X-MEN: APOCALYPSE  * * 1 / 2

Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult and Oscar Issac. Screenplay by Simon Kinberg. Directed by Bryan Singer.

Nine films and sixteen years into the X-Men saga we’ve arrived at what might be the mediocre series’ high-water mark with Apocalypse – this year’s best superhero movie yet, which isn’t saying much. The third part of the second X-Men trilogy – which, for those keeping score at home, takes place chronologically before the first X-Men trilogy – is the fourth X-Men film directed by Bryan Singer, who helmed the first two and the most recent two, and overall I guess it’s alright. These movies are never particularly good but this one isn’t half-bad.

Apocalypse takes place in 1983, a decade after 2014’s Days Of Future Past and a full twenty-one years since the events of 2011’s X-Men: First Class, but somehow everybody still looks the same and nobody really seems to get up to much between sequels. The film kicks off with an extravagantly goofy prologue set in Ancient Egypt, where En Sabah Nur, history’s first and meanest mutant, is doing crazy stuff like decapitating people with sand. (The credits claim that’s Oscar Issac hamming it up underneath all the blue prosthetic makeup, but for all we can tell his billing might be an elaborate practical joke at the up-and-coming star’s expense.)

You’ll know if you’re along for the ride or not during the film’s opening titles, a vertiginous woosh through a 3D time tunnel with civilization’s greatest hits and atrocities comin’ at ya. Once the Mona Lisa and a giant swastika go sailing over our heads, Apocalypse has firmly established a tone of rather goofy self-importance in questionable taste, and that’s before Magneto flattens Auschwitz. As when Richard Nixon turned up as a supporting character in Days Of Future Past, I find Singer’s cloddish historical appropriations mildly endearing, though your personal mileage may vary.

So En Sabah Nur, aka Apocalypse, eventually arrives in the Reagan era determined to live up to his nickname. He recruits Michael Fassbender’s Magneto to join his posse of four horsemen (never mind that nobody rides horses in this film) and so yet again we return to the ongoing argument between mad-as-hell Magneto and his better half, Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) over whether mutants should use their gifts to try and save a world that fears and hates them or just wipe us fuckers out altogether. Long time, nothing new.

Apocalypse mixes and matches the better scenes from previous X-Men films into a sleek greatest hits medley, inducing a not unpleasant sense of deja vu. We’ve got a mutant steel cage match again, nifty teleportation antics from Kodi Smit-McPhee’s kid Nightcrawler, a berserker rampage from a hirsute Special Guest Star, another attack on Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters, and a reprise of Days Of Future Past‘s literally show-stopping sequence with Quicksilver (Evan Peters) zipping around so fast the rest of the world is in slow-motion, only this time set to the Eurythmics instead of Jim Croce.

What makes it all work (to an admittedly modest extent) is a willingness to be weird. The recent Captain America: Civil War bent over so far backwards trying to ground Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in some kind of recognizable reality that (airport tarmac super-brawl aside) the movie wound up mired in mundanity, devoid of any iconic imagery or wonder. Visually it was a film of stairwells, parking lots and barely-dressed sets.

X-Men: Apocalypse, on the other hand, is pretty much non-stop eyeball gee-gawing and cosmic whoopedy-do with shit flying here, there and everywhere. Most of the shots are designed to look like a comic book splash page, and one of the reasons the movie can absorb performances that range from profoundly bored (Jennifer Lawrence) to straight-up incompetent (Olivia Munn) is that there’s so much other stuff clanging around it’s tough to even hear the lousy line readings.

Nobody thinks the world is going to end in a prequel, so there’s not a lot of suspense here. But to Singer’s credit he does find a novel way to stage another one of those psychic battles that usually sink these things because the actors often end up just staring intently at each other amid various beams of colored light. This one, however, allows us inside a visualization of Charles’ mind, where he’s duking it out with an Apocalypse who shrinks or grows depending on who’s winning. It’s a neat touch and exactly the kind of flourish that elevates X-Men: Apocalypse to the realm of the passable.

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