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Saturday, May 28, 2016

Director Report Card: Bryan Singer (2016)

10. X-Men: Apocalypse

“X-Men” is one of those franchises were I’ve seen all the films in the series multiple times and enjoyed most of them without being especially passionate about the series. Most of the X-Men movies are pretty good but I wouldn’t go so far as to say I love any of them. It’s always been that way. I watched the cartoon show as a kid, read the occasional comic, but never felt much connected to the characters or their world. My review for “X-Men: Days of Future Past” was one of the most unenthusiastic positive reviews I’ve ever written. It’s different my friend and podcast co-host JD. He’s always loved the X-Men. In high school, I can recall him excitedly hoping that supervillain Apocalypse would appear in a movie someday. Back then, I never thought it would happen. Back then, I couldn’t have imagined how popular and omnipresent superhero movies would someday become. I’ll admit now: I was wrong. Apocalypse arrives on screen in sixth (Or ninth, depending on what you count) X-Men movie. The buzz hasn’t been quite apocalyptic but has been far from great. Maybe my low expectations helped, as I found myself enjoy the latest entry in the series more then any of the prior ones.

Ten years after the events of “Days of Future Past,” the world has a more accepting if still uneasy attitude towards mutants. The X-Men are thrown around the globe. Charles Xavier’s school for mutant youths in upstate New York is now flourishing, accepting many new admissions. Mystique travels from country to country, looking for new mutants. Magneto, a wanted fugitive, lives a peaceful if secluded life with a wife and daughter in Poland. All of that is about to change. An ancient evil awakens in Egypt. The very first mutant, imprisoned thousands of years ago, is uncovered. Massively powerful, he quickly gathers followers, including Magneto. This new threat is determined to reassert mutantkinds dominance over Earth, wiping out humanity, bringing about the apocalypse for billions of people. Hopelessly outgunned, a new team of X-Men form, in hopes of saving the world.

“Apocalypse” seemingly caps off a trilogy that began with “X-Men: First Class.” That film was set during the Cold War tensions of the 1960s. “Days of Future Past” zapped Wolverine back to the mid-seventies. “Apocalypse,” meanwhile takes place in 1983. Once you look past none of the central players looking a decade older, “Apocalypse” seemingly takes advantage of period setting more then the prior two entries. Nightcrawler wears a Thriller jacket and another character, later on, moonwalks. The young Cyclops and Jean Grey go see “Return of the Jedi,” amid an adventure at the mall. An early scene is set in an underground punk/new wave bar, with all the Mohawks and leather jackets you’d expect. Maybe it’s just because I’m more familiar with that decade but it seems like “Apocalypse” is more of an eighties movie then “Days of Future Past” was a seventies movie.

If there’s one through-line in this new series of “X-Men” films, it’s the love/hate relationship between Professor X and Magneto. There’s a lot going on in “Apocalypse,” which means Erik and Charles get less screen time together then in previous flicks. Instead, both characters are given compelling arcs of their own. Magneto is given a new wife and child, happily living a simple existence with them. After momentarily revealing his powers during a work place accident, police track him down, ending his new family’s lives. Once again, Magneto has given the human world a chance, only to be punished by it. Michael Fassbender plays the supervillain as a man without hope, broken for the umpteenth time. This makes his seduction to Apocalypse’s ideology – only a few stones away from Magneto's already extreme mutant supremacy – easy to believe. Xavier, meanwhile, reconnects with Moira MacTaggert, his lost love interest from “First Class.” This renewed romance, along with the story’s other turns, challenges Charles. This is a good idea since, as introduced, he’s pretty happy as the dean of the academy. James MacAvoy’s best attributes – his considerable charm and refined grasp of drama – both get a workout.

In the years since “First Class,” the profiles of two members of the X-Men ensemble have risen considerably. Jennifer Lawrence has become one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Nicholas Hoult hasn’t risen to that level but he does have the cult cache of “Fury Road” under his belt now. Expectantly, both are given bigger roles. By story’s end, Lawrence’s Mystique has more-or-less become the good guy’s leader. (Lawrence also spends more time out of the blue skinned make-up, presumably to show off those movie star good looks.) I’ve never been particularly impressed with Lawrence’s take on the character but “Apocalypse” at least takes her through the full emotional spectrum, the character going from resenting the world of man to finally embracing it. Hoult, meanwhile, nicely plays up Beast’s nerdier aspects before getting to cut loose at the end, embracing his own blue make-up, while swinging, leaping, and diving through the air.

Just as “Days of Future Past” was designed to phase out most of the original “X-Men” cast, “Apocalypse” is partially designed with introducing the next generation of characters. As the timeline has cycled closer to the modern day, younger versions of original franchise members are introduced. “Apocalypse” gives us young Cyclops, young Jean Grey and young Nightcrawler. Tye Sheridan plays young Scott Summers. While Cyclops is one of those love-him-or-hate-him characters, Sheridan is well cast in the part. Scott is still learning to use his powers at this point, putting the character in a more compelling, conflicted mode. Kodi Smit-McPhee is probably my favorites of the new additions. Smit-McPhee is already proven as a great actor. He brings a likable naïvety to Kurt Wagner while also embracing the character’s various aspects: acrobat, devout Catholic, an outsider because of his appearance, accepted among the X-Men. Not all the new/old recruits worked for me. Sophie Turner as Jean Grey reads every line flatly, seeming bored with the material.

