X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

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Sleeping underneath the sands of Egypt, the first mutant awakens.  Once worshiped as a god of death, En Sabah Nur has been left behind as humanity amasses weapons of mass destruction.  Now free from his prison, he gathers forces to begin the apocalypse of the human race, and only the X-Men may stop him.  Bryan Singer directs X-Men: Apocalypse, with the screenplay written by Simon Kinberg, and stars Oscar Isaac, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, and James McAvoy.

Looking back over my notes of X-Men: Apocalypse (Apocalypse moving forward), I realize I've crafted a three note summation of my experience watching the X-Men's latest adventure.

  • Super dramatic introduction to Egypt.
  • Another great superpower scene.
  • God almost freaking nothing has happened.

Taken together, they might stand in for my issues with comic-book based storytelling as a medium and so many cinematic outings in recent years have felt so flat.  Comics have to keep dragging their reader along with the promise of a payoff somewhere down the line.  It can get tiring trying to keep up with one story when it's stretched across multiple titles and that puts a considerable cost pressure on the consumer to keep up.  Sometimes they hit a wondrous peak of imagination, letting us glimpse into worlds of power beyond human comprehension, and then more often than not it's back to the wheel-spinning.

Hard to feel antagonized by a bad guy whose opening shot is getting rid of all the nukes on Earth.

The titular villain, Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), represents some of the worst aspects of comic book storytelling and the movie does him no favors.  Apocalypse has persisted as a more potent idea in comics, cartoons, and now the movie than as a threat.  Heck, the introduction of Apocalypse has his empire fall because of the actions of a few humans who don't have the ability to weaponize energy with their eyes.  When the big bad of your tentpole superhero movie can be undone by basic knowledge of architecture and support beams then the threat feels less pressing.  Isaac, for his part, turns in one of the most boring performances in cinematic superhero history.  He lacks the gravitas that John Colicos had when he voiced Apocalypse in the equally pilloried and fondly remembered '90s X-Men cartoon.

I can't blame Isaac too much because there's only so much any performer can do with dialogue full of portent and direction loaded with standing around.  Ditto Olivia Munn, whose work is serviceable as the ninja Psylocke, but serviceable in the context of Apocalypse means playing up Psylocke's dominant character traits of "sexy" and "ninja."  The reductive characterization results in the damn pity or seeing the once potent Magneto (Michael Fassbender) reduced to a bit player in an underwhelming villain's scheme.  The good guys don't fare better with Jennifer Lawrence phoning in her shape-changing Mystique performance from the other continent and Tye Sheridan (excellent in Joe and Mud) stuck with a version of Cyclops that keeps Sheridan's natural command of the screen reigned in.

What disappoints me most is that director Bryan Singer had the right idea starting with 2014's Days of Future Past.  Create a scenario that abandons the continuity-heavy storytelling of comic books, blend in a generous mixture of period-appropriate images, and experiment with the soundtrack to create an odd alchemy with the onscreen action.  Days of Future Past was a kaleidoscope of color, overt references to the Zapruder film and other '70s conspiracy images, and that amazing Quicksilver (Evan Peters) scene set to "Time In A Bottle."

Apocalypse has a whole mess of dusty images as characters stand around waiting for the next plot point to happen.  The climactic fight, where debris smashes against more debris while dust swirls around Magneto and Apocalypse, is borderline inexcusable when the weather-controlling Storm (Alexandra Shipp) could make the backdrop into anything.  Let her hurl ball lightning while creating pockets of hail and whirling up a fire tornado - freaking anything other than yet another dust storm in a movie that already needs a few dozen lint rollers.  If Apocalypse is a messianic figure of death to ancient cultures then let's get some of that good ol' fashioned Biblical terror onscreen.

Quicksilver is the highlight yet again and, while the scene is less unique than the one in Days of Future Past, I love the big nod to The Wizard of Speed and Time.

...and yet, in one of the most frustrating twists of all, Singer and Apocalypse have some genuine goosebump-inducing twists in store.  The centerpiece is another dizzying speedy rescue from Quicksilver, this time set to the Eurythmics "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)", that ups the ante in scope and irreverence while he tries to outrace a massive explosion.  It doesn't take as many risks, and as a result isn't as wonderfully unique, but is a welcome burst of creativity and attitude in the middle of all the dusty showdowns.

Even my distaste of Apocalypse as a character is challenged in the scene that fully realizes the threat he represents.  As the strings of Beethoven's 7th in A major gently worm into the soundtrack, Apocalypse taps into all the nuclear missile systems on Earth and his whisper grows into a roar of overdubbed voices as he declares an end to superpowers.  Just try not to think so hard about the Civil Rights history of the X-Men during this moment, because the idea that those who are different can render us collectively impotent is not the sort of thinking we need more of now.  The predominantly white cast likewise renders any lingering remnants of Civil Rights ideology in the story a distant memory.

Apocalypse is a strange bird for me because it's a movie I kind of want to hate.  There's so little invention in the many ominous scenes and the death of what little good the X-Men could stand for is worth some rage.  But when Apocalypse is good it's transcendent in its embrace of the apocalyptic potential of living gods.  So I cut my losses and give this an Indifferent, as I'm losing the little memory I have of all the dust and am holding on to the few moments of glory.

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X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

Directed by Bryan Singer.
Screenplay written by Simon Kinberg.
Starring Oscar Isaac, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, and James McAvoy.

Posted by Andrew

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