In Hollywood’s current comic book glut, there may be no group of superheroes less cool than the X-Men. Lacking the dark storytelling that Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder brought to Batman and Superman, the wiseass edginess of Deadpool, or the prom-king popularity of the Avengers, this band of mutants can’t help but feel old-hat; the first film came out 16 years ago, which in blockbuster terms is ancient history. It doesn’t help matters that the R-rated Deadpool, one of 2016’s biggest surprise smashes, spent much of its running time mocking the X-Men’s do-gooder nobility. (For Deadpool, joining forces with those dorks was a fate worse than death.) When you’re an easy target of ridicule in other comic-book movies, you’re getting perilously close to reaching your cultural expiration date.
And yet despite those reasons, or maybe because of them, X-Men: Apocalypse is the best superhero film so far this year, better than Deadpool, the god-awful Batman v Superman, and even Captain America: Civil War. But neither comic-book fatigue nor X-Men familiarity can stop this latest installment from delivering action and pathos with a touch of grandeur. When you think about it, director Bryan Singer’s 2000 original, featuring a group of superheroes all working together to defeat the bad guys, set the pace for the comic-book blockbuster world in which we now reside. But where other franchises dabble with thematic undercurrents, this one invests fully in them, and X-Men’s central message, about outsiders trying to find their own community, proves just as relevant as ever.
Continuing the reboot/prequel strategy that began with 2011’s X-Men: First Class, the new movie takes place in 1983, as our protagonists deal with the fallout from the events of Days of Future Past, which took place a decade earlier. Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is once again trying to put aside his evil ways, enjoying a quiet domestic life in hiding with a wife and young daughter in Poland. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is training young mutants at his university, while Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) remains a loner, traveling the planet looking for mutants to bring to the school. But they’ll all be reunited by the arrival of En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), a millennia-old evil force who wants to obliterate humanity and rule the planet.
Anyone who’s seen any of the X-Men movies—this is the sixth, not counting Deadpool or Wolverine films—can predict that En Sabah Nur, a.k.a. Apocalypse, will tap into Magneto’s hatred for humans, once again putting him in conflict with Charles, who still believes in humanity’s capacity for goodness. This should be a painfully tired conflict after so many films. But with Apocalypse it remains surprisingly fresh: McAvoy and Fassbender have managed to extend the admiring rivalry that played out so engagingly when Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen portrayed these foes. You don’t watch an X-Men movie because you actually believe Magneto is going to convince Charles of his position, or vice versa—you watch because you love their established dynamic, the interplay between two powerful, slightly haughty individuals debating how best to confront a world that won’t accept them.
This is Singer’s fourth film in the series (one of the movie’s best jokes is a dig at an X-Men movie he didn’t make), and Apocalypse represents the latest chapter in one of the industry’s better prodigal-son stories. Launching onto the scene with 1995’s The Usual Suspects, he transitioned from indies to 2000’s X-Men, stepping aside after 2003’s X2 to helm the underrated, much-reviled Superman reboot Superman Returns. Struggling to find success with forgotten misfires Valkyrie and Jack the Giant Slayer, Singer returned to the mutants for Days of Future Past, and although a new generation of actors has taken over the iconic roles, the filmmaker seems to understand the material’s underlying anguish in his bones. The X-Men films may be just one more Hollywood moneymaking machine, but Singer has turned them into a life project of sorts, constantly examining how his characters both reject and embrace their otherness.
When X-Men and X2 hit theaters, it was clear the mutants—and society’s fear of them—were meant to represent homosexuality, and the metaphor gave those movies a resonance that reached beyond the excitement of action and special effects. In some ways, the franchise’s subversive streak might not seem so novel anymore—a cheering sign about the speed of progress in this country—but the metaphor has only expanded to include every group that feels marginalized. It’s an indication of Apocalypse’s nonjudgmental tone that in a movie about characters who are as powerful as gods, one mutant—Nightcrawler, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee—actually believes in God and prays during tense moments. Everybody in Apocalypse has something that makes them different—or could possibly get them ridiculed—but Singer insists they can all coexist.
As an auteur, Singer lacks the visual trademarks of a Snyder (which is just as well), the tonal sophistication of a Nolan, or the pop-culture giddiness of a Joss Whedon. But he does have a clear sense of action geography, keeping things from getting too manic or confused, and he possesses a knack for operatic majesty that feels emotional instead of bombastic. And he’s not afraid to repeat himself if a bit is good enough: Like in Days of Future Past, the fleet-footed Quicksilver (Evan Peters) must zip through an action set piece to save the day, the whole scene playing out in slow-motion from the character’s sped-up perspective. Cheekily set to “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” the sequence is funny, but it’s also playfully awe-inspiring, a perfect marriage of effects, spectacle, and straight-up wonder.
Some are going to be disappointed that Isaac, who’s been on such a roll of late, doesn’t exactly dominate as the all-powerful Apocalypse, but the serene menace he brings to the character is effective enough, even if the actor is unrecognizable behind makeup, a cumbersome outfit, and voice-distorting gimmicks. But what’s perhaps most remarkable about Apocalypse is that nobody really gives a great performance—and it isn’t a problem.
What tends to weigh down a Batman v Superman or any of the recent Marvel movies is the directors’ insistence on cramming the frame with more and more characters. Since 2000, the X-Men series has always had plenty of heroes (and villains), but Singer has understood that they’re part of an ensemble in which the sum is greater than the parts. Nobody would want a Cyclops or Nightcrawler or Raven film—they’re just not interesting enough on their own—but together, these characters underline the franchise’s message about the need for family. You can argue about the wisdom of casting a huge star like Lawrence in Apocalypse and then not giving her much to do, but Singer makes it work by not letting anyone overact or try to pull focus. Even McAvoy, and especially Fassbender, simply tap into the enduring appeal of their characters—they don’t put their own stamp on Charles and Xavier so much as they let the iconography do the heavy lifting.
There’s something refreshingly modest about that—and it’s a modesty that extends to the franchise in general. That may sound like a ludicrous thing to say about Apocalypse, which ends with the planet’s future hanging in the balance and just about everything blowing up or falling apart. But even then, the X-Men films’ emotional core is startlingly potent, the action hinging on characters accepting who they are and finding the courage to defeat the evil around them. Apocalypse is hardly immune from the superhero limitations that hobble its peers—the movie is too long, and there are too many characters, as well as too many callbacks and cameos. But in an era in which so many superheroes are either brooding drips or sarcastic jerks, the corny, slightly square X-Men are a relief. After all these years, they’re still out to save the planet—but they’re also determined to remind us that there’s a reason it’s worth saving.