Monday, May 30, 2016

At least everyone agrees that the third film in a series is always the worst!


A letdown of massive proportions (in all but one very crucial way, that is, since I guess I'll never not be impressed by Bryan Singer's super-speed shenanigans).  But, as for everything except Quicksilver, X-Men: Apocalypse kind of sucks.  It kind of sucks hard.

Directed by Bryan Singer
Written by Simon Kinberg, Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris, and Bryan Singer
With James McAvoy (Prof. Charles Xavier), Michael Fassbender (Magneto), Evan Peters (Peter Maximoff), Jennifer Lawrence (Mystique), Nicholas Hoult (Hank McCoy), Tye Sheridan (Scott Summers), Rose Byrne (Moira MacTaggert), Sophie Turner (Jean Grey), Kodi Smitt-McPhee (Kurt Wagner), Alexandra Shipp (Ororo Munroe), Olivia Munn (Psylocke), Ben Hardy (Angel), and Oscar Isaac (En Sabah Nur)

Spoiler alert: moderate

The story is that Bryan Singer knows how to make X-Men movies.  Of course, from the evidence of his four X-Men features (X-Men, X2: X-Men United, and X-Men: Days of Future Past being the other three) we could just as easily say that what he really knows how to do is make Quicksilver movies, since the Quicksilver parts of the last two X-Men movies Singer directed are so far and away the best parts that I simply do not know how he's avoided just making a movie called Quicksilver.  Presumably it has something to do with the fact that it probably costs somewhere around four million dollars a minute to do Quicksilver-related material.  That would be okay, though, since it might mean a superhero movie that actually clocked in under two fucking hours for once.

Anyway, I didn't come to bury the new X-Men movie, exactly—although I really doubt I'll spend much time praising it.  Still, the basic thrust of it is almost admirably simple.

In 3750 B.C., there lived a mutant, named En Sabah Nur, of such enormous power and longevity that he was worshipped as a living god.  He built for himself an empire in Egypt, protected by four chief soldiers, each of them powerful mutants like himself.  But his reign was a tyrannous one, and his human attendants found a way to bury him and his servants beneath his great pyramid, while he sought to transfer his consciousness into a new body.  Trapped leagues below the surface, there he waited, until he was dug out six thousand years later—in A.D. 1983.  He's back, he's bad, and he's so mighty the script just sort of gives him whatever superpowers he needs at any given moment.  Except, crucially, mind-control, which brings us to the then-present...

...And, the then-present is exactly where we find Charles Xavier, who regained his faith in both himself and his integrationist dreams in our previous episode.  Over the last decade, he has reestablished the Xavier School For Gifted Youngsters, and here he teaches mutants how to control their powers and be good children.  Lately, he's been spending a lot of his time helping the troubled teenaged telekinetic, Jean "Phoenix" Grey.  And I hope you remember her—in fact, I hope you remember everybody, because Apocalypse is completely disinterested in any theoretical viewer who has not seen all the other X-Men movies.  Bully for it, I say.

In any event, Xavier's also recently enrolled Scott "Cyclops" Summers, a young man who's having a hard time controlling his laser eyes.  They'll eventually be joined by Kurt "Nightcrawler" Wagner, another teen with a mutation problem, and Peter "Quicksilver" Maximoff, a nontraditional student to say the least (insofar as he's supposed to be about 35).  Oh, and there's Mystique, too—sure, throw her onto the pile.

However, En Sabah Nur (whom we could call "Apocalypse," though the film wisely enough never does) is recruiting as well, and the resurrected would-be deity manages to make the acquaintance of Ororo "Storm" Munroe on the streets of Cairo, which is both a pleasant reference to the source material and an intolerable narrative convenience.  Soon, he locates two other mutants, Angel (a flying man whom he gives metal wings) and Psylocke (a ninja lingerie model with a neon-pink psychic sword).  And, finally, Nur arrives at our old friend—and favorite X-character—Magneto himself.  More's the pity, then, that in this instance Magneto appears to have been written by men who had not so much as read his Wikipedia article before they sat down to pound out this script.

And yet this is emphatically not the case, given that the story and screenplay were drafted by four veterans of this very franchise.  Jesus.

