X-Men: Apocalypse may not be the best of the supermutant action series, but it's certainly the most ... well, apocalyptic. A wrathful god (Oscar Isaac) rises from a multimillennial coma, takes one look at the world circa 1983 and decides it must be "cleansed." Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Holocaust survivor and longtime X-Men antagonist, has taken refuge in Poland, where he's betrayed by his countrymen and engages in the highly ritualized destruction of Auschwitz. Righteously embittered Magneto allies himself with Isaac's mutant deity--unsurprisingly named Apocalypse--and his "four horsemen," a concept taken from the Bible, someone notes. "Or the Bible got it from him," warns Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), suggesting that the Book of Revelation might have been inspired by Marvel Comics.
If all this sounds wildly entertaining, it's not. Bryan Singer, directing his third X sequel since 2000's X-Men, has devoted his care and attention (and that of his effects team) to a great deal of 3-D destruction. CGI wrath-of-God-type stuff has become a reflex at Marvel, but it's precisely not what made the franchise's previous installment--the highly profitable, highly praised Days of Future Past--such an entertaining movie. Picking up 10 years later, Apocalypse cedes supremacy to computers, and the humans are phoning it in, presumably on Reagan-era landlines.
Which is a shame, because the X-Men series, with its constant tug-of-war between tortured heroism and neurotic whining, is fertile ground for exploring intolerance, exclusion, tribalism and a frequent neofascist impulse among Xers, born of a well-founded paranoia regarding the world's view of mutants. The opposing arguments are generally made by the antihuman Magneto and his longtime frenemy, Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), founder of Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters. Played rather breathlessly by McAvoy, Xavier views his nascent X-Men as potential protectors and benefactors of humanity. His faith is regularly tested.
So is our patience, by a movie with several things awry besides wooden acting, portentous dialogue and the virtual vandalism of that Auschwitz scene. For example, there's Singer's penchant for gory violence, with none of the gore. You want to revel in bloodshed? Show the blood. Otherwise, what you have is Wolverine porn. (Yes, Hugh Jackman shows up late in the game.) There's also a tendency toward overkill: the high-speed Quicksilver (Evan Peters), whose ability to change the trajectory of fired bullets made for one of the previous movie's best scenes, does the same kind of thing here, only more. Much more. Too much more.
The movie's top-flight cast is left in ridiculous positions. Fassbender, for instance, floats about in the air, Magneto-izing all of earth's metal and dismantling such architectural icons as the Manhattan Bridge and the Sydney Opera House. (Why doesn't a supervillain ever destroy the MetLife Building? That we'd like to watch.) Isaac, a really gifted actor, lumbers through the film clad in what looks like a Tiffany hot-water heater adorned with silverware patterns and black bath mats.
What exactly is Apocalypse's problem? It's unclear. Sure, the world of 1983 is a mess--there are superpower politics, a nuclear-arms race and a culture that might, especially to one accustomed to the aesthetic of the Babylonian-Sumerian-Egyptian epoch, seem polluted at best. "For this I was betrayed?" he bellows, harking back to his entombment in 3,600 B.C. Egypt and feigning some kind of personal philosophy. He has none. He has no objective other than power, no policy other than wholesale destruction.
Singer, who will undoubtedly be making X-Men movies till the blue mutant cows come home, has said he wanted a real actor playing Apocalypse. But Isaac is wasted in a role with little emotional energy. A major household appliance would have delivered more heat.