On the crosstown drive to see X-Men: Apocalypse, my friend explained why he's backing Bernie Sanders. "The world is broken," he said. "Well," I replied, "then let's pick someone who knows how to fix it." "Nah," he sighed. "Time to burn it all down."
We sat in the darkness of the theater and our conversation continued without us. There was Michael Fassbender's Magneto wanting to blow civilization to hell — three films in since X-Men: First Class, the concentration camp survivor's anger has become quiet resolution; he's less shouty and more scary. There was bureaucrat Professor X (James McAvoy) struggling to sway him with the idea that small steps — one more new student, one more civil CIA interaction — make big strides. And there was Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique on an inspirational poster, blue chin tilted like Obama, giving people hope.
All comic book stories have political shadows. The difference is how much they’re lit: bright and blown out like The Avengers, which hammers jokes onto one thesis, or dark and subconscious like Batman, where real fears become bogeymen. But this latest X-Men series doesn't take place in a parallel world; it takes places in ours, and its heroes and antiheroes don't fight symbols — they battle the truth. In the first two films, Magneto was accused of trying to assassinate JFK and Nixon. Here, in 1983 with Reagan's little smile hanging everywhere like the Mona Lisa, he flattens Auschwitz.
Yet, while Apocalypse sounds like this week's election think piece, the Bernie/Hillary allusions are coincidental — or, really, foreordained. The disgruntled have wanted to destroy the system since Noah boarded his ark. That's almost as old as Apocalypse villain En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac, not that you'd know it under his gooey makeup and peeled-grape eyeballs), an immortal mutant who's been stockpiling powers for millennia like an angry squirrel. As the film hints, he may have even invented the idea of God, a concept that, in its extreme form, continues to get people killed. So it makes us shudder when director Bryan Singer awakens him in Egypt, site of some of today's bitterest struggles, and flanks him with devotees eager to help him behead and bomb whomever he deems morally corrupt. If Magneto, who has legitimate grievances, is Bernie, En Sabah Nur is Trump: He's always been on top, yet he still wants the world "cleansed," a decision he's made just from skimming scraps of infotainment on TV. Sucking data from a set, he flicks through channels and speaks his first English words: "Learning," he stutters. And then, "Weapons."
Apocalypse is bone-crackingly violent. People are bent into pretzels, burned, smashed, and slashed across the jugular with everything from lockets to sand. Singer has one favorite camera move — a breakneck wormhole zoom — which he finds an excuse to use three times. Otherwise, he doesn't seem to have any idea what to do with the lens. He sort of plops it wherever, as though he's worried his actors will collapse under the weight of their costumes and greasepaint.
And yet I found myself loving this strange, straight-faced operetta that embraces everything from Gregorian chanting to East German punk to Flock of Seagulls. The year 1983 is a daffily perfect setting for a superhero flick, somehow managing to feel both familiar and fresh: Jean Gray (Sophie Turner) is in mom jeans, Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) sports a red Thriller jacket, Professor X favors feathered Hall and Oates hair and lavender V-neck sweaters, and Quicksilver (Evan Peters, once again stealing every scene) wears, of course, a Rush T-shirt. Though Lawrence's numb eyes plead to escape yet another franchise, we at least get a kick out of her video-vixen wardrobe of metallic dresses slashed to her ribs. Give her a guitar and she'll be the Lita Ford of early MTV. Fassbender, however, remains totally committed to the series — speech for speech, he's a better sad tyrant as Magneto than he was in last year's Macbeth.
Of the new kids, Tye Sheridan is an expressive 16-year-old Scott Summers, a.k.a. Cyclops, a feat given that he has to spend most of the film hiding his eyes. (Thank god for his vulnerable, quivering mouth.) Turner's Jean Grey has the sensibleness of a Jane Austen heroine. Thanks to their CGI powers, she and Sheridan have to spend big action scenes, er, staring intensely at stuff. They manage not to giggle, which is its own super stunt. The catch is, aging down Summers and Grey back to high schoolers makes their love triangle with Wolverine bizarre: They get younger, but Hugh Jackman stays the same age. In Apocalypse, he cameos just to skewer three dozen men and let the young girl inhale his musk. She blinks at him with fear and awe and just a spark of heat — she wouldn't know what to do with the hairy manimal if she caught him. For now, she needs a boy who could pose with balloons in Teen Beat.
As for their enemies, all newbie zealots under the sway of En Sabah Nur's revolution, Ben Hardy's Angel and Alexandra Shipp's Storm get one good scene each. We want more. There's just no room. But at least they fare better than Olivia Munn's Psylocke, who must have been given only two directions: stand with your legs so far apart it doesn't make sense and glare at the camera. Hey, you can't focus on everything when you're trying to tear down one world in order to build another. En Sabah Nur doesn't even seem to know how he wants it rebuilt. And so X-Men: Apocalypse makes one more bridge to our present: It's just much more fun to smash 'em up than to do the dull work of planning what's next.
[Illustration: Kurt Woerpel/MTV News]