Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Did I like X-MEN: APOCALYPSE? I'm still not entirely sure

As I left X-MEN: APOCALYPSE this weekend, my gut assessment of the film was "about average." Then I thought about what that statement meant as I attempted to mentally rank the six films. After deciding it wasn't better than the first film, I slotted it in fifth, coming out only ahead of the painfully bad X-MEN: THE LAST STAND. The more I contrasted the first film and the latest entry in my head, the more I couldn't help but think about the role that timing plays in how a superhero film is received.

The original X-MEN film from 2000 seems positively quaint and low-budget now. Hell, even then it felt like a much smaller film than the recently-concluded BATMAN series, and two years later it would be significantly exceeded by Sam Rami's SPIDER-MAN. The first X-MEN is not the sort of film that a studio wagers its whole summer on, not today at least. It does the job of grounding a fantastical comic universe in a world that feels somewhat like ours, to the degree that it feels almost entirely divorced from the more comic-booky APOCALYPSE.

So I can't help but ponder, if you reversed the two, would a 2000 release of APOCALYPSE blow me away with all the VFX eye candy and the undeniably comic book plot? If it wasn't for the superhero fatigue of YET ANOTHER spandex-fest where the fate of the world hangs in the balance, would I treat this film's flaws more charitably? Would a 2016 version of the first film strike me as too small and too scared to embrace its comic book roots? Was that first film simply in the right place at the right time to be the leader out of the gate of a new superhero renaissance?

I honestly don't know. The fact is, though, with so many comic book superhero movies in the last eight years, we have a strong baseline for what the genre is capable of exploring on-screen. "Good enough for a comic book movie" isn't gonna cut it anymore. There were moments of APOCALYPSE where I was entertained, and plenty of other moments where I felt more sure than ever that superhero fatigue is real because so many moments felt like tired retreads of other films.

DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is still my favorite X-Men film and I think one reason it succeeds is it clearly understands its characters and makes their motivations and agendas critical to driving the story forward. The series always uses the relationship between Professor Xavier and Magneto as the core central conflict. The one wants to find a way for mutants and humans to peacefully co-exist; the other wants to lead mutants on a conquest of humanity. What DOFP does so well is that it makes the plot hinge on a battle for Mystique's soul - will she choose Xavier's way or Magneto's? Further, we know that if she isn't stopped, the entire future is doomed.

So right there, we're dealing with a character-focused story because not only does Mystique need to be persuaded to back down from her agenda, but Wolverine needs to get a broken Xavier back in the saddle again AND Magneto needs to be recruited to their side and brought along because he and Xavier side-by-side are the only two people who can bring down Mystique. Yes, there are superhero battles, but interpersonal conflict is at the core of all of this and it's conflict that's directly tied to the overarching themes of the series.

APOCALYPSE falls short of that depth. The plot is about the resurrection of the god-like First Mutant, Apocalypse and his intent to bring about the end of the world for all but the strongest mutants. To that end, he recruits his Four Horsemen - Angel, Psylocke, Storm and Magneto - and kidnaps Xavier. This leaves a reluctant Mystique to pick up the pieces and lead Xavier's students into battle to stop Apocalypse. With Magneto's power being critical to Apocalypse's plan, the good guy's gambit is to appeal to Magento to switch sides. That's not going to be easy because the former villain has just suffered the devastating loss of the family he'd built over the last ten years after a quiet life in seclusion. Anti-mutant paranoia led to their murder, and Magneto is again on his "kill all humans" kick.

There are moments where the pieces briefly snap into place perfectly and you can tell that if the script had been given a little more time, the result could have been something as compelling as DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. Regrettably, the filmmakers only had two years between films rather than the standard three or four and the rushed nature shows. I don't like doing this, but I'm going to have to spoil some of the climax in the next two paragraphs.

In the third act, Magento is using his abilities to mess with all the metal under the Earth's surface. Basically, it seems that he's going to lay waste to everything above ground by tearing up the planet from the inside. Visually this means he hovers while generating a magnetic orb and CGI debris floats around him. Mystique appeals to him, saying he may have lost one family but he still has people who care for him, people like her. Significantly, she's brought Quicksilver with her - who is the son that Magneto never knew he had. It feels like we're being prepped for a big emotional beat here...

...and then the film balks. Quicksilver chickens out of identifying himself to his father and even after Magneto switches sides, Quicksilver opts to keep that secret. It's unsatisfying to deny the audience that resolution, compounded by the fact we really don't understand what's going on with Quicksilver's thought process. What makes him clam up? What is it like for him to REALLY see his father? What's he hoping to get out of that encounter? It's a surprising blind spot in a film that seems to want to explore Magneto's family.

