It wouldn't really be accurate to accuse X-Men: Apocalypse of being the worst of the four major superhero movies released in the first five months of 2016 (with three more to come! A record!), but it is surely the least interesting. Deadpool had its fiery, filthy sense of postmodern humor; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice had its balls-out crazy ambition and mythological grandiosity; Captain America: Civil War had neither of those, but had the unique benefit of being actually, objectively well-made. Apocalypse has naught but 16 years' worth of recycled beats from the never-rebooted X-Men franchise to mix and match in combinations that almost work.

That is to say, the recycled beats work just fine themselves, it's the combining them that doesn't. Apocalypse is like taking a trip to a buffet where all of the food is legitimately quite good, but then you just start dumping it on the plate, so you have two slices of pepperoni pizza draped languidly over mashed potatoes with gravy that's starting to ooze onto the kung pao shrimp, and to finish it up you've topped it all with two - nah, make it three - scoops of peach ice cream. None of it tastes right together, and when you're done eating, mostly you just wish there had been less of it. Apocalypse is only 12 minutes longer than the last film in the series, 2014's revitalising, continuity-flattening X-Men: Days of Future Past, and 12 minutes ain't nothing, but it feels closer to an hour while you're watching. Days of Future Past, after all, had basically one narrative thrust, while Apocalypse feels like three distinct movies, each of which could have been a worthy sequel in its own right.

I will go through them in the order I liked them, from most to least: we have, yet again, the story of how Charles "Professor X" Xavier (James McAvoy), paraplegic psychic mutant, and Erik "Magneto" Lensherr (Michael Fassbender), Holocaust-surviving mutant who can manipulate metal, would like above all things to be friends, but whose views on how the world works cannot be reconciled. This time around, ten years after becoming an internationally wanted fugitive in the 1973 events of Days of Future Past, Erik has gone into hiding in Poland, with a wife (Carolina Bartczak) who knows his secret, and a darling daughter (T.J. McGibbon), to whom he promises that he'll never be taken away from her in the kind of grave, sincere register that makes it very clear that he will very much be taken away from her. He also has a job at a metalwork facility (a silent and thus appealing irony), and when he saves a coworker's life using his power, he's outed and reported to the police. One dreadful series of accidents later, there's a dead wife and daughter, a lot of dead cops, and an Erik who is stripped of the last vestiges of sentiment, looking only to see the world bleed.

Nicely working alongside this plotline, we find find shapeshifting mutant Raven, AKA "Mystique" (Jennifer Lawrence, awake again after cruising through Days of Future Past on autopilot), who has dedicated the last ten years to saving the lives of mutants throughout the world, and who finds herself flung together with her old colleagues at Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters when she proves to have the best insight into a current crisis facing them all. We'll get back to that crisis, but together, the Raven and Erik plots speak to the desire for absolution, and the difficulty of obtaining it; and while we've had literally six films now of either McAvoy & Fassbender's Charles and Erik sadly calling each other "old friend" as they debate moral philosophy, or Patrick Stewart & Ian McKellen's versions of the same characters doing the same thing, it's still enjoyable to watch given the high level of acting talent involved (and Fassbender, in particular, is on fire in this movie).

Movie two is the attempt to bridge the trilogy defined by this film, Days of Future Past, and X-Men: First Class with the original trilogy of X-Men, X2, and X-Men: The Last Stand, or that is to say, whatever stories will take their place now that they've been wiped from the timeline. It is the film in which we meet a new generation of mutant teenagers: Jean "Jean Grey" Grey (Sophie Turner), a highly sensitive psychic with a dark secret; Scott "Cyclops" Summers (Tye Sheridan), emotionally high-strung but a natural leader, if he can gain confidence, and control the death rays that shoot out of his eyes; Kurt "Nightcrawler" Wagner (Kodi Smit-McPhee, by an outstanding margin the best of the newbies), a deeply religious German mutant with the body of a devil and the ability to teleport; and Jubilation "Jubilee" Lee (Lana Condor), who sucks less as a character her than she usually does, mostly by virtue of barely being in the movie. Also, for the first time in any medium where I've encountered her, the ethnically Asian Jubilee can actually be determined to be Asian visually. These wide-eyed innocents are Xavier's last hope for a peaceful future for mutants, but despite his best efforts, he and his right-hand man, Hank "Beast" McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) are drifting back towards the dormant idea that the best, brightest, and strongest of his students should be trained to be the X-Men, heroes to defend the world. The resurfaced Raven finds herself awkwardly placed into the role of icon and figurehead for these nascent fighters.

Movie three is a big blue dude trying to blow shit up and take over the world.

