On X-Men: Apocalypse

Continuing from X-Men: First Class (the X-Men film series reboot) and X-Men: Days of Future Past (which combines the first X-Men film series with the reboot) is X-Men: Apocalypse, which wasn’t as great compared to the first two installments. According to the SFGate article, “‘X-Men: Apocalypse’ a thinking person’s action movie“:

This is turning into the season of superheroes battling other superheroes, but “X-Men: Apocalypse” is the first one to do it right. One of the best of the “X-Men” films, the new entry is full of finely crafted action, all of it in the service of interesting and well-thought-out ideas. Resting on neither formula nor audience goodwill, the “X-Men” series is going deeper and getting better as it goes along.

The first title card — 3600 B.C.E. — brings a mild feeling of oh-no-must-we-go-there, but this evaporates virtually from the first shot, as we realize that director Bryan Singer intends to do this for real. For a little pre-credits sequence, he re-creates ancient Egypt — not just a little room somewhere in Egypt. He shows us a parade, where we can see the opulence of the era, and the pyramids when they were new, and the faces of the slaves.

The idea at work here is that the Egyptian rulers were actually the first mutants, and that the top ruler — known as Apocalypse, so you know he’s not nice — had the ultimate power. By inhabiting the bodies of a series of mutants, he has maintained his youth and acquired multiple abilities. But then there’s a mishap, and Apocalypse is rendered unconscious, which is a very good thing for the course of civilization.

Singer illustrates the passage of time from ancient days through the late 20th century by catapulting the viewer through a twisting corridor, in which we see glimpses of the crucifixion, Renaissance art, the rise of Nazism and the emergence of the Cold War. Finally, we arrive in the promising era of the 1980s. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has all his hair, as well as a school for mutants. And Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is living happily and anonymously, as a family man and factory worker in Poland.

So everything is going along swimmingly … and then Apocalypse wakes up.

Every action movie needs a villain, but not just any old villain with a vague desire to take over the world, or cause destruction, or take revenge. A villain needs a rationale, a philosophy, a highly developed conviction that he’s right, as well some twisted logic that lets us understand how he’s thinking. He also needs some personal magnetism, so that we can understand why others might follow him. Through the script and through Oscar Isaac’s performance, we get that in Apocalypse.

Apocalypse has an idea, which was something like Hitler’s idea, that the strong should dominate. So when he puts on his hood and steps out of his cave, he is repulsed. Instead of a world in which the strong are in control, he sees systems in place that protect the weak. To his eyes, the weak are dominating the strong, to him the ultimate perversity. So he has only one logical course, to figure out a way to destroy absolutely everything and start all over.

Apocalypse recruits mutants, but they’re best left to be discovered. It’s how Apocalypse does it that’s worth noting. He tells the mutants he chooses that he wants to make them stronger, and then he does. In the case of Psylocke, a quasi-dominatrix mutant played by Olivia Munn, he tells her, “Unlike others who seek to control you, I seek to set you free.” He’s going to make her great again, and it’s a beautiful thing.

As in “Captain America: Civil War,” we soon have two teams of individuals, each with what could be called super powers, fighting each other. But “Civil War” gave us a weak situation in which no one was wrong, little was at stake and the consequences were mild. “X-Men: Apocalypse,” by contrast, goes for broke. Civilization is at stake, and both sides are trying to kill each other.

In most superhero movies, trying to kill each other would mean scenes of characters throwing each other around. But “X-Men: Apocalypse” is smarter than that, with the most important battles taking place inside the minds of Apocalypse and Charles Xavier. Xavier’s mental capacity to communicate with everyone on the planet seems almost like a metaphor for the Internet here. To succeed, tyrants need that final piece, complete control over communications.

Jennifer Lawrence is such a strong presence that it’s only when the movie is over that one realizes that her character, Mystique, serves a secondary function here. The movie’s focus is mainly fixed on Charles and Magneto and the evolution of their worldview. Their stories echo and reverberate. They seem to mean more than what’s simply on the surface. They are the best argument for “X-Men: Apocalypse” as a thinking person’s action movie.

The end credits scene is of particular importance, as according to CinemaBlend‘s article, “What Happens In The X-Men: Apocalypse End Credits Scene, And What It Means“:

X-Men: Apocalypse is the conclusion of the “First Class” trilogy, but it’s far from the final installment in the X-Men movies series. There are plenty of spinoffs along the way, and it sounds like there may be another main X-Men movie at some point. Regardless, just like The Wolverine and X-Men: Days of Future Past did, X-Men: Apocalypse is including a post-credits scene to tease what’s coming in the future. By the time the movie is over, the X-Men has been successful stopping Apocalypse from destroying Earth, but now we know that another major X-Men villain is coming who’s just as dangerous in his own peculiar ways.

