Monday, May 30, 2016

It's The End Of The World As We Know It

Year: 2016
Director: Bryan Singer
Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence 
Run Time: 2 hours 24 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

I owe a debt of gratitude to the X-Men films. The original trilogy powered me all the way through my childhood, giving me characters to root for and fueling endless playground discussions. I formed a bond with those people and that world, a bond so strong it allowed me to sit through X-Men: Apocalypse in its entirety without rending my hair and running away screaming. I don’t have particularly strong feelings for X-Men: First Class, the progenitor of this prequel cycle, and Days of Future Past was a gargantuan letdown, so I can’t say I had high hopes for Apocalypse, but even those feeble wisps of optimism were dashed into oblivion.

If this movie really was the End Times for this franchise, I can’t say I’d be upset.

In X-Men: Apocalypse, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) are happily running a school for mutants. It’s the 1980’s and the student body has received an influx of familiar faces: laser-eyed Scott Summer (Tye Sheridan) AKA Cyclops (although in typical comic book movie fashion, they go ahead and assume you already knew that), the telekinetic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), and the fireworky Jubilee (Lana Condor), who the movie is even less interested in than I am. They are joined by the teleporting blue demon Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is brought to the school by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), shape-shifted into the form of Jennifer Lawrence, who rescued him from a mutant dogfighting ring led by a cross between Wily Wonka and Liza Minnelli from Cabaret.

Mystique brings bad news. After a personal tragedy, Magneto (Michael Fassbender, who mails in this performance) has resurfaced. The X-Men must band together, yadda yadda, CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) is back so we can pretend Charles isn’t super gay for Magneto, and so on. Also, the better Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is back. If you’re allergic to names in parentheses, you may want to skip this next paragraph.

Moira witnessed a cult resurrecting En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), the mythical first mutant who is so powerful [sic] that he thinks he’s a god. He’s also called Apocalypse (gasp), but again the movie doesn’t see fit to divulge that apparently classified information. Apocalypse needs four horsemen to serve him, so he sets about gathering the strongest mutants in the world. Or, bar that, the first ones he bumps into: weather-controlling teen Storm (Alexandra Shipp), bewinged Angel (Ben Hardy), psychic sword lady(?) Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and Magneto. This arbitrary gaggle of mutants teleports around the world, power posing and generally wreaking havoc. Speaking of, Havok (Lucas Till) is in this movie too, for so long you’d actually think he was an important character. So yeah. The horsemen power pose and kill some people and, like, control the first or something, because they want to tear down this world and build a new one.

But mostly they just indulge in their hobby of recreating Backstreet Boys album covers.

From what I’ve been told, the Apocalypse run is kind of a big deal in the comics. An ancient, hyperpowered, megalomaniacal menace, Apocalypse is a formidable foe on paper (literally). But in the film, other than kicking up some monochromatic dust storms and tearing apart two or so sterile, humanless cities, the worst thing this omnipotent übermutant does is make James McAvoy go bald. He’s about as menacing as a kitten in a teacup, and the superb Oscar Isaac is totally buried beneath a metric ton of makeup and shouted dialogue more plum than his skin tone.

The musical score might cut itself open and bleed itself dry impressing upon you the monumental significance of what you’re witnessing, but there’s barely a shred of doubt that this pompous Blue Man Group reject will be destroyed by the power of friendship or whatever. X-Men suffers the same way Civil War does with a preponderance of overpowered characters (Jean Grey is this entry’s Scarlet Witch, pretty much any solving any story problem with her endless array of talents, then hanging around twiddling her thumbs so we can try to care about the outcome of a bout between two far weaker characters), rendering any conflict pretty much useless the second the movie decides it has gone on long enough. But boy oh boy, does Apocalypse really deliberate before making that decision.

Clocking in at around 144 minutes of disconnected vignettes about any of a half million different characters, Apocalypse really struggles to find a personality. Sometimes it’s a sprawling superhero adventure. Other times it’s a wacky high school comedy about mismatched teens. But mostly it’s a dreary, deafening plea to be taken seriously. Honestly, when did comic book movies stop trying to be fun? One bungled Wolverine cameo later, and the film has depleted every last resource at its disposal. Then there’s an hour of flailing before the end credits mercifully inter the godforsaken mess.

Unfortunately, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from X-Men, it’s that dead things rarely stay that way.

The movie isn’t exactly helped by a visibly exhausted cast. The teens try their hardest to punch up their hokey storyline, but the only adult who even seems to be aware they’re on a movie set is James McAvoy. Rose Byrne performs her thankless role with the brute efficiency of a machine, Jennifer Lawrence falls back on prickly Katniss-isms, and Michael Fassbender is a million miles away. His palpable desire to be anywhere else does little to sell a forced family tragedy shoehorned in to give him a bit of insta-motivation, and it certainly doesn’t render palatable an exceedingly tasteless scene set at Auschwitz.

Although, truth be told, Magneto is mostly played by a CGI Ken doll being dragged around the screen. You can practically see the mouse pointer. That’s right, this entry continues the venerable tradition of rendering its mutants with special effects that were outdated in the WarGames era. They’re lucky a large theme of the movie is Mystique and Beast resisting their powers, because their SFX budget begins and ends with one (1) set of metal wings and maybe a handful of explosions. The rest is an X-Men: Evolution cartoon-level of work. The winking humor about how third sequels always suck can’t save the ruthlessly disastrous aesthetic of Apocalypse.

Now that I’ve purged my bile, I will submit that there are maybe a smattering of good things about the movie. McAvoy provides some solid first act comic relief, the teens are sufficiently likeable, and the crummy sub-Big Bang Theory opening credits that zoom through history’s greatest hits feature an exploding swastika, which is pretty righteous. And of course, there’s the obligatory Quicksilver slo-mo scene, which is shameless, pandering, inexcusably lazy, and still the best thing in the whole damn movie.

When Evan Peters makes more of an impression than Michael Fassbender, you know something has gone terribly wrong. And indeed it has. Many volumes of somethings. Unfathomable depths of somethings. It’s far from the worst movie out this year, or even this month, but it is a solemn disappointment.

TL;DR: X-Men Apocalypse is a sprawling, inept mess that wastes a bevy of talented performers.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1210
Reviews In This Series
X-Men (Singer, 2000)
X2: X-Men United (Singer, 2003)
X-Men: The Last Stand (Ratner, 2006)
X-Men: First Class (Vaughn, 2011)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (Singer, 2014)
X-Men: Apocalypse (Singer, 2016)

1 comment:

  1. Ouch! I liked it myself--but not an awful lot (and you're spot on in every criticism except, I'd argue, the Quicksilver scene, which is the right kind of pandering and surprisingly novel given that it clearly arose as a retread of the last film's Quicksilver scene).

    The difference may be that I liked First Class and DoFP way, way better than the first three films.