In the past couple of decades, two long-standing superhero franchises have continued to develop before the eyes of moviegoers: Fox’s X-Men series and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While the folks over at DC Comics/Warner Bros. have seen their share of ups (The Dark Knight trilogy) and downs (Green Lantern), Fox and Marvel Studios have been busy developing interconnected adventures based on their distinct sets of characters, complete with spinoffs, period pieces and epic team-ups galore. As a result, the X-Men series and the MCU have both earned their spots among the highest-grossing film franchises of all time, reining in $4.1 billion and $10.2 billion at the worldwide box office.
Likewise, the two Marvel Comics-based properties have frequently divided fans with their creative decisions. The X-Men films are so well-known for their continuity problems that Deadpool even called it out directly in this year’s crowd-pleasing smash. Meanwhile, MCU films are often criticized for what some perceive to be formulaic storytelling (i.e., Thor: The Dark World) and their willingness to sacrifice a given narrative to continue developing the mythology (i.e., Avengers: Age of Ultron). Few fanbases are as fickle as the comic book community. So how do the latest entries in the X-Men series and MCU (both of which hit theaters in May) fare when pitted against each other?
In one corner, we have X-Men: Apocalypse, the final chapter in the trilogy that began with the 2011 release of X-Men: First Class. Likely, it’s the last film to focus on the main cast of James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, and Nicholas Hoult, as the story involves the introduction of younger takes on original trilogy characters like Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), and Storm (Alexandra Shipp). Moreover, it features the return of director Bryan Singer for his fourth film in the franchise and follows the massively successful X-Men: Days of Future Past, largely considered among the best X-films so far.
X-Men: Apocalypse even brings in rising star Oscar Isaac as the titular villain, serving as the prosthetic-clad nemesis who divides the film’s mutant ensemble in two. An ancient figure capable (and, indeed, intent) on global destruction, the character sets the stage for the most ambitious X-Men film in the franchise to date. The amount of subplots it addresses and references to previous as well as potential films it fits into its 144-minute runtime is staggering (no spoilers here!).
However, Captain America: Civil War is no stranger to that grand scale either. Much like X-Men: Apocalypse, the film builds upon its library of predecessors, taking the simmering conflict between Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to new heights. Serving as a proper sequel to the widely praised Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the film — under the guidance of returning directors Joe and Anthony Russo — unites nearly all of the heroes established thus far in a politically and emotionally charged conflict and even weaves in introductions for Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the MCU version of Spider-Man (Tom Holland).
Though both films feature comic book icons locked in a battle that has game-changing effects on the milieu of their respective franchises, X-Men: Apocalypse falls short of greatness in its execution. Though the film offers plenty of spectacle and solid performances across the board, the story takes on more than it can manage, leaving new characters like Angel (Ben Hardy) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn) with little to do. Likewise, Isaac’s Apocalypse never emerges as particularly well-defined, and his goals are mostly limited to power for power’s sake. Overwhelmed by how much it wants to take on, X-Men: Apocalypse does a solid job of incorporating its many seemingly disparate elements into a single narrative thread but never does so in an exemplary fashion that manages to eclipse the storytelling prowess of Singer’s own X2: X-Men United and X-Men: Days of Future Past. Despite some undeniably fun sequences and powerful moments, the film’s sprawling tone still falls on the lower end of the X-Men’s cinematic spectrum.
Captain America: Civil War, on the other hand, proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that (much like Captain America says early on) the safest hands for Marvel’s characters are its own. Rather than shoehorn in tons of unnecessary subplots, the film effortlessly finds something substantive for nearly all of its characters to do and dodges the temptation to wallow in backstory for its new characters. Instead, the focus is firmly on the diametrically opposed perspectives of Cap and Iron Man, using Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) as the device to drive a firm wedge directly into the heart of the MCU.
The rest of the film’s ensemble cast are only included as the story allows, and even the “villain” of the piece, Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), comes from an emotionally truthful places that only serves to underscore the thematic ground that serves as the basis for Captain America: Civil War. More thought-provoking and eminently entertaining, the film delivers on a level that X-Men: Apocalypse — while still a respectably enjoyable superhero extravaganza (despite what most critics are saying) — just never manages to reach.
WINNER: Captain America: Civil War
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