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Josh Reviews X-Men: Apocalypse

The X-Men film franchise began with such promise but it’s been a big mess for quite a while now.  Bryan Singer’s 2000 X-Men film launched the golden age of super-hero films that we’re still living in.  No one had ever before brought a super-hero team to life on screen.  Mr. Singer was able to distill the head-spinningly complicated X-Men mythology into a movie with adult, complex themes that still contained a boat-load of super-hero fun.  The near-perfect cast brought the X-Men characters, and their universe, to glorious life.  That film was quickly followed up by the 2003 sequel, X2.  That film hasn’t aged so well, but at the time many/most saw it as a brilliant expansion of the world of the first film.  With its fan-pleasing ending (depicting the death of Jean Grey and final-shot tease of her return/resurrection of the Phoenix), I thought we were on the verge of an epic, multi-film saga that would continue for years.  Sadly, that never was.  Bryan Singer left to do Superman Returns and Fox, unwilling to wait, hired Brett Ratner to helm the disappointing X-Men: The Last Stand.  Rather than continuing with an ongoing series of X-Men films, Fox seemed unwilling or unable to see past that initial trilogy, and it quickly became clear that the studio had no idea what to do with the property.  There was talk for a while of a series of individual X-Men: Origins spin-off films, though the only one that actually got made was the dreadful X-Men Origins: Wolverine Years past, and eventually the planned X-Men Origins: Magneto film morphed into the prequel film X-Men: First Class.  I hate prequels and when announced this seemed to me like a bizarre step backwards for the franchise, but I was surprised by how great the film, directed by Matthew Vaughn, wound up being.  I would have been happy to follow this fun new cast through a new trilogy helmed by Mr. Vaughn, but once again the series changed tracks as Mr. Vaughn stepped away and Bryan Singer returned to direct X-Men: Days of Future Past.  While I would have loved to have seen a more-faithful adaptation of Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s classic story — one of the defining X-Men stories — I loved the way that film was structured to combine Bryan Singer’s original X-Men cast with Matthew Vaughn’s First Class cast.  Days of Future Past was very solid, but what made me love the film was the final five minutes, in which we see that the events of the film have re-set the timeline of the X-Men films, giving a sweet happy ending to the cast and characters who had begun in 2000’s X-Men.  This seemed a wonderful conclusion to the story begun in that 2000 film, and clever way to repair the damage caused by the series’ to’s-and-fro’s since the end of X2, giving a clean slate for new faces in front of and behind the camera to restart the franchise.

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But X-Men: Apocalypse, despite having Bryan Singer back as the director, seems to once again demonstrate that the people behind the scenes of this franchise don’t know what to do with it.  Once again the producers seem stuck in thinking of these films as trilogies, because while Apocalypse seems partly intended to start something new by introducing new actors to play younger versions of classic X-Men characters Scott Summers, Jean Grey, Kurt Wagner (Nightcrawler), and Ororo Munro (Storm), the film seems mostly to be structured as a closing chapter to the I-didn’t-realize-this-was-a-trilogy-of-films begun with First Class.

X-Men: Days of Future Past took place a decade after First Class.  For no reason than I can fathom other than a misguided notion that, “well, I guess the films in this prequel trilogy each take place a decade apart,” Apocalypse takes place a decade after Days of Future Past, setting it in the mid-eighties.  Except that while both First Class and Days of Future Past were each set around specific historical events, and so each had a reason for being set in the year that they were, Apocalypse’s story has zero, and I mean zero, to do with it’s mid-eighties setting.  This story could have been taking place in 2016 and it would not have had to change one iota, except for a few civilian looks.  But by setting this movie TWENTY YEARS after the events of First Class, the film opens itself up to all sorts of story-problems, mostly driven by the fact that the cast of First Class certainly do not look twenty years older than they did in that 2011 film!!  Rose Byrne’s Moira MacTaggert is supposed to be around fifty years old??  Come on.  Most problematically, they bring back Havoc, Alex Summers, who was a lead character in First Class.  In this film he brings his younger brother, Scott, to Xavier’s school.  In the timeline of these films, Alex most be twenty years older than Scott, but the two look almost exactly the same age.  Alex looks like he’s twenty-something, but in the timeline of this series he is supposed to be forty-plus.  It’s absurd.  And all so meaningless!!  Because there is no reason whatsoever for this film to be set in the 1980’s, and if they had instead set it one or two years after Days of Future Past, none of these problems would be an issue.  Instead, the film suggests, just to pick another example, that Quicksilver has been doing nothing, living in his parents’ basement, for the past TEN YEARS.  How old is Quicksilver supposed to be in this movie???

