X-MEN APOCALYPSE is as big and bold as a special effect-laden action-adventure flick should be. It’s also audacious enough to make the story about more than leveling the planet or finding new ways to decapitate people. As with the best in this series from the Marvel Comics universe, the real enemy is the lethal combination of fear and anger and for that lethal combination to destroy lives. The real hero is learning to control same. Metaphors abound, as it should be in a sci-fi/fantasy, first and foremost among them the mutant students at Professor Xavier’s School for Exceptional Students learning to first identify and then to control their unique gifts.
Taking place a decade or so after the events of X-MEN FIRST CLASS when the existence of mutants was revealed to the world, the film picks things up in 1983 after first taking us to ancient Egypt, and an elaborate ritual involving magic, chanting, and prehensile gold that goes very wrong. The Golem-like entity, the world’s first mutant, AKA En Sabah Nur / Apocalypse, buried by that ritual gone wrong beneath the rubble of a pyramid and three millennia of Cairo’s infrastructure is about to be revived thanks to an investigation by crack CIA agent, and Xavier’s quondam love, Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne). The subsequent ramifications will draw together the X-Men who have gone their separate ways since 1973, and throw the new class of mutant warriors-in-training into a trial by fire.
There is a great deal to catch-up with, but the script does a smooth job of integrating the peripatetic X-Men’s stories that are quietly profound and that also neatly set up the action to come. Erik Lehnsherr / Magneto (Michael Fassbender) has taken to the Polish countryside, living a bucolic incognito existence with a wife and daughter who have helped to fill the hole in his heart that losing his parents in the Holocaust made. Raven/Mystique has also gone underground, saving adolescent mutants who are lost on many levels and sending them to her brother, Charles Xavier’s (James McAvoy), ci-mentioned school. Her latest rescue is an adolescent, and very reluctant, Kurt Wagner / Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a gentle being who is being pitted in a steel-cage death match against Angel (Ben Hardy), who isn’t any happier about being there. Elsewhere, Scott Summers / Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) is about to discover that the problem with his eyes can’t be fixed with eye drops, and when brought to Xavier’s school by brother Alex Summers / Havok (Lucas Till), will have his first, fateful meeting with Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), whose angst over knowing what everything is thinking and, worse, feeling, has rendered her into a perpetual state of doleful melancholy. As if that weren’t enough, her ability to externalize her nightmares has made even her fellow students want to steer clear of her. Which poses a pointed question about how a mutant should feel about herself when even her peers are leery of her.
The place of mutants in a world that fears, and hence, despises them is addressed here as in all the films in the franchise, but it takes a back seat in this installment to the struggle of the mutants to find a place for themselves that is at peace with their special gifts, or curses, depending on the point of view. It’s not just a matter of self-acceptance, particularly with Magneto, who re-embraces his power when tragedy strikes, and who doesn’t hesitate when Apocalypse shows him the lack of boundaries to that power. The resolute lack of an inner struggle, coupled with Fassbender’s potent intensity, is the most disturbing element of this story. He’s a man who chooses evil but not for evil’s sake alone, using the justification of righteous vengeance against the weak that has turned his helplessness as Auschwitz into the very thing that destroyed his family. The psychology at work makes it all but inevitable, and having Apocalypto stage that moment of pseudo-clarity at the death camp itself is an inspired stroke.
As his polar opposite. McAvoy has the charm of Cary Grant, the gravitas of Ian McKellen, and the emotional immediacy of the season’s other super hero, Iron Man Robert Downey, Jr. He also has the ability to make the character preaching the moral high ground as interesting as the villain of the piece, actually moreso. It’s not that Oscar Isaac is not one of the best actors working today, it’s that his character is written as stolidly as the massive costume and prosthetics in which Isaacs is entombed in a role that does little more than offer the chance to glare masterfully and menacingly at the world Apocalypto would like to destroy in order to rebuild it to his liking. That Apocalypse evinces some of the niftiest of the special effects helps a great deal, what half-burying people in buildings, and finding a novel new way to level a city is a fine distraction from the character’s central flaw as a dramatic character, though, props to having a villain that can, credibly, pose a threat to the superpowers of the X-Men. And further props to a bracing visualization of what the Earth’s magnetic fields look like when weaponized (really really cool).
X-MEN: APOCALYPSE is never ironic, and while it finds some comic relief in taking pot-shots at the 1980s, and with the wisecracking proto-slacker Peter Maximoff / Quicksilver (Evan Peters), it is also humblingly sincere when it shows Nightcrawler offering a heartfelt prayer, or subtly underscoring Xavier’s unshakable belief in humanity’s capacity for choosing the light over the darkness. What we have here is the best of many worlds from a trenchant character study, to a whirl-a-gig action flick, to the heroic manner in which Professor Xavier loses his pate of curly locks.