X-Men: Apocalypse movie review: 'They're back with nothing new to offer'
I'm sure you people are sick and tired of listening to snooty, elitist critics like me bemoaning the evils of superhero movies, so let's take all that as a given, and pretend for the moment that the arrival of X-Men: Apocalypse is a good and positive, life-affirming thing.
This is, believe it or not, the ninth instalment in the X-Men franchise, a sequel to X-Men: First Class (2011) and X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), and a prequel to the earlier films starring Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. These recent episodes have gone back to the start of the X-Men story to explore the roots of the rivalry between Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender).
At the end of Days of Future Past, which was set mainly in 1973, an unfortunate incident on the White House lawn almost led to the death of Richard Nixon, and what a tragedy for mankind that would have been. As a result, Eric and Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) have been forced underground: she's in Berlin rescuing mutants from forced cage-fighting, while Lehnsherr is in Poland posing as a humble metal worker, has married and has a child.
It's 1983, and Charles Xavier is living peacefully and teaching mutant students at his School for Gifted Youngsters when a new enemy emerges on the other side of the world.
Entombed for thousands of years but immortal for reasons we need not go into, En Sabah Nur (Oscar Issac) emerges from the rubble of a Cairo slum in a very bad mood. He feels (and watching this thing one can see his point) that mankind has gone to pot altogether, and that planet Earth needs a cleansing, an enema if you will, to restore the natural order, and the supremacy of the strong.
To this end he sets about recruiting four mutant lieutenants to help enact his grand plan: he has his heart set on Eric Lehnsherr, whom fate forces into his hands.
When Eric uses his magnetic powers to save a co-worker from a falling pot of molten lead, his true identity is revealed, and after Polish police turn up at his house a tragic accident ensues.
All alone, and with morbid tendencies that don't need much encouraging, Eric is approached by En Sabah Nur and associates with a modest proposal involving mass destruction and world domination. What's not to like? Only Charles and his loyal mutants stand in the crazy Egyptian's way, and look a little sort on fire-power.
Bryan Singer has made enough of these superhero things to know how to put them together, and for long periods balances competing story lines and the contradictory needs of action and drama reasonably well. The box of tricks is opened early, and a spectacular but oddly underwhelming prologue takes us back to ancient Egypt to meet En Sabah Nur in his prime. The cage-fighting sequences in Berlin are reasonably diverting, but the film's strongest scenes involve Eric Lehnsherr's new life as a happy proletarian.
How he can afford a charming house in the country on a Soviet-era steelworker's salary is anybody's guess, but the poor man actually seems to have found contentment until tragedy comes a calling. It's the only moment in the movie where we actually get to see someone (Michael Fassbender) act, and that's the real tragedy in a film teeming with thespian potential.
Mr Fassbender, Ms Lawrence and Oscar Issac are capable of extraordinary things on their day, and co-stars like James McAvoy, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult and Tye Sheridan aren't too shabby either. But masks, heavy make up and a script oddly bereft of those trademark Marvel jokes, conspire to stifle all dramatic possibilities in a film that starts well, but grows ever dumber as it hurtles towards the inevitable apocalyptic climax.
There are no jokes and few surprises in X-Men: Apocalypse, but it doesn't matter what I, you or anyone else says or thinks about it. It will make vast sums of money, and the X-Men will return.
X-Men: Apocalypse (12A, 144mins)