Review: X-Men: Apocalypse

"X-Men: Apocalypse" has been taking a beating from critics. Even avoiding reviews before my showing, the negativity has been impossible to escape. Perhaps the film benefited from a subconscious lowering of expectations but I didn't hate it. In fact, I liked it quite a bit. While thoroughly imperfect, "Apocalypse" avoids the fatal mistakes of other, worse superhero films (see "X3: The Last Stand," "Batman v Superman"). At its worst the film is generic but inoffensive. At its (very occasional) best it evokes the highs of its better franchise predecessors.

We pick up ten years after the events of "Days of Future Past." Charles Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters is officially open for business, a safe haven for mutants learning to control their talents. Magneto has fled the United States and taken up a quiet life in Poland, complete with wife and daughter. Mystique, having rejected both Charles and Magneto's visions for the future, works as a lone-wolf to free mutants from injustices where she finds them.

This relative calm is shattered by the appearance of En Sabah Nur, an ancient, ageless mutant who has survived countless millennia by hopping host bodies and amassing a collection of powers that render him nearly omnipotent. Betrayed and buried away for thousands of years, En Sabah Nur awakens in 1983 Cairo and sets about reclaiming his self-appointed place as god. Step one, obliterate civilization.

Let's get the worst of it out of the way. "Apocalypse" is a meal in which the side dishes outshine a bland entree. He has a few moments, but En Sabah Nur is ultimately neither as intimidating as the frightening future-sentinels in "Days of Future Past," nor as emotionally significant as Sebastian Shaw in "First Class." Two-dimensional material relegates En Sabah Nur to repetitive speechifying about power and his new world. While his goal is clear, his means are muddy as he assembles four lieutenants with a seemingly random assortment of flashy powers but no personalities. With one exception, they serve as little more than obstacles on the road to the final showdown. By the time the threat from En Sabah Nur finally transcends superficiality, the movie is over.

And yet, I enjoyed the movie. On Rotten Tomatoes, "Apocalypse" currently holds a lower rating than the last film to cap an X-Men trilogy, "X3: The Last Stand." That movie had structural problems. Like Spider-man 3 the following year, "X3" tried to cram too much into one movie, seriously mangling one of the most well-known story arcs in the franchise. Beloved characters are tossed aside to make room for characters that may as well be cardboard cut-outs. Yes, the A-Plot in "Apocalypse" is weak, but at no point was I actively unhappy; I can't say the same for "X3." Neither film is particularly deep, but only one is entertaining. For all its flaws, by the time the credits rolled I had been thrilled.

Happily, "Apocalypse" never takes itself too seriously. Though it may not soar like its predecessors, it does remember to be fun. While some established characters like Mystique have become world weary over the twenty years since Cuba, some newcomers to the team help to inject less cynical blood into the X-Men. Evan Peters' Quicksilver returns for a larger role here that will surely delight fans from "Days of Future Past," but the show is nearly stolen by Kodi Smit-McPhee as an awkward young Nightcrawler. The humor that marked each of the two previous films is here in healthy doses. I laughed the whole way through.

"Apocalypse" convincingly passes the torch from the Xavier's surviving first class to the first team of official X-Men, supported by terrific performances from Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, and Kodi Smit-McPhee. While I expected to like the returning cast, I was surprised by how much I loved these interpretations of the classic characters. Watching the young Scott Summers struggle with his powers evokes scenes with his brother in "First Class." Jean Grey's untamed powers torment her similarly to they way Xavier's once did himself. We can see how their shared challenges may draw them together. It's easy to believe that this Nightcrawler could grow into the one seen in "X-Men United." Watching the three undertake a rescue mission together was one of the high points of the film.

For my money, there was enough that went right in "X-Men: Apocalypse" to make up for what went wrong. Having grown up with these characters in the nineties cartoon maybe I'm biased. As to critical reception, there's a joke in the film about the troubled history of third movies. Without question, "Apocalypse" fails to reach the level set by "First Class" or "Days of Future Past," two exceptional superhero movies. I can't help but wonder if the reviews would still be so bad if it weren't following them.

Score: 3/5

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