Disney just hit another home run with Captain America: Civil War. Fox has struggled to compete, but its latest in the X-franchise proves that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not the only home for A-grade superhero fare. The fact that Civil War and Apocalypse came out the same month should not be grounds for any arguments. It's a very simple win-win for fans of spectacular entertainment.
When Bryan Singer jumped ship and left the third X-Men flick in the incapable hands of Brett Ratner, it nearly killed the franchise. Singer reintegrated himself as a writer of the excellent prequel First Class and director of the uneven Days of Future Past. With Apocalypse, he has finally steered the ship back on course, crafting one of the greatest comics pictures to date. The time streams may be muddy, but Singer draws liberally from X-Men comics writer Chris Claremont's toy box with great results.
The film opens in ancient Egypt, introducing the titular villain as the first mutant. Oscar Isaac portrays the blue-skinned Apocalypse then, aping Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. Jennifer Lawrence and Michael Fassbender return as Mystique and Magneto, respectively, and Hugh Jackman makes a brief but satisfying cameo as the pre-Wolverine, Mutant X.
First Class was set in the swinging '60s, and Days of Future Past fumbled its alternate future but nailed the '70s. Apocalypse reverently sends up the '80s. Quicksilver sports a Rush Moving Pictures shirt, Angel lurks in the rafters of a gothic Berlin warehouse while blasting Metallica's "Four Horsemen," and the reintroduced Storm wears her iconic mohawk.
Super-powered mutants have always been a stand-in for outsiders, giving nerds and pariahs drawn to the comic a sense of solace and hope. A beautiful example comes in the film when Beast, Mystique and Nightcrawler—blue-skinned all—gather in solidarity without stating the obvious. The whole world finds a use for mutants in Apocalypse since the stakes are nuclear-level and worldwide.
If there's a weakness in this film, it's the nemesis. Isaac is not to blame, though he was far more likable as Poe Dameron and far less so as Llewyn Davis. The issue is that, despite being a demigod, thousands of years old, absorbing the powers of countless "inferior" mutants over time, and leaving the entire world in shambles by the end of the film, he simply never seems all that effective or scary. It's not that these film adaptations should slavishly follow the comic's storylines, but one thing that always set X-Men apart from other heroes was just how imperiled they always seemed to be. With a villain as deadly as Apocalypse, the one point that stopped me from adding a plus to the movie's A grade was the constant sense that the good guys would inevitably win.
There is great temptation to compare Apocalypse to Civil War. The major difference (aside from being set in separate Marvel universes) is that gritty Captain America is dour in its seriousness. X-Men may deal with worldwide peril, but it feels more like a comic. Three-D is recommended since the film is so powerfully front-loaded with Tron-like tunnels and cameras flying through debris. There is gratuitous CGI, but honestly, no one misses the days when Superman crossed the screen hanging from a wire.
Factions on the internet will inevitably find reasons to hate this movie. The Egyptians will be too pale for some. The budding romance between Scott Summers and Jean Grey will fall flat for others. Psylocke's comic-accurate body suit will madden someone's mother. The question is: Do you want to have fun and enjoy a comic book turned into a quarter-billion-dollar feature film or would you rather stay home reading Proust?
Critic's Grade: A
SEE IT: X:Men Apocalypse is rated PG-13. It opens Thursday at most Portland-area theaters.