Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Inexcusable – X-Men: Apocalypse

Jennifer Lawrence (in blue) and Oscar Isaac (in gray) in X-Men: Apocalypse.

Batman v Superman made me angry . It was an affront to my sensibilities, both as a nerd who cares about how comic book characters are portrayed, and as a conscious human being who paid real, hard-earned money for my ticket. X-Men Apocalypse, the newest entry in Bryan Singer’s comic book saga, isn’t the kind of bad superhero movie that makes you angry. It’s mostly just the kind that makes you sleepy. Consider it like free time: if you have any plans to make, or philosophical ruminations you’d like to ponder, or quiet meditation to catch up on, or any particularly interesting games to play on your phone, then your screening of X-Men Apocalypse can function as a twelve-dollar relaxation getaway (albeit with a few violent CGI explosions). I think thanks are due Bryan Singer, for giving us all a safe space in which to ignore his crappy movie, and focus on the things that really matter, like what you want to have for dinner that night. Thanks, Bryan!

I gave Singer’s last X-Men film, Days of Future Past, a glowing review. I haven’t seen it since, so perhaps the bloom will have fallen off the rose by now, but I genuinely liked the film at the time, and made a point of referencing the intelligence of its storytelling and how it treated both its source material and its audience with respect. It’s kind of amazing that in two years the situation has totally flipped with this new sequel: Singer has abandoned everything that made his franchise interesting or unique, and I’ve abandoned the franchise as a result. I’m done with this X-Men crap; I’m out. If it’s all going to be the same stuff – the same character relationships that never evolve, the same mutants using the same powers, the same tired origin story beats we’ve seen a million times before – regurgitated with less passion and engagement each time, then there’s nothing these X-Men movies have to offer anymore. I came away from Apocalpyse feeling baffled: it’s boring, bloated, familiar, and pointless.

 The plot is that an ancient mutant named En Sabah Nur (nobody in this movie ever refers to him as “Apocalypse”), played by a criminally wasted Oscar Isaac, ruled Egypt as a living god and was trapped underground for centuries, resurfacing in the 1980s and collecting a posse of powerful mutants so that he can wipe the earth of all life and rebuild it anew. The X-Men try to stop him.

That’s it.

There are detours to Poland, where Magneto (Michael Fassbender) has started a family and wants to live a normal life, and to the frozen north, where Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is being experimented on, but that’s the entire thrust of the film. Huge amounts of screentime are devoted to reintroducing us to characters we already know (like teenage versions of Cyclops, Storm, Nightcrawler, and Jean Grey) and slotting them into astoundingly predictable origin story scenes. Talented, committed actors like Fassbender and James McAvoy, returning as Professor Xavier, are wasted on throwaway Coles Notes versions of their characters, with no discernable arcs and nothing changed between them by the end of the film. Others, like Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, are too busy looking off-screen at the craft services table to even bother turning in a watchable performance. Seriously, I completely sympathize with Lawrence’s desire to be free of this franchise (and the hours of uncomfortable makeup application that come with her character), but here she doesn’t even try to hide it. Her line readings are among the flattest and most disdainful I’ve ever seen. Her boredom was so nakedly obvious it was almost joyful to behold.

Sophie Turner (as Jean Grey), Kodi Smit-McPhee (as Nightcrawler)  and Tye Sheridan (as Cyclops) in X-Men: Apocalypse.

Every scene had me questioning its inclusion in the film, either because it didn’t seem relevant (like a single-shot “trip to the mall” with the young mutants), had already been done (and usually done better, like a cage match between Angel and Nightcrawler that doesn’t even come close to Wolverine’s cage fight from the first film, sixteen years ago), or didn’t make any goddamn sense at all (like Magneto’s sudden and completely unexplained ability to move the entire earth). The film is a plodding mess of poorly-connected and deeply dull scenes that usually include Oscar Isaac making monosyllabic pronouncements through an inch of blue plasticine. For an actor who is considered by many to be one of our great modern acting talents – with starring roles in films like Ex Machina, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Force Awakens – to be reduced to a dull, forgettable cartoon is a sad sight. He’ll be fine, I’m sure, and hopefully we’ll look back on this as the “unfortunate prosthetic villain” phase of his career (like Langella’s Skeletor or whoever Pacino was supposed to be in Dick Tracy). In the present, though… what a waste.

Can somebody explain to me why ten years pass between each of these films, but nobody ages? I understand that Mystique and Wolverine can reconstitute their cellular structure or whatever, but what’s Xavier’s excuse? Or Magneto? Or Rose Byrne’s utterly fascinating CIA agent character, who is just a normal person? I would ask what the point of jumping ten years between films could possibly be, but I already know the answer: it’s so that the film can provide a measure of visual interest by aping the fashion and iconography of the late decades of the 20th century. In First Class and Days of Future Past, the 1960s and 70s were depicted with relative subtlety – in Apocalpyse, the hoop earrings and feathered hair and leather jackets of the 1980s are the only visually interesting thing the movie has to offer, so they double down, drawing attention to it at every opportunity. Even then, the production design is so incoherent – none of the costumes match, scenes are dimly lit, locations and sets are bland and uninteresting, Olivia Munn looks like she’s cosplaying as 90s-era Psylocke within the world of the film itself – that all the neon pastels and mom jeans in the world can’t disguise the shoddy, cheap look of the film. It’s amazing that a movie with an almost 200-million-dollar budget can’t be bothered to look the part.

The X-Men still hold a special place in my heart because I have fond memories of the comics and the video games and the 90s cartoon series. In those incarnations, the X-Men were always working as a team, doing cool stuff like coordinating their powers and attacks, fighting off the villain of the week (whose plan was never more nefarious than robbing a bank or creating some killer robots). With Singer’s previous films, the ability to invest some of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s original thematics – the strong, interesting social commentary and emotional storytelling that makes the X-Men an enduring franchise – gave him the power to show us this awesome team as real characters and to tell compelling stories about flawed heroes. But Apocalpyse offers neither the rich themes nor the fun swashbuckling of any previous X-Men title, no matter the medium. It’s just a lazy, boring retread that isn’t worth your time.

 – Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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