The Drew Reviews Podcast — Episode 85: X-MEN APOCALYPSE
May 29, 2016
GAME OF THRONES: “BLOOD OF MY BLOOD”
May 30, 2016

Movie Curiosities — X-Men: Apocalypse

A while back, I wrote a blog entry about this crazy notion I had: That the entire X-Men franchise — movies, comics, video games, merchandising, the whole shebang for every character — should be separated from Marvel and sold to Fox indefinitely. In summary, this notion was based on three principal arguments.

  1. A brand new comics company with the resources of News Corporation and the brand recognition of the X-Men might be the only thing strong enough to significantly shake up the DC/Marvel stranglehold that is destroying the comic book industry.
  2. After blowing up the X-Men franchise to an unsustainable size in the ’90s and burying the franchise in the 21st-century “Fox owns the movie rights” era, Marvel has so thoroughly mismanaged this property that it’s doubtful they’d have any idea how to properly reintroduce the mutants into their comics and movies if Fox’s movie rights relapsed tomorrow.
  3. The current run of X-Men films are the only superhero movies in recent memory that come anywhere close to matching Marvel’s output in terms of quality, scope, and reception. This gives the impression that the people at Fox actually give a shit about this property, and they just might know what to do with it more than Marvel does.

(Side note: Yes, we all know that Fox’s stewardship of the Fantastic Four has been godawful, but let’s not go there. It’s entirely possible to completely understand one superhero franchise and not understand the other.)

Naturally (if you’ll pardon the understatement), all three of these points are up for debate. Maybe News Corp. would completely suck at running a comics company. Maybe someone at Marvel really does have a plan to revitalize the Mutants without a slew of apocalyptic retcons. We may never know. But right now, let’s take a closer look at that third point.

Obviously, not all of Fox’s X-Men films have been pure gold. But most if not all of the franchise’s crappiest moments happened under the notoriously malicious watch of Tom Rothman, and things have gone far smoother since he left. Rothman’s ousting is quite literally what made the difference between the Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the Deadpool in his own film a few months ago. This is how we went from X-Men: The Last Stand to X-Men: First Class, and things from there have been going pretty well so far.

But even if Rothman’s departure left more room for those who honestly care about the franchise, there’s the question of how much longer they’re going to be around. So much of this franchise’s success has rested on the broad shoulders of Hugh Jackman, and he’s on his way out. The other crucial factor is Bryan Singer, the X-Men director of choice since the first movie debuted way back in 2000. He’s been overseeing this franchise in some capacity for the past 16 years, and there’s a very serious question about how many more of these films he has left in him.

What’s more, even if everyone would rather forget that X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine ever happened, the truth of the matter is that they’re still in continuity. And thanks to the godawful management under Rothman’s tenure, as well as the time-traveling shenanigans of X-Men: Days of Future Past, the whole continuity is royally convoluted and loaded with holes. This in comparison to the mainstream Marvel cinematic universe, which has been so tightly and capably controlled since Day One that it has a far less shaky foundation to build from going forward. That and it’s a good seven years younger, which also makes for a lot less baggage.

There’s even room for uncertainty among the newer hands on deck. Three movies into the post-First Class era (not including The Wolverine and Deadpool), everyone’s wondering how much longer this cast is going to be around. James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence are all even bigger stars now than they were when they first signed on, so how much longer can Fox afford to keep them around? Then we have Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Alexandra Shipp, all making their debuts in this film as some of the most iconic mainstays in the X-Men canon. How good will they be in this film, and how good will they be moving forward?

And let’s not forget Wolverine. Hugh Jackman is leaving the role, but everything that he ever did and went through as Wolverine is still canon, so what the fuck are the filmmakers going to do with him moving forward? And shit, we haven’t even gotten started on the Gambit spinoff, which still hasn’t seen the light of day no matter how many times it gets scheduled to begin production.

