There is a certain wish-fulfillment dynamic at the core of all superhero stories. For decades now, we have looked at each other and asked, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could…” and finished that sentence with nifty abilities like “fly,” “be invisible,” or “have Adamantium claws.” During the superhero movie boom of the 21stcentury, however, we have begun to ask a different question. We have traded “Wouldn’t it be cool?” for “Wouldn’t it be awful?” Now, when we turn our imaginations on, all we can conjure are the terrible things mankind would do to superheroes, if given the chance. This year’s Batman V Superman and Captain America: Civil War dwell mostly on our inability to properly appreciate them. These days, we spit on those who protect us and offer us salvation. Maybe we don’t deserve it in the first place.
X-Men: Apocalypse understands this, which is why it’s the best superhero movie of the year. An early scene finds its ancient villain, Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), awakening from a 10,000-year slumber and turning on the TV. He sees our broken political system, mumbles something about “false idols,” and decides that humanity needs to end. Onscreen or off, we’re hardly in a position to argue. The mutants in X-Men: Apocalypse are split, once again, between those who want to co-exist with humans and those who want to destroy them, but director Bryan Singer (helming his fourth movie of the franchise) clearly sides with the latter. He revels in the evil of his all-powerful villain and stages his apocalyptic sequences with a no-holds-barred artistic vigor. Meanwhile, he brings nary a single new note to the dramatic arc of Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), the film’s steadfast moral backbone. We can see why some mutants join the dark side. It’s just more interesting.
As is the custom with superhero movies these days, X-Men: Apocalypse jumps all over the globe. It opens in Egypt, where a small but determined group of cultists engage in an ancient ritual involving the world’s first mutant. From there, it skips to Germany, where Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) recruits young Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to the cause. Eventually, we catch up with Eric/Magneto (Michael Fassbender), living a quiet, working-class life in Poland with his wife and daughter, before circling back to Westchester, New York, where Professor X is working with a new group of youngsters, including a beautiful, tortured teen named Jean Grey (Sophie Turner).
At some point, these characters will choose sides and come into conflict. That’s what X-Men movies do. And while the plot unfolds clunkily, it gets by on the sheer conviction of its madness. With a winningly schizophrenic tone, it moves from scenes of intense, personal grief to CGI-laden battle sequences set on ancient ruins to inventive physical comedy. Quicksilver (Evan Peters) once again gets the film’s most flat-out enjoyable scene, in which he essentially stops time in order to help our heroes out of a predicament. Unfortunately, he also carries the burden of the comic book movie’s requisite Daddy Plot, in which he wrestles over whether to tell Magneto the truth about their relationship.
Then, there is the scene in which the young X-Men go to the movies to see Return of the Jedi; it serves no narrative purpose and exists only to get a crack in about how bad X-Men: The Last Stand was (“The third movie is always the worst,” one of them say). Notably, The Last Stand was the one movie in the franchise Singer was not involved in. It’s hardly a classy move, but who says any of this has to be classy? In fact, who says it has to be anything? Most superhero movies are either silly or self-serious; this one manages to be both at once.
That’s the issue: Good guys are bound by clichés but villains—like Apocalypse, Magneto, and, let’s say, Singer—are allowed to indulge in their unbridled selves, which nudges them closer to creating something remarkable. Perhaps that’s why these contradictions add up to a convincing whole. The story Singer and his actors are tasked with telling is utterly ridiculous, but he and his actors mean every moment of it. X-Men: Apocalypse verges on camp, but it’s far too free and anarchic to even qualify as a style. It’s the work of a madman, a poet dancing down the street in his underwear, laughing as the city crumbles around him. We need more like it.
X-Men: Apocalypse opens tonight in theaters everywhere.