If you thought Days of Future Past was as epic and nightmarish as it could get for Marvel’s mutant superheroes, then think again. Having put past and future X-Men teams together to save the world from the apocalypse in that 2014 blockbuster, director Bryan Singer ups the ante here by pitting Professor X’s young students against a god-like immortal called Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), who certainly lives up to his name.
Singer introduces this “first mutant” with an extravagant pre-credits riff on the Mummy movies, showing how his tyranny over ancient Egypt ended in betrayal and burial.
As for the X-Men, we pick up their story in 1983: Professor X (James McAvoy) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) are now running a School for Gifted Youngsters, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) has gone all Katniss Everdeen to rescue mutantkind around the world and the wanted Magneto (Michael Fassbender) has adopted a new identity and a life of domestic bliss in Poland.
However, this status quo is doomed to unravel when Apocalypse is unearthed, as he sets out to cleanse the Earth by recruiting and empowering four fearsome warriors: Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Angel (Ben Hardy, fresh from EastEnders) and the aforementioned Magneto, distraught following a sudden change to his family arrangements.
Meanwhile, the Professor and Mystique prep new blood like Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Jean Grey (Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner) for the battle ahead, and with old frenemy Magneto on the other side, the battle ahead promises to be a doozy.
However, this is a franchise movie, and at two hours plus, subplots and epic scenes of destruction have to be squeezed in, too, though some of this is admittedly terrific.
As in Future Past, Evan Peters delivers more scene-stealing delight as Quicksilver, in a CGI-sequence (accompanied by the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams) that shows his superspeed off to a life-saving tee (apparently taking a month and a half to shoot). Fans hoping for the presence of series regular Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) may be disappointed that he only appears briefly, but what a cameo! Arguably, it’s the best portrayal of the character ever (straight out of the pages of the 1991 Weapon X comic by Barry Windsor-Smith) and foreshadows 2003’s X2. And the superstar charisma of Fassbender, McAvoy and Lawrence keeps the sprawling storyline on point.
In contrast, poor Oscar Isaac, a fine actor, seems straitjacketed by his costume – more Power Rangers villain Ivan Ooze than the ultimate X-Men foe.
The climax is undoubtedly spectacular, but audiences must be experiencing battle fatigue by now when superhero blockbusters like Age of Ultron and Batman v Superman conclude in cataclysmic CGI-destruction. At least Captain America: Civil War ended in an emotionally powerful face-off between Iron Man and Cap rather than buildings falling from the sky.
There’s certainly a “handing over the baton” feel to Singer’s fourth film in the franchise, what with the introduction of new, younger versions of characters like Cyclops, Storm and Jean Grey, and with no confirmation (yet) of the return of McAvoy et al. It’s decent all-action entertainment and is no X-Men: The Last Stand, but an in-joke about third films in a trilogy not being up to scratch may need to be taken seriously (if you count this movie as the threequel to First Class and Days of Future Past), particularly as a 90s-set adventure is already in the pipeline.
X-Men: Apocalypse is in cinemas from Wednesday 18th May