Monday, May 30, 2016

Review: X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, action and destruction, brief strong language and some suggestive images

Score: 3 out of 5

X-Men: Apocalypse is enjoyable. It's not as good as either of the prior two X-Men movies, First Class and Days of Future Past, which respectively rebooted a moribund franchise with its best film yet and proved that the first time wasn't a fluke. It's not as good as Deadpool, the big superhero surprise of 2016. It's certainly not as good as Captain America: Civil War, one of the best superhero flicks in recent memory. But it's definitely better than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which is pretty much all I was asking for with this one after hearing the mixed reviews for it. Overall, it's about on par with The Wolverine from a couple of years ago. It has big problems all around, from the writing to the special effects, but it just skates the right side of the line of being "good" thanks to some knockout moments and the performances from its leads, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender.

I'm gonna get the biggest problem out of the way first, and that's the villain. The story here concerns En Sabah Nur, aka Apocalypse, the first mutant in the history of the X-Men universe. Around 2500 BCE, he ruled ancient Egypt with an iron fist thanks to his ability to transfer his consciousness to others, which allowed him to both absorb the powers of other mutants and effectively live forever. However, he was entombed alive when some people, who regarded him as a false god, destroyed the pyramid where he was carrying out the ritual. Now, in 1983 CE, a cult that worships mutants has unearthed his tomb beneath Cairo, reawakening him and leading him to... not do much in particular.

Here's the problem: not once did I ever feel truly threatened by Apocalypse, or get the sense that he was some next-level bad guy. The makeup that poor Oscar Isaac has to wear does him no favors; it not only looks bad (I've heard people compare him to the Power Rangers villain Ivan Ooze, and I don't blame them), but it smothers his performance in special effects. There is cosplay of the comic-book version of the character that looks better than what's on screen here, and when you had $178 million to spend, that's just inexcusable. Apocalypse's big problem, however, is that he has no character whatsoever. All of his lines are rants about how the "weak" non-mutants have taken over the Earth, and that he must restore his rightful place as ruler of the world and destroy the humans' "false gods". It's boilerplate social Darwinism of a sort that countless generic doomsday villains have rested on, and it's never elevated beyond that. Nothing is made of the fact, prominently featured in the trailers but relegated to only a couple of lines in the actual film, that he inspired countless bits of ancient mythology, including ancient gods and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (his four hand-picked lieutenants). This could've been a great angle from which to explore the religious implications of mutants existing; after all, could some of the saints, and even Jesus, have been early mutants whose powers were attributed to divine providence? Instead of this, we just get a blue-skinned tough guy with ambiguously-defined superpowers who only gets a real, clearly-defined goal -- take over the body of Charles Xavier (aka Professor X) and use his mental powers to brainwash everybody on Earth, even though he already seems to have some sort of mental powers of his own -- in the third act.

It's when the film instead chooses to focus on Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto, as its secondary villain that it starts to come together. (Starts to.) After Days of Future Past, Erik has gone into hiding in his old home country of Poland, starting a family and working at a steel mill under a new identity. Tragedy strikes, of course, when he accidentally reveals his powers, causing him to conclude that there's no way he and his fellow mutants can continue to live among humans. Hence, when Apocalypse hears about his supervillain past and comes knocking, Erik eagerly joins his new Four Horsemen. This is a good arc, and it's helped by Michael Fassbender once again delivering a great performance. Erik has nuance and depth, distrustful of "normal" humans but not yet an outright supremacist, with Apocalypse, Xavier, and the shape-shifting Mystique all trying to win him over to their side. He may be only a secondary driver of the story, but he and his struggles were far more interesting than the main plot with Apocalypse, as he actually had reason to want to help take over the world beyond just "power! Unlimited POWER!!!" If the same development had been given to Apocalypse, looking at why he finds "normal" humanity so disgusting, then he might have been interesting. I'll take what I can get, though, especially given how the other three Horsemen, the weather-controlling thief Ororo Monroe/Storm (Alexandra Shipp), the winged cage-fighter Warren Worthington/Angel (Ben Hardy), and the telekinetic bodyguard Elizabeth Braddock/Psylocke (Olivia Munn), are pretty much set dressing. Storm is the only one who gets any semblance of development, while Angel and Psylocke are pretty much glorified goons for the third-act climax, barely even getting any dialogue.

As for the heroes, the story is heavily reliant on call-backs to previous films, such that somebody who's going in blind might have no idea what's going on. Not only is this a sequel to First Class, The Wolverine, and Days of Future Past, it's also a prequel to the first two X-Men films from back in the 2000s. (X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine were both retconned out of existence by Days of Future Past, thankfully.) Major arcs, particularly the relationships between the various characters, make no sense and feel incomplete if you don't know that this film is a prequel. We're introduced to young versions of characters from the first two films, as well as the origins of their relationships with each other and the older X-Men. Xavier and Erik continue on the road to becoming personal enemies -- and it must be said that James McAvoy and Fassbender work very well together when it comes to selling both the underlying tension and past friendship between the two. We get a cameo by Hugh Jackman, showing us the Weapon X program that turned Logan into the adamantium-clawed Wolverine as well as how he broke out of it. Whether all of this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on whether you view continuity in these 21st-century megafranchises as something that enriches movies or constrains them, and personally, I'm torn. On one hand, this is a film that only really works in the context of the other films in the series, as without it, there's little holding it together beyond a threadbare plot and a crappy lead villain. It's all the concerns about the Marvel Cinematic Universe's growing reliance on continuity made manifest, and it serves as a warning of where that franchise may risk winding up. On the other hand, having seen the other films, I absolutely appreciated the nods to the characters' past and future. This is one for the longtime fans, not a soft reboot like First Class designed to introduce new fans to the characters and universe.

Beyond the excellent McAvoy and Fassbender, most of the cast was acceptable, if unspectacular. It's clear that Jennifer Lawrence is getting bored playing Mystique for a third time, but with the arc her character gets here, she still turns in a serviceable performance as a woman whose loyalties are torn between Xavier and Erik, all the while becoming something of an icon to other mutants. The new cast members, led by Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, Tye Sheridan as Scott Summers/Cyclops, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler, were all acceptably likable. Evan Peters as Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (long story how both Fox and Marvel are able to use their own separate versions of the character) is once again the MVP among the cast after his show-stealing scenes in the last film, getting a similarly epic moment here (one that milks the film's '80s setting for all it's worth) and otherwise serving as a major source of comic relief and levity. As for the action scenes, Bryan Singer's direction is competent. There are few real standout moments (beyond the aforementioned Quicksilver scene), and oftentimes, it's let down by noticeably subpar special effects (again, how did this movie cost $178 million?), but all of it is at least fun to watch in the moment. It's mostly empty spectacle, yes, but it's intensely watchable spectacle.

The Bottom Line:

"Decent" shouldn't be the word I use to describe a new X-Men film given the franchise's recent pedigree, but while it's a slightly disappointing film, it's far from the worst superhero movie of the year. If you're a fan of the last few X-Men movies, then you'll enjoy this, though newcomers to the series are advised to watch First Class or the first two films instead.

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