But what about the titular villain? Apocalypse’s appearance has been mocked online since pictures of the character first surfaced, fans comparing him unfavorably to Ivan Ooze. I actually think the costume is okay, as the movie tries to bring Apocalypse’s frankly ridiculous comic design into reality. Oscar Isaac, the internet's boyfriend, got the plum role of the villain. As the omnicidal super mutant, Isaac gets a number of big monologues and impressive set pieces. However, Isaac’s charms and quirks as an actor are buried under the make-up. You get the impression that just about any actor could’ve played this part. Though “Apocalypse’s” villain is a powerful physical force, he spends most of the film telling people what to do.

If you haven’t noticed already, “X-Men: Apocalypse” has a large cast. Inevitably, certain characters are going to get the short end of the characterization stick. Aside from Magneto, Apocalypse’s other Horsemen aren’t much more then plot devices. Alexandre Shipp and Olivia Munn both perfectly captured the physical appearances of Storm and Psylocke. However, Storm’s progression from street thief, to supervillain henchman, to eventual hero seems hopelessly thinly sketched. Most of her character development seemingly happens off-screen. Munn, meanwhile, functions primarily as an action figure, using her powers to slice through cars and attack Beast. Any swagger or ability Munn has are obscured by the demands of an ensemble film. As Ben Hardy as Archangel, meanwhile, has even less to work with. The character makes a memorable entrance but, by the end, he’s reduced to a special effect. The motivation behind his villainous action are left totally unexplored.

“Apocalypse” does have a large – some would even say “bloated” – cast. However, this is a big budget summer blockbuster. I’m here for spectacle and action. In this regard, “Apocalypse” succeeds with flying colors. The film takes full advantage of the character’s superpowers. Apocalypse is decapitating people with sand. Nightcrawler uses his teleportation as a weapon, flipping opponents into danger. Psylocke has fuckin’ laser swords and whips. However, one superpowered individual steals the show. Evan Peters returns as Quicksilver, once again running away with nearly the entire movie. Expanding on the “Time in a Bottle” sequence from “Days of Future Past,” Quicksilver runs towards Xavier’s school just as it’s about to explode. Time stands still, as Quicksilver runs into the building, moving everyone out of danger’s way… But not before messing with the frozen people. Goldfish are scooped back into bowls, bed sheets are used as a net, debris is picked out of the air. We even get a cameo from Pizza Dog. The entire set piece is set to the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams,” the song nearly playing in its entirety. Peters perfectly clowns it up, having a ball as the irrelevant speedster.

Some have criticized Fox sticking Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine into nearly every X-Men movie. When a trailer spoiled Jackman’s surprised appearance in “Apocalypse,” that same crowd rolled their eyes. However, “Apocalypse” sparingly uses Wolverine. Earlier, I criticized the movie for reducing its characters to plot devices. But when most of your cast are defined by their superpowers, that’s not necessarily a bad idea. Dressed in a perfectly replicated Weapon X costume, Wolverine enters the story to allow the new trio of heroes a chance to escape. In other worlds, Wolverine is in full-on berserker mode, massacring a whole base full of militaristic bad guys. Considering tearing shit up is what we all want to see Wolverine do anyway, there’s nothing wrong with this. He functions as a super heroic wrecking ball, Jackman growling and fuming. There’s actually something elegant about Wolverine popping into the story, delivering a satisfying amount of carnage, and then wandering back out. (Jackman’s not even credited, by the way.)

“Apocalypse” has a truly massive finale. His full potential unlocked, Magneto proceeds to wreck havoc on the entire world. Whole cities are turn apart by his magnetic abilities, the San Francisco Bridge and the Sydney Opera House both being destroyed. In all this CGI chaos, “Apocalypse” focuses back on the individuals. The heroic X-Men pair off with villains. Beast battles Psylocke, Nightcrawler fights Angel, Cyclops struggles with Storm. Before the end, the film packs in several fan-pleasing moments of spectacle. Professor X and Apocalypse battle on the astral plane, the supervillain's trademark growing abilities being incorporated in an organic way. The full range of Jean Grey’s powers are hinted at, providing viewers with an iconic image that’s long overdue. A giant metal X is slammed into the ground, a comic book worthy shot. With so much mayhem, the final fate of the villain comes off as a bit of an afterthought. But who can complain when we get this many kick-ass moments?

Truthfully, “Apocalypse” is juggling a lot of narrative balls. The film has to split screen time between eleven major characters. Sometimes, the viewer has to remind themselves where everyone is in relation to the other cast members. When you’re cutting back and forth between Cyclops’ training, Apocalypse recruiting his assistants, Xavier infiltrating the CIA, and Magneto mourning his wife and child, audiences could be forgiven for becoming confused. Eventually, most everyone is gathered in one place, though it takes well. However, considering this year has already had two superhero movies that did middling jobs of balancing a loaded cast, “Apocalypse” does remarkably well making spacing out its plot and dividing focus among its ensemble.

“X-Men: Apocalypse” is maybe the most comic book-y comic book movie yet made, surpassing “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” the previous record holder for that title. It has the massive stakes and massive cast of a major crossover event. Despite the apocalypse promised in its title, the film maintains a free-wheeling sense of fun, constantly topping its previous huge set pieces. Of course, plenty of crumbs are left for future installments. Many character exit the film in amusingly comic accurate costumes, promising more adventures. Hints towards Mr. Sinister and X-23 are dropped, for the upcoming third “Wolverine” flick. Bryan Singer has already promised the next film will take us to the nineties and outer space. So D’Ken, Lilandra, and Dark Phoenix could be heading for the big screen. Despite some serious flaws, “Apocalypse” makes the franchise fun again by embracing the wild possibilities of its source material. [Grade: B+]

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