After centuries asleep the ancient god-like mutant En Sabah Nur, also known as Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) awakens in 1983. Disillusioned with the world as he finds it Apocalypse recruits a team of powerful mutants, including a disheartened Magneto (Michael Fassbender), to wipe out modern civilization and take over the world. Once again it falls to Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) and remorseful on-off ally Raven a.k.a. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) to assemble a team of young X-Men and save mankind from complete destruction.
In contrast to Bryan Singer's previous entry in the Marvel Comics mutant franchise, the 1970s-set: X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), X-Men: Apocalypse was poorly received. Many reasons were cited as to why: from an outcry over an allegedly misogynistic billboard ad, hardcore X-Men fans increasingly angry and vocal about perceived liberties taken with their beloved source material, to supposed public disdain for certain key cast members. The film even dares to get on the wrong side of genre fans early on with a snarky wisecrack about Return of the Jedi (1983) and how trilogies (if discount the first three films and spin-offs in the fractured timeline of the X-Men franchise) rarely end on a high note. Enough of the playfulness and colourful sense of fun established in X-Men: First Class (2011) endures, to keep things entertaining particularly in the last hour but there is no denying the first half of X-Men: Apocalypse is a real slog.
Of course complaining about the sprawling, convoluted nature of an X-Men story is like chiding a Dalmation for having spots. Whether in comic books, cartoons or movies, X-Men stories are always unwieldy. It is simply their nature and, in some instances, part of their charm. You are either on board or not. Even so, X-Men: Apocalypse takes a long, long time to assemble all the players in a vast, over-populated tapestry. Between outlining Apocalypse's mad bid for world conquest it crams in several origin stories, resolves plot threads left dangling from previous films, tackles the Cold War and shoes-in a crowd-pleasing cameo from a certain adamantium-clawed fan favourite. Overstuffed? Well yes, though not in the crass, let's-sell-all-the-toys-we-can manner of the Joel SchumacherBatman films. An affection for these characters and grasp of what they stand for still endures. Bryan Singer imbues the action with an epic sweep, arguably absent from the over-praised Days of Future Past, including a cool prologue in ancient Egypt even in those moments when the sheer volume of computer graphics deployed by the great John Dykstra threatens to resemble a video game.
Continuing the trend in past films for recreating specific time periods in the X-Men's long history, this particular adventure takes place in the Eighties. Although apart from the bright neon colour palette, Cold War subplot and Jennifer Lawrence's showstopping entrance all glammed up Eighties-style the film does not milk that period charm quite as deftly as First Class did with the Sixties. By this point Oscar-winner Lawrence was perhaps understandably reluctant to endure her blue prosthetic makeup for more than the briefest of scenes. However, Simon Kinberg's script cleverly makes this a plot point. Mystique's reluctance to reveal her true form reflects a discomfort with her both her past as an embittered activist and freedom fighter along with her new status as icon to a new generation of young mutants. That the plot makes Mystique a lynch-pin for assembling the new team leaves Lawrence's evident disinterest in the role all the more unfortunate. She is too much of a class act to phone it in but occasionally her ambivalence registers on-screen. By contrast Michael Fassbender continues to lend weight to Magneto's ongoing tragedies even when he is short-changed by the plot. Among the welcome new additions: rising star Tye Sheridan as Scott Summers a.k.a. Cyclops, Kodi Smit-McPhee as the always lovable Nightcrawler, Alexandra Shipp as a superior Storm (rocking the white mohawk, finally!) and especially Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner as the young Jean Grey re-energize these familiar characters, but jostle for attention amidst a vast ensemble. If Ben Hardy's Angel is an outright misstep, and wisely sidelined, at least dishy Olivia Munn undeniably looks the part as Psylocke, the femme fatale who as drawn by Jim Lee in the Nineties fueled a million fan-boy fantasies, even though the plot reduces her character to a movable prop.
As with Days of Futures Past Evan Peters steals the show as the silver-haired speedster Quicksilver with his own showstopping high-speed set-piece set to the Eurythmics' Eighties pop classic 'Sweet Dreams.' For the duration of this memorable, hilarious sequence X-Men: Apocalypse briefly becomes the witty, ingenious film X-Men fans want. Then we are back to Apocalypse and his nondescript plan for world domination. While Oscar Isaac once again displays his remarkable versatility, his character's vague motives and poorly defined plan hobble the plot. After a first half riddled with dull spots the second proves lively, imaginative and entertaining right down to a climactic clash between colourfully costumed characters far closer to Japanese sentai fare than the filmmakers might want to admit.