Friday, May 27, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse movie review.

Of all the continuous superhero franchises in the world, none have proven more resilient than the X-Men films. With the dust having settled after the catastrophic failure of Batman and Robin, director Bryan Singer took it upon himself to bring the iconic residents of Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters to the big screen. Essentially serving as the template for all modern superhero films to follow like Spider-Man and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, X-Men and its sequel X2 skillfully introduced and fleshed out the iconic characters, telling great standalone stories while also building to greater things in the future.

But like any series, it reached its low point with the incredibly disappointing X-Men: The Last Stand, and only adding insult to injury was the much maligned error of judgment X-Men: Origins, which many assumed would be the death of the franchise. Flash forward to 2011, where Matthew Vaughn took the reigns and restored the series' goodwill balancing seamlessly between thrills and character drama, while Days of Future Past blended both the past and present cast members together in a spectacular crossover/reboot. Now serving as director for the fourth time, Singer returns to complete the retooled trilogy with X-Men: Apocalypse, but will history repeat itself again?

With mutants having lived peacefully with humanity for ten years, the entire foundation of their existence is rocked by the re-emergence of their oldest ancestor, En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac). A figure of apocalyptic destruction, En Sabah Nur, dissatisfied with humans having taken control over most of the planet, begins enlisting new incarnations of his followers the four horseman, including public enemy Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender). Afraid for his students and for the fate of humanity, Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) teams up with old sister figure Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), as well as several of his students and fellow teachers to bring Apocalypse's impending doom to an end.

X-Men: Apocalypse clocks in at a running time of about 140 minutes, making it the longest film in the series to date (not counting the Rogue Cut of Days of Future Past). For a franchise of this stature and with so many characters in its roster, it's a reasonable length to have, but oddly enough the extra time also becomes one of the film's biggest flaws. Beginning with En Sabah Nur's introduction almost 6,000 years ago in Egypt, after the film's surprisingly brutal pre-title sequence, the film falls into an uneven rhythm of jumping frantically from location to location in order to touch base with every new and returning character. This has been a common practice of the series to spread its time between its many ensemble players, but it's always been manageable because they've always been tied to one common narrative thread, and diversions were always kept short and to the point. Here, the jumps and spread in focus struggle to find their footing, almost as if major chunks of the film have been re-edited and retooled on the spot during post-production, and it isn't until the end of the first hour that the disparate strands finally begin to feel on track.

To be fair, even when the film struggles to find consistency, what manages to hold the film together is the interplay between the cast, both the old and the new. At this point in the franchise's life, it's been a challenge to find new ways to make characters like Xavier, Magneto, and Mystique feel fresh and interesting, but the pure power of the three main performers have always been up to the challenge. McAvoy has always proved a natural in the role of Xavier, embodying all of Patrick Stewart's leadership and personal empathy for his students, and the actor's always reliable presence makes up for how Xavier can sometimes get sidelined. Jennifer Lawrence has always been the more tricky case, being that each new film has had to tailor the character for her always rising star, and Lawrence's strengths and vulnerabilities continue to be put to good use following her improved development in Days of Future Past. But once again, the film's true secret weapon is Michael Fassbender, who has always been a quietly devastating fit for Magneto, and with the new lows and heartbreaks that the character experiences here, Fassbender continues to channel himself into continually dark places, and makes us very sympathetic and understanding of his alignment with Apocalypse.

But Apocalypse himself may be the single most disappointing element of the entire film. While the strength and connection to all the main heroes are all fantastic, and the character feels like a genuine threat that genuinely had me worried for the safety of their lives, that has less to do with how well established Apocalypse is as a villain, and in fact he feels quite empty. The X-Men films have always been admirable in crafting interesting, clearly defined and well-realized villains, but Apocalypse's flat, power-obsessed demigod struggles to set himself apart from countless other paper thin villains bent on destroying the world to rebuild, including the recent Ultron. It's an unfortunate waste of Oscar Isaac's talents and potential, but at least the actor manages to add some stability under the heavy makeup and voice processing, which is more than can be said of his hollow followers such as Olivia Munn's Psylocke and Alexandra Shipp's Storm.

But even that isn't the film at its worst. So much of what has defined this new trilogy of X-Men films is the common thread of reworking history to allow the many characters and the whole series a fresh start, which the filmmakers have gracefully respected by making spare use of cute callbacks to this point. But there's a thin line between quick callback and extended fan service, and the latter is particularly highlighted by a lengthy twenty minute diversion that has absolutely nothing to do with the overarching narrative. Without giving too much away, it's a segment that makes heavy use of Josh Helmman's newly retooled Stryker, and leans heavily on nostalgia and foreshadowing to popular series entry X2. Aside from bringing the movie to a screeching halt, it flies in the face of everything that the new movies have established up to this point. If the filmmakers want to branch out and put their own stamp on the universe, why are they leaning so heavily on the connections to their predecessors? Also, since the trilogy has effectively retconned many of the events in the earlier films and rendered them irrelevant, what's the point in even foreshadowing the events that are to come? This entire stretch of the film is so poorly judged that it could have been eliminated altogether, and no one would ever notice.

In the grand scheme of things, many qualities of the film don't hold up much to scrutiny, but at least while I was watching it, I was genuinely having fun with the film, and much of why that is is the aforementioned ensemble players. While returning cast member Rose Byrne is severely under served and shoehorned, players like Nicholas Hoult and Evan Peters continue to elicit great onscreen moments. But the future of the series is placed more in the hands of the young students, with Tye Sheridan and Sophie Turner making for rock solid incarnations of Cyclops and Jean Grey, but it's Kodi Smit-Mcphee who turns into quite the scene-stealer as Nightcrawler, even if none of his scenes match the thrills of X2's opening White House sequence. As far as action goes, that also becomes a fun side-stop, as it allows Singer a chance to strip himself down to basics, and give the film a necessary shot of adrenaline. It's worth noting that while the film's opening, and the epic extended finale make for appropriately grand set-pieces, once again it's Quicksilver's supersonic speed that becomes the highlight. While paling in comparison to Days of Future Past's "Time in a Bottle", it still makes for a thoroughly entertaining rush of excitement while also adding some welcome levity. So it's with all this in mind that I do enjoy the movie, but at the same time, I may not remember too much of it days later, unlike First Class or Future Past.

"I think we can all agree the third movie is always the worst" snaps Jean Grey as she and other students exit a screening of Return of the Jedi. It's a quick throwaway line that feels intended to be a barbed jab at The Last Stand, but the irony in this brief gag seems to have been completely lost on the filmmakers of X-Men: Apocalypse. While entertaining and perfectly fun to watch thanks to the always game cast and action beats, the always strong characterization of X-Men and the tightly wound stories have been placed on the back burner this time around. A much more streamlined narrative, as well as excising twenty minutes from the running time would have gone a long way in strengthening the film, but as it is it lacks the same power of the franchise's best entries. I'm sure they'll be able to bounce back from it, but this is a sad way to kill the newfound momentum and goodwill you'd built up.

*** / *****

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