Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Apocalypse is filled with inexplicable moments and scenes, and they start right up top, with an opening sequence set in 3600 B.C. that’s so monumentally goofy, latecomers might fear they stumbled into a third-run screening of Gods of Egypt. It casts Oscar Isaac, one of the more likable rogues of our time, as its villain, and then hides his seductive voice behind a whimpering growl and hides his features behind what looks like a third-rate Halloween mask. The pacing is punchy, the dialogue is often insipid, and much of it doesn’t make a lick of damn sense. And I kinda liked it anyway.
It’s the sixth film in the X-Men franchise, and the fourth directed by Singer, who helmed its inaugural entries before handing the series over to Brett Ratner, who drove it right into the fucking ditch with 2006’s execrable The Last Stand. Five years later, Matthew Vaughn resurrected the series with the origin story First Class, chasing the characters back to the 1960s; Singer returned with 2014’s Days of Future Past, which was set in the 1970s, so the ‘80s setting of Apocalypse sounds about right. The series is starting to catch up with itself here, via the appearances of teen avatars for Cyclops (played by Mud’s Tye Sheridan, first seen in a class taught by Ally Sheedy – nice touch) and Jean Grey (Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner). Back for this go-round are the younger versions of Professor X (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), and so on and so on; their mission this time is to stop Apocalypse (Isaac), an Egyptian ruler frozen in time who comes back to destroy us all, or something.
There’s no question Apocalypse is a mess, for the reasons detailed and plenty more, yet for some reason, it sat with this viewer more easily than the sternly self-satisfied Batman v Superman or even the undeniably slicker Captain America: Civil War. The latter film is more accomplished, sure, but it also feels strategy-sessioned and focus-grouped to kingdom come, its character intros and combinations carefully situated just so. There’s not much spontaneity happening there – and say what you will about Apocalypse, it’s hard to know what damn fool thing Singer’s gonna do next. See enough of these movies, and you start to value that quality.
To be clear, I remain unconvinced that this the best use of this director’s talents. The animated logo for his production company at the movie’s opening, which uses the key promo image for his breakthrough picture The Usual Suspects, is a stark reminder that, um, this guy directed The Usual Suspects; it’s always tempting to assume a filmmaker who crosses over to big-money projects like these is just building up bank and goodwill to go back to the movies he really wants to make, but the fact of the matter is, Suspects was over two decades ago, and he’s made a lot more movies like this and precious few like that.
Yet the pleasure of his work in these franchise plays are the moments when Singer gets to color outside the lines – you can see him seeking those beats out, and luxuriating in them. In Days of Future Past, it was the gloriously giddy sequence wherein time is stopped so that Quicksilver can disrupt a deadly confrontation, a scene cheekily scored to Jim Croce’s “Time In A Bottle”; that scene was so beloved that Singer essentially trots out a sequel this time around, and if the element of surprise is gone, it still works. But the standout scenes aren’t just flash and glitter; Magneto’s return to the struggle, after disappearing into the Polish countryside, is prompted by an attempted arrest in the deep woods that goes horribly awry. I’ve heard some complaints that it’s yet another example of women killed to prompt the anguish of male protagonists, which is fair enough (though this seems a weird franchise to ding for lack of female agency), but the sequence is ultimately tough, and powerful, and (for lack of a better word) human. The starkness of the writing, the scary ingenuity of Singer’s direction, and Fassbender’s soulful playing elevate a necessary narrative beat into a moment of true, emotional horror.
It takes some nerve to go all-in on the heaviness of a moment like that, but Singer does. That’s admirable; so is his gleeful willingness to toss series continuity out the window (though who wouldn’t, post-Ratner). Apocalypse doesn’t always land; honestly, it’s not even close. But he gets spirited performances out of his game cast, his action beats are clear and clean, and he knows what he’s doing here isn’t grand opera. We should, as I’ve noted, ask for more from our superhero movies. But this’ll do for now.
X-Men: Apocalypse is out Friday.