X-Men: Apocalypse is a glorious mess of a movie. The ninth instalment in the X-Men series has flaws in abundance; clichéd dialogue, mostly pedestrian special effects and a primary antagonist who quite simply fails on almost every level of characterization and filmmaking. These are the kinds of problems that would make any other superhero blockbuster borderline unwatchable, but the X-Men movies, for whatever strange reason, can get away with it. Maybe it comes down to familiarity, after sixteen years of acquaintanceship with some version of these characters and this fictional universe perhaps viewers are more inclined to be tolerant of their favourite mutants failures and foibles.
In a pre-credit sequence set in ancient Egypt we learn that Apocalypse (also known as En Sabah Nur) has the ability to transfer his consciousness into the bodies of other mutants, taking on their powers in the process. We also learn that Apocalypse is into being worshipped, ideologically opposed to anything or anyone that falls into his fairly broad definition of “weakness” and in the habit of keeping company with four other powerful mutants who serve and protect him. En Sabah Nur is betrayed mid-transference by his worshippers, who collapse a pyramid on top of him, trapping him for the next several millennia. When En Sabah Nur resurfaces in 1983 Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is immediately alerted thanks to the investigative efforts of Rose Byrne’s CIA agent Moira MacTaggert. Xavier uses his incredible telepathic abilities to divine that a man calling himself Apocalypse “means to destroy this world”.
Apocalypse does indeed decide that he is not a fan of the modern world, although he struggles to fully articulate the reasoning behind this animosity (it’s got something to do with disliking “machines” and “systems” and “the weak”). He quickly recruits four powerful mutants to be his new “Four Horseman of Apocalypse”; starting with an adolescent Storm (Alexandra Shipp), then telekinetic enforcer Psylocke (Olivia Munn), winged cage-fighter Angel (Ben Hardy) and finally Magneto (Michael Fassbender). Magneto’s willingness to join, or rather serve, Apocalypse is motivated in large part by the recent, devastating loss of his wife and young daughter Nina, who were killed by men attempting to apprehend him for his role in the events of X-Men: Days of Future Past.
When Apocalypse kidnaps Charles in order to exploit his phenomenal telepathic gift to achieve a kind of tyrannical omnipotence a host of familiar and not-so-familiar faces join forces to save the Professor and prevent Apocalypse from bringing about the, you guessed it; apocalypse. Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique, who has become a sort of mutant Che Guevara figure over the last decade, Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters) are the returnees, while Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan and Kodi Smit-McPhee debut as the adolescent incarnations of Jean Grey, Cyclops and Nightcrawler, respectively. All three young actors acquit themselves well in their roles and Jennifer Lawrence brings a wonderful and entirely appropriate note of weariness to her performance as Raven/Mystique, now two decades older than the idealistic teenager we first met in X-Men: First Class.
As mentioned above, X-Men: Apocalypse’s biggest defect is its titular character. Like Tom Hardy, Christopher Eccleston and Lee Pace before him, Oscar Isaac struggles to bring the full force of his talent and screen charisma to bear while entombed in several layers of heavy make up and prosthetics. Even his voice is distorted beyond recognition. Performance obscuring issues aside, Apocalypse looks vaguely silly a lot of the time, and at some point director Bryan Singer should have made the admittedly difficult call to alter the character’s iconic aesthetic to better suit a cinematic context. At least Singer gave us another dazzling demonstration of Quicksilver’s casually spectacular swiftness in a stunning, Eurythmics-accompanied slow motion sequence that rivals the original in terms of creativity and jubilance.