And let's talk for a minute about the Four Horsemen. Just based on how Magneto's handled, Apocalypse doesn't seem to be using any sort of mind control power when he recruits them. They all join up of their own free will, but their motivations for doing so don't seem to go much beyond wanting power. Angel, Psylocke and Storm are all ciphers. There are hints of a little bit more going on with Storm, particularly her idolization of Mystique, but these three don't add much at all.

Olivia Munn as Psylocke is particularly bad. Halle Berry's acting was a popular punching bag for fans but Munn makes her look like an Academy Award winner... for CATWOMAN. Say what you will about Oscar Isaac's over-the-top and often cheesy performance as Apocalypse - it suits the movie. He blasts it out to the cheap seats, but there's not a moment where you can't feel his conviction. He's not mocking the material and he fully commits no matter how ridiculous he looks.

I was almost inclined to go easy on Munn, with the defense that she was just hired as eye candy. (No one else's costume has a "boob window" for instance.) Then I remembered Rebecca Romijn in the first film and how she gave an actual presence to an eye candy role - without the benefit of almost any dialogue. Watch Mystique in that film and you see there's thought and purpose behind every gesture. With Psylocke you can see all the gears turning in the actress's head about the pose she's going to strike or the scowl she's going to wear. The same goes for Lady Deathstrike in the second film. She and Mystique were two of the breakout stars in the early film because of what those actresses were able to bring that wasn't necessarily on the page. With the right casting and the right chemistry with the other actors it feels like Psylocke could have been that for this film. Instead, the miscasting only compounds the errors of the thin writing for the character.

In fairness, the script doesn't do right by Mystique either. The writers give her the same sort of reluctant hero arc they used last time on Xavier, but with less successful results. It mostly just takes the air out of the character. Jennifer Lawrence seems bored, and I can't really blame her. The resolution of that arc doesn't immediately leave the makers of the next film any place interesting to go either.

This is also the first time the film appears exhausted under the weight of its own cast. There was a point where I felt like I'd been watching for 45 minutes already and we were still in introductory material. I admit I can't readily think of a more efficient way to lay the same pipe, but that probably also speaks to how uninteresting some of the scenes were. Maybe the way to do this would have been to commit to making this Magneto's film and try to structure the first act around his journey, branching out to the other stories where thematic connections were possible.

How well this works for some viewers might depend on how excited they are to see the mutant cast drastically expanded. Younger versions of Scott Summers and Jean Grey join Xavier's school, and Nightcrawler ends up being brought in after Mystique saves him from captivity. It's fun to get some new action figures on the board, but it comes at the expense of the established cast - who all have sizable parts to play in this film.

The visual effects are occasionally subpar. The sequence where an entire city is destroyed on screen evokes no reaction from the viewer because of how artificial it feels. It's not that the CGI is terrible, but it's just a few hairs shy of photo-real. It doesn't help that none of the devastation is shown from a human POV. The city might as well have been empty for how little we feel for the people who lived there. It's baffling because Singer knows better. In a "save the city" sequence in SUPERMAN RETURNS, we're abundantly aware of all the people in peril and how Superman's actions are all about preserving that life.

It's also hard to ignore the problems with this sequence on a storytelling level - Magneto murders millions, if not billions. It's hard to walk the character back after that kind of attempted genocide, no matter how much his character arc justifies his motivations. The film could have ended with Magneto escaping justice in a "lives to oppose the X-Men another day" sort of resolution. Instead, the filmmakers opt for an ending that sells out Xavier's character.

Even dodgy CGI can't mar the film's best sequence - the big Quicksilver setpiece. It's not quite as inventive as the Pentagon sequence in DOFP, but its the one part of this film where the filmmakers are clearly having a ball playing with all their toys. It's also an action scene with real action and peril rather than people merely floating and striking poses amid CGI graphics. In terms of action sequences, this might be Bryan Singer's most disappointing film. It's a shame to realize that after looking back on two and seeing how well he constructed many of the setpieces there.

Is it a bad movie? When films like THOR: THE DARK WORLD, CATWOMAN, and WOLVERINE have shown us the lowest points of the genre, it's hard to lump APOCALYPSE in with them. Release this in the same summer as BATMAN FOREVER (which was pretty well-received at the time, don't forget) and it probably feels like a much better film.

On the other hand, it's a letdown and a disappointing entry from a team that's shown they're capable of so much better. We've reached the point where the characters' growth has stopped being the driving factor of this franchise. This is the most "comic book" X-Men film because the VFX eye candy has finally overcome the themes and the character development in the franchise. APOCALYPSE is like Chinese food - fun while you're taking it, but leaving you hungry an hour later.

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