The best superhero movie of the year (so far), X-Men: Apocalypse is a reflection of director Bryan Singer’s strength in storytelling.
Based on a screenplay by Simon Kinberg — with story credit to Singer, Kinberg, Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris — X-Men: Apocalypse makes it easy enough to pick up the story threads from the film’s two immediate predecessors in the long-running series. The initial sequence follows on directly from a post-credits scene in X-Men: Days of Future Past, providing an origin story for the titular, all-powerful mutant En Sabah Nur, also known as Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac).
Events then move forward to 1983, ten years after the main thrust of X-Men: Days of Future Past. The primary heroes are introduced: Mystique, aka Raven (Jennifer Lawrence); Professor X, aka Charles Xavier (James McAvoy); and Beast, aka Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult). They are soon joined by neophytes Nightcrawler, aka Kurt Wagner (Kodi Smit-McPhee); Jean Grey (Sophie Turner); Cyclops, aka Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), as well as the more experienced Quicksilver, aka Peter Maximoff (Evan Peters) and Havok, aka Alex Summers (Lucas Till), the older brother of Cyclops. There’s also the human CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), who stumbles upon the resurrection of Apocalypse.
The heroes are introduced as Apocalypse gathers his villainous forces. He needs only four: Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Angel (Ben Hardy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender). In the decade that has passed since the previous episode, Magneto has attempted to live as a human, moving to Poland, getting married, having a daughter, and taking a job at a steel factory. Things do not work out, however, making him ripe for Apocalypse’s overtures.
On paper, the film to this point sounds rote and mechanical. On screen, however, it is anything but that. Singer is marvelous at creating a universe that makes superheroes feel very human. For the most part, they do not consider their powers to be a positive but a negative, something to set them apart from mankind as objects of ridicule and fear.
The thrust of the current trilogy acknowledges the many reasons the mutants have to be unhappy with the state of affairs on Earth, and with their own place in it. Yet it argues in favor of selfless service, of putting the needs of others ahead of their own. True, Moira is one of only two non-mutants who play any kind of role in the movie, and both are kept in the background.
Yet the shared humanity of the mutants unites them in opposition to Apocalypse. Humans have their faults and cannot always be trusted, but compared to Apocalypse, who is determined to wipe away the vast majority and allow only the strongest to survive to build a new civilization with him as their leader, well, humans don’t seem so bad after all.
Despite its title and overall theme, X-Men: Apocalypse maintains a doggedly optimistic viewpoint, incorporating character-based comic relief to keep things from feeling too oppressive. The film also benefits tremendously from Singer’s ability to direct exciting action sequences that are easy to follow from a visual standpoint and also inform the characters and overall narrative. Every scene has a point to make and a purpose to advance, which keeps the film engaging throughout its running time.
Based on comic book characters as it is, X-Men: Apocalypse exudes an essential simplicity — the good guys must defeat the bad guys — and enhances that to the next level of storytelling with elegance, polish and power. That makes it a compelling and satisfying experience.
The film will open in theaters throughout Dallas/Fort Worth on Friday, May 27.