As explained by Independent, the post-credits scene takes us back to the Weapon X facility where Jean Grey, Cyclops and Nightcrawler were seen in the last trailer, but more importantly, it’s also where Wolverine’s skeleton was bonded with adamantium. Just like in the original movies, this was overseen by William Stryker, but in this new timeline, Logan was freed from his cell and unleashed on Sryker’s soldiers. A mysterious figure in this final scene has to step over the bodies left during Wolverine’s escape, but that doesn’t deter him. He soon finds what he’s looking for: a vial of Wolverine’s blood marked “Weapon X.” Satisfied with finding his prize, he sticks the vial in a briefcase labeled “ESSEX CORP.” The name might be new to the X-Men movie universe, but hardcore X-Men fans know that the briefcase refers to Nathaniel Essex, a.k.a. Mister Sinister.

Mister Sinister made his comic book debut in 1987’s Uncanny X-Men #221. As Nathaniel Essex, he was a 19th century geneticist conducting unethical and dangerous experiments for the sake of accelerating evolution via mutation. Soon he crossed paths with Apocalypse, who transformed him into Mister Sinister. Thanks to this genetic alteration, he was given abilities like telekinesis, mind manipulation, shapeshifting, energy projection, regeneration and more. All this, combined with his own natural intellect, makes him one of the X-Men’s most dangerous enemies. He may have started out working for Apocalypse, but he’s done plenty over the years to stand on his own.

Now that Mister Sinister has been teased in X-Men: Apocalypse, what does that mean for the future of the X-Men franchise? That vial of Wolverine’s blood suggests that he’ll be involved with Wolverine 3, a.k.a. Hugh Jackman’s last appearance as the clawed mutant. While plot details about the threequel are scarce, Richard E. Grant was cast last month as a “villainous mad scientist type,” and that certainly fits Mister Sinister to a T. Plus, it was rumored that Wolverine’s female clone, X-23, will appear in the movie, so that could point to Sinister being responsible for her creation using Essex Corps’ resources.

However, because Mister Sinister doesn’t age, that allows him to appear in other X-Men movies taking place in other time periods and look exactly the same. Sinister also has history with Gambit in the comics, so maybe he’ll appear in the Ragin’ Cajun’s solo outing. Maybe he’ll appear in the ‘90s-set X-Men movie, whether that’s New Mutants or something else. The point is, if there was any X-Men villain worthy of following Apocalypse, Mister Sinister is the guy. He’s been seen in several animated series and video games, but he’s finally ready to be brought into live action.

x-men-apocalypse

Notably, there was issue during promotion with one of the film’s ads, as according to Variety‘s article, “Fox Apologizes for ‘Insensitive’ ‘X-Men’ Ad Showing Mystique Being Strangled“:

Fox has issued a formal apology for an ad for its “X-Men: Apocalypse” movie in which Oscar Isaac’s Apocalypse character is strangling Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique.

The studio said Friday that it began taking down the billboards with the image several weeks before the May 27 release.

“In our enthusiasm to show the villainy of the character Apocalypse, we didn’t immediately recognize the upsetting connotation of this image in print form,” Fox said in a statement issued Friday. “Once we realized how insensitive it was, we quickly took steps to remove those materials. We apologize for our actions and would never condone violence against women.”

Actress Rose Mcgowan has slammed the studio for the image, saying, “There is a major problem when the men and women at 20th Century Fox think casual violence against women is the way to market a film. There is no context in the ad, just a woman getting strangled. The fact that no one flagged this is offensive and frankly, stupid.”

“The geniuses behind this, and I use that term lightly, need to to take a long hard look at the mirror and see how they are contributing to society,” she added. “Imagine if it were a black man being strangled by a white man, or a gay male being strangled by a hetero? The outcry would be enormous. So let’s right this wrong. 20th Century Fox, since you can’t manage to put any women directors on your slate for the next two years, how about you at least replace your ad?”

“X-Men: Apocalypse,” Fox’s ninth film in the franchise, is directed by Bryan Singer and also stars Rose Byrne, Michael Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult and James McAvoy. Worldwide grosses have topped $280 million.

Finally, the scene in this film in which Jean Grey kills Apocalypse is reminiscent of the first time the Phoenix was alluded to in X2: X-Men United. In the latter scene, Jean “self-sacrifices” (a lot of water cannot destroy the Phoenix entity, mind you) herself to save Professor Xavier and the other X-Men, while in this film, there is no such sacrifice (largely, as this film’s version does not have the same lengthy relationship with the team). I would not celebrate this, however, as her sole is quite similar to Pepper Potts in Iron Man 3.

According to Roger Ebert:

The superhero genre has gone through dramatic changes since Bryan Singer directed “X-Men” in 2000, and now finds itself in a precarious place. The city-level destruