The thing about setting benchmarks is that it can be a terrible burden. Earlier this year I determined that Captain America: Civil War was the best Avengers movie yet. It sent a new benchmark for that franchise. And yet, it's not as good a movie as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (which is not the best Superman or Batman movie, an honor that still resides with The Dark Knight) or, as I have now determined, X-Men: Apocalypse.
Apocalypse is the sixth movie in the X-Men franchise, not counting three spin-offs (two for Wolverine and one Deadpool), and it completes the second trilogy while rounding out as a statement for the whole series to date. It does so brilliantly, by learning all there was to learn from the previous entries, something Civil War did before it, too, but because there was more substance to build on, the achievement is greater.
For me, it's always about substance. Like Batman v Superman's nod to Excalibur, a genre film that broke new ground and helped set the tone for what was to come, Apocalypse makes a big deal about how a few of the characters go see Return of the Jedi, which sets off a similar conversation. Most viewers will take away that Bryan Singer is still annoyed at what Brett Ratner did with X-Men: The Last Stand, the finale of the first trilogy, the previous two having been directed by Singer before he attempted to move on with 2006's Superman Returns (that was the whole period when the early millennial fascination with superheroes was either going to die or evolve, and you can see for yourself what happened). And maybe Singer is, but the greater point is also how crucial Apocalypse is to the second trilogy, and how its story is reflected in Return of the Jedi.
If there's a weakness to the film, I would call it blockbuster hangover, which is something that began with Independence Day, the need to have as much destruction as possible in the story, most of which is usually unnecessary. Putting that aside, we can look at the story itself. Apocalypse assumes the role of the Emperor. That's all he basically is, an evil presence forcing moral decisions on the main characters. The key players, as always, are Professor X and Magneto. This has been the case since the start, because of the initial casting for these roles with noted British actors Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, whose performances helped drive interest in the series even as their roles tended to be lost in the shuffle of other character conflicts.
Ironically, it was in Ratner's Last Stand where they truly began to drive the plot, with the character of Jean Grey caught between them. Apocalypse, if anything, might be seen as Singer's version of Last Stand, but with all the history of the film series behind it. With First Class and Days of the Future Past having put such a heavy emphasis directly on Professor X and Magneto, Apocalypse had to deliver, make a thesis of the conflict between them, and decide, once and for all, if they were truly worth rooting for.
This is why I say the X-Men have been doing what Batman, Superman, and the Avengers only just got around to, all along. Apocalypse helps prove that, in elegant fashion.
So many opinions that you have to wade through have already made predetermined judgments about certain aspects (critics hate long genre series; they were complaining about Harry Potter movies even as fans were still rabidly buying the new books, as if they would have no way of keeping up with the mythology). A lot of the people who will tell you Apocalypse is a failure have joined the camp that says only Disney/Marvel can do it right, and that you have to have a fairly light tone to make a superhero movie.
Apocalypse is the bold statement this franchise has been building toward from the start. When Singer first made an X-Men film, he built his vision around the gay community, where he saw the most obvious mutant analogy. Yet in Apocalypse, you can see where he has expanded that vision. Black viewers can see these X-Men as analogous to their struggles, too, which have been plastered all over the news for the past few years, all over again. The struggle never ends. And that's the point of these X-Men movies. The way to respond, in this franchise, comes down to whether you will reject the greater community (Magneto) or attempt to join it (Professor X). Tellingly, Mystique is the one straddling the line and drawing the sides closer, once again. It may also be relevant to note that, along with Rogue, it's Mystique that was left depowered in Ratner's Last Stand.
The confidence Singer brings to these movies today is totally different from the tentative, if bombastic (driven by the early love affair everyone had for Hugh Jackman's Wolverine), steps he took in his first two movies. It's best understood in the Quicksilver scenes, which have stolen the show in two movies now. It's in how he allows Magneto to be human, not in a forced way, as has been the direction in other movies, but as someone we don't need to be reminded was born in the Holocaust (but this time, it doesn't seem exploitative to remind us, again). It's in how he allows Quicksilver to avoid telling Magneto that he's his son. That's the Usual Suspects version of Singer I've been looking for all along, the one capable of withholding information, for the good of the story, the characters, and the audience. Because it makes everything better.
This is how it's done, folks. For all those still upset about the second Star Wars trilogy, you now have a genre franchise with two trilogies, where you can hopefully see how the last in them rounded out the story, in hugely appropriate fashion.