X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) by Bryan Singer
Review by Nathan Smith
This article was originally published in an abridged and edited form in The Daily Beacon, the student-run newspaper of The University of Tennessee.
The week before I saw Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Apocalypse, the latest entry in the now-pubescent X-Men movie franchise, I caught up on the many previous entries in the series. I let you know this just because there’s a chance I might have Stockholm syndrome. Either that or Apocalypse really isn’t just the best X-Men movie thus far, but one of the best superhero movies ever made.
Set in 1983, 10 years after the Watergate-era events of X-Men: Days of Future Past, Apocalypse follows our mutant heroes as they do battle with the all-powerful Apocalypse, played with menace and lots of face makeup by the impeccable Oscar Isaac. Apocalypse, the world’s first mutant, has reemerged from an ancient tomb to wipe the world clean of humanity.
What sets Apocalypse apart from the other superhero event movies of the season is its disinterest in politics; it's the first in the X-Men series that doesn’t draw much of a parallel between the struggle of mutants in the human world and real-life issues of civil rights. Unlike Batman v. Superman and its blundering nihilism or Civil War and its cynical sense of social consciousness, Apocalypse seems more interested in mysticism. It sheds politicking for emotion; its mythology is rooted in spirituality, not history.
In fact, history is the true villain of Apocalypse; Apocalypse is an ancient entity enshrined in the past who, unlike Professor X or his comrades, has no hope for humanity’s present or future. Apocalypse is aided in his quest to weaponize history by Magneto, whose distrust of mankind stems from his trauma as a survivor of the Holocaust. Michael Fassbinder might deserve better roles than Magneto, but he gives the character such feeling that we understand why he’s drawn to villainy. Fassbinder makes the melodrama of Apocalypse work; I can think of few other actors today who could go full Tevye and have a believable monologue with god. Through the help of his performance, the conflict reveals itself not as between mutants, but between the pain of the past and Professor Xavier’s imagination of a hopeful future.
This could stand as a metaphor for the entire X-Men series, which has long buckled under the weight of its own narrative. Each installment introduces a new slate of characters, ensuring the next movie will be even more complex. Unfortunately, humans and their desires don’t always line up with the goals of franchise filmmaking. Human actors, unlike movies, get old and die; contracts expire. Considering the first X-Men movie came out in 2000, there’s a lot of real-life baggage to make up for.
Because of these complications, the series has perpetually made less sense throughout its progression, but Days of Future Past and Apocalypse both embrace the nonsense as a means of erasing the errors of past chronologies. These most recent installments look toward the series’ own future with eagerness and optimism.
This offers the opportunity for bold visuals and psychedelic imagery, which Apocalypse is stuffed with. Instead of the citywide slugfests we expect from the genre, the action set pieces in Apocalypse are psychic warfare: battles of mind and image, emotional relationships rendered physical in bright displays of color and geometry.
And speaking of color, Apocalypse is filled with shades absent from the monochrome Batman v. Superman and television-like Civil War: not just normal action movie blues and oranges, but purples, hot pinks, and greens. The film’s opening sequence, in which Apocalypse is entombed inside a crumbling pyramid, feels like the halfway point between Alex Proyas’ Gods of Egypt and Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce, a marriage of ultimate blockbuster weirdness. The X-Men franchise has had a fetish for credits sequences since its inception, but Apocalypse ascends to a new level with an abstract number that glides through the entire history of Western civilization.
Like the last two X-Men movies, Apocalypse also has a lot of fun with its period trappings; highlights include Professor X sporting a Miami Vice fit and feathered hair, hair metal music cues, and another fun sequence with Quicksilver set to Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” I mean, there’s an actual scene in which Angel has his ribs torn out to a soundtrack of gross glam metal as Apocalypse gives him steel wings. I’m almost ashamed that this movie’s out-and-out weirdness hasn’t acquired more defenders. Its color palette dazzles and its sense of imagination is a delight to witness.
Apocalypse embraces the mistakes and peculiarities in its own lore, deprioritizing logic and convention. It glides without pause between mystics, character complexities, and humor. This strikes a balance between the mythic pondering of a film like Batman v. Superman and the caped camaraderie favored by the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The optimism of X-Men: Apocalypse is refreshing; not only does it offer hope for the franchise’s own future, but for the entire superhero genre. If Batman v. Superman was the superhero movie we deserved and Civil War the superhero movie we were told to want, then Apocalypse is the superhero movie we need, a mystical slice of melodrama that doesn’t shrink from the goofiness of its own origins. Stockholm syndrome or not, Apocalypse offers imagery that stretches the limits of our eyes- and our minds.