X-Men: Apocalypse National release
The word apocalypse covers cause and effect in the action-packed and amusing X-Men: Apocalypse, the fourth X-Men film directed by Bryan Singer. Apocalypse is the name of the vile villain, a thousands-of-years-old mutant tyrant. Apocalypse, as in indiscriminate death, destruction and ruin, is also the trademark outcome for any place he ends up ruling. He’s played with physical and mental menace by Guatemalan star Oscar Isaac, who was X-wing pilot Poe Dameron in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. “Who rules this world?’’ he asks at one point, full of intent to change the answer.
We first meet Apocalypse in a stunning pretitles scene in which he is undergoing a sort of reincarnation in the Egypt he rules in 3600BC. He is betrayed by heavily armed rebels and entombed in the pyramid that collapses on him. Post-credits we are in 1983, Apocalypse is awakened and, after decapitating local irritants with a handful of dust, he turns his attention to the broader world. He learns about the past couple of thousand years of history by leaning into a television screen, which is a wry moment.
He sees Ronald Reagan, the pope and perhaps an episode of the David Hasselhoff TV series Knight Rider and decides the world is run by weak people, “blind leaders”, all of whom must be removed. He encourages a quartet of other mutants — Four Horsemen — to join him: hard-winged Angel (Ben Hardy), telekinetic Psylocke (Olivia Munn), weather-controlling Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and, everyone’s favourite, metal-bending Magneto (Michael Fassbender).
This film is set a decade after Singer’s previous instalment, X-Men: Days of Future Past, which introduced mutants to human consciousness and ended with Magneto attempting to assassinate US president Richard Nixon but being stopped by shapeshifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). This time around we first meet Magneto as Erik Lehnsherr, hiding his differences and working in a factory in Poland (he is a Nazi-era survivor) and married with a teenage daughter. These scenes are sweetly done, with handsome Fassbender showing his considerable charm.
But things go very bad and Magneto makes an iron-willed comeback. The job of stopping Apocalypse and his army (small but well-weaponed) falls to the good mutants, most of whom are students at, or involved with, the upstate New York School for Gifted Youngsters run by Professor Charles Xavier (an amiable James McAvoy). There’s Mystique, Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and the calm (so far, but wait for it) Phoenix (Sophie Turner). Two newcomers are optic beam-loaded Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and the long-tailed, teleporting Nightcrawler (Australia’s Kodi Smit-McPhee, who is terrific).
Indeed it’s worth noting the Australian presence in this Marvel Comics blockbuster. As well as Smit-McPhee, glorious Rose Byrne returns as mutant-liking (maybe loving?) CIA agent Moira MacTaggert and — in 10 minutes or so that are alone worth the price of admission — Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine goes berserk for a bit. The throwaway line at the end of that is hilarious. The Sydney Opera House also makes a cameo appearance, but not in a good way.
This film has an M-rating but the violence is superhero movie-style rather than horror story gory. There’s no sex. My 10-year-old coreviewer, who doesn’t like to see explicit bloodshed, thinks it’s one of the best films he’s seen. I wouldn’t go that far, but then he has time on his side. He immediately read up on the whole X-Men history, which was useful, given my favourite childhood comic strip was Frank Dickens’s British buying clerk saga Bristow.
X-Men: Apocalypse also follows the present superhero film trend towards internecine conflict, such as in Batman v Superman and Captain America: Civil War. Here it is mutants versus mutants. And although humans and mutants have been at peace for 10 years, their relationship remains uneasy. Xavier believes they can work together; Mystique is not so sure. Military man William Stryker (Josh Helman) hates mutants, but humans are only incidental baddies here as Apocalypse and his acolytes clash with Beast and his buddies to earth-splitting effect.
There’s also a lot of humour. Smit-McPhee is punky and funny; McAvoy’s Xavier is terrific in his lovestruck wooing of Byrne’s Moira; Cyclops’s early training is a sight for sore eyes; Quicksilver (Evan Peters) turns up for some rapid laughs; there’s a joke about Return of the Jedi that seems a shot at a (non-Singer) X-Men film; and Magneto’s response when Apocalypse arrives at the Polish factory is, well, probably what you or I would say in the same situation.
The weaknesses are the shallowness of the conflict, the one-dimensional nature of the villains, especially Magneto this time around, once he dons the helmet, and the sheer cast of characters. If you are not familiar with the X-Men story it may pay to read up before joining the ticket queue. But overall it’s an enjoyable and fast-moving movie about mutants in all their mystery. I left wanting more Wolverine, due to happen with a third film next year, which Jackman has indicated will be his final time in lupine sideburns.
Michael Fassbender as Magneto, top, and Kodi SmitMcPhee as Nightcrawler, left, in X-Men: Apocalypse