The X-Men series has always being dripping in subtext. After all, what are mutants if not an allegory for people who don’t conform to societal conventions? The second X-Men movie, 2003’s X2, capitalised on this to such an extent that it became impossible not to read it as an LGBT “coming out” narrative. Even though I found that sequel overblown and overwrought, it has helped the franchise earn a lifelong pass from me; each film is a celebration of being different from everybody else and, as X-Men Apocalypse states, how you eventually overcome your self-loathing to be proud of your outsider identity.
So, I’m going to get this out of the way nice and early: I liked X-Men: Apocalypse. It is the weakest of the three prequels so far, yet still has a clearer understanding of the balance between goofy comic book humour and emotional weight that the most recent Marvel Studios and DC movies are continually failing to perfect. But here is where the film truly is subversive in a way the MCU could only dream of- despite appearing emotionally and thematically hollow compared to the overwrought subtexts of previous entries, Apocalypse has managed to perfect the art of blockbuster subtlety. Despite featuring gargantuan apocalyptic set pieces and a globe-trotting narrative (that I’m not going to synopsise as it makes Days of Future Past seem simple), as well as too many silly elements to name, it introduces unintentional socio-political relevance- unintentional due to the popcorn blockbuster narrative and the fact this is a period piece set over 30 years ago.
If the mutants led by Professor X (James McAvoy) represent people who don’t conform to society trying to fit in, then the mutants led astray by Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) represent those who turn against this very society because of how it is treating them as outsiders. This shifts the X-Men franchise from merely being a LGBT allegory to being a religious one. Sure, there is overblown biblical allegory, but the Egyptian setting and rhetoric playing on hopeless young minds seems to suggest that Apocalypse is a thematic stand in for ISIS. Frequently manipulating and brainwashing young muslims using the idea that the west doesn’t want them and that they might as well destroy the society that has no place for them is no different to Apocalypse’s plan to get mutants on his side to destroy civilisation. The film has been described as the emptiest of the entire canon so far, including X-Men 3 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Closer inspection reveals that is clearly not the case.
Coupled with the increasingly heartfelt development of Magneto (Michael Fassbender), this is far more emotionally involving than you would have any right to expect. As Magneto increasingly transitions from loveable villain to complex anti-hero, Apocalypse emerges as the best villain the franchise has yet offered- purely because his philosophy is the exact same as the current biggest threat to Western civilisation. There is also a cameo from Wolverine that utilises the character better than any other instalment; a wordless, bloody fight scene that makes the proposition of an R-rated Logan outing all the more tantalising.
So why is this the weakest of the three prequels? Well, there are too many new characters that don’t gel together; they are too goofy in a film that is otherwise well developed. In one cringe-worthy sequence, they make a Return of the Jedi joke about how the third entry in a franchise is always the worst- a poor attempt at fourth wall breaking that makes you yearn for Deadpool to come along and show these kids how meta-humour is really done.
The biggest disappointment is that Quicksilver (Evan Peters), the highlight of Days of Future Past, is something of a one trick pony that the series doesn’t know how to develop. Here he becomes goofy and irritating, his central set piece nothing more than an extended remake of the “Time in a Bottle” sequence from the previous film, but with a misplaced musical cue. Whilst we’re on the subject of bizarre musical choices, listen out for two extra notes added to the end of the 20th Century Fox fanfare, as well as a strange foreign language version of A Flock of Seagulls “I Ran (So Far Away)” playing in the background of an Egyptian market stall.
The X-Men franchise has been going on for even longer than the MCU- yet I am still not remotely fatigued by it. I never anticipate each new movie, but from First Class onwards, I have really enjoyed each one without reservations. Apocalypse is the first time I have any complaints, but it hasn’t stopped me looking forward to the next inevitable outing. For me, the X-Men franchise is far stronger than the MCU to such an extent it makes me recover from superhero fatigue- something I’m sure DC and Marvel will try their hardest to make me relapse back into.