X-Men: Apocalypse is the third instalment in the freshly retconned X-movieverse, or the ninth film total, counting outlier Deadpool and disliked stepchild X-Men Origins: Wolverine. 16 years and 9 films in and at the peak of “cinematic universe” mania, one couldn’t blame the series for feeling a bit long in the tooth about now.

Thank goodness, then, that the power couple of director Bryan Singer and writer Simon Kinberg are bringing a revitalized energy to the franchise, and finding new ways to tell exciting stories in a now well-established canon. The dense complexity of Days of Future Past and its hitting of the reset button allowed for some much-needed breathing room in a storyline that began the same year movies like Cast Away and Space Cowboys hit theaters. By risking alienating a built-in fan base, Singer and Kinberg made some space for new stories in a familiar world, which begs the question – did they pull it off?

X-Men: Apocalypse answers that question with an emphatic “YES!” Continuing in the retro-futuristic tone of the preceding two films, Apocalypse brings the new roster of mutants forward another decade, this time setting its impressive story in the 1980’s, in a fast-moving world still reeling from the dramatic standoff between Magneto and the leaders of the U.S. Government. As society grapples with the increasing presence of technology, the growing arsenals of Reagan-era politics glimmer in stark contrast to the ancient godliness of Apocalypse, who returns from a centuries-long sleep to reclaim his world by horrific force.

For a film rated PG-13, many of the on-screen deaths are surprisingly brutal, and it adds to the film’s visceral atmosphere of genuine danger; too often do superhero blockbusters feel like they’re all tricks and no teeth, so it’s refreshing for a film of this epic size to have a palpable threat and unpredictability to it. Even for how many plot points were given away by trailers and clips released online, there are still plenty of rewarding surprises for viewers to take in.

Even with all the characters we’ve technically already seen before in their more mature incarnations, the new additions to the growing cast of young mutants bring refreshing variety to the types of interactions and fights we see on-screen, with newcomer Psylocke appearing alongside youthful portrayals of mainstays like Jean Grey, Cyclops, and Nightcrawler. Adding to the fun is Apocalypse’s awe-inspiring ability to essentially make all of his allies overpowered, with Storm and Magneto getting off-the-chain levels of power upgrades, giving viewers never-before seen levels of power from these characters on the big screen.

What makes this two-and-a-half hour super powered beatdown more than a simple popcorn flick is the moving performances brought by carefully curated blend of action and emotion, with James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender returning to reprise roles they’ve helped define so much so quickly. I challenge even the most skeptic filmgoer not to be moved by Fassbender’s poignant performance, and say what you will about the often simple tone of comic book films, but the tragic character of Erik Lehnsherr and his eternal struggle to find peace in a world of suffering deserves mention among some of the most compelling character stories of recent history, in my opinion.

Grade

B+

Conclusion

New faces, continuously raging turmoil, and a bold direction forward highlight what is an immensely effective film. Whether viewed as the third or the ninth in its lineage, Singer and Kinberg’s X-Men films show us a bold alternative to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And while it’s difficult not to wish for a scene shared by the X-Men and the Avengers, these stories are so strong and so broad in their scope that you almost don’t have room to feel like you’re missing anything.