Cast Rescues "X-Men: Apocalypse" From Director, Screenwriter

“X-Men: Apocalypse” marks the series’ ninth entry since it began on July 14, 2000; nine films ranging from bad to mediocre to good-adjacent, adding up to one of most frustrating movie franchises in history. It’s shuttled in and out of competency so frequently – occasionally in the same scene of the same film – that it might be mistaken for a government enterprise. Accordingly, the first 45 minutes of Bryan Singer’s “Apocalypse” – the director’s fourth in the series – are so foul you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve stumbled into another terrible “X-Men” film. A woefully antiquated pre-title sequence comes off like it was ghost-directed by “Van Helsing” architect Stephen Sommers, scenes are thrown at us seemingly out of order, and a bevy of laughable FX evokes any number of Syfy original movies.

But 90 minutes later it’s hard to overlook the movie’s scattered pleasures. With arguably the finest cast in superhero movie history, “Apocalypse” at once disappoints and relieves. Its problems are crippling but not fatal, the film kept afloat by a raft of brilliant performers – even when Singer has no idea what to do with them. Not only does the picture return Rose Byrne (“Neighbors”) from 2011’s “X-Men: First Class,” it also adds Oscar Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) to the mix and gives significantly more screen time to “X-Men: Days Of Future Past” standout Evan Peters. Deck: stacked.

It’s 1983, a decade since we last caught up with Charles Xavier aka Professor X (James McAvoy) and his school for the gifted. A new threat to the world’s mutants is rising: one of their own. En Sabah Nur, a long-dormant, godlike mutant (Isaac) has awakened with the intention of mass extinction. He’ll destroy and rebuild Earth in his image, aided by but a few cleverly manipulated genetic freaks: Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy), and if all goes to plan, Magneto (Michael Fassbender).

Simon Kinberg’s screenplay conveniently gathers all of the most famous X-Men at Xavier’s school concurrently, well before they know they face a world-ending threat. There’s new student Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), teacher Beast (Nicholas Hoult), troubled teenager Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Raven aka Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), and German teleporter Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Singer and Kinberg halfheartedly showcase each character’s superpower before putting them on the backburner – until their particular ability is necessary to defeat a bad guy, of course.

But there’s hardly a good way to juggle so many iconic characters, a pickle that’s flummoxed filmmakers better than Bryan Singer (read: Sam Raimi). Here it’s even more of a conundrum since half of the characters are inhabited by today’s best working actors.

McAvoy is a treat as always, doing more with Professor X than Patrick Stewart was ever allowed to do. The 37 year-old continues to bring a deep emotional resonance to the character, tricking us into thinking his screen time is double what it actually is. Fassbender brings everything he’s got, too, despite Magneto being a virtual nonfactor in act III. Fanboys just might be infuriated by the time several of comicdom’s great antagonists are relegated to casually hanging out on the side of a cliff. They should be.

The scripting issues balloon further with Byrne’s CIA agent Moira McTaggart and Isaac’s titular villain. Both actors have proved themselves invaluable performers in recent years, but Byrne’s character is one more unnecessary cog in a movie full of them and Isaac’s ends up one of the least compelling villains in recent memory. This version of Apocalypse is an all-out waste of a fascinating character (and he looks like a radioactive blueberry). Nonetheless, the presence of Byrne and Isaac is still more than welcome, each doing their part to keep a legion of thinly drawn characters modestly intriguing.

Naturally, it’s Evan Peters’ Quicksilver who once again steals the show and our hearts with a wonderfully silly supersonic speed sequence set to Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This).” The scene is so tonally out of place in the context of the movie that its charms are only magnified, leaving us begging for more, lest he immediately disappear like he did in “Days Of Future Past.” Thankfully, he sticks around.

The overlong, unremarkable battle scene at film’s end ranks among the series’ worst, though, with Singer doubling down on his most boring visual impulses. It climaxes with a telekinetic brawl between a super-sized Apocalypse and a regular-sized Professor X, with the latter loudly exclaiming, “Welcome to my world! You’re in my house now!” as Xavier’s home office materializes around them. The scene’s uneasy mix of blandness and camp is the perfect symbol of so much of what’s wrong with the movie, leaving us with an unmistakably bad taste in our mouths on our way out the door.

But this cast is too potent to allow a truly bad movie to unfold around them. A handful of solid laughs, another joyous Quicksilver appearance, and some fiery acting from McAvoy and Fassbender save the day – and Singer and Kinberg from themselves. “X-Men Apocalypse” is no thoroughbred, but the series isn’t ready to be put down. Yet.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: May 27, 2016
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Bryan Singer
Screenwriter: Simon Kinberg
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, Ben Hardy
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of violence, action and destruction, brief strong language and some suggestive images)