Here's the thing: the first two movies can be accused of overreach and overstuffing themselves with material - there is simply not enough time left over for all of the new mutants to get anything remotely like a proper introduction, which is a cardinalsin for a movie this long to commit - but they have been lumped together by director Bryan Singer (his fourth trip to the franchise, and alas! his worst) and screenwriter Simon Kinberg (Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris also receive story credit alongside the first two men) in a way that has an appealingly overblown comic-booky attitude. It's the destruction porn leg of the triangle that just does not cohere - over here's a scene of Magneto screaming in pain as he cradles his dead child, now let's cut over to some garish CGI laser swords! - and which feels the most boring and over-familiar. The villain is En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac, wasted under latex and digitally-augmented dialogue), an ancient mutant who was worshiped as a god before being buried under a pyramid in 3600 BCE, in what's become downtown Cairo by 1983. He has generically Hitlerian intentions for turning the world into his private power fantasy, and to do it he needs to recruit his mutant Four Horsemen: a sullen young man with wings, Angel (Ben Hardy), a psychic energy-wielding mutant named Psylocke (Olivia Munn), an African woman who can control weather (Alexandra Shipp), who is neither called Ororo Munroe nor Storm anywhere during the course of the movie, but it still counts, and based on her limited screentime, I think Shipp has the goods to make more of the character than has so far been made. Last of the horsemen is Magneto, in a decision that really doesn't work, like at all. It turns his entire arc into "morally grey character turns pure evil until he stops at the point where the heroes would lose if he continued", which is a tremendous waste of Fassbender's work in constructing the character over three movies.

Apocalypse has a lot of material that works really magnificently well, but the material around the actual Apocalypse (which, in the comics, is also En Sabah Nur's nom de guerre, never specified as such here) is almost uniformly dumb, big noisy crap, continuing the grand tradition of comic book movies in recent years of having the absolute worst, most bland villains. Replace Isaac's slate-blue villain here with Lee Pace's teal-blue villain from Guardians of the Galaxy, and I can't see that it would matter, or that anybody would notice. It's needless bed-shitting maneuver that makes the film feel worse than I think it actually is, since almost everything else at least has the seeds of something interesting: though we don't get to know the new characters other than Scott all that well (it resembles the first X-Men in how transparently it's putting all the pieces on the chessboard for a game to be played later), they're all fairly interesting, and McAvoy and Fassbender continue to be effortlessly wonderful - Fassbender in his rage, McAvoy in his clumsy, inept behavior around former flame Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne). There are some fairly good action sequences: the climactic battle with En Sabah Nur and his lackeys is filmed from close-enough angles that it feels like it involves people instead of objects, but not so close that it's hard to follow, and there's a new sequence involving the fast-moving Peter "Quicksilver" Maximoff (Evan Peters) that plays a lot like the Quicksilver scene from Days of Future Past done bigger and flashier. It lacks the impact of novelty, and it starts to strain credulity, but it's also delightful to watch, and turns a slow-motion explosion into the most beautiful kind of saturated-color popcorn movie imagery.

When the film works, it mixes this kind of ultra-glossy comic book entertainment (it's easily the most cheerful-looking of Singer's X-Men films) with the hard-edged PG-13 seriousness that has long defined the X-Men ethos amongst the major comic book franchises (compared to the slightly sanitary Marvel Studios films, or the angry nihilism of the later DC films). When it doesn't work, it's mind-rotting tosh, or unnecessary puffery, like a violent cameo from fan favorite Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) that plainly exists for the primary, indeed solitary reason that Wolverine is, after all, a fan favorite. It's a movie groaning at the seams and inelegant as all hell. I frankly can't imagine whether I should say that on balance, it's "good" or "bad" - I think anybody who enjoyed either or both of First Class and Days of Future Past will at least not hate this, and I certainly didn't regret the two and a half hours watching actors I love playing characters I like while John Ottman's terrific score dances its dance with Beethoven's 7th Symphony. But honesty forces me to admit that no, this doesn't really "work".

Reviews in this series
X-Men: The Last Stand (Ratner, 2006)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Hood, 2009)
X-Men: First Class (Vaughn, 2011)
The Wolverine (Mangold, 2013)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (Singer, 2014)
Deadpool (Miller, 2016)
X-Men: Apocalypse (Singer, 2016)
Logan (Mangold, 2017)
Deadpool 2 (Leitch, 2018)
Dark Phoenix (Kinberg, 2019)
The New Mutants (Boone, 2020)

Other films in this series, yet to be reviewed
X-Men (Singer, 2000)
X2 (Singer, 2003)