Monday, May 23, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse Review

X-Men: Apocalypse Review
Before we begin this review, let me just say that my feelings toward the X-Men come with a great deal of bias. You see, the X-Men are my favorites. Yep, I love them more than the Avengers, more than Deadpool, more than Batman or Superman or anybody else combined. I have always been drawn to the idea of people born with their powers and how the world had to change as a result. Some chose to try to live in peace with the humans, while others chose to destroy the humans. I have always been drawn to mutants taking refuge in a school and being mentored by a flawed but deeply powerful teacher. I think reading X-Men all my life taught me that I wanted to be an educator today, which I am. In 2000, when I learned that an X-Men movie would be coming out really soon, I couldn't wait. I have enjoyed X1 and X2 and I still feel myself drawn to pieces of X3. I downright hated "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," but can die happy knowing that there is at least one good Wolverine movie that came out in 2013. I loved "First Class" and "Days of Future Past."

With that said, I know that this big series of films isn't without any flaws. I feel with "X-Men: Apocalypse," the flaws of the franchise have become stables of the franchise. Which is why I cannot fully give myself to this new X-Men outing.

Will this be the "franchise-killer" that so many critics are calling it? I don't think so. I don't think its that bad. It's not horrible, like "Batman vs. Superman" earlier this year, "X-Men: Apocalypse" is a film made up of moments, and several moments of the film I do like. Also, like "Batman vs. Superman," "X-Men: Apocalypse" seems to really get going right as the credits begin to roll. I think "X-Men: Apocalypse" works as a movie much better than "Batman vs. Superman" ever did, but out of all the other X-Men movies that came before it, its flaws bleed right through. Those flaws affect the momentum of the story this time around, the film seems to stop cold for these flaws. But its not just the normal X-Men movie flaws that get my goat when it comes to "X-Men: Apocalypse," but we will get into that now.

As the film begins, there is a ritual involving an Egyptian ruler named En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac). En Sabah Nur is a powerful mutant who is in the process of possessing a different body. This ritual is interrupted by traitors and En Sabah Nur is buried deep in the Earth. We then fast forward to the 1980's, mutant-human relations have improved since Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) saved the President's life from Magneto (Michael Fassbender) ten years prior. Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is enjoying his school. We are introduced to mutants like Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie "Sansa Stark" Turner), Nightcrawler (Kodie Smit-McPhee) and Angel (Ben Hardy) through typical X-Men movie fashion. That is one irritating thing about these X-Men movies, they have access to a huge host of great characters, and all they do with most of them is introduce them using their powers destroying things by accident or picking up books. When a studio has a limited budget, I'd like to see those powers on display that supports the story, not just for showing off. Personal hang-up aside, Magneto is retired to a quiet life in Poland with a new family and Mystique has become a vigilante of sorts, helping mutants where she can.

The world is turned upside down when En Sabah Nur resurrects himself, calling himself Apocalypse. He enlists the help of Angel, Magneto, Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn), dubbing them the four horsemen. Apocalypse believes that the world should only be inhabitated by the strong, as in the mutants and will destroy everything and everyone else. Mystique comes back to Xavier's school to warn him about Apocalypse. Mystique enlists the help of Cyclops, Jean Grey, Nightcrawler, Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters). The two teams meet, and shit goes down.

Like I said above, the first hour or so of the film feels like a massive montage. We are introduced to an overwhelming number of characters, all with their mutants powers on display. What shocked me was how well director Bryan Singer introduced us to characters in his last film, "Days of Future Past." The film barely stops for the audience to really get to know anybody. It seems we have to rely on prior knowledge to get us through the introductions. In speaking of prior knowledge, the continuity of the X-Men films has become so twisted that I really don't understand it, and comic nerds will be frustrated by it. When "X-Men: First Class" came out in 2011, it felt like the franchise was starting over. But in its sequel, "Days of Future Past," they made it clear that they were attaching the events of "First Class" to the greater X-Men continuity. Even though that connection was gravely disjointed. In "X-Men: Apocalypse," trying to connect any event to any of the movies will be infuriating, especially with the two "Wolverine" movies and "Deadpool" out in the mix. There are several in-jokes and call-backs to previous movies, but at the same time the story line doesn't follow any sort of continuity with the other films. This is starting to become the weirdest superhero franchise, story-wise. I don't know if that is a compliment anymore.

