“X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” — 2½ stars — James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Oscar Isaac; PG-13 (sequences of violence, action and destruction, brief strong language and some suggestive images); in general release
“X-Men: Apocalypse” is the cinematic equivalent of a toddler who pulls out every one of his toys at once, giving each about three seconds of his fleeting attention span before moving on to the next option. Even if the individual toys are brilliant, strewn through the room they are an aggravating mess with potential.
The first toy that director Bryan Singer pulls out of his box is the backstory for an ancient mutant named Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), who ruled humanity in Egyptian times by collecting and enhancing other mutant powers. But just as he’s about to absorb the power to self-heal, a rebel movement buries him under the rubble of his own pyramid.
Fast-forward to 1983, roughly 10 years into the new alternate X-Men timeline established by 2014’s “Days of Future Past.” CIA agent Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne), 20 years removed from her involvement in 2011’s “First Class,” is tracking a group of Egyptian cultists and inadvertently awakens the long-sleeping Apocalypse.
So an ancient mutant arises to wage war against humanity, and only the good mutants stand in his way. So far, so good. But that’s just the first toy Singer pulls out of the box, and things are about to get cluttered fast.
There’s an origin story for Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), and we also meet a young version of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). We catch up with Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), who has been in hiding for a decade. As Apocalypse recruits a core group of followers, we meet Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Angel (Ben Hardy), and a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp).
And of course, no X-Men film would be complete without another deep exploration of the volatile bromance between Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and the perpetually bitter Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who has more family issues than he realizes.
Individually, each of these elements is great fun, and fans will be entertained by their numerous exploits throughout the film. You’ll also be in for a few surprises, depending on how closely you paid attention to the trailer. But the ingredients never gel, and the concoction Singer pulls out of the oven doesn’t look anything like the movie poster they slapped in his cookbook.
The timing really couldn’t be worse. “Captain America: Civil War” just showed us how to make sense out of character chaos: Keep the story rooted around a couple of primary leads, and keep the tangents at a minimum. It's too bad "Apocalypse" couldn't heed that advice.
“Civil War” also had the advantage of ambiguity. Anyone who saw “Days of Future Past” already knows what the alternative future looks like. This robs “Apocalypse” of any genuine tension and effectively turns it into an elaborate origin story for Professor Xavier’s baldness.
(Maybe the Blu-ray will feature an alternate opening scene of Patrick Stewart gathering a throng of young mutant students around a crackling fire and saying, “Have I ever told you the story of how I lost my hair?”)
At one point, a group of Xavier's students emerge from a matinee of “Return of the Jedi” and remark that “at least we can all agree that the third film in the series is the worst.” It’s an obvious jab against Brett Ratner’s maligned “X-Men: The Last Stand,” another overstuffed feature that Singer and company have been trying to atone for for the last 10 years.
Well, technically speaking, “Apocalypse” is the third installment of this new series, and its problems are remarkably similar.
And yet, for all the mess “Apocalypse” makes, the quality of its cast and characters, combined with the strength of the stories that have come before, will at least make Singer’s new film entertaining as a quick fix. It also tries to have some fun with ′80s nostalgia the same way “Days of Future Past” did with the ′70s, even if it feels a little forced (look for Ally Sheedy in a quick cameo early on).
If you’re a fan of the series, you can’t justify skipping it entirely. But like “Jedi,” “X-Men: Apocalypse” will eventually take a backseat to the better installments on the franchise list.
“X-Men: Apocalypse” is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, action and destruction, brief strong language and some suggestive images; running time: 144 minutes.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.