After all of this speculation and hand-wringing, X-Men: Apocalypse is finally upon us. Billed as the final entry in a trilogy that started with First Class, this is a pivotal movie in the franchise’s future, both in continuity and in the real world. Everything since 2011 has been building up to this moment, when the X-Men as we know them finally band together for the first time as a bona fide superhero team. This is the moment that will serve as the foundation for all X-Men movies yet to come. This is the film that will prove whether Fox is willing, able, and worthy to continue its stewardship of the X-Men film rights.

And for my part, having seen the movie, I’ve got to say that I have just a little doubt. Not much, but still more than I did a few weeks ago.

Let’s get the titular Apocalypse out of the way: He goes by many names, but he’s primarily known in this film as En Sabah Nur. Worshipped as an actual living god in Ancient Egypt (like that makes any sense within the context of Ancient Egyptian mythology), En Sabah Nur is widely purported to be the first Mutant. As such, he has the unique ability to augment the powers of other Mutants to their fullest potential. What’s more, he has a sort of resurrection capability, transferring himself from one body to another while picking up the powers of every Mutant he inhabits. And after reigning in Egypt for so many centuries, he’s picked up enough powers that he’s basically omnipotent.

But En Sabah Nur is still vulnerable while transferring himself to another body, which is how a band of insurgents were able to trap the demigod under miles of rock for a few thousand years until he wakes up in the 1980s. It’s a long story and there’s a whole prologue sequence to explain it.

Oscar Isaac is credited for the character, but he’s eaten alive by the makeup, the costuming, the voice effects, and the arch writing. I mean, I get that this isn’t the sort of character you underplay, but his motivations and his plans are both so vague that there’s nothing really interesting. I think Apocalypse is trying to build a world where the most powerful among us are free to do whatever they want, with no laws or governments or concern for the weak to dictate what they can or cannot do. Still, the point isn’t really developed beyond “I’m A God And I Know What’s Best, Bow Down Before Me And Despair!!!”

This may not be a very interesting or developed villain, but he’s certainly a big enough threat. The scale of this movie is positively enormous, with action scenes and CGI set pieces that effectively sell En Sabah Nur as the most powerful Mutant who ever lived, with the will and the ability to seriously carry out the end of the world. Of course the other big action set piece belongs to Quicksilver, here getting a sequence that’s easily on par with his big showstopper in DoFP.

The film has a huge international scope, massive action sequences, and several new mutants with abilities that are almost literally godlike. This film has no problem in terms of scale. But here’s the thing: Scale isn’t enough anymore. In this post-Avengers world, good superhero cinema needs momentum. And therein lies the problem.

The pacing in this film is all over the map, with too many different plotlines juggled in an inconsistent manner. The film lags too much in some places while zipping through other plot points and leaving them undeveloped. A bit of lip service is given to the basic franchise themes of not fitting in, but none of it goes anywhere new. Some scenes drag on well past the past the point of redundancy, while other developments are sped up by convenient deus ex machinas and characters changing motivation on a dime. My personal favorite example concerns the group’s new uniforms, which are (I shit you not) flight suits that someone left laying around and just happen to fit our heroes perfectly. Along with a spiffy new plane that our heroes just happen to know how to pilot. Yeah, the Plot Convenience Fairy must have been working overtime for that one.

To be fair, loading up on too many storylines is not an uncommon problem in superhero cinema, especially in the films we’ve seen this year so far. But Captain America: Civil War was able to get away with that by very smartly utilizing its characters and their established onscreen history, forming such an efficient shorthand that we didn’t really need as much time to introduce these characters and their situations. And Batman v. Superman may have faltered in trying to accomplish too much too soon, but it still built on Man of Steel in ways that greatly enhanced the final product.

This film, however, has no excuse. Even if we don’t count the first ten years of this franchise, this is still the end of a trilogy. We’ve already had two films with these characters, adding up to just under four and a half hours of material to pull from, and all of that established history was barely used for anything substantial here. There are several reasons for this.

To start with, there’s a solid decade between each one of the three movies (not counting the future setting of DoFP, of course). So many years have passed in between movies that we need that much more time to catch up with these characters, learning how they’ve developed, where they are, what they’ve done, and whatever else has happened in the world in the time since. It may not be exactly like starting over from square one every time, but it’s effectively close enough.