Another problem I have had with the X-Men films as a whole is how useless some characters are. Sabretooth, Toad, Lady Deathstrike, Mastermind, Siren, Darwin, Azazel, Juggernaut, Multiple Man, Sunspot, Bishop, Warpath...these are all great X-Men characters, and yet the movies have a hard-on to just introduce characters then give them absolutely nothing to do. Psylocke is an awesome character, and I think Olivia Munn both looks the part and felt ready to play in this universe. She is given absolutely nothing to do in the movie, and I feel like I can't even judge her performance. Ben Hardy is given nothing to do as Angel, neither is Alexandra Shipp. They are just there as the other three horsemen for Apocalypse and stand around looking menacing until its time for them to use their powers. Quicksilver is given another funny scene of him running in super-speed, which is one of the biggest highlights of the movie. But after that, nothing much else occurs for him. Sure, he helps out in the final battle and he drops what could be a major plot-point into the fray. But that plot point is not explored in any significant way, so it goes nowhere. There is also another big scene involving William Stryker (Josh Helman), but other than to introduce the film's big cameo, it serves no purpose at all. Its an entire stretch of the film that could have been deleted from the film entirely. What is with the X-Men movies and only giving these great characters one or two scenes and barely any dialogue?

Alas, the biggest problem "X-Men: Apocalypse" has is the title villain himself. Apocalypse isn't just one of the most powerful villains within the X-Men rogue gallery, he's one of the most powerful beings in all of the Marvel universe. In the movie, he's just a big, blue guy who constantly talks about how mutants are superior and the old world must die. Its the most basic villain speak one could muster for a superhero movie. He also loves to kill people with sand, which after watching all of season three of "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." kind of comes off lame. This is a great villain, and Oscar Isaac is a terrific actor. This could have really been something if Isaac had somebody to play.

So what does work in the movie? Besides any scene with Quicksilver in it? Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner and Kodie Smit-McPhee are all excellent in their roles. These are some of the best actors of their generation and I knew from their previous work that they'd all be fantastic, and not a single one of them disappoint. Tye Sheridan and Sophie turner in particular have good chemistry together, which could benefit a romance in the future. Sophie Turner is given some big scenes to play with, and I'll be curious to see where her character goes in the future. Smit-McPhee's German accent really reminded me of Alan Cumming's from X2, and that made me smile. You may be tired of Jennifer Lawrence at this point, but the lady can act. She makes every single one of her scenes matter here, and she has become one of my favorite parts of this franchise. I also really like the moments between McAvoy and Fassbender. Even though they essentially have the same conversations every movie, they sure do make them count. The character moments all work in a big way in these movies, and when a movie is filled to the brim with special effects, that goes a long way.

The final battle has some cool parts, but it doesn't reach the excitement level that some of the previous movies have. Plus, after viewing it, I can start to see how one might view destruction in superhero movies as numbing. I don't understand how humanity can even come close to peaceful relations with mutants after the destruction on display in this movie, and it all feels a bit overwhelming. This is a weird feeling, because I've never felt this way about superhero action before.

Overall, the character moments save a great deal of this movie. I think superfans of the franchise should check out this new adventure. But I will warn you that all of the franchise's worst flaws are on full display here. I am not sure if this will kill the franchise, it survived X3 and "X-Men: Origins." This movie is easily better than those. But I can see how this franchise could run off track if Bryan Singer doesn't get a better handle on this material. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is working well and "Deadpool" was a great movie because every character, every beat, every scene and every superpower was important to the plot, every detail of those movies matters. If Singer wants to tackle the stories he says he wants to tackle in future movies, it will be in his best interest to make sure everything about his new adventures counts. I don't need two hours of deleted scenes, that is what DVD extras are for.

FINAL GRADE: B-

I will return to this in few weeks for a Further Inspection piece.

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