X-Men: Apocalypse is the nerdiest shit I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen Thor: The Dark World twice. I’ve heard Meryl Streep say “drone pilot” in a crowded theater. I subscribe to a YouTube channel about chess. I’m rooting for the cast of Community to succeed. I own a periodic table — not a kitschy poster, I mean, but, like, a laminated sheet, that I keep in a folder by my desk, just in case. I have a second-favorite dinosaur. I’ve seen your boyfriend’s Twitter. I watch BASEBALL. And none of that compares to the newest X-Men, I promise.
Apocalypse is that nerd shit you don’t come back from.
I mean this as the sincerest compliment. X-Men’s film-to-film quality has been spotty from inception, and its path to a [puts on tie, does dollar-sign-shaped line of coke, gets life-changing promotion] “cinematic universe” has been incoherent at best. But in a world where Marvel Studios has become a (the?) dominant engine of mainstream culture, and Ryan Reynolds can clear three quarters of a billion making the movie equivalent of a dickpic, and DC’s ethos pinballs onward from Michael Mann cosplay to Ben Affleck’s Lemonade to that short story your frenemy got published about going to the mall … the idea of a good, old-fashioned, truly nerdy superhero adaptation feels like a breath of fresh air.
It’s also a fascinating case study of star economics. Franchise work — often famously — is not designed to be an in-and-out job. These are two-, three-, four-, five-, however-many-picture deals: in for a penny, in for an Ultron. The ostensible (maybe even spiritual) motive of such structure is narrative continuity: This is a story. These are your friends. In reality, of course, it’s only business: Familiarity breeds contempt, but it also just breeds.
There is money to be made in any given franchise — but with DC and Marvel there are also certain perks. DC (for now, anyway) offers a deep iconography: Superman is … Superman. We can rank each Batman off the tops of our heads. Playing the Joker has won someone an Oscar. Marvel, in turn, offers unparalleled brand equity: Think about where Downey was pre–Iron Man, or Pratt before Guardians, or Hemsworth until Thor. All are good performances — but first they’re market forces.
X-Men, meanwhile, is iconography in reverse. No one — outside of their personal accountants — will associate Michael Fassbender with Magneto, or Jennifer Lawrence with Mystique, or James McAvoy with Professor X when they look back on their careers. These parts are IMDb filler; celebrity curios; walking, knowing smirks. If anything, equity-wise, X-Men roles carry a stigma: They’re pure paychecks. And the thing about paychecks is that — once you get enough of them? Well, that’s why they call it “fuck you” money. It makes you say “fuck you.”
The X-Men franchise has many claims to fame: the first modern superhero movie; the best modern superhero movie; Kelsey Grammer’s first audition in 20 years. But none of these compares to the series’ true calling card: How easy it is to measure who wants to be there. And after going Full Nerd — bless its (let’s call it) heart — Apocalypse is the easiest X-Men to measure up yet.
This is the X-Men: Apocalypse self-loathing index.
1. “I’m just happy to be here.” (Nicholas Hoult — Beast)
Nicholas Hoult just seems happy to be here.
2. “I’m thrilled to be here.” (Evan Peters, Alexandra Shipp, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner — Quicksilver, Storm, Cyclops, Jean Grey)
“You’re not students anymore,” Raven tells her class at the end of Apocalypse. “You’re X-Men.” She’s wrong — they’re better than X-Men. They’re teens.
3. “I’m Oscar Isaac.” (Oscar Isaac — Apocalypse)
This just in from the Department of Heat Checks: Oscar Isaac pulled up from 40 and wrung something compelling out of THIS. This. This! He deserves a — do they make awards for movies? Well, they should start making those and then Oscar Isaac should get one. Because he’s legitimately good in X-Men: Apocalypse.
Even more impressive is that Isaac manages to be good on his own terms: Somehow, someway, he gives a Recognizable Oscar Isaac Performance.™ I swear he does: There’s the sinister recruiter, in Act 1, assembling his team. There’s the seductive destroyer, in Act 2, hijacking Cerebro. And there’s the pathetic loser, in Act 3, being eviscerated like a chump. (Apocalypse even tries to make his own nickname happen. What a husband.)
Anyway: [extremely Oscar Isaac voice] Oscar Isaac.
4. “I’m completely neutral about this.” (Michael Fassbender — Magneto)
You know when a wrestler has toggled between heel and face so many times, and to such diminishing returns, that the integrity of their character just sort of blurs into oblivion? That’s Magneto in the X-Men universe — and we reached oblivion four and a half movies ago. Literally e v e r y X-Men e v e r has relied on the same emotional blueprint: Magneto … bad. But also … good? And — surprise (meant ironically but possibly an actual surprise) — no one cares anymore.
Any other franchise would have conceded this point by now — would have admitted defeat and switched up their flow. But to X-Men’s frankly batshit credit, they’ve pushed right through. Can you guess what the turning point is in Apocalypse’s (yo: barely) apocalyptic battle? Yeah, you nailed it: Someone going up to cool, evil Magneto and saying, “You know what’s really cool? Friendship.”