Things get a lot more circuitous than you'd ever prefer, thanks to a half-hour layover in Wolverineland that is nearly as atrocious as anything in the whole franchise; but, inevitably, it shall all lead to a final showdown between Good and Evil, as En Sabah Nur makes a bid to conquer the world, and reforge it to his specifications, whatever those actually are.  (Nur pays some lip service to the brutish Darwinism of his comics forebear, but in the film his goals appear to chiefly involve getting rid of skyscrapers because they take up valuable real estate that could be used for pyramids.)  In the midst of this, however, Nur has recognized that Charles Xavier is stupid powerful, and has conceived a plan to transfer his consciousness (dragging along all the mutant talents that he's absorbed over the years) into the body of the world's most-frightening telepath.

Like I said, it's simple enough on a fundamental level.  The complications, and Apocalypse's intermittent unpleasantness, involve the absolutely unwieldy number of actual characters (and pseudo-characters).  It worked out a lot better last time—in fact, it has arguably worked out better every time, even in X-Men 3.

But wrangling giant casts through genre scenarios has always been Singer's signature strength, and there was never any reason to think that this challenge might be too severe.  Yet, clearly, it was; and while great comics characters like Storm and Angel are left in a corner to starve, no single character has more active violence done to him in this installment than Magneto, whose every scene represents some kind of genuine affront.  We could begin with his apparent decision to start a family—back in Poland, of course, because I guess Israel was already full, and who wouldn't love to be one of only 3000 Jews in a country known for anti-Semitism?  We could move on to his questionable decision to give up on supervillainy; but we can generously concede it fits his character to retire his power and responsibilities.  (I mean, he does it like every third year in the comics.)

Instead, let's consider the Master of Magnetism's day job, at a Polish steel mill—because it's metal! get it?—which, in this context, reads as something like a recovering alcoholic getting a job at a distillery.  We do manage to get the vaguest hint of Magneto's domestic bliss—just enough to let us know, in no uncertain terms, that before the first act's over, some bigoted humans are going to come kill his wife and daughter in order to supply the motivation that Magneto does not, in fact, need—because Magneto is already a radical terrorist, who would probably come out of retirement simply because he was fucking bored.

No refrigerator required.

Now, good old Michael Fassbender surely handles Magneto's truncated little paint-by-numbers arc quite effortlessly—and by this, of course, I mean that he is both emotionally believable, and that he rather obviously put forth no effort.  Yet despite all the off-putting desperation that Apocalypse demonstrates in getting Magneto back into the thick of things, all these clumsy efforts result, solely, in putting Magneto into a position where he gets 1)bossed around and 2)barely even speaks.  After this, the remainder of this film appears to have been realized with three CGI cutouts of the actor, rather than the man himself.  All of them have their arms stretched out, as Magneto is admittedly wont to do, whereas the only real difference between them is that one cutout shows Fassbender's face expressing despair; another shows his face expressing gastrointestinal discomfort; and the last shows his face releasing a single Fassbendian tear for the tragedy of it all.  Okay, fine, I'm exaggerating slightly: after all, you do need some kind of functioning Fassbender, in order to sell the part of the movie where the Power Rangers villain takes Magneto to Auschwitz—or, technically, the Auschwitz Museum—and convinces him to destroy it, in a fit of rage and (also) shocking tastelessness.

Incidentally, Mr. Singer: while there is already less than no need to faithfully translate Psylocke's fun but incredibly stupid costume into your movie, if you do plan on going down that road, please consider rewriting your script, or at least adjusting your shot set-ups, so that the image of a woman in the purple swimsuit is not in the same frame as the image of a real-life death camp.  Thank you.

I don't understand what was going through their heads here: I'm not even that offended, really, just perplexed.  Magneto, the quiet, pliant sidekick?  En Sabah Nur, the smiter of Nazis?  (You know how the tragic, wonderful irony of Magneto is that he has, himself, basically become a Nazi?  The four-color iteration of Apocalypse is the logic of Magneto, and Nazism, taken to its greatest extreme, recognizing that as long as we're talking master races and eugenic fitness, there are an awful lot of mutants who aren't strong enough to survive, too—at least, not in Nur's ideal world.)

