Right from the opening scene, set in 3600 B.C., “X-Men: Apocalypse” challenges what you know about the past. Take, for example, the Egyptian pyramids. Once thought to be graves for the pharaohs, it turns out that the last of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were conceived as an instrument for history’s very first mutant, a quasi-immortal purple guy called En Sabah Nur (a.k.a. “Apocalypse”) to ritualistically transfer his consciousness from a dying body to a healthy one. Ben Carson was way off the mark.
This is Bryan Singer’s fourth X-Men film — the third installment in the second trilogy of summer blockbusters about the first generation of super-powered mutants who have outed themselves to the general population — and it unfolds like he’s pouring all of his excess ambitions for the franchise into his last chance at bat. If nothing else, the spectacularly goofy and sporadically entertaining “Apocalypse” isn’t afraid to reimagine human history.
As if the prologue weren’t enough to make that sufficiently clear, the opening credits turn our species’ worst atrocities into an immersive 3D theme park attraction (“It’s a Terrible World?”), the camera whooshing through a computer-generated tunnel as swastikas and other universally understood symbols of hatred are hurled towards the lens. For a very cartoonish movie full of latex outfits and boasting a set piece soundtracked by Eurythmics, “Apocalypse” doesn’t hesitate to grapple with some very delicate subjects. The harmony that Singer strikes between the silly and the sacred has been crucial to the success of his previous “X-Men” installments, and it’s this one’s greatest strength.
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And then — in what might be the most striking scene in the modern history of superhero movies — Magneto single-handedly destroys Auschwitz. Go ahead and read that last bit over again. A Holocaust survivor, enraged by the new round of violence that has been visited upon his family, uses his mutant abilities to erase the world’s most profound memorial to Jewish suffering. Thanks to Michael Fassbender’s steely-eyed commitment to his character, this potentially exploitative moment blooms into an powerful example of pop iconography. Obliterating the most infamous of concentration camps is arguably the greatest of all Jewish fantasies, but there’s a good reason why Auschwitz is a museum: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Magneto, however, is actively in a rush to forget. After all, Apocalypse is recruiting him to be help lead a new genocide, one determined to eradicate the earth of all its weakness. It’s hardly a surprise that the character is stuck in neutral for the rest of the movie; how do you top a beat like that? But it doesn’t really matter. The message is clear: History is as mutable as the people who shape it. This X-Men trilogy has been a bit confused on that point, at times fatalistic and at others considerably less so. “First Class” argued that you can’t change the past, while follow-up “Days of Future Past” made a case to the contrary. “Apocalypse” sets the record straight: It’s not really about whether or not you can change the past, because our brightest hope always lies in the future.
And it’s certainly not about who changes the past, because — Magneto notwithstanding — the heroes here are almost a complete afterthought, and the performances of the actors who play them tend to follow suit (who knew Jennifer Lawrence could be so listless?) The thick of things are set in 1983. Germany is still split in two, but Cold War paranoia of an imminent nuclear war has given way to slightly more optimistic thoughts of deterrence. The world is at a tipping point, perched between the horror of yesterday and the fear of a mutant tomorrow. Meanwhile: Teenagers.
Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is still doing his thing at his School for Gifted Youngers up in Westchester, and — as per usual — the new students won’t get much of a primer before they’re forced into battle. This year’s class is the least interesting to date, as these pubescent versions of franchise staples are hopelessly hollow shades of their future selves. “Game of Thrones” star Sophie Turner delivers a dull Jean Grey, while Tye Sheridan is equally forgettable as the laser-eyed Scott Summers (Kodi Smit-McPhee, playing Nightcrawler as a guileless young Alan Cumming, at least gets some fun one-liners). And Jubilee? She’s a costume in search of a character.
The bad guys fare a tiny bit better. Apocalypse naturally has four horseman — horsepeople, really — and they’re interesting enough for roles that exist for no other reason other than to provide some violent white noise during the final battle. Alexandra Shipp is particularly vibrant as a mohawked Storm who rises from street rat to demigod. Olivia Munn’s Psylocke is like window-dressing on a shuttered storefront, her every shot somewhat cringeworthy. None of these poor actors are done any favors by Simon Kinberg’s clumsy script, which excels in broad strokes but fumbles so many of the character moments that the film’s emotion slides right off of its ideas. Sure, Evan Peters’ warp-speed Quicksilver has another terrific sequence in which he puts time in a bottle, but “Apocalypse” is practically the opposite of the movies in the MCU, which often feel like a collection of fun exchanges in desperate need of direction.
Ironically, it’s Apocalypse himself who saves the day. Played by a mercifully unrecognizable Oscar Isaac, this guy might be the most cartoonish superhero movie villain since the Green Goblin in the original “Spider-Man.” And yet, his power is palpable. Capable of absorbing the abilities of the mutants whose bodies he hijacks, Apocalypse has attained more skills than the movie has the time to illustrate, and has understandably convinced himself that he’s a god; imagine if Dr. Manhattan turned against us. While his climactic confrontation with the X-Men is an interminable cacophony of weightless special effects and hollow character moments, Apocalypse makes the build-up tremor with doom. Few Hollywood spectacles have so fluently spoken to the anxiety of imbalanced power, or the moral imperative that requires those who have it to protect those who don’t.
Most importantly, the character of Apocalypse galvanizes these last three X-Men movies into an actual trilogy rather than a cynical hodgepodge of contractually obligated blockbusters — the first X-Men series asked who we are, and this one deepened that inquiry by asking what we must make of ourselves. “Apocalypse,” for all its faults, has the audacity to make the MCU look small, and the conviction to make the DCU — if there even is such a thing — look foolish for confusing self-seriousness with gravity. If only these characters were allowed to be as complex as the ideas they fight for, “Apocalypse” could have represented a new beginning for superhero cinema. It’s one thing to show Magneto destroying Auschwitz; it would have been quite another to show him rebuilding it.
“X-Men: Apocalypse” opens in theaters on May 27.