Do we really need a fourth super-hero movie in a year that isn't even half over yet? Maybe not. But despite some nose-holding early reviews, X-Men: Apocalypse turns out to be a pretty good one, rivaling its well-regarded predecessor, X-Men: Days of Future Past.
For the new movie, returning director Bryan Singer and his co-writing team have worked up a richly pulpy story, launching it in ancient Egypt and then leaping ahead to 1983 to skulk around the back alleys of Cairo (scenes that have a decided Indiana Jones feel) and a dank underground fight club in Cold War East Berlin. Singer is careful to allot sufficient screen time to his many super-characters, but he also keeps things moving along at a crisp pace—a blessing in a film that runs the usual two and a half hours in length. Until the picture wanders off into the shop-worn clichés of digital Armageddon toward the end, there's not really a lot to gripe about.
The bad guy this time around is an all-powerful brute called Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac, entombed in Golem-like prosthetics). Apocalypse, we're told, was the world's first mutant—the original X-Man, you might say. Created in the valley of the Nile circa 3600 BCE, he awakes in a bad mood from a dirt nap of many millennia. Looking around at the modern world, he finds it disgusting, filled with weaklings and in desperate need of remaking. (He's the Doug Neidermeyer of the super-set.) Is there anyone who can stop him? Possibly.
The X-Men, still in franchise prequel mode, are largely a familiar bunch. Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) is still running his mutant school in upstate New York, and his charges still include Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), super-speedy Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and the power-blasting Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till). Shape-shifting Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is around, too; but Xavier's longtime on-and-off friend Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender)—the formidable Magneto, commander of metals—has retired to his native Poland, where he works in a lowly iron foundry to support his wife and small daughter. (Also back on the scene, although she's not a mutant, is Xavier's old squeeze, the brainy CIA agent Moira Mactaggart, played again by Rose Byrne.)
Freshening things up are several X-Men newbies: the young mind-messer Jean Grey (Sophie Turner, of Game of Thrones); the teleporting Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee); the explosive Jubilee (Lana Condor); and Havok's brother, the laser-eyed Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan). In addition, Apocalypse has recruited his own mutant crew: the wing-flapping Angel (Ben Hardy), weather girl Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and the ninja-esque Psylocke (Olivia Munn, carrying the flag for the old-school super-babe body suit).
Okay, so what are all these people up to? Well, Apocalypse just wants to control and then destroy the world, of course, and he believes he can do it by laying hold of Xavier and his telepathic observatory, Cerebro. Jean Grey senses the emergence of "some dark power," and soon the X-Men bound into action—lots and lots of action. Soon, though, they find themselves being dogged by their old adversary, the mutant-hating Colonel Stryker (Josh Helman). (There's also a grunting cameo by a popular super-being with very large sideburns, but that passes in a few blinks of an eye.)
Director Singer holds confusion at bay as Apocalypse gains the upper hand, and it couldn't have been easy. He smoothes out the frequent uproar with infusions of humor (there's a witty period potshot at Return of the Jedi, and Quicksilver has a brilliantly constructed scene zipping around in a slow-mo battle to the strains of an old Eurythmics hit). Singer also gives quite a bit of free rein to primal feelings—seldom before have so many super-tears been shed in this sort of picture. (The long scene in which Lehnsherr and his family are lethally confronted by a contingent of police is an unexpected oasis of emotion.)
Even the familiar world-wrecking destruction at the end of the movie has its moments (the undersea eruptions are CGI at its least-hackneyed). But do we really need to see the Sydney Opera House taken out one more time, or Magneto floating up in the smoky sky? Not really, I'd say. But despite Jennifer Lawrence's apparent disinclination to continue appearing in these money-gushing movies, much more is surely on the way.