But the far bigger factor involves the character arcs. The two most prominent arcs in this film concern the rise and fall of Apocalypse, and the formation of the X-Men as the iconic team we know and love. Both of those happen in this film, but they don’t have the emotional punch that comes with being the resolution of a trilogy. Remember, En Sabah Nur was never even alluded to at any point in the previous films (aside from the out-of-nowhere stinger tacked on to DoFP presented without context, I mean), so the movie has to spin its wheels for upwards of half an hour to establish this villain. As a result, Apocalypse’s rise and fall is confined entirely to this movie, and it doesn’t feel like a natural conclusion of what came before.

As for the X-Men, over half of this new lineup was never introduced before this film. Never even hinted at (that I recall, anyway). As a result, the process of them coming together as friends and teammates was crowbarred pretty much entirely into this already-overstuffed film, and it doesn’t feel nearly as satisfying as a payoff to three films of setup. And that’s a huge problem, considering that this singular event was the entire point of this whole prequel trilogy.

In retrospect, a lot of these problems come back to DoFP. That film could easily have set up several of the characters and ideas that appear in this film (like the Mutant containment tech that seems to come out of nowhere, for example), which might have been a much greater help to this film and others moving forward. Instead, it killed off at least half of the Mutants who were introduced in First Class (offscreen, no less) before the film even started, which means that none of them would get any halfway decent arcs or resolutions moving forward. Indeed, DoFP wasn’t really designed to set up a sequel so much as it was designed to unify the disparate parts of the franchise. Considering that only four characters from First Class (Xavier, Magneto, Mystique, and Beast) were given any decent amount of screen time and the canon’s timeline still doesn’t make any sense, I don’t know if the trade-off was worth it in the long run.

That said, we still have some characters to serve as continuous threads through all three movies. Two of them are James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, who continue to be the new franchise MVPs. In everything they do and say and represent, they perfectly depict the two most pivotal characters in the X-Men canon, and their interactions together are perfectly on point. I know it’s high praise to say that these portrayals of Professor X and Magneto stand apart from and equal to the Stewart/McKellen portrayals, but I’m saying it and I stand by it.

That said, Magneto starts this movie living under an alias, having started a new life with a wife and daughter. So much time is spent on this tragic and predictable backstory, and it serves no purpose other than getting Magneto back to exactly where he was before. I get that this angle was meant as a primer for Quicksilver, the son Magneto doesn’t know he ever had (we’ll get back to Quicksilver in a minute), but that whole angle is woefully underexplored in this film and it doesn’t justify all the screen time given to such a useless subplot. Though Fassbender does a beautiful job acting the part, no doubt about that.

Also, both of these characters are sidelined through at least half the film and they have virtually zero shared screen time. And when it comes to the two strongest actors in this whole cast, that’s kind of a big fucking problem.

When I see McAvoy and Fassbender, I only see Professor X and Magneto. But when Mystique is on the screen, I can only see Jennifer Lawrence picking up a check. I’m sorry, I love Lawrence’s work, but her portrayal of Mystique just doesn’t work. Maybe it’s just me, but I think that a shape-shifting femme fatale would work much better as a villain, or at least as someone whose loyalties are always in flux. But this trilogy — particularly this film and DoFP — has been very clear in positioning Mystique as not only a central figure in the mythos but also a bona fide hero. She starts out in this movie as a cult hero among Mutants and she ends the film as the de facto leader of the X-Men, and the character simply wasn’t designed for either role.

Another franchise mainstay is Nicholas Hoult, who sadly doesn’t have the screen presence or the charisma to make any kind of impression in this role. There’s also Lucas Till (remember his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in DoFP?), whose three-movie arc is brought to a swift and highly disappointing conclusion.

Speaking of franchise mainstays, Hugh Jackman dutifully stops by just long enough to unleash all bloody hell as a mindless beast turned loose. As for the mandatory Stan Lee cameo, it’s actually quite somber this time. Lee has been treated like a comedic running gag for so long that to see him in a more dramatic turn was a neat change of pace.