But, hey, as long as I'm nerding out, maybe I expected something more from the presence of Scott Summers and Jean Grey and Apocalypse all in the same movie, but I was wrong to do so, even though there's no doubt that this movie would be 100% improved if it had Cable, and 200% improved if it had Stryfe.  And no, don't even ask—much like X-Men: Apocalypse, I shall not be clarifying my references.  Honestly, you should be thanking me.

Of course, as this film gets deeper and deeper into its climax, it pays to recall a little throwaway scene—one of the very few nice, character-building moments in this whole hyper-mechanical movie—that turns out to be foreshadowing of the direst nature, concerning a screening of Return of the Jedi and just where it ranks in the Star Wars canon.  It's cute until you realize later that Singer was only mentioning it in order to ease his conscience about so perfunctorily ripping it off.  Additionally, the joke that Jean makes about third movies in a trilogy?  I think that's supposed to be a stab at X-Men 3—but it would seem to apply with equal force to this film, too, the third X-Men prequel.

This does leave the fun action, of which there is some—notably a psychic battle between En Sabah Nur and Xavier that suggests that Singer saw Joe Dante's The Hole, but also that Singer has access to a whole lot more money.  (One could say the same thing about Sidney Furie's Superman IV, which this film likewise quotes—albeit not entirely without charm, especially given its period setting.)  Regardless, the telepathic struggle is just about the only time that poor Oscar Isaac, who's been turned into a CGI giant for the duration of the sequence, does not appear as if his elaborate costume weighs about thirty pounds too much for him to do any actual acting.  You see, Nur, despite having the tantalizing look of a delightfully goofy matinee villain, is blander than you'd have every right to expect.  (And as for the Baldening that accrues to Xavier, that's just terrible.)

Thanks to the flattened characters, there is much less comedy in Apocalypse than the other X-films—but there are exceptions even here, and action and comedy alike get their workout when Quicksilver arrives to enchant us once again with his wonderful super-speed.

I fully expected this second Quicksilver scene to be a retread of the first one.  And, in the sense that it employs the same basic elements—namely slow-motion paired with fast-motion—I guess it is.  Yet, when it turns out to be broader in its special-effects ambitions—and somehow even gaudier in its ludicrous speed-based humor—the efforts of Evan Peters (not to mention Singer's technicians) actually made me happy to have seen X-Men: Apocalypse.  (He even saves the goldfish!)  As before, seeing Quicksilver on the big screen is worth the price of admission.  The problem is that last time there was a pretty great movie going on around it, that would've remained pretty great whether Quicksilver was there or not.  That is not the case here.  It's a mediocre movie this time—maybe even a bad one—that simply happens to have one perfect scene.  It was enough for me, thankfully; but honestly, that might say more about me.

Score:  6/10


  1. Now now, our reviews are pretty much mirror images from opposite sides of that 5/10. I did REALLY LIKE the Quicksilver scene and in fact it's probably an improvement on the original. But the SECOND that pop song comes on, it's like a bell rings in your soul announcing the commencement of the annual Evan Peters slowmo scene. It's not a surprise this time around, which made it much more of a disappointment for me.

    I'm glad Magneto's ludicrous backstory also makes no canonical sense, because that crap was just infuriating.

    1. Yep--I found more value in Quicksilver, and that did it for me. I was honestly expecting a lot more, though; I'd written off the negative reviews as noise generated by an increasingly fatigued critical establishment. (I have no problems with four superhero movies before June, but obviously a whole lot of other people do.) Unfortunately, they were mostly right this time, even if I personally found something worth taking away from the mess. Seriously: they need to make a Quicksilver movie while they still can.

      Re: Magneto--I'm at an actual loss to think of a time when he was ever anyone's lackey (and wasn't mind-controlled or otherwise enslaved). Jesus, even that time he teamed up with all the other Marvel villains, he made it a point to bury the Red Skull in a cellar. He really doesn't work *for* people.

