Mutant War: "X-Men Apocalypse" entertains and coheres, despite a lot of moving parts

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
147 min., rated PG-13.

Considering 2014’s ambitious “X-Men: Days of Future Past” was Marvel and 20th Century Fox’s way of “decanonizing” the series and hitting the reset button, whatever was teased to come next had few chances to really satisfy. The third entry, “X-Men: Apocalypse,” may not be superior to its predecessor, but it’s a solidly absorbing culmination of its own trilogy, as well as a smooth transition into Bryan Singer’s 2000 original film. There are a lot of moving parts and there is no shortage of mutants, and yet somehow, director Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg (2015’s “Fantastic Four”) manage to handle everything with a compelling, cohesive hand in the execution that hardly ever feels cluttered or unwieldy as one might have judged. At its so-called worst, “X-Men: Apocalypse” is just fun and zippy.

Ten years have passed since the mutants traveled back in time, so for those keeping score at home, it’s 1983. Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy)  has established his School for Gifted Youngsters as a safe haven for mutants to control their powers. With the shape-shifting Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till) at their aid, a group of new students will join the ranks of the X-Men, including Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), who can shoot optic beams; reptilian teleporter Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee); and the telepathic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). Meanwhile, in Poland, Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) has put his telekinetic abilities as Magneto to rest, living quietly as a steelworker with his wife and daughter. Also, in Egypt, CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) has stumbled upon a tomb that since 3600 B.C.E. has contained the first-ever mutant, En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), who will rise again and bring civilization to a cataclysmic end. First, he will new need a body to transfer into with the help from his four recruited disciples, or the “Four Horsemen.”

At 147 minutes, time zips by. So blazingly paced that it doesn’t leave you much time to scrutinize the characterizations that could have afforded more breathing room, “X-Men: Apocalypse” is enormously entertaining and just as emotionally impactful. With the all-powerful Apocalypse around, this film may be the closest Marvel has ever come to making a horror movie. There’s a welcome nightmarish quality and major stakes here, only to be paid off in a third-act showdown that does not underwhelm. Not unlike Ultron, Apocalypse finds so much wrong with the present world that he finds obliteration to be the only option. Unrecognizable under pounds of blue latex that could have rendered him lifeless or made him look like a Power Rangers villain, Oscar Isaac is actually commanding and creepy. The actor is more charismatic and versatile than the part actually deserves, but Isaac does as well as anyone could. Even as the globe-trotting plot flits from Egypt to Ohio to Poland to East Berlin to New York, the film is infused with a beating heart from every interaction between characters who never felt accepted.

With a revolving-door ensemble of mutants, the film gets a bit crowded, and some of the characters may fall into the background, but for the most part, it’s hard to carp too much. James McAvoy is still an unfailingly warm and wise center as Charles Xavier, and he gets a nice reunion with Rose Byrne’s Moira MacTaggert, who had her memories of him wiped at the end of “X-Men: First Class.” Usually a formidable presence as Magneto, Michael Fassbender is more poignant and complex here as Erik, a tragic hero, particularly during a gut-wrenching tragedy that befalls his family and the general history of his survival in Auschwitz. Jennifer Lawrence gets less to explore this time around as Raven/Mystique, but she’s still a steadfast leader and gets to sport radical ‘80s hair and clothes in her first scene. 

As the younger counterparts of Cyclops, Jean Grey and Nightcrawler, the immensely talented Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner (HBO’s “Game of Thrones”) and Kodi Smit-McPhee stand out the most, believably essaying the roles already inhabited by James Marsden, Famke Janssen and Alan Cumming. As energy-sword-swinging Psylocke, one of the “Four Horsemen,” Olivia Munn fills out the supposedly comic-faithful costume but looks rather goofy, almost campy, in her purple ninja-bondage get-up when she’s not fighting and just standing around to pose. Evan Peters is still a major highlight as Quicksilver. Everything with the lightning-fast boy who still lives in his mom’s basement is an inspired tour de force yet again, particularly when he saves the day in a dazzling, giddily funny sequence set to Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" that equals (if not one-ups) a similar set-piece in "Days of Future Past."

Amid the thrilling spectacle and recognition of spotting familiar characters in their youth, “X-Men: Apocalypse” is still about marginalized beings that shouldn’t feel they have to hide their abilities, especially when they could better the world. It’s also not above having a sense of humor. As a few of the students exit the multiplex showing “Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi,” there is a knock at the third installment of a movie series being the worst, clearly at the expense of the first trilogy’s third “X-Men” not directed by Bryan Singer. It was wise for Singer to return to his mutants because, despite not having four hours to develop each and every one of them, he never loses sight of the emotional weight and has true reverence for their histories and relationships. “X-Men: Apocalypse” doesn’t shake up the cinematic universe, particularly post-“Deadpool” and “Captain America: Civil War,” but when a superhero conglomeration of more than 10 characters feels well-stuffed rather than overstuffed, it doesn’t have to be a complete game-changer.