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'X-Men: Apocalypse' shows superhero movies how it's done

Some comic book movies try to hard. The latest mutant-fest gets it just right.

‘X-Men: Apocalypse’
Director:
Bryan Singer
Stars: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender
Rating: PG-13
3 (out of 5) Globes

“X-Men: Apocalypse” opens in 3600 B.C. When was the last time a superhero movie had a ridiculous historical intro? Today’s comic book movies are gritty and down-to-earth, which means they often lack a classical kind of showmanship. But here’s an entry that starts more like “Stargate” or “The Fifth Element” than “Captain America: Civil War.” It’s here we meet our main baddie: the eponymous blue meanie, played by the usually charismatic Oscar Isaac, trapped in makeup and a suit that make him look and act like a block of painted granite that talks (occasionally, a bit). Apocalypse is a super-mutant mistaken for a god in Ancient Egypt. He’s buried in a bottomless pit, and we wait for some idiot to revive him, for whatever dumb reason.

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It’s a silly scene, even before the opening credits prove sillier still, sucking the viewer through a time tunnel touting the greatest hits of history (like Jesus, the “Mona Lisa” and the World Trade Center). But it also creates anticipation, gets us excited about what this hellbeast could do once he’s awoken in the 1980s. That kind of touch is gone from today’s comic book movies — the Marvels and the DCs, which keep throwing stuff at us, sometimes in disorganized blobs, then let the well-read nerds chide and insult us for not knowing what’s what.

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The “X-Men”s don’t do that. They’re officially old school — not just because the film franchise is 16 years old, but because despite the time-hopping and constant recasting it still plays the same as it ever did: breezy, fun, competent. “Competent” may not set the heart a-flutter, but them’s the breaks. The current trend, upheld by Marvel and DC, is to crank up the ambition — social importance! deep philosophy! the most comic book gods crammed into a single blockbuster ever! — and just about tumble off the screen from all the weight.

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The “X-Men”s, by contrast, play like old pros; they were jamming too many superheroes into superhero movies three whole Spider-Men ago. They can slip in social import without breaking the flow. (“X2” had a stealth bits about gay rights, but one had to be pretty thick to miss the subtext.) They can set up further adventures without forgetting about the one in progress. It’s almost weird now watching a comic book movie, like “Apocalypse,” that makes it look easy — that tells a single story, that introduces new characters (or reintroduces them, with new, younger faces), that moves the mythology/franchise along, and doesn’t make one’s head feel like it’s been smashed into a malfunctioning pinball machine filled with wasps.

As a story, “Apocalypse” is yada yada, especially compared to the time traveling glee of “Days of Future Past.” All our heroes — half of them young reboots of old icons, like Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops and Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey — have to do is team up to destroy the token mega-villain, plus the rogue mutants he’s swayed to his side, including Michael Fassbender’s still fuming Magneto.

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But Singer takes his time telling a streamlined story that juggles untold characters but never feels overpacked. He finds a confident tone that can still be flexible — that can veer comedic (see: another time-freezing set piece for Evan Peters’ speed freak Quicksilver) or go grave. In these paycheck films, Fassbender has been more Serious Actor than Guy in Spandex, and he gets a scene to strut his stuff: Having gone into hiding since the events of “Past,” Magneto has reinvented himself as an Average Joe in Poland, raising a family and working at a factory. When his powers are discovered he’s confronted by motley mob understandably worried he’s a ticking time bomb — a plan that goes tragically awry and makes us feel for a guy we know can go full villain.

It’s a shame Fassbender spends most of the token overlong climax floating in a literal bubble, and that even this entry really does have too many characters. But it’s just by one or two. Welcome as it always is to see the great Rose Byrne, her CIA agent, brought back after 2011’s “First Class,” could’ve been deleted with few problems.

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Still, it’s fun to see a comic book movie that’s fun — that knows how to be serious without getting burdened by pretention, like “Batman v. Superman,” or that doesn’t feel like 10 movies smashed into one, like “Civil War.” That one trotted the globe but still looked like it was largely filmed in administrative office parks. “Apocalypse” has deserts and European forests and the ardent countryside of the X-Mansion and grotty clubs, plus a movie theater showing “Return of the Jedi.” Its villain may be an almost literal stiff, but he can still decapitate people with sand (!!) and embed people into walls. “Apocalypse” won’t change the world or even the game. It’s solid and forgettable. And right now that seems like a compliment.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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