And if you want to get one step deeper into this mess, it’s immediately apparent that this film is beset with a myriad of additional continuity problems.  The beautiful ending of Days of Future Past, in which Wolverine returns to Xavier’s school to find that everything is as it was, with the events of The Last Stand (and the second death of Jean Grey) somehow wiped out, was set at least a decade after the 1980’s events of this film.  (2000’s X-Men was set “in the not too distant future,” so presumably the ending of Days of Future Past happened some time after that.)  We don’t know exactly the details of what was or wasn’t changed in the timeline (did Jean Grey’s death at the end of X2 also get erased?  Did she never become the Phoenix, or did she become Phoenix but was able to survive?), but none of that is necessary t0 know to enjoy the poetry of Days of Future Past’s ending.  But by setting this film a decade or two before that scene, we are forced to ask all these questions.  And having seen everyone living happily-ever-after in that Days of Future Past ending, it removes the drama of this film and any future X-Men films that are set in the past.  Why the filmmakers didn’t just restart the series in a new continuity boggles my mind.  (I know, it’s unusual for me to be in favor of a continuity-erasing reboot.  But the X-Men film series continuity had already become so mangled — like the way everyone seems to have forgotten about the opening scene of X-Men: The Last Stand, in which Professor Xavier and Magneto together meet a young Jean Grey, an event totally contradicted by what goes down in First Class (in which Xavier and Magneto’s friendship shatters a decade-plus before those events) or how about how Logan already met a young Cyclops in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, an event obviously ignored by this new film — and the last scene of Days of Future Past was such a surprising, redemptive ending, that my feeling was the best thing to do was to start over with a new cast and a new continuity.)

While watching X-Men: Apocalypse, I found myself continually asking these sorts of continuity questions that it’s clear the filmmakers don’t want the audience to ask.  Here’s another egregious example: towards the end of Days of Future Past, we see an unconscious Logan fished out of the water by Stryker in the nineteen-seventies.  We know from X2 that Stryker will oversee the Weapon X project that will bond the adamantium metal to Logan’s bones and try to turn him into a mindless killing machine.  Except, in a great twist, we see in the last second of that scene that Stryker is actually Mystique.  This seemed to indicate that another change was being made to the timeline, and that Logan was going to be spared the agony of being a Weapon X test subject.  Except now in X-Men: Apocalypse, we take a trip to the Weapon X facility and, lo and behold, in a cameo we see Logan as the mindless Weapon X test-subject.  Now, I must admit that my heart sang a bit when the screen showed the Alkali Lake facility (so important a setting in X2) again, and it’s always great to see Hugh Jackman as Logan/Wolverine.  And, also, it tickled my comic-fan fancy to see how faithfully they recreated Barry Windsor-Smith’s iconic drawings of Logan as Weapon-X on-screen.  (That helmet!!)  (Though they did give him pants in this version, an understandable concession.)  But this scene, as fun as it is on its own, seems to totally negate that ending of Days of Future Past.  What, Mystique gave Logan over to Stryker??  I guess we’re just not supposed to think about that, but to me it reeks of shoddy storytelling.

