Zack Synder’s dark and brooding interpretation of the quintessential showdown in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice honed in on our intrinsic fascination with the face off. Batman (the newly cowled Ben Affleck) is a man — a mortal with an iron will and the means to develop and produce tools and weapons of mass destruction — while Superman (Henry Cavill), the alien from Krypton, has, thanks to our yellow sun, the power of a god.
The angst-ridden clash of the DC cinematic titans gave way to a more grounded but no less impactful civil war on the Marvel Comics side of the scale, with tensions rising to a fevered pitch between Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) over an escalating series of events that, despite their improbable superpowered roots, real world implications.
The seeds of concern had been sown to varying levels throughout the entire canon of movies preceding the release of Captain America: Civil War. Everybody loves heroes (the bigger and more dynamic the better), but these beings tend to leave massive destruction in their wake while spawning equal and opposite counterparts. How should these heroes be deployed and who needs to be responsible for making those decisions drove a push for oversight, while some among the heroes questioned whether the unspoken agendas of others should trump the rights and responsibilities of civic-minded individuals.
I must admit to enjoying how over the years Marvel, initially during its comics and now in certain cinematic titles, has embraced social and political elements.
From a critical standpoint, Marvel understood and appreciated how its universe could be used as a tool for reflection. It tapped MacArthur Genius Grant and National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates to make the case for a reimagining of the Black Panther, one that hones in on the modern complexities of politics, history and race relations.
In collaboration with Disney, Marvel’s cinematic universe has more broadly adjusted and adapted the context of its popular Civil War arc, but it doesn’t own a monopoly on such socially and/or culturally minded fare. 20th Century Fox, largely under the direction of Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects), has sought to frame the mutant argument in their X-Men franchise as analogous to the Martin Luther King/Malcolm X schism within the Civil Rights Movement.
Intriguingly, decades of graphic storylines captured evolution of the debates between peace-minded Professor Charles Xavier and the more militant master of magnetism Erik Lehnsherr, which ultimately led to the escalating militancy of Xavier’s star pupil Scott Summers, in a world where mutants truly were feared. The movies, which initially did not seek to establish the narrative foundation from the texts, have struggled to build and maintain this compelling theme. A kernel of it exists in nearly every installment, but often it gets lost in the action set pieces and the jumbled mishmash of plotlines.
And now, in the latest X-Men entry, we get the global shenanigans of their all-powerful antagonist Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) who simply wants to make a better world without caring much for either mutants or humanity.
Magneto (Michael Fassbender) still anchors the dispute as a Jewish mutant, a survivor of a concentration camp with such guilt over the past. And his present isn’t much better. Having given up magnetic grandstanding for the quiet life, humans once again take everything he has built from him, leading to Magneto hooking up with the would-be mutant god.
The thing about Apocalypse is that he’s not interested in the mutant agenda. He’s merely a Bondian villain with the power to effect real change. He wants to destroy and rebuild, which he says constantly, as if the more he lays the plan out, the more clear it will become, but he’s all general and generic bluster with no specifics.
What the cinematic superhero world needs is to turn away from these gods versus human tropes. Gods used to be personifications of our fears, but the things that truly frighten us stem decidedly from within. The big bads of the world are humans, granted very evil humans, but human all the same.