Friday, 27 May 2016

NEW RELEASES: X-Men - Apocalypse

X-Men: Apocalypse

(Director: Bryan Singer.  Starring:  James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac)

A couple of weeks ago I read a headline which stated "Comic fans X-static to discover Wolverine appears in new X-Men movie!"  This was a rather silly headline and not just because of the godawful attempt at a pun. (Seriously, I gambit I could forge a dazzler of an X-Men pun in a blink without any of the havoc that beastly attempt caused.) 

Wolverine has featured in at least a cameo appearance in eight films featuring X-Men characters (and as a hilarious meta reference in the ninth: 'Deadpool.')  When you consider that by owning the X-Men series, Fox has the rights to over 240 original Marvel characters to use however they want, the fact that they keep returning to the same one is less exciting than it is a worrying sign that they are either lazy or desperately out of ideas.  To be honest, I'd be more excited to be told that the next X-Men film 'won't mention Wolverine at all' as this would force the filmmakers to focus on a new interesting and coherent story instead of simply trading on previous successes.

Luckily, much like with his brilliant one line appearance in X-Men: First Class, Wolverine is used quite cleverly in a way that is both enjoyable without distracting from the main thrust of the story which he doesn't greatly influence (also, like that First Class cameo, this film uses it's one rating allowed 'fuck' in the dialogue in the best way it could, although in a different scene with a different character).

Sadly not the Kelsey Grammar version of Beast though.
Unfortunately, outside of this scene, my worries that the film may become muddled and unsatisfying in an attempt to reference past glories was somewhat correct.  The film introduces us to some new characters but also many that we have previously seen in other X-Men films even though their appearance and ages here make the timeline of the series into an even more convoluted and contradictory mess than already was (Although  if, like me, you simply pretend that X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine don't exist then both this film, and the world in general, make much more sense)

If I keep my eyes closed it's like this shit isn't happening.
For example, there is a popular moment in the original X-Men movie where the team get split up and once some of them re-group Cyclops asks Wolverine to prove that he's not Mystique disguised as him.  Wolverine simply replies 'you're a dick' which is evidence enough for the others to believe him.  However, now due to this film, Mystique has met Cyclops years before the events of that film.  Now she would know exactly how much of a dick he is!

Also a major theme in every X-Men film right back from the first is how human society is being unfair and prejudiced to mutants, treating them as dangerous weapons that need to be controlled rather than innocent people deserving freedom and equality.  When you consider that in every one of these prequel movies the Earth is almost destroyed by the actions of a handful of crazed, evil mutants then each one only makes the case being fought by the mutantophobic politicians in the early movies even stronger.
I can read the minds of every living person on Earth, erase your memories
and brainwash you to do whatever I please but don't worry I've just teleported
into the office of the US President with my team of trained super powered soldiers
to explain that there is nothing to be afraid of.
So to the plot: Barring a squish-tastic pre-credit sequence where mega-baddie Apocalypse is first defeated in Ancient Egypt by some guys armed with some well placed stone blocks (somewhat deflating his threat level when he returns to destroy us later on) the majority of the film is set in 1983, ten years after the previous X-Men: Days Of Future Past and 20 years since X-Men: First Class (apparently all the characters from that film have aged miraculously well and barely look any different since then).

The main story begins when Rose Byrne's character Moira McTaggart goes to Egypt to search for information on the said title character, an ancient mutant of world destroying power (most likely to get revenge on some REALLY annoying neighbours of hers) and witnesses his awakening (which only required a handful of guys chanting together for five minutes but apparently still took about five thousand years to happen).

Posted without comment.
Apocalypse then sets out choosing the most powerful mutants he can find to become his new Four Horsemen to bring about the destruction of all civilisation.  These henchmen consist of Magneto, who has the ability to control metal with such power that he can rip minerals out of the earth and tear down bridges and buildings, Storm who can control the weather to the degree that she can create devastating hurricanes and fire lightning from her hands and Angel who... er... has a pair of wings I guess (which I suppose lets him use all his energy flapping them to keep up with the other two while they levitate effortlessly.)

I'd comment Psylocke's powers but even just after watching
 the film I still don't really understand what they are?
Storm is actually given quite a good introduction as a young, angry, African teenager using her powers for petty theft until she is approached by the titular villain and convinced that she is made for something bigger.  (In an early scene when knife wielding man asks here 'Do you know what I they do with thieves around here?' I almost hoped someone would say the hilariously shit follow-up 'Same thing they do with everyone else!")

I would've liked to have seen more of Storm developing as a character (especially seeing her turning from bad to good while inspired by Mystique who is destined to go in the other direction) but unfortunately the film feels the need to cram in so many characters that each of them feels underserved by the narrative.  

As in previous instalments, Michael Fassbender's Magneto is aptly the most magnetic presence on screen and once again imbues Eric Lehnsherr with both tragic vulnerability and uncontrolled fury.  However by the third act, much like Storm, he spends a long sequence pretty much literally hovering around while the plot goes on around him.

Of course during these scenes Magneto is responsible for much of the massive destruction shown in the trailers but that makes no difference since the actual carnage has little to no emotional effect on the audience.  Whether it's the main characters' total indifference to the thousands of lives ended or destroyed, the lack of a ground POV or simply the fact that the CGI effects used feel too empty and weightless to connect as reality but the scenes of citywide disaster leave very little impression on those watching.  You can't help but get the feeling that you'd care more about the buildings and bridges being tore apart if they were made of Lego.

the horror...the horror...
Magneto's lack of direct conflict with Xavier removes a lot of tension from the film's climax as much of this series emotional power comes from watching these former allies forced into fighting against each other (a theme continued with mixed success by this years other big superhero movies: Captain America: Civil War and Batman Vs Superman: Yawn of Martha)

"I have to save him, he's my best friend"
Batman talking about the guy he literally tried to murder for no
reason one scene ago and has only apparently met twice beforehand.
Instead the conflict of the movie centres on Oscar Isaac's new villain Apocalypse.  Apocalypse is given suitable hype as a truly dangerous force to contend with (it's not like he's named 'Temporary Discomfort' or anything) but he can't help but feel somewhat underwhelming overall.  Isaac is a great actor who can bring quiet intensity to a variety of roles but here he is buried under so much make-up and OTT costuming that he looks like a villain from a 90's kids TV show like Power Rangers.  It could be literally anyone straining to be taken seriously underneath all that face paints.

Oscar Isaac is an anagram of Ivan Ooze.
Coincidence?  I think not!
Ironically, despite Apocalypse spending the full runtime looking like a big blue Robert Z'dar, the producers seem keen to keep the majority of the young sexy X Men looking exactly like their bankable stars.  Although Mystique has previously been shown to be able to look like anyone at any time but having to put effort in to appear as anything other than a Blue Meanie she spends almost the entire length of the film looking exactly like Jennifer Lawrence while giving rousing speeches to teenagers.  Hank McCoy happens to have found a successful cure for this mutant powers so he can look just like rising star Nicholas Hoult and only turns into Beast once he's required to start fighting.

Again, sadly not Kelsey Grammer's Beast.
Despite this nitpicking, there are many positives to be taken from this film. The 1980s setting continues the Cold War paranoia vibe combined with some brilliantly cheesy music and costume choices (at one point one of the young X Men wears Michael Jackson's Thriller jacket, because why the fuck not).  There's another suitably silly slo-mo scene of Quicksilver saving the day, which is a shameless retread of the popular 'Time In a Bottle' sequence from Days Of Future Past but is entertaining nonetheless. 

Ultimately this film's biggest weakness (and most likely the inspiration for the rather unfair drubbing it's got from some critics) is also it's greatest strength.  That being the campy, silly spectacle of it all.  The film is ridiculous nonsense both narratively and visually but yet it is never boring.  The exact details of character's origins and relationships may not be entirely accurate to the source material but you are left in no doubt that what you are watching is an adaption of a comic book (and not the kind that feels it necessary to call itself a 'graphic novel')  Sure the drama is lightweight and there is no sense of depth on a character or thematic level but the action is kept, fast and fun throughout.  Overall, you feel less like you are watching a self-serious modern superhero movie than the latest episode of a lighthearted Saturday morning kids show.  I wouldn't call X-Men: Apocalypse a great film by any means but I know I'd much rather watch it twice back to back than to put myself through the grim, joyless trial that was Batman vs Superman ever again. (In fact comparing the vast difference between the feel of both these films truly reveals the tonal tightrope that the best Marvel films manage to carefully step along)

At one point in the film some of the characters go to a screening of Return of the Jedi and enter a discussion over which is the best Star Wars movie.  'The third is always the worst' they agree.  It's not clear whether this is a coded apology for the terrible original third X Men film (Brett Ratner's totally mishandled X Men: The Last Stand) or simply baiting critics already sharpening their knifes for this one.  Either way it's a fair assessment.  Although the Return of the Jedi analogy seems particularly apt for this film.  There is no doubt that it's quality pales in comparison to it's prior two instalments but it carries itself with enough charm and good spirit that fans will be happy to join their favourite characters on another adventure regardless.

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