      (And I am honestly convinced that either 1)Bryan Singer literally forgot that Israel existed or 2)the original script put Magneto in Israel, but someone at Fox said, "No, that's too much of a halfway-clever comment on Israeli politics. You can either have that, or you can have the part where Magneto smashes up a Holocaust museum because Ivan Ooze told him to. Pick." And, of course, Singer picked Smauschwitz.)

    2. Oh, and it's also disappointing/implausible that Magneto would leave himself defenseless in the case a (non-metallic) pogrom happened. The guy's whole life is a pogrom, for God's sake. It's even more disappointing that his daughter's awesome Dr. Doolittle powers never get more of exercise than some pecky crows. I wanted to see the mountain lions. Or at least a swarm of cats. That would've been fun.

  2. Magneto spent a little time working for the High Evolutionary as a test subject, but he was depowered at the time. And of course he spent the latter years of his career working for Cyclops. Honestly, I didn't really feel it was out of place for Magneto to hide in Poland. He's in hiding, after all. Sure, he could have gone anywhere, but it's not like Israel is the best place for him to lay low.

    Honestly, as a dedicated comics reader, the weirdest thing for me was how people just accepted Mystique as this heroic field leader of the X-Men, idol to mutants everywhere. Granted, it makes sense within the world of the movies, but it weirds me out. That and the excursion to Weapon X that really didn't seem to serve any purpose in the film other than to have a Jackman appearance, to set up the post-credits Mr Sinister scene, and to let Cyclops take the lead for a while.

    Cyclops is the best. He is always the best. Sure, they had to change his character to get him to fit, but the one true king of mutantkind is always a pleasure to see on film.

    1. Maybe he should've gone to Genosha. That would be something I wouldn't have minded seeing in the movies--either old apartheid Genosha, or the (more) newfangled Magneto Dictatorship Genosha. (You know, the one Grant Morrison destroyed in, like, the first issue of his run.)

      For my money, they have never done right by Cyclops in the movies--they've been too busy worshipping at the altar of Wolverine, which makes sense but is kind of aggravating--and that this is the closest they've gotten is something of a shame.

      It's probably only my long-term familiarity with the ever-resetting comics that kept me from being deeply annoyed with an ending wherein [spoilers, everybody] Magneto kills about a million people worldwide, and Charles Xavier lets him go with a smile and a quip, and not even so much as a promise that he won't try to kill every human being on Earth again.

      Anyway, the Magneto of this film's first act would've made a lot more sense if Charles had mindwiped him in Days of Future Past.

      I liked the Mystique stuff--even if it's pretty clearly a symptom of Jennifer Lawrence's burgeoning stardom, and even if it's not a favor Lawrence really returns in her performance--but it makes sense given this continuity.

    2. Fuck Morrison. Literally the only thing he did in his run that I actually liked was making Emma Frost into a regular. I suppose it was nice to refocus around a tighter team of X-men, but everyone just became so bizarre and broken. I loved those 90s-era baseball games.

      Genosha would have been cool as fuck, and really you could have worked in all that mutant slavery Mystique was fighting against. Although I wonder if adding a bit more exposition to a movie that was already a bit long would be a good idea. Man, I remember those Genosha stories in X-Factor and Uncanny X-men back in the day. Cool as fuck. And Apartheid Genosha would have been timeline appropriate.

      You know, it is messed up that Xavier just let him walk away with a smile and a wave. Millions died, and it's not like Apocalypse mind controlled him or something. He just felt bad and so used his improved powers to wreak global havoc. Usually when he does that, things get real and he gets attacked by the full team of X-men. And then he either rips out Wolverine's adamantium and spends the next few years as a vegetable, gets given Genosha or gets killed by Wolverine.

      The mindwipe to Magneto would have made more sense than Moira actually, now that I think about it. But I guess they wanted to emphasize that he regrets his past. Sort of a Michael Corleone thing.

    3. I like the Morrison run, but more as a Morrison fan than as an X-Men fan. His handle on Magneto, for example, is deliberately incorrect. But at least it's "deliberately incorrect" in a way that feels like it has a point, which is more than you can say for Bryan Singer's in this here movie. It took me a long time to warm to it, however.