It’s an incredible gesture of meaninglessness that I almost have to respect — a moment so deep into its own oblivion that it comes out the other side and becomes moving again. Joss Whedon would have killed for a moment like this. The Russo brothers would kill twice for a moment like this. Zack Snyder would do that thing where you push a big red button and your wish comes true but a random person dies for a moment like this. It’s so good, sort of. And it works for only one reason: BASED FASSBENDER.
Michael Fassbender’s performance is Apocalypse’s chaotic neutral. He’s bad (he’s good). He’s good (he’s bad). People die; he mourns. People live; he post-mourns. He seems happy when God asks, “Do you want a job?” and sad when German police ask, “Can we kill your family now?” He looks good with his hair short like that. He looks Hot Even For Him as he CRY-DESTROYS AUSCHWITZ. He doesn’t have “fuck you” money, but he does have “I will walk on-set wearing this improbably well-tailored flannel that I’ve been getting a lot of compliments on lately and you will not ask me to change — additionally, I hate the Magneto hat; let’s do a plot where I lose it” money. Which is still a lot of money. He is the best, worst, most, and least thing in the movie. He is completely neutral. Get him out of here — now. Keep him here forever.
5. “I’m slightly too famous for this.” (Rose Byrne, James McAvoy — Moira MacTaggert, Professor X)
You never want to be slightly too famous for the room.
Being the least-famous person in the room? That’s dope. Being way too famous for the room? That’s actually also dope. Being slightly not famous enough for the room? That’s your sweet spot. But being slightly too famous? That’s a major, major faux pas. Feel the appropriate amount of shame and never let it happen again.
6. “I hate this and I want to die.” (Jennifer Lawrence — Mystique)
Joy bricked for the most part, and not unfairly, but in a weird way it’s the best Jennifer Lawrence has ever been. In the film, a talented genius must overcome a series of increasingly mediocre men in order to create a new product. Sounds familiar. And while I give Joy no bonus points for being a metaphor for itself, there is something breathtaking about watching Lawrence navigate its flakiness — about her refusal, amid each chaos, to come undone.
Degrees of difficulty suit her — but in X-Men she just looks bored. Watching Lawrence endure Apocalypse is like watching a loop of one of those plays where Randy Moss quits his route. People loved to moralize those plays, but I dunno: I honestly always thought quitting seemed reasonable. I mean, he’s RANDY MOSS. Imagine not getting the ball when you’re Randy Moss.
Which is to say that X-Men should take Mystique solo or cut Lawrence loose. It’s just natural order: Some athletes are not meant to be decoys. And some actors are not meant to play supporting roles.
7. “I accept this.” (Hugh Jackman — Wolverine)
If Jennifer Lawrence is our urge to check out of Hotel X-Men, then Hugh Jackman is our resignation never to leave.
Being really real: There has always been something sad to me about Hugh Jackman’s career. Dude has made eight (eight!) X-Men movies, with a ninth — the (not enough scare quotes in the world) “final” Wolverine — on the way. Almost a full third of the feature-film work on Hugh Jackman’s résumé is X-Men. X-Men has been Jackman’s primary professional concern since — I gasped when I read this — 2000. 2000. How can that be? It feels so … I’m not even sure. I don’t even know what the word is. Bleak, or strange, or severe. Like, god: I guess you just do things — and then you die? Isn’t that awful?
Anyway, I wonder if Hugh Jackman ever thinks about this, when he’s sitting around drinking Foster’s Zero or whatever. Does he think, like, What else could I have been doing with my career — with my life? — if I hadn’t spent two decades of it pretending to be this ornery, semihuman, jacked-up kids’ toy with sideburns who definitely doesn’t take love triangle L’s from James fucking Marsden fuck you James Marsden take off your silly-ass sunglasses and stop whining all of the time also your RAV4 commercials are terrible? I don’t know; maybe he doesn’t think about that. But it seems like a lock that there would be at least one more great thriller, or musical, or drama, or Real Steel in this world if Hugh Jackman had just passed on X-Men. And maybe that’s regret enough. I mean, will anyone even care about Hugh Jackman once they’ve remade these in 15 years?
Actually: I think so. I think they’ll care a lot. The more I consider the scope of what Hugh Jackman has done with X-Men, the more I understand my impulse to pity him as misplaced. The more I understand how refreshing it is, at a time when other actors seem forced to choose between “hateful captive” and “patronizing enthusiast,” to see someone treat franchise stardom as kind of routine. And whether he’s joining an ensemble in a team-up, or playing the leading man in a standalone, or even — as with Apocalypse — making a glorified cameo in the bridge to a new chapter, that is always what Jackman’s performances in X-Men films feel like. They all feel the same: like a person, who’s really good at his job, just … going to work.
And I think that’s something to admire. Never as famous as Downey, or as acclaimed as Bale, or as Chris as Evans — Hugh Jackman still feels more important than all of them. He is the first lifer movie star of the superhero generation. And if there is a universe out there for a life like his, I suppose it might as well be X-Men’s. X-Men has never been the most or least successful, or the best or worst received. It’s never dominated the culture, or nurtured an iconography, or gotten Ben Affleck through a divorce. But it’s the original. And now, somewhat miraculously, it has fulfilled its original promise — the promise that every other superhero franchise has long since foregone: It’s become uncool.
Maybe anything worth keeping around eventually does.