This is turning into the season of superheroes battling other superheroes, but “X-Men: Apocalypse” is the first one, so far, to do it right. One of the best of the “X-Men” films, the new entry is full of finely crafted action, all of it in the service of interesting and well-thought-out ideas. Neither resting on formula nor audience goodwill, the “X-Men” series is going deeper and getting better as it goes along.
The first title card — 3600 B.C.E. — brings a mild feeling of oh-no-must-we-go-there, but this evaporates virtually from the first shot, as we realize that director Bryan Singer intends to do this for real. For a little pre-credits sequence, he re-creates ancient Egypt — not just a little room somewhere in Egypt. He shows us a parade, where we can see the opulence of the era, and the pyramids when they were new, and the faces of the slaves.
The idea at work here is that the Egyptian rulers were actually the first mutants, and that the top ruler — known as Apocalypse, so you know he’s not nice — had the ultimate power. By inhabiting the bodies of a series of mutants, he has maintained his youth and acquired multiple abilities. But then there’s a mishap, and Apocalypse is rendered unconscious, which is a very good thing for the course of civilization.
Singer illustrates the passage of time from ancient days through the late 20th century by catapulting the viewer through a twisting corridor, in which we see glimpses of the crucifixion, Renaissance art, the rise of Naziism and the emergence of the Cold War. Finally, we arrive in the promising era of the 1980s. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has all his hair, as well as a school for mutants. And Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is living happily and anonymously, as a family man and factory worker in Poland.
So everything is going along swimmingly — and then Apocalypse wakes up.
Every action movie needs a villain, but not just any old villain with a vague desire to take over the world, or cause destruction, or take revenge. A villain needs a rationale, a philosophy, a highly developed conviction that he’s right, as well some twisted logic that lets us understand how he’s thinking. He also needs some personal magnetism, so that we can understand why others might follow him. Through the script and through Oscar Isaac’s performance, we get that in Apocalypse.
Apocalypse has an idea, which was something like Hitler’s idea, that the strong should dominate. So when he puts on his hood and steps out of his cave, he is repulsed. Instead of a world in which the strong are in control, he sees systems in place that protect the weak. To his eyes, the weak are dominating the strong, to him the ultimate perversity. So he has only one logical course: to figure out a way to destroy absolutely everything and start all over.
Apocalypse recruits mutants, but they’re best left to be discovered. It’s how Apocalypse does it that’s worth noting. He tells the mutants he chooses that he wants to make them stronger, and then he does. In the case of Psy-locke, a quasi-dominatrix mutant played by Olivia Munn, he tells her, “Unlike others who seek to control you, I seek to set you free.” He’s going to make her great again, and it’s a beautiful thing.
As in “Captain America: Civil War,” we soon have two teams of individuals, each with what could be called super powers, fighting each other. But “Civil War” gave us a weak situation in which no one was wrong, little was at stake, and the consequences were mild. “X-Men: Apocalypse,” by contrast, goes for broke. Civilization is at stake, and both sides are trying to kill each other.
In most superhero movies, trying to kill each other would mean scenes of characters throwing each other around. But “X-Men: Apocalypse” is smarter than that, with the most important battles taking place inside the minds of Apocalypse and Charles Xavier. Xavier’s mental capacity to communicate with everyone on the planet seems almost like a metaphor for the Internet here. To succeed, tyrants need that final piece, complete control over communications.
Jennifer Lawrence is such a strong presence that it’s only when the movie is over that one realizes that her character, Mystique, serves a secondary function here. The movie’s focus is mainly fixed on Charles and Magneto and the evolution of their worldview. Their stories echo and reverberate. They seem to mean more than what’s simply on the surface. They are the best argument for “X-Men: Apocalypse” as a thinking person’s action movie.
☆ ☆ ☆ (out of 4)
Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Oscar Isaac.
Director: Brian Singer.
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.