None of these continuity problems would really matter, though, if the story being told in X-Men: Apocalypse was any good.  Sadly, it’s not.  The three main leads from First Class — James McAvoy as Xavier, Michael Fassbender as Magneto, and Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique — all go through the same basic story-arcs as we’ve already seen them live through in First Class and then Days of Future Past.  At the end of Days, we saw Magneto appear to give up his anger and quest for vengeance.  This film gives him a new reason to be pissed off again, and so he steps backwards into being the fierce killer again, only to ultimately make the same decision at the end that he did at the end of Days.  Michael Fassbender is such a great actor, and his scenes so affecting, that it’s easy to forget that we’ve seen this all before, but we have.  Meanwhile, Mystique ended Days fighting alongside Xavier and his X-Men, and finally appeared to accept herself for who she was.  But in this film she’s again on the run and hiding, pretending to look “normal,” until the climax comes and, well what do you know, she again decides to accept how she looks and to fight alongside the good guys.

As the villain Apocalypse, the great Oscar Isaac — one of the finest actors of this generation — is totally wasted.  Mr. Isaac is completely unrecognizable under the make-up and prosthetics and whatever vocal modulation they put on his voice.  The make-up isn’t bad — Apocalypse really does look like the crazy character from the comics! — but it sinfully buries Mr. Isaac completely.  (And whoever had the idea for the bizarre, drawn-out delivery of the line “learnnnnnnning” when Apocalypse touches a TV in Cairo, congratulations, you’ve created an easily mockable line that I predict will haunt Mr. Isaac and this film series for a long while.)  The character is also failed by the script, which doesn’t give him any sort of understandable motivation.  What drives Apocalypse’s desire for perfection?  Why does his plan always involve destroying the world?  This is also one of those movies in which we see the villain get defeated in the prologue, set in the past, which totally drains the drama out of any threat that he would theoretically pose in the present.

In the comics, Apocalypse always has four horsemen, mutants whose powers he amps-up in exchange for their service.  The film uses this device, though unfortunately fails to give us any reason why the seemingly all-powerful Apocalypse needs these four wimpy sidekicks, who do absolutely nothing in the film other than tussle with the X-Men for five minutes in the third act.

I like the idea of introducing new, younger versions of the main X-Men characters, so that future films can tell new stories with these great characters.  (It’s just that this should have been done while unmooring this film from the previously established continuity, rather than locking themselves into it.)  They cast some very talented new young actors, but none of them come off looking particularly well.  Sophie Turner is doing genius work on Game of Thrones, but she was surprisingly flat here as Jean Grey.  (And she seemed flummoxed by her American accent.)  Tye Sheridan shows spark as Scott Summers/Cyclops, though the film seems to skip over the part where he develops from the weird combination of cocky nerd he is when we meet him to the more confident field leader he becomes.  I have seen Kodi Smit-McPhee be incredible in other films (The Road, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), and he certainly tries here as Nightcrawler, but the film doesn’t give him much to do.  (Continuity alert: is the way the character was introduced in X2, as an almost Presidential assassin, supposed to have been erased?)  Alexandra Shipp impresses the most in her brief screen-time as Storm.  That’s an actor and a character who I would love to see more of in a sequel.

Olivia Munn certainly looks the part as Psylocke, and I was impressed by how faithfully they translated her crazy comic-book costume to the screen (in a film in which pretty none of the other characters, save Apocalypse and perhaps Magneto, look anything like their comic book counterparts), but she has almost nothing to do in the film.  (How did we not get a psychic-versus-psychic Jean Grey versus Psylocke battle??)  Ben Hardy is similarly wasted as Angel.  I loved the look of his transformation into Archangel, but aside from that scene the character plays no role in the story.  (And this flying character somehow dies in a plane crash?)  (Also, continuity alert: even if the events of X-Men: The Last Stand were erased, why is this character the same age here in the 1980’s as he was in that film set post-2000?)

I was pleased that they brought back Rose Byrne as Moire MacTaggert.  I always loved that character from the comics and I thought Ms. Byrne was great in First Class and I missed her in Days of Future Past.  I also liked that the film didn’t ignore Xavier’s mind-wiping of her at the end of First Class, and in fact turned that into a major plot-point here.  There reunion at the end was emotional.  (Though wouldn’t Moira have been a little pissed-off to discover what he’d done to her??)