      On the plus side, "Cyclops as a dynamic human being who finally finds a definition for himself outside of Jean Grey" practically starts with Morrison, doesn't it? It's hard to remember what happened between the legendary Claremont run and the Morrison run, other than X-Cutioner's Song (which, maybe oddly, I kind of love) and Fatal Attractions (which I do not).

    4. Scott had his moments of solo development, although many of them were when Jean was in suspended animation, after Phoenix died for the first time. Honestly, I always enjoyed Scott and Jean's relationship as a kind of a rock of normalcy in the series. It was an important element of the X-men as a family. I do tend to feel like the the transformation of Jean into someone who was all sugar and spice and everything nice did tend to limit the two of them though. The later Jean was very conservative in that she was defined mostly by her marriage, her powers and her nurturing attitude. This was a woman who once was going to rough up some fellow bikini model who were eyeing her man a little too avidly, and who communicated openly with the people around her. But Morrison's Jean was so closed-off and staid. He basically moved Emma into Jean's old role, although obviously Emma had quirks of her own. We saw Cyclops as a pilot, as a fisherman, as the guy who saved the Acolytes from dying in the desert in Australia. He's more than just Mr. Jean Grey-Summers, although a lot of his story was spread over hundreds of issues.

      Morrison has missed more than he's hit with me, although I did enjoy Final Crisis as a mythological tale, even if it didn't really work in continuity especially well.

      Magneto didn't really do much in between leaving the New Mutants and Fatal Attractions. Pretty much the only significant storyline was when he was in the Savage Land with Rogue, which set the tone for Rogue and Magneto's relationship for years to come. I actually really liked Fatal Attractions. I remember reading it as a kid, and it blew my mind. I'll always have a warm place for it in my heart. After that, he was pretty much absent until he showed up, took over the magnetosphere, and was appointed dictator of Genosha. He stayed at that for a while, and then tried to organize an army to purge the flatscans, fought all the X-men and appeared to get killed by Wolverine. That led right into Morrison's run. Magneto was only periodically active between resigning from Xavier's and joining Scott's Utopia.

      You have always had a soft spot for Stryfe. Maybe Cable's appearance in Deadpool 2 means we might get to see Styfe some day, although I'd be surprised. His story is just so involved and deeply set in the mythology that it would be hard to build, tell and wrap in 135 minutes.

    5. It's true about Stryfe. I love how he provides a real enemy for Apocalypse in the present, I love how literally he fulfills the "dark mirror image of the hero" archetype, and I love that whole twisted madman shtick. I also love his idiotic costume.

      I don't know how they even plan on fitting Cable into things without Stryfe--presumably just relegating him to a straight-man for Deadpool, which is fun, but not necessarily the best use of the character. But, as you say, it's neck-deep in X-continuity, and it would be hard to tell that story without it being a firm goal of the movies since their inception, which it quite clearly wasn't, given the films' contempt for Scott Summers.

      As for Magneto, he pretty much died for me when Claremont killed him in the last issue of his original run. That scene was kind of heartrending for me as a little kid, and just about perfect, assuming that any scene where a character can recite a five hundred word speech while his asteroid space base falls into the atmosphere can be considered perfect, anyway. I know that's a little silly--it's a comic book, for Christ's sake--but it felt to my juvenile mind like the real death.

    6. Magneto definitely went out poignantly in X-men #3. I mean, it was something that was survivable for him, but it was certainly a glorious dive into the atmosphere. Honestly, I just love Magneto, so I was glad to see him in Fatal Attractions, and I was overjoyed to see him come back ~5 years later, to see off his clone that had become Rogue's love interest. He's just so damned iconic, you know. Morrison disfiguring Jean Grey's character was one thing, but Magneto? Sacrilege. But I get that for a lot of people, the end of the Claremont run was the end of the golden age of X-men.

      I don't know how much attention they'll pay to Cable's backstory. Given how irreverent Deadpool was, he could easily just fill Colossus' role as the straight man with no particular motivation or backstory to speak of. Would you really want to see a version of Stryfe that a Deadpool movie is likely to provide?

      Imagine how heavy Stryfe's helmet must be. 90s-rific. I had a pretty heavy Image/Wildstorm phase, and even I think the hat was a bit much.

