Friday, March 10, 2017

X-Men: Apocalypse

No more superpowers...

I have this inexplicable love for the X-Men franchise, one that stems from immense goodwill from the first two movies, but is constantly challenged and justified by newer installments.  The X-Men movies helped build the cinematic superhero landscape we have today, for better and for worse.  The themes about social prejudice are strong and resonant, the performances and action are usually top-notch, and the seeing some classic mutants and their powers in live action is tons of fun.  But not all X-Men films are created equal.  Days of Future Past (2014), would have been a nice ending to the series, giving the characters happy endings and hopeful futures.  Yet X-Men: Apocalypse was put into production right away, led once again by the series' best director Bryan Singer, and retaining the cast from the second series of movies that started with First Class.  The resulting film is undoubtedly the most average of all the X-Men movies.  There are high highs and low lows, and I admire its ambition.  But more than a few nagging problems hold it back from being top tier.

Thank you for letting me in.

It's the '80s!  An ancient evil has awakened from an Egyptian tomb, and slowly alerts the entire world of his presence.  His name is En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), or for our purposes, Apocalypse.  Meanwhile, it's been ten years since we've seen the X-Men fight the Sentinels at the White House, where Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) tried to kill the president.  He was stopped by Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), and saved the future thanks to time travel shenanigans. Since then, Mystique has become something of an icon for the mutant community, Xavier has started the mutant school he always wanted, and Magneto has settled down with a family in Poland.  As Apocalypse becomes more of a threat, we meet "new" mutants (to this timeline anyway) at Xavior's school such as Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey/Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), and Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) while getting reintroduced to others like Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters).  Much mutant-on-mutant fighting occurs in the interim.

You wanted me to get out of the house more, right?

X-Men: Apocalypse is trying to be a character-driven movie, but it's pushing against an epic good vs. evil story.  X-Men is at its best when it's about conflicting ideologies, questioning the nature of identity vs societal norms, and letting the audience watch larger-than-life characters just hang out and just be themselves.  Apocalypse features some of that, but it also saddles itself with an "end of the world" story that weighs it down and incorporates too many cliches to be truly compelling.  That may be the movie's biggest problem, but it has hoards of annoyances, including character overload, tonal shifts that could give you whiplash, and a cast that looks more or less the same as they did about five years ago, but are supposed to be twenty years older.  The effects work also seems to have taken a step backward from Days of Future Past, which is a major disappointment (look no further than a shot of Olivia Munn free falling from the sky that looks like a PS2 video game, or a bizarrely awful CGI tree).   Don't even get me started on all the continuity crap it screws up (not that this series has been concerned with steady continuity up until this point), life's too damn short.

Hope that's the last we've seen of that guy...

I think I would have been more satisfied with a film that focused more on the characters we already know and developing them further.  Instead, the character roster is essentially doubled, cheapening the new characters' stories as well as the old ones'.  But hey, I said I actually liked this movie, right? McAvoy and Fassbender give their typically great performances, and the new cast fills the roles of their characters well enough.  Evan Peters steals every scene he's in, especially during a slow-motion rescue scene that rivals the very best (and the screen has no shortage of them).  I also admit that I liked the schlocky appeal of Isaac's Apacalypse, even if it's the main cause of the movie's tonal dissonance.  That being said, there are plenty of emotional scenes that hit hard, as well as excellent comedic bits and one-liners.

Together we will cleanse the Earth for the strongest...

The movie's CG effects may be lacking in spots, but the physical effects like makeup, costumes, and sets look fantastic. The action is solid too, especially when it comes to a certain fight between Apocalypse and Professor X.  John Ottman returns to deliver a good score, though it's not especially memorable.  Some synthesizers could have gone a long way to flavor the movie with some retro '80s charm.  And despite how unwieldy the production can be at times, like Spider-Man 3, it's hard not to be impressed by the ambition.  I will always take sincere love for the filmmaking craft over a brick that a studio shits out simply to keep a name brand alive.  Remove a few of the cliches, make the stakes a bit more personal, and tighten up the effects, and you have yourself a solid X-Men movie.

It's all of us, against a god...

Bryan Singer clearly loves the franchise, and that's evidenced by the way he puts the characters and their emotions at the forefront of the action.  There are family dynamics explored, friendships form (or reform), and the actors have the opportunity to fill their classic comic book characters with life.  There's a harder edge to the X-Men movies have that the Disney Marvel movies lack, and I greatly appreciate them for that.   So what's next for the franchise?  They have all the pieces in place for another great film, so I sincerely hope that the next movie doesn't take place in the 90s and we need to be introduced to yet another team of characters.  Use what you've got, Singer!  Develop the characters you already have and give us something great to go out on.  End this god damn franchise before it's too late.  Can we give another X-Men TV series a try?

Oh, and Deadpool needs to cameo in the next film.  Needs. To.