Sunday, June 12, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse


   I'll just come straight out and say it: I liked X-Men: Apocalypse. I actually really enjoyed it. Then again... it probably helps that I went in with rock bottom expectations, and that for the past month I've (almost) exclusively been watching the cheapest, dumbest, most mind-numbing sword & sorcery movies I could get my hands on. A lot of people are tiring of these kinds of movies, but personally, I haven't been awash in big budget comic book extravaganza lately. I haven't even seen Captain America: Civil War or Batman V Superman for that matter. I was as open to this movie as anyone could possibly be, and I simply wanted to have fun. As an undemanding audience, that's exactly what I had.

   This movie is the umpteenth band-aid on a franchise that's needed a hard reboot for about... ten years now. First Class was promising, Days of Future Past was promising, but one of Apocalypse's most critical flaws is that it's never more than just promising. Instead of feeling like it's running with the ideas that the previous two laid down, it's just telling another origin story. It's the third movie in a prequel trilogy, but it's not continuing an overarching story like the Star Wars prequels did. Each X-Men prequel is telling a very different and singular story. This is a problem, because the origin arc that ends with hope for the future, is repeated three times. So each movie feels like two steps backward, one step forward.

   So, forget continuity. This franchise has butchered continuity like it hates it. X-Men: Apocalypse takes place sometime in the 80's, which means that everyone is about 17 years older by the time the first X-Men movie is set to take place. So, Magneto goes from Michael Fassbender, to Ian McKellen in 17 years? Yikes. Also, there's no way on Earth that Angel in this movie is also Angel in X-Men: The Last Stand. Not possible for so many reasons. This is the kind of incongruity that's showing on the franchise like stress fractures. It's chronologically been ten years since Days of Future Past, and none of the characters look more than a day older. The movie even pokes fun at that a bit, see, Quicksilver still lives in his mom's basement. It's eventually played for a laugh, but just feels odd for the most part.

   If they finally got their crap together with Apocalypse, and they actually move forward from here, I'll be pleased as punch. Stripped of the franchise shortcomings, X-Men: Apocalypse tries real hard to please the fans. I might be one of the few they succeeded with. Tye Sheridan's Scott Summers is an actual character now and not just a punching bag for a malicious plot. He has chemistry with Sophie Turner, and she does what she can with the role of Jean Grey. This is the most fresh-faced potential I can remember ever seeing in an X-Men movie. That's the key word here, potential. So while Sheridan and Turner are saddled with a bloated story, and it shows, they still seem to be the best actors these characters have had so far.

   Scott actually has more than two dimensions to him, and we can see how and why Jean falls for him, or at least starts to. Yet, however interesting they might be, they're eclipsed by Xavier and Magneto. The frenemy duo who once again, played by McAvoy and Fassbender, respectively, steal the whole show, proving the emotional core of the story, and turning in the best performances. But, on to a popular point of contention. Apocalypse himself. Unpopular opinion here, but... I actually liked Oscar Isaac as Apocalypse. It's a truly thankless role that didn't need such a good actor under all the makeup, but he did what he could with the role, and one can only hope he had fun with it. As a character, I found him somewhat compelling. He appears to the most misunderstood, misguided, and angry mutants, touting himself as their true savior. And he has the powers to back up that claim no less.

   He speaks softly, and seems to understand them. His four 'horsemen' follow him willingly, not out of fear or under threat. Which is a welcome change to the supervillain recruitment tactic. Mind control is so 2011. The problem here, is again, with the story. Apocalypse's motivations are so broad, that no amount of exposition ever adequately explains them, or why he needs four horsemen. What could've been a complex and interesting character, ends up being reduced to that of a Power Rangers' monster-of-the-week. He wants to rule the world! That's the be-all, end-all of his character. I can't pretend to be overly familiar with the source material behind him, but it had to be better than this. He's the lynch pin of the whole story, and since he's weak- thematically, the story has little heft as well.

   The most interesting and engaging stuff revolves around Professor X, and Magneto. Jean and Cyclops are surprisingly involved in this stuff, and Quicksilver is as well. Jennifer Lawrence could probably play Mystique in her sleep by now, but she's still fun to watch. The real gem of the show is Kodi Smit McPhee. His comedic timing is perfect, and he's a great as Nightcrawler, ever so slightly channeling Alan Cumming. Anyways, I keep forgetting characters, and actors, and this is another big flaw of the movie. It's overloaded with characters. I don't presume to know how they should've resolved that, but there's a total lack of grace in the climax. There's simply too many characters to use, and often times it's like mutant musical chairs. Invariably, one or two mutants are constantly left with nothing to do but stand around looking shocked.

  Having said that, the fighting seem to have more a team dynamic to them than they ever had before. It's a true team effort to take down the big bad in this movie. In short, X-Men: Apocalypse is deeply flawed, and is going to 'wow' no-one. The world-ending stakes feel yawn worthy, and the villain is purely one-note, but the characters are still fun to watch and there's a handful of impressive set pieces that capture a carefree comic book flavor. There's also a great sense of humor, and there's something to be said for seeing all the mutant powers flair to life on the big screen. It's nothing we haven't really seen before, but there's something almost nostalgic about it at this point. The overflow of special effects and characters are as silly as it is fun. When Psylocke breaks out an energy blade, the movie doesn't stop to explain it.

   She's never really introduced, and her powers are never really explained. They don't need to be. Neither do any of the other characters. The movie relies on fans knowing this stuff, and on non-fans just going along with it. The movie is full of stuff like this, along with massive logic gaps, rampant scenery chewing, and overall reckless storytelling. The movie plays less like a traditional three-act structured story, and more like a showcase of slick and well crafted action scenes, special effects, one-liners, and fan service. Sure, this makes for a conventionally bad movie, all things considered, but I found it enjoyable all the same. X-Men: Apocalypse is an eager guilty pleasure.

   I was taken by it's colorful visuals and energetic tone, which is something that it's two predecessors also did well. For my money, this prequel trilogy is actually better than the first three movies, which are messy, dated, dour, and consistently downbeat. Fassbender is a better Magneto than McKellen. Sheridan is already a better Cyclops than James Marsden was ever given a chance to be. James McAvoy is an exceptionally worthy successor to Patrick Stewart. Quicksilver is always a total blast to watch, and this movie even ends with the team assembled in comic-faithful(ish) costumes, ready for whatever the future holds. This is where they need to continue from. The movie might be deeply flawed, but it can be a lot of fun at times and the X-Men themselves are in top form. I had a big dumb grin on my face as the music flared and the end credits started to roll.

I've been waiting for this since 2000...

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