“X -Men: Apocalypse” is a veritable pinata of mutants, a picturesque eruption of the world as we know it – or at least as comic book fans do – scattering trails of smoke, rubble, dead bodies and genetically enhanced superheroes every which way. With a main cast of 20, including four unnamed mutants who are quickly dispatched during a prologue in ancient Egypt, the latest sequel in the beloved Marvel Comics movie saga about freaks of nature is, even by today’s bloated standards of the genre, a bit overstuffed. It’s as if “Captain America: Civil War” ate “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” swallowing everything except the most indigestible bits of social commentary.
At times, “Apocalypse” can be great fun, even if it doesn’t know when to hand its car keys to a friend and ask to be taken home. The super-destructive film boasts some eye-popping special effects, a cameo appearance by a beloved character and even a bit of self-deprecating humor at the expense of “X-Men: The Last Stand,” which is widely held to be the worst film of the original trilogy.
But it’s also about 20 minutes too long – and 10 characters too large.
The party gets underway, after that opening prologue, with the resurrection of the titular Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), a superannuated mother-of-all-mutants who has been buried in the ruins of a pyramid since the 37th century B.C. Shaking off his cobwebs and emerging into the light of 1983 – 10 years after the action of “X-Men: Days of Future Past” – the now understandably grouchy supervillain wastes no time replacing his dead acolytes, known, naturally, as the Four Horsemen: War, Death, Famine and Pestilence. Luckily for him, the world is full of fresh recruits for his long-shelved plan: dismantling the old world order, in favor of a one overseen by mutants.
Is that not what these things are always about? This time, there’s a vague whiff of the current zeitgeist of anti-establishment political fervor, due more to an accident of timing, no doubt, than any prescience by director Bryan Singer, reuniting with his “Days of Future Past” screenwriter Simon Kinberg.
Eagerly stepping into the role of the Four Horsemen are characters who will be familiar from earlier installments of the franchise, even if their allegiance is not as it has always been: weather-controlling Storm (Alexandra Shipp); winged Angel (Ben Hardy); Psylocke (Olivia Munn), who has the ability to generate psychic weaponry; and Magneto (Michael Fassbender).
Traditionally known as the series’s metal-controlling arch-villain, Magneto has always wrestled with morality, as a result of his parents’ deaths at Auschwitz. Here, his somewhat grudging embrace of the dark side is precipitated by a second tragedy, which takes place early in the film, adding an unnecessary layer of psychological nuance to an already fraught character.
On the other side of the battle line is the mentalist Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and a slew of his X-Men protegees: most prominently, shape-shifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence); feral Beast (Nicholas Hoult); lightning-fast Quicksilver (Evan Peters); Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), who shoots beams out of his eyes; and the telekinetic telepath Jean Grey (Sophie Turner).
Did I mention that there are a lot of characters? And that this is one of the most violent “X-Men” films yet? The brutality may be a mere warm-up for next year’s as-yet-untitled sequel about Wolverine, which reportedly is courting an R rating. Ole Mutton Chops (Hugh Jackman) even makes an appearance here. It can’t be called brief, although it adds virtually nothing, except five minutes, to the film.
As in “Days of Future Past,” the film also contains a piece of special-effects wizardry involving Quicksilver’s ability to move faster than the eye can perceive. Here, however, the protracted “bullet time” sequence comes across as pandering and overlong.
There’s a lot for an “X-Men” fan to like about “Apocalypse,” in addition to all the eye candy and familiar faces: themes of tolerance and togetherness, for example. (Not especially new, but there you have it.) The difference between Good and Evil, as Xavier articulates it, is that the bad guy – despite his Four Horsemen – is alone, whereas Xavier, who has the ability to mind-meld with the entire world, is not.
That’s an inspiring pep talk. For this apocalyptic showdown, however, the coach could easily have benched a few players without affecting the outcome of the game.
Two and one-half stars. Rated PG-13. Contains violence, action and destruction, brief strong language and some suggestive images. 140 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.