There’s a scene during the first half of Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Apocalypse that is so emotionally resonant, so well put-together, and so quiet that you might briefly forget you’re watching a superhero film. It involves a raid by some Polish officers in the remote forest where Erik Lehnsherr, a/k/a Magneto (Michael Fassbender) — the powerful mutant antihero and sometimes villain of this series — has been living incognito with his wife and young daughter. Magneto can control metal, so the men wear no badges and carry no guns. They come under cover of night, carrying bows and arrows, and the resulting, subdued face-off — full of silent glances, hesitant actions, and ultimately tragic consequences — serves as a reminder that the makers of comic-book blockbusters don’t have to abandon subtlety, character, performance, and film grammar completely. After the Everything’s-a-Metaphor! sledgehammering of Batman v. Superman and the jokey flab of Captain America: Civil War, Singer’s film feels like something somewhat rare: an actual superhero movie.
It’s not that X-Men: Apocalypse is itself a quiet film. In some ways, it’s brasher, louder, and more cartoonish than any comic-book flick in recent memory. The success of the first X-Men, back in 2000, helped kick off the current craze, and this new one still carries some of those earlier films’ embrace of colorful weirdness, grand gestures, and melodramatic dialogue. (Just think, while everyone else tries to make their heroes’ costumes darker, more au courant, more bad-ass, Apocalypse, set in the 1980s, has the gall to let one character sport a Michael Jackson “Thriller” jacket throughout.)
The film even starts off with a nutty, elaborate Egyptian prologue involving human sacrifice, levitating sarcophagi, gravity-defying spurts of gold, and collapsing pyramids, before plunging headlong into a credits sequence in which notable symbols of world history — Jesus on the cross! The Twin Towers! A Swastika! – come flying at us in 3-D. The plot involves the awakening of a villain called Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac, his soulful face caked in thick makeup and ornate headgear), an ancient, all-powerful Egyptian being who can, by transferring his consciousness, absorb the abilities of all other mutants. Having discovered that humanity has become soft and weak during the 6000 years that he’s been asleep, Apocalypse decides to do away with the world and start anew. (“Where did you come from?” “A time before man lost his way.” “Well, welcome to the Eighties.”) His first victims: a group of Cairo hoodlums that he beheads softly, with a handful of dust, and another man he just as gently turns into a wall; the offhandedness of his villainy is both ridiculous and chilling.
Apocalypse nabs X-Men leader Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and seizes his fancy, global mutant-tracking system. The bad guy’s aim is to use Xavier’s technology to transfer his consciousness all over the world, and to control the other mutants — particularly the uniquely powerful Magneto, who as usual is torn between good and evil, between his wounded psyche and desire for justice. A group of Xavier’s students — including shape-shifting Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), teleporting Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), telepath Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), and powerful-eye-beam-thingamabob-shooter Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) — join forces to rescue their leader. On Apocalypse’s side, at least for now, are another cadre of young mutants, including the weather-controlling Storm (Alexandra Shipp), the high-flying Angel (Ben Hardy), and the slicing, dicing Psylocke (Oliva Munn). That’s a lot of individuals and superpowers — there’s even a non-mutant, Xavier’s former flame and now-amnesiac CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), thrown into the mix — but the script’s focus on teamwork and its clear delineation of characters makes it easy to keep up. Even though Apocalypse is filled with cities being destroyed, much of the action reminded me of nothing so much as a classic Mission: Impossible episode, where each member of the team gets a chance to do their thing.
This makes emotional sense, too: The particular genius of the X-Men films has always been the way they followed their characters’ journeys of self-acceptance. (It’s no great secret that while the original comics were inspired partly by the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, the earlier films have made clear nods to the gay rights movement.) But here, these young characters, in part because they’ve spent childhoods living in shame and in part because they’re still often unable to control their abilities, are sometimes torn over whether to use their powers. That lends even the most basic action sequence surprising levels of both suspense and (gasp) humanity, so much so that even the film’s dated-looking and occasionally tacky special effects — complete with awkwardly-floating-dudes and magic light-shows — aren’t particularly distracting. It’s further proof that movies like these work better when they’re about people instead of pyrotechnics.
What makes X-Men: Apocalypse so exciting isn’t really any one thing but rather its cohesion, its storytelling verve. Where other recent superhero films have struggled to jam-pack their unwieldy plots with characters and incident and meaning, this film nimbly mixes narrative exuberance and emotional depth, flamboyant displays of power with quietly terrifying exchanges. It zips along, combining the highs and lows of a real comic book — all the feeling, color, and wonder, even some of the dopiness — with gloriously cinematic storytelling.