Then we have Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne), last seen getting her memories erased at the end of First Class. So her shared history with the rest of the group is entirely moot, save only for a thoroughly useless subplot in which Xavier struggles with his decision to wipe her memory. What’s worse is that Moira doesn’t even get to be the group’s mother figure like she was in First Class — that job has been handed over to Mystique, leaving Moira with pretty much nothing after the first act. Josh Helman fares much better — without Col. Stryker’s established history, he would’ve been just another two-dimensional military dickbag.

Save only for McAvoy and Fassbender, the strongest of the returning players has to be Evan Peters as Quicksilver. This film very effectively builds on everything we learned about the character in DoFP, especially since the other characters all have the good sense to keep him around this time. He gets a lot more screen time and development, his powers are put to good and extensive use multiple times (with results that always look badass), and that throwaway reference to his parentage in DoFP has been expanded into a crucial part of his character. And also a storyline that fails at the end, but still.

(Side note: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Sentinels, which make a very brief appearance in the film’s closing seconds.)

So all of that aside, what about the newcomers? Well, Tye Sheridan does a fine job as Scott Summers, and it’s a great relief to have a Cyclops who isn’t dull as wet cardboard for a change. He also has legitimate chemistry with Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), which is another plus. Turner does a pretty solid turn as Grey, though I’m concerned about retreading too much ground from X2. There’s also Kodi Smit-McPhee, a worthy choice to play Nightcrawler. Much as I wish these three characters had been given proper introductions earlier in the series, they all more than prove themselves as worthy members of the X-Men and as suitable heirs to the actors who played these roles in the past.

Now let’s move on to the new villains. Storm (yes, she starts out as a secondary villain this time) is now played by Alexandra Shipp. The character is portrayed as a scrappy little firebrand, and I’m genuinely interested to see what Shipp does with Storm next. Alas, the other new villains don’t fare nearly as well. Ben Hardy plays Angel as a violent drunk, and Psylocke brings virtually nothing to the table aside from Olivia Munn’s pretty face.

On a final note, yes: there is a scene after the credits. This is another one that teases a future villain, but at least it does so by revisiting the scene of a previous action sequence. Which is already a step up, no doubt about that. And while I don’t want to spoil who exactly may be coming up, it appears to be a liberal reinterpretation of a classic X-Men villain that will surely get the fans excited if the job is done right.

Purely on its own merit, X-Men: Apocalypse is mindless fun. There’s a lot of money and effort getting thrown at the screen, and that translates into some fantastic action set pieces and dazzling effects. There are some pretty good performances in here as well. This is a film that absolutely would’ve been worth recommending… by the standards of a pre-Avengers world.

Marvel’s cinematic output keeps building on itself, pushing further to expand its universe and deliver bigger, more ambitious films. And say what you will about DC’s cinematic output, but at least Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman made a sincere effort at intellectually and philosophically challenging their characters and their audience. Superhero cinema has been around a long time, and now everyone’s looking for ways to keep it fresh. Meanwhile, the X-Men franchise is falling back on CGI spectacle without significantly developing any new ideas or themes, and that’s just not going to cut it anymore.

The problem right now is one of momentum. The filmmakers took an entire trilogy getting the X-Men back to zero, and what do we have to show for it? A timeline that still doesn’t make any sense, multi-film character arcs without satisfying conclusions, some core actors who may or may not return for the next picture, and an overarching narrative that hits a brick wall with every time jump to a new decade.

I don’t doubt Singer and his team in their ability to churn out satisfying CGI action extravaganzas, and I know they have a passion for this material. But I do question their ability and interest in capitalizing on what they have. I don’t see any sign of a grander vision that pushes this franchise into newer and more ambitious places. I also question whether they have anything left to say on the Mutants’ persecution allegory after 16 years.

Something has to change if this franchise is going to stay competitive in this marketplace, and the change has to come soon if it’s going to come at all. And now that the prologue trilogy is finally done and we have a proper X-Men lineup back on the scene, it’s anyone’s guess where this new course will go.

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