rose Byrne (as CIA agent Moira MacTaggert).
That lineup isn't short on talent or charisma, and the addition of series newcomers Oscar Isaac (as titular mega-mutant baddie Apocalypse), Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, and Kodi Smit-McPhee (as younger incarnations of the original trilogy characters Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Nightcrawler, respectively) only bolsters the ensemble's appeal. Except this time, Singer and scribe Simon Kinberg give the players little to sink their teeth into.
From the prologue, set in the Nile Valley circa 3600 BC, it's clear that Singer aims to take audiences on an eye-popping roller-coaster ride, though in doing so, he leaves behind any pretense of coherent storytelling or character development, as an aging Apocalypse prepares to transfer into a younger body with the help of four devoted minions. The character narrowly pulls it off, as the massive pyramid he had constructed crumbles spectacularly around him, killing his followers and entombing him for the next several thousand years.
The film then skips ahead to an Ohio high school classroom in 1983, where life is literally a blur for young Scott Summers (a.k.a. Cyclops, winningly played by Terrence Malick discovery Sheridan). His vision is starting to go, and after a rage-fueled encounter with a class bully unleashes a powerful laser beam from his peepers, Scott is whisked away to Professor Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters by big brother Alex (Lucas Till, another "First Class" holdover).
That's where McCoy takes Scott under his wing, and, shades of Anna Paquin's Rogue in "X-Men," the young mutant is introduced to a world where he can finally be himself, not to mention find a simpatico soul in Turner's blossoming telekinetic heroine. Several other key characters--including Raven, Nightcrawler, MacTaggert, and Evan Peters' scene-stealing Quicksilver--each make their way to the school in due time.
Professor X's school isn't the only thing that blows up in the ruination-happy "Apocalypse," but the storytelling never ignites. Apocalypse remains a one-note villain throughout, despite Isaac's best efforts to imbue the godlike foe with authoritative menace underneath mountains of prosthetic makeup.
The back-and-forth between Xavier (in the "mutants and humans can live together" camp) and Magneto (in the "mutants and humans can never live together" camp) has grown increasingly tired over six films, even if we're now witnessing a midpoint in their relationship. Similarly, Raven's mixed feelings about becoming a role model for mutants everywhere, after having saved the president in "Future Past," is ho-hum stuff.
Although the "X-Men" ensembles are usually large, there are simply too many characters for the action-heavy "Apocalypse" to properly juggle. It's easy to forget even McAvoy or Fassbender when they're off screen for too long, and the film functions best when it lets the fresh young trio of Sheridan, Turner, and SmitMcPhee take center stage. Still, it's Peters who emerges as the cast standout in just a handful of scenes, by bringing an offbeat sensibility to a production that otherwise plays campy cartoon material a little too straight.
Bryan Singer has directed three previous "X-Men" movies.
X-Men 2000 Franchise starter ($296m globally)
X-Men 2 2003 ($408m)
X-Men: Days of Future Past 2014 The seventh film set a franchise B.O. record ($748m)
CREDITS: A Twentieth Century Fox release presented in association with Marvel Entertainment and TSG Entertainment of a Bad Hat Harry, Kinberg Genre, Hutch Parker, Donners' Co. production. Produced by Simon Kinberg, Bryan Singer, Hutch Parker, Lauren Shuler Donner. Executive producers, Stan Lee, Todd Hallowell, Josh McLaglen. Coproducers, Jason Taylor, John Ottman, Blondel Aidoo. Directed by Bryan Singer. Screenplay, Simon Kinberg, story by Singer, Kinberg, Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris. Camera (color, widescreen, 3D), Newton Thomas Sigel; editors, John Ottman, Michael Louis Hill; music, Ottman; production designer, Grant Major. Reviewed at 20th Century Fox Studios, Century City, Calif., May 6. 2016. MPA A Rating: PG-13. Running time: 143 MIN. 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, Lucas Till, Josh Helman, Ben Hardy, Lana Condor, Zeljko Ivanek, Ally Sheedy. (English, German, Polish, Egyptian, Arabic dialogue)