    7. "Would you really want to see a version of Stryfe that a Deadpool movie is likely to provide? "

      Not in a million years. Well, I'd be curious. But no.

      Stryfe is possibly the most 90s character ever created. I mean, the name alone.

      Oh, yeah, and I did mean to go into Morrison: the things he did were to essentially break the X-Men as a concept. It's a good run, with a lot of good metacommentary (because Morrison can scarcely do anything else), but it's one of those things that probably would've been better out-of-continuity, in the same way that All-Star Superman could not have ever worked as twelve issues of Action Comics. It's a slightly more-restrained version of the comics-are-fictional-but-fictions-are-real stuff he did in Flex Mentallo, The Filth, Animal Man, and on-and-off in The Invisibles. But I do love me some Morrison. Even then, the first time I read it, the climax of the Magneto arc (which is already dumb as hell, with the Xorn stuff) left me utterly cold. Going back, recognizing it as essentially a parody, a contemptuous one at that, it read better, though it's certainly no love letter to the Magneto fan, and neither is it anywhere close to Morrison's best work.

      (OK, Morrison can do things other than metafictional nonsense, but he usually doesn't. Still, his JLA is wonderfully classical, even when though it's bound up in every other possible Morrison tic.)

      Also, did you know they were making a Booster Gold movie? I really, really hope that's a response to Deadpool, and they really mean "Giffen/De Matteis-style Booster Gold & Blue Beetle movie," and not a "Jurgens/Johns-kind of mostly serious adventure." Not that Booster's post-52 stuff was terrible or anything, but no Beetle, no peace, you know?

    8. Yeah, Booster Gold was only any good back when the Justice League was way more fun and way less powerful and iconic. The Superbuddies, now that was good stuff.

      It wasn't even that it was too meta for me. I just think it was too unrelentingly bleak. I've often said that the X-men had turned into a family, and breaking the X-men was like breaking that family. Literally, in the case of the Summers clan. And the change in art to a more European style and away from the clean lines we were familiar with just made it seem all the more grim.

    9. The art was generally gross, yeah. The Quitely stuff was gross (in a good way, though it took me years to get used to Quitely), but Kordy was very hit-and-miss and Silvestri had followed the same track as latterday Jim Lee, getting scratchier and uglier with every year, and a terrifyingly unpleasant fit with modern-day coloring techniques.

      I can't speak to Silvestri's evolution overall, but you can literally see the jump in the early WildC.A.T.s stuff with Lee: it goes from his late X-Men goodness to a grotesquely overrendered three-dimensionality thanks to the new computer coloring techniques. It still looks okay, but Lee never, ever learned that when you already have dimensional lighting thanks to your colorist, you don't need to cross-hatch things. Speaking of Superbuddies, that's something Kevin Maguire figured out, and his style got cleaner and cleaner as he worked into the 21st century, till finally he was basically just drawing extraordinarily well-composed outlines of bodies, with extraordinarily expressive faces.

      That said, Lee's experiments in aping Frank Miller with Deathblow were really cool. I'd have liked to have seen him take that somewhere, instead of giving up on it.

    10. I never got to like Quitely's stuff. It was just so much lip and cheek and chin. They didn't look like the X-men.

      There was a long period of adjustment to modern colour techniques, and Jim Lee is as good an example as any. That said, I'm not totally against art styles where the penciller does some shading. Travis Charest's work in Wildcats was some of my favorite comic art of all time. Good on you mentioning Maguire, as I was just thinking about his work as an example of a great, clean style. The faces were exaggerated, but in a much more pleasant way than Quitely.

      Deathblow made some pretty good use of lighting. But Lee, like all the Image founders that aren't Larsen or McFarlane, has real difficulty delivering on a deadline and finishing a monthly book on a timely basis without someone standing over them with a whip.

    11. I only really started to like Quitely with All-Star Superman. That's when it clicked, probably because it was either enjoy it, or read and re-read a comic whose art I hated. (That said, he's a solid storyteller, regardless of his one-size-fits-all face.)

      Maguire, of course, is always wonderful.