Has the superhero bubble at last popped? The X-Men franchise, at least when in the hands of original director Bryan Singer, has tended to be a reliably smart and thrilling universe with a dynamic cast of characters played grandly by top-tier talent. Certainly that was true of Singer's X-Men, X2 and X-Men: Days of Future Past (the sequel to Matthew Vaughn's shot-in-the-arm prequel/relaunch X-Men: First Class). X-Men: Apocalypse sees Singer return for his fourth go-round, and although he and his team have X-Men storytelling down to something of a science, that experience can also translate to something very like complacency.
Singer has billed X-Men: Apocalypse as "the true birth of the X-Men," but the truth is that there's hardly a character beat in it that we haven't already seen played out in some way in this series. 2000's X-Men had fresh and exciting storytelling and thematic imperatives as Singer and company established the universe and its social allegory. Five films later (not counting two Wolverine spinoffs and Deadpool), the franchise still has Singer's style, spectacle to spare, and a cool toybox for play dates—though Patrick Stewart's version of Professor X and Ian McKellen's version of Magneto aren't invited this time. Their inheritors, however, are back: James McAvoy as X and Michael Fassbender as Magneto.
They're joined by a sprawling cast of heroes and villains (which, at sixteen, by my count, ties Captain America: Civil War, but who's counting?) for what should be the equivalent of a page-turning comic-book adventure. To be fair, it comes mighty close. The story concerns the first and most powerful mutant, En Sabah Sur, a.k.a. "Apocalypse," setting out to wipe out lesser humanity unless friendlier mutants can stop him. We meet the power-amplifying Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) in 3600 BCE, enabling Singer to get his ancient-epic groove on (and composer John Ottman to fire up a vigorous choir) for the film's pre-credits action. Once awoken five and a half centuries later, the super-mutant broods, "The weak have taken the Earth" and promptly recruits "Four Horsemen" in metal-controlling Magneto, weather-wrangling Storm (Alexandra Shipp, inheriting Halle Berry's franchise role), telepathic and telekinetic Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and winged warrior Angel (Ben Hardy), to wage civil war against a crop of good-guy mutants.
These include returning players Mystique and Beast (Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult, only occasionally overtaken by hair and makeup), as well as Lucas Till's Havok, and Rose Byrne's CIA agent (and Professor X love interest) Moira MacTaggert. New but distinctly familiar recruits include the teenage versions of Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner of Game of Thrones), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). McAvoy's opening narration describes the powerful mutants as nevertheless being "children stumbling in the dark," but the stratospheric stakes too rarely reach us in the "cheap" seats.
Singer has shown a knack for elevating this kind of pop-culture material, but X-Men: Apocalypse noticeably strains to convince us of its import. Advancing a decade from Days of Future Past (which was mostly set in 1973, as First Class was mostly set in 1963), Apocalypse unfolds in 1983, but the political resonance is at its most superficial, with a "nuclear scare" motif, Reagan somewhere in the margins, Flock of Seagulls and the Eurythmics on the soundtrack, and one of the mutants dorkily modeling a knockoff red Michael Jackson jacket (another sports an Atari T-shirt). Singer was eighteen in 1983, and he time-travels to visit the younger self still into Star Trek reruns at home (Apocalypse wittily quotes Trek's false-god episode "Who Mourns for Adonais?") and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi at the mall. (Lest we start to think of all this as low culture, Singer also employs Beethoven's 7th.)
For all its failings, including the crime of not being exhilarating, X-Men: Apocalypse remains a competent sci-fi actioner. It has at least one bang-up set piece, involving Magneto in a forest; this and a handful of other character-serving moments achieve poignancy against the odds. And there's no denying the film's dazzling superpowers and global-scale spectacle. But we've seen Wonders of the World crumble all too many times before, and this film's most elaborate special-effects sequence is the previous film's most elaborate special-effects sequence: a showcase for cheeky speedster Quicksilver (Evan Peters). Worse, screenwriter Simon Kinberg (and story partners Singer, Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris) fumbles some nonsensical character motivations and plot points that tie logic in knots, and Singer doesn't drive Apocalypse with the same dispatch that saved Days of Future Past from such real-time scrutiny. (Though it's a minor point, X-Men: Apocalypse also has Singer's dumbest of flying, swooping CGI credits sequences).
Superhero junkies probably won't feel they've wasted their time, and X-Men: Apocalypse dutifully meets the minimum requirement of keeping the franchise afloat while introducing new characters and reintroducing others. As for those who can't tell their Apocalypse from their Doomsday from their Thanos, may I interest you in a nice symphony?