'X-Men,' again 

Heroes are done well, but the villain is a slog.

click to enlarge 'X-MEN: APOCALYPSE': (From left) Sophie Turner, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Tye Sheridan are among the stars.
  • 'X-MEN: APOCALYPSE': (From left) Sophie Turner, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Tye Sheridan are among the stars.

The "X-Men" franchise, existing now in an ever-more-crowded space with the separate Marvel universe and now the resurgent/cacophonous DC flicks, has a stakes problem. Namely, it feels as if the world is going to end in each successive movie, and then, of course, the world doesn't end. And to pull off yet another in a series of ever-more-nefarious schemes, it needs near-omnipotent villains. Who, broadly speaking, tend to be the dullest characters in comics.

This is where "X-Men: Apocalypse," the first of the nine titles in the series to carry the name of its villain, falls short. It's a hell of a popcorn movie, actually, crammed full of heroes, emotionally resonant at points, more visually ambitious than any of its predecessors. And despite having cast the dashing and charismatic Oscar Isaac as the titular semi-immortal mutant (then buried him beneath a pile of blue paint and nose putty), it can't out-dazzle the mirthless plod of a god gone wrong.

Apocalypse the character is a decidedly Old Testament-style jerk, an ancient mutant who figured out some weird sun-magic-tech in ancient Egypt to continually reincarnate himself into other mutants and absorb their powers. The movie opens with this spooky ritual in a gleeful-nonsense version of Egypt that sees a quick, ugly coup attempt in which an entire pyramid is knocked down on top of Apocalypse, who then settles in for a few millennia of cold slumber. Some cultists resurrect him in the early '80s, a decade after the events of "X-Men: Days of Future Past," and Apocalypse sets about recruiting mutants to become his four horsemen. He finds a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp) as a Cairo street urchin, a brooding Angel (Ben Hardy), snazzy dresser Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and, fresh from a failed turn as a chill civilian metalworker, usual archvillain Magneto, who's actually interesting. The script, by director and old "X-Men" hand Bryan Singer and three others, at least gives him an emotional arc, after an ugly event involving his young family.

Their ringleader, though, isn't much more than a power-hungry menace bent on stirring a catastrophe so enormous that only the strongest of mutants can survive it and build a new civilization atop it. Why does Apocalypse want to rip down the world? Social Darwinism seems the best answer. It's never really clear. Anyway, he has hellacious powers and is quite good at amplifying other mutants' abilities, so he gets mighty excited when the clairvoyant Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) breaks into his consciousness, allowing Apocalypse to taste a connection to every mind on the planet. This sets events in motion; what follows is a lot of fighting and chasing and cool mutant powers on display. Jennifer Lawrence as Raven gets to decide whether to be a bad guy or a good guy; everyone else, including newcomers to the series Sophie Turner as Jean Grey and Tye Sheridan (of "Mud" fame) as Cyclops, ostensibly are video game characters marching into the fray.

This isn't to say "X-Men: Apocalypse" isn't good; at its core, it's an eager crowd-pleaser. (Singer gets in an unsubtle jab at one of the "X-Men" flicks he didn't direct, Sheridan nails a line about a character this movie knows only as Weapon X.) There's just a heaviness it can't shake. It's disappointing when you have to power through a dull, all-powerful villain, but the heroes (and there bushels of them) take up the slack.


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