Saturday, May 28, 2016
X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (2016) in SPOILERVISION
"The third one is always the worst," a young mutant says of trilogies as she leaves a 1983 screening of Return of the Jedi, and the audience watching X-Men: Apocalypse laughs knowingly. It's a blatant dig at Brett Ratner's X-Men: The Last Stand, the third film in the series and the one most hated by comic book fans. It's also Bryan Singer's way of leading with his chin, since Apocalypse itself is the third film of a "prequel" series of X-Men films, all set before Singer's original 2000 production, starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult as mutants whose common attribute is a very slow aging process over 21 years of story time. Fortunately for Singer, the first film of this current series, Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class, was bad enough that Singer could not curse himself. Instead of making the worst film of this particular trilogy, Singer has only made one of the most boring superhero movies to date. There's nothing really inept or incompetent about Apocalypse, but there's also nothing inspired or imaginative in it. Between the repetition of tired tropes from the two previous films and the reintroduction of characters already established in the original trilogy, the new film has nothing to say and, worse still, nothing to show.
It's named after its villain, apparently a major figure in the comic-book canon, but can't help making "Apocalypse" -- I don't think anyone actually calls him that name in the movie -- almost an afterthought in its preoccupation with continuing storylines and subplots from previous installments. The big problem with En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), an ancient Egyptian god-man and supposedly history's first mutant, who somehow was overthrown by his subjects, only to return to malevolent life in 1983, is that he lacks the core of authentic grievance that drives both good and evil mutants in the X-Men films. If he rose to his exalted position from the bottom, or was ever downtrodden, we don't learn it here. Instead he combines a megalomaniacal sense of entitlement with a pseudo-Nietzschean philosophy favoring rule by the strong that makes the relatively egalitarian 20th century offensive to him. The obvious solution is to destroy civilization through a Man of Steel style catacalysm -- yet so uncompelling is the spectacle that no one to my knowledge calls this destruction porn -- and build his own pharaonic utopia in its place. But first he must recruit four attendants, since that's how he rolls. At this point Singer grabs the first four balls from the hopper and appoints Angel, here a demoralized pit fighter, having lost to a novice Nightcrawler thanks to outside interefernce; Psylocke, a sort of gangsta mutant with a magic energy sword and a blue Elektra costume; Storm, seen in something close to her origin story as a Cairo street thief; and the increasingly insufferable Magneto, whom En Sabah fortunately finds in a grumpy mood, given that a Polish policeman has just killed his wife and daughter with a bow and one arrow. This shows that En is no judge of character, for Erik Lensherr is as changeable as the wind. Over three films the X-Men's archnemesis has become intolerably wishy-washy. God help us if he ever finds out that the speedy new kid at Charles Xavier's school is his own bastard. He may never find out, however, since the boy shares his dad's indecisiveness,having initially decided to confront him only to chicken out toward the end. But I, like the film, digress. The villain's "four horsemen" are an utterly random assemblage whose flimsy motivation left me caring little about whether they'd snap out of it. As it turns out, seeing his old frenemy Mystique in mortal peril snaps Magneto out of his funk in a way her own earnest speeches -- she tries the technique Xavier used on her at the climax of the previous picture --could not, and the sight also flips Storm to the good side, since she, like many young mutants, idolizes Mystique for her role in the 1973 events recounted in Days of Future Past. There's a sketch of a subplot scrawled across the picture about Mystique's reluctance to accept the mantle and responsibility of a hero, but you might not notice it given how, for perhaps the first time in her mighty career, Jennifer Lawrence totally phones in a performance. But you might not notice that given how everyone in the film really does the same thing, even Oscar Isaac in what should be the flamboyant villain role.
Part of the problem is that threatening the world has lost its novelty in films (and TV shows) like these, but a bigger part is Singer's inability, especially shocking after the coup of Days of Future Past, to sustain any dramatic momentum for his story. Several times over the film stops dead for contrived set pieces, from a reprise of the last film's speedster-moves-so-fast-to-pop-standard-that-everyone-stands-frozen showcase to Hugh Jackman's obligatory pop-up amoklauf in the middle of a secret army base. Worst of all, when Xavier finally sics Jean Grey on En and she basically wipes the floor with him Phoenix style, you're left asking why he didn't have her take action much earlier, before cities were wrecked and thousands of people killed. I suppose it wouldn't be much of an action film had he done that, but the action itself is a mixed bag, and during the climax Singer has an annoying habit of cutting from real fighting to Mystique trying to lecture a pouty Magneto through a swirling cloud of iron filings. When it was over, I had the queasy suspicion that Singer had a lot of things he wanted to do in another mutant movie, but no real story that could hold them all together. En Sabah Nur is only a pretext for a movie and never really a character in it, and the movie as a whole (I almost typed "hole") has a hard time justifying its existence. It's too bad, really, since the last two mutant films, Days of Future Past and The Wolverine, are arguably the best of the entire cycle. Perhaps the studio should have quit while it was ahead, but that wasn't going to happen. Instead, we have an X-Men film with a lack of ambition that's all too obvious in this year of Dawn of Justice and Civil War, and a post-credits scene assures us -- or should I say warns us -- that Fox isn't done yet. But since I wouldn't have expected a film as good as Days of Future Past after First Class, I'll close by saying "better luck next time."