Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Review: X-Men Apocalypse

This garbage fire disaster nightmare clusterfuck of a year continues with a series of earthquakes across New Zealand, killing two and causing extensive damage in several coastal towns. I'm reasonably safe where I am, though the difference between this quake and the big ones in 2010 and 2011 is down to just how long it went on for. I was drifting off to sleep when it hit, and for a while I didn't move since we're all used to little shakes every now and then.
But it just kept going and going and going – at the intensity of your average amusement park ride, but still: I was on the verge of serious fear that it wasn't going to stop at all. It must have lasted at least fifty seconds – which doesn't sound like much; but trust me, it does when you're stuck in a shaking building. Afterwards I went outside, feeling so dizzy that I couldn't walk in a straight line. 
But despite kids getting the next day off school, everything went on pretty much as normal. What most people got out of it was this photograph of cows on an island of grass that had been thrust out of the ground by the quake:
Don't worry, we rescued them. Not only that, but we rescued them before air-lifting out tourists stranded in Kaikoura. Priorities.
So against this backdrop of political turmoil and natural disasters, it seems as apt a time as any to review X-Men Apocalypse.

Movies like this are extra-frustrating, because they're not bad enough to be good, and they're not good enough to be great. They're just ... there. In this case, the problem is that although individual scenes and character notes are often quite good, the plot they're all wrapped up in is yet another generic take on "evil villain tries to destroy the world".
The other big problem is that there's just too much going on. This was a movie that should have picked less of a doomsday villain to make more room for the introduction of the younger generation of X-Men: namely Scott, Jean and Storm. As much as I loved Kodi Smit-McPhee as Nightcrawler, the character is unnecessary, existing mostly for the plot convenience of his teleportation powers. And as usual, Jubilee is completely wasted. She gets more lines in this fake TV advertisement than in the entire movie.
As such, the worldwide drama of Apocalypse's ascension feels like an annoying distraction from what's really interesting: the formation of the team for the first time. As villains go, Apocalypse has never been particularly nuanced, but here he's flat-out boring. His powers are ill-defined and his motivation never fully explained. Seriously, what does this guy want?
Because in X-Men Evolution, he wanted to use ancient technology situated in pyramids around the world and guarded by his Four Horsemen to turn the world's population into mutants; a procedure that would have killed billions of humans. There: a goal, a means, and a cost. See how easy that was?
Apart from being a waste of Oscar Isaac, there's really no clear understanding of what this Apocalypse is trying to achieve. He talks a lot about cleansing the earth and amassing mutants and building a new earth, but it's all pretty damn vague.
I've moaned about Wolverine Publicity in the past, but this movie made me realize that most films – especially those with big ensembles – REALLY need a single protagonist. Two at most. Without one, and with so many characters to juggle, the story veers all over the place like a drunk behind the wheel of a car. The point-of-view switches from Mystique to Scott to Magneto to Xavier to Jean – even to Wolverine for about two minutes.
It's confusing, and it also means we lack a coherent network of solid relationships between them. You can have as many fantastic characters as you want, but if they don't interact with each other in a way that gets us invested in their relationships, no one will care. Some obvious dynamics to focus on would have been between Magneto/Xavier, Jean/Scott, Xavier/Mystique, or Jean/Xavier, but they're all rather undercooked and there's just no time for anyone else.
The film also relies a LOT on characterization that was established in the previous movies, coasting on backstories and character beats that we're assumed to already know. Which isn't good enough, I'm afraid. It leaves everyone feeling oddly ungrounded; more like plot-points than people, especially the younger characters. Suffice to say, someone with no knowledge of the X-Men or the other film instalments will find this movie incomprehensible.
Jean and Nightcrawler aren't given any background, Angel and Psylocke are non-entities, and Scott is (once again) totally misused. I think it was a mistake to make Scott and not Jean the newcomer to Xavier's school, as it makes him the newbie instead of Xavier's first pupil and unofficial "head boy", which has always been his traditional role. Throughout the film he never displays any real leadership qualities – in fact, it's mostly Jean that heads the rescue attempt.
(I can't believe I'm complaining that a female character is in charge – but when it comes at the cost of the character that has always been DEFINED by his leadership role, it's a problem).
I've already mentioned X-Men Evolution, but I have to say again how GOOD it was in comparison regarding the Apocalypse arc. They had four seasons to explore the cast dynamics and establish Apocalypse as the show's ultimate Big Bad: sowing the seeds as early as season two, drawing the subplots together in season three, and devoting nearly all of season four to Apocalypse's master plan and how the X-Men would combat it.
Obviously a movie doesn't have the luxury of multiple episodes, but a franchise does, and the confused continuity between these films made that impossible.
Okay, just a few more nit-picks and then I'll talk about the stuff I liked.
Magneto's story arc kickstarts with the worst fridging I've ever seen. He has an angelic wife and daughter who live in an idyllic country lodge that has deer frolicking in the backyard. Both are blank slates who are dramatically killed in slow-motion by a single arrow that pierces both their hearts, which leads to Magneto facing skyward and screaming: "IS THIS ALL I AM?" 
Yup, even though the bodies of his wife and child are still warm in his arms, the movie makes sure it's All About Him. I couldn't even tell you what their names were.
Poor Havok also bites it in this movie, though no one seems to give a shit. Scott is sad for about two scenes, and Mystique briefly mentions him during a flight, but we never see his parents being told that their eldest child is dead, and neither is there any on-screen funeral or memorial service.
A cage fight introduces Nightcrawler and Angel. Hey, Bryan Singer? You already used a cage fight to introduce Wolverine in the first movie, and it was actually pretty good. This is just repetition.
The movie ends with Jean and Magneto using their powers to rebuild the mansion. Er, no. You can't just build a mansion by stacking bricks on top of each other, you actually have to know how to construct a house.
And all this makes the good stuff that much more frustrating, because Bryan Singer and his team are capable of delivering a fantastic X-Men movie – just not this time. 
But in any case, here are the bits I enjoyed – enjoyed so much in fact, that I'm not going to be consigning X-Men Apocalypse to the Discontinuity bin along with The Final Stand and X-Men Origins:
Despite all the complaining that Jennifer Lawrence was dominating the previews and the franchise, she doesn't have a central role to play here (no one does). Instead they give her a pretty satisfying arc that involves her reconciling with Charles, accepting that she's a role model to the younger mutants, and becoming a teacher at the school. It's a nice way to finish things off, and a much brighter future for her than the one in the original time-line.
I thought Alexandra Shipp was really good as Storm, though – like Jubilee – completely wasted. Her best moment comes during the climactic fight when she sees Apocalypse strangling Mystique (already established as her idol) and turns her lightening powers on him.
For the first time ever, Jean's power isn't something that robs her of agency and identity, but something she calls upon and controls in her time of need. She pretty much gets the Big Climactic Scene of the whole movie to herself.
Though I'm not a Jean/Logan shipper by any means (especially when Jean is a teenager) I thought it was quite poignant that they seemed to deliberately echo the scene way back in the first X-Men when Jean reads Logan's mind. It can't have been a coincidence that this Logan grabbed Jean's right wrist when she places her hands either side of his head – it's the same gesture he made sixteen years ago.
As with Days of Future Past, Quicksilver's set piece is wonderful, in which he nonchalantly whizzes around the mansion as it explodes, saving the lives of everyone within – including the dog and the goldfish. More interesting was the surprise twist of him not revealing his identity as Magneto's son when the opportunity arises.
It would have been such a clich̩ for Magneto to turn on Apocalypse due to a magically-appearing new son Рbut instead Pietro demonstrates serious reservations about his father's behaviour and so decides to save it for another day. (Though bizarrely, he shares this decision with Storm, who learned about the paternal connection from Mystique. Why the hell is Mystique telling Storm about Pietro's family secrets?)
Mercifully, Charles gives Moira back the memories he'd erased of their time together in First Class. Because seriously, that was a total dick move.
In a goofy but oddly charming move, Magneto uses a giant X to protect the other mutants from Apocalypse's advance.
I forgot to mention Beast. Beast is in this.
For what it's worth, I mostly enjoyed X-Men Apocalypse, even though its attempt to criticise The Final Stand ("at least we can agree the third one's always the worst") leaves it with egg on its face. I'm not sure where the franchise goes from here: I'd like to see the younger cast in another movie together, one that really does them justice in exploring their team dynamic, though I get the feeling that James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence are done. Or even better; a final film that brings the original cast together again for one last hurrah.
I just hope the upcoming Logan doesn't render all of this completely futile (I mean, if it's set so far in the future, does that mean all the other X-Men are dead?)

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