You have to hand it to 20th Century Fox. The studio has released two Marvel comic book films this year, which can easily stand toe-to-toe with Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), if not surpass it. “Deadpool” brought a unique blend of mirth and silliness to the genre and now “X-Men: Apocalypse” (released May 27) brings an epic and globetrotting sorrow to the world of super-powered beings.
I refrain from using the word “superhero” because, like the entirety of X-Men canon, “Apocalypse” grapples with the important questions that come with the existence of mutants. Do supernatural abilities automatically bestow upon you the responsibilities of savior or ruler? How would the world of regular citizens feel about such individuals? Would they welcome mutants as equals or shun them as second-class threats?
The discussion on the relationship between superpowers and society as well as keeping them in check seems to be the overarching cinematic motif of this year’s roster of comic book adaptations. “Civil War” was the first to breach the topic and “Suicide Squad” will do it later this summer.
On that note, Mutants: Where are they now? Ten years have passed since the events of the ret-conning “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (Bryan Singer returns as director) when Magneto almost killed Nixon on live television and the Sentinel-related apocalypse was avoided. Now, it’s 1983: Charles (James McAvoy) is back to honing the powers of young mutants, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is a symbol of heroism to mutants everywhere and Erik (Michael Fassbender) is living a quiet life as a steel mill worker and family man in Poland.
The emergence of En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac is nearly unrecognizable in makeup and voice), the world’s very first mutant endowed with near omnipotence, a major ego and the philosophical rasp of Brando’s Colonel Kurtz from “Apocalypse Now” (how fitting, right?), brings back the X-Men together. Worshipped as the OG deity before he was betrayed in ancient Egypt, he awakens from a thousand-year slumber and seeks to wipe out humanity and its “false gods” to create a New World Order ruled by the strong with himself at the top.
To do so, he recruits four mutants and horsemen (Angel, Storm, Psylocke and Magneto) to help him bring about the end of civilization. For all his villainous actions, Apocalypse does one good thing that Doctor Manhattan never did: rid the world of its nuclear arsenal. The mutually assured destruction paranoia is reminiscent of that gold standard of the comic book world, “Watchmen.”
All horsemen are underdeveloped except for Magneto who still manages to be the best and most tragic character of the franchise. Fassbender brings a profound pathos to Lehnsherr’s Holocaust survivor who is deeply scarred by the discrimination he faced as a Jew in a war-ravaged Europe and now as a mutant in the modern day. His hatred for mankind is not without justification and he gets all the scenes that will bring tears to your eyes. “Where were you?” he asks Apocalypse who fancies himself as the first god, referring to when his people were being slaughtered. In one particular cathartic sequence, Magneto lays waste to Auschwitz concentration camp, the horrific place in which his powers were born. He also gets the honor of the one awesome R-rated moment the MPAA will allow in a PG-13 movie.
Other standouts are the pint-sized, hormonal versions of the most iconic X-Men: Jean Grey (Sophie Turner aka Sansa Stark!), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). At one point they sneak away from the Xavier mansion to do the most teenager thing of the ’80s: go to the mall and see “Return of the Jedi.” “At least we can agree the third one is always the worst,” says Jean as they leave the theater, discussing the merits of the original “Star Wars” trilogy. Haha we get it, Bryan Singer, “X-Men The Last Stand” was terrible.
And remember Evan Peters’ Quicksilver defining sequence from the last movie? Yeah, he’s back with another hilarious (literal) showstopper synchronized perfectly to the synthesized “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” by Eurythmics. CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) returns to stir up some old feelings in Charles and the audience. And if you’re wondering how the Professor lost his hair, don’t worry, that’s answered as well.
Overall, “X-Men Apocalypse” is a delight for old fans and newcomers alike on both a visual and character level. Filled with tons of goodies, cameos (you know the one I mean) and callbacks to previous movies and classic comic story arcs (you also know the one I mean), “Apocalypse” nicely ties together the X-Men Cold War origins trilogy that began with “First Class.” It’s fitting that the three movies should take place in a time when the world feared the reach and mutating effects of atomic radiation. As such, the X-Men are the physical embodiment of this phobia like the aliens or giant insects in a 1950s B-movie.
Sorry, Cap, but “X-Men: Apocalypse” is the best, most mature, well-crafted blockbuster and Marvel-related movie of 2016 so far. However, I’m willing to reserve a final judgment to see if “Doctor Strange” can work his magic to influence my decision on the matter.