In the hinterland between the extreme competency of Marvel and the trainwreck-clusterfuck that is the DC Cinematic Universe there lies the X-Men.
With its respectable (but by no means perfect) batting average and increasingly dysfunctional relationship with continuity, the franchise is a fairly unique position with regards to superhero movies. With no team to put together — members come and go, often between movies — and no over-arcing narrative to service, each installment stands more or less on its own terms.
X-Men: Apocalypse picks up a decade or so after the events of Days of Future Past and approximately 4,383 years in the past. Blue Man-demigod En Sabah Nur (played, inexplicably, by an unrecognizable Oscar Isaac) is betrayed and buried alive.
Awakening in the present day (well, 1983), Apocalypse sets about empowering four new “Horsemen” — so-called ‘cause, you know — and wiping clean the face of the world. Quickly establishing its globe-hopping credentials — temple in ancient Egypt, mutant cage match in Berlin, steel refinery in Poland — the film is cheesy, unabashed blockbuster fare.
Along with the mainstays — a surprisingly chipper Professor X (James McAvoy), the as-always tormented Magneto (Michael Fassbender), and an [insert character trait here] Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence in Hunger Games mode) — Apocalypse also (re-)introduces the new-old team, now in teenage form. Tyler Sheridan’s Cyclops, Sophie Turner’s Jean Gray, Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Nightcrawler.
There’s no real character development on display here (or, to be hyper-critical, actual characters), but director Bryan Singer turns the action up to 11.
Cities (and presumably their occupants) are turned to dust with a casualness that would make Zack Snyder blush. There’s a brief, tonally awkward side-trip to Auschwitz, the specter of which has always haunted the franchise — and, in true, Snyder style, the answer is to blow it up.
Still, the camera glides and swoops distractingly enough, the abundant hero shots don’t linger overlong, and, even at almost two and a half hours long, the whole thing zips along entertainingly enough. X-Men has become a franchise that, more so than Marvel at its most whimsical, begs not to be taken seriously.
Case and point: Quicksilver (Evan Peters). The super-speedy, cocky oddball is once again MVP; this time in an on-the-face-of-it absurd sequence that sees him rescuing time-frozen students (and one pizza-eating bulldog) from the path of an explosion as though they were rubber-faced cardboard cutouts.
Meanwhile, amid all this, X-Men: Apocalypse makes its occasional plays for emotional resonance so earnestly and honestly that you kinda have to respect it. The various bits of family drama, and shoehorned presence of CIA spook Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne), are almost charmingly token.
So yes, Apocalypse looks like Ivan Ooze from Powers Rangers: The Movie and, yes, Isaac is wasted in a role that buries him under sweaty blue prosthetics and digitally alters his voice. Yes, Psylocke (Olivia Munn) is a fan-art costume in search of a character and Angel is a stocky bloke off EastEnders (Ben Hardy).
And yes, those crumpled/crushed/flayed/burned bodies feel a little gratuitous amid the general frivolity. But when a dramatic beat in your climax involves — spoiler — the iconic loss of a character’s hair, you have to just embrace the absurdity (or you end up with Batman V Superman).
X-Men: Apocalypse is a grand, silly blockbuster that’s standalone and disposable in a way that so few superhero films are allowed to be. Most crucially, it’s fun. We could stand another few go-rounds with this particular bunch of misfits – at least until Marvel snatches them up from Fox and indoctrinates them into the MCU.
For now, though, if First Class was ’60s-set and DoFP took place in ’70s, we can presumably look forward to next catching up with the X-Men sometime in the glorious ’90s. Who’s for double denim?