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film review

Erik/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) has the power to manipulate magnetic fields.Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

Even in a movie season known for its abundance of overconfidence, Bryan Singer's X-Men: Apocalypse arrives with an impressively cocky attitude.

First, the film has one character randomly decry Return of the Jedi, because "everyone knows the third movie is always the worst" – a knowing wink to those who loathed X-Men: The Last Stand, the franchise's third film and one of two X-movies to be made by someone not named Bryan Singer. Second, it hired The Force Awakens's sex bomb Oscar Isaac, owner of the world's most charismatic smile, but only so it could bury the actor underneath layers of grim blue makeup. And finally, studio Twentieth Century Fox lifted the embargo on X-Men: Apocalypse reviews almost a full month before its release, a strangely long lead time when it comes to such fussed-over tentpoles. Brash execs must have assumed the new film was so amazing that they'd be drowned by a wave of positive press, perhaps enough to rival the film's chief comic-book competitor, the universally loved Captain America: Civil War.

Well, just like Icarus – or perhaps the X-universe's own winged braggart, Angel – Apocalypse has flown too close to the sun. Singer's fourth X-Men film wants to be clever, it wants to make a moral statement and it wants to be the most epic X-movie ever. Instead, it's a goofy, confusing mess of a sequel, a cautionary tale of what happens when a filmmaker lives too long inside his own franchise to realize that no one takes it nearly as seriously as he does.

Simply trying to summarize the plot of Apocalypse takes the strength of Colossus (the mutant, if not the Rhodes statue), as Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg zigzag across the globe to catch up with characters both known (Magneto, Professor X, Mystique), unknown (Isaac's ancient titular blue baddie, the world's first mutant) and rebooted (new versions of Jean Grey, Cyclops, Nightcrawler and Storm). They all end up smashing against each other in Egypt, with the usual high stakes (the world itself) and higher levels of camp (God, that skin-tight purple outfit Olivia Munn is forced to wear as Psylocke).

And don't think that having watched any of the previous X-films will help you figure things out. By this point in the series – after the time-travel shenanigans in the fourth film wiped out the plot from the third, and the second standalone Wolverine movie ignored events of the first – there is not so much a cohesive narrative structure to Singer's universe as there is a madcap choose-your-own continuity misadventure. Comic fans will be mystified. Movie fans will be confused. Everyone will leave disappointed.

Still, X-Men: Apocalypse cannot be written off as a complete waste of time (and talent, and millions upon millions of dollars). What other blockbuster, for instance, can boast a CGI-enhanced destruction of Auschwitz? That's where Holocaust survivor Magneto (a pained Michael Fassbender, doing lots with little) is transported by the film's dopey villain, and urged to rip apart the infamous site from the ground up. It's a stunningly tasteless exploitation of an unspeakable tragedy, but also a unique moment of poor judgment that must be seen to be believed.

Couple that bewildering scene with a wealth of similarly bad-but-fascinating choices – let's have Rose Byrne's character remember nothing from her previous outing! Let's set the film in the eighties for no real aesthetic or narrative purpose! Oh, and here's a cameo that retroactively cancels the ending of X-Men: Days of Future Past! – and Singer's film becomes nothing less than a stunning act of cinematic hubris.

Toward the end of the movie, Apocalypse bellows to his fellow mutants-in-arms, "Everything they've built will fall! And from the ashes of their world, we'll build a better one!" Naturally, it doesn't work out that way. But it's also just that kind of overconfidence that Singer himself should have recognized while making the film. Relax, take it easy – it's not the end of the world.

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