Some other comments:

Quicksilver was great again here, even though his one big scene was pretty much the exact same thing that we already saw in Days of Future Past.

Boy, Bryan Singer must love the character of William Stryker!  He was already in X2 and Days of Future Past (as well as X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which Mr. Singer did not direct), and he pops up again here.  Where did he go after he flew away in his helicopter?

As much as I have been complaining about this film rehashing stories we’ve already seen, if Bryan Singer wants to take another shot at the Dark Phoenix saga (so painfully screwed up by Brett Ratner in X-Men: The Last Stand), that is all right with me.

I loved Caliban in this film!  That’s a deep cut, and seeing Caliban on-screen made me very happy.  (Even though, as has been so often the habit for these X-Men films, the character’s look and personality has been totally changed from the comics.)

I loved the reprise of the final conversation from 2000’s X-Men in this film’s final scene between Xavier and Magneto.  That actually got me a tad emotional!

They’ve teased Jubilee a few times before in this film series, and she again popped up here for one short scene.  Nice to see the character, though I’d rather than choose to either make her a part of one of these stories or just leave her out.

Speaking of brief appearances, it was fun to see Zeljko Ivanek pop up as a Pentagon scientist, but he was wasted in his one scene.

After being coy about it in Days of Future Past, I was intrigued that this film made no bones about Magneto’s being Quicksilver’s father, as he is in the comics.

How is it that the world would not be hugely fearful and vengeful against all mutants after everything that goes down in the third act?  Mutants almost destroyed the world!  It’s hard to see how that gets walked back.  The end of the film disappointingly does not explore those consequences in any way.  It’s certainly hard to imagine these events having happened in the past of the Senate hearing that opens the 2000 X-Men film.

Don’t bother sticking around for the credits as this film has one of the lamest post-credits scenes that I have ever seen.  (Yes, I know who Essex is, but just seeing his name was not at all exciting or interesting.)

I’ve been whaling on this film for a while now, and I do need to clarify that, while this is not at all the type of film I was hoping to see after Days of Future Past, this isn’t a Batman v Superman train-wreck.  I did at least enjoy much of this film as I was watching it.  It’s really mostly in hindsight that I realized how this film had failed to live up to its potential.  This is the most grand-looking of the X-Men films so far, and there are some fun big fights to enjoy.  I like the ambition of bringing such a crazy comic-book character like Apocalypse to life on the big screen.  While I have a lot of problems with the script, this film boasts a pretty spectacular cast and they’re each mostly fun to watch.  Michael Fassbender, in particular, continues to kill it as Magneto.  Those scenes at his house in Poland work because of his power as a performer, even though the other half of my brain recognized how the audience was being manipulated by the simplistic script.

But boy did this film have a simplistic script.  The film is jammed full of characters, who are each fun to see individually, but few of them have any sort of interesting story or character-arc.  (Compare this to how skillfully Captain America: Civil War featured so many characters, almost all of whom had something critical and interesting to do in the film’s story.)

And what’s most disheartening is that, as I stated above, the problems of this film seem to indicate that this is a film series without direction.  If they intend to continue with the new young cast introduced in this film, does that mean we’re going to be stuck with films set in the eighties and nineties for many more years?  Why on earth would they write themselves into that narrative hole?  I’m left scratching my head.

In a world in which Marvel Studios have show how effectively a) comic book characters can be brought to life on-screen in a very faithful manner, and b) a multi-film series can feature multiple characters and develop complicated running story-lines and narrative momentum in a way that emulates the best of the monthly-published comic book serials, the X-Men franchise seems stuck in the past (literally and figuratively).  This is a franchise that needs a fresh start.  I love the X-Men characters so dearly, and I want nothing more than to see a truly great new X-Men film someday, one that lives up to the astronomical potential inherent in these characters and their stories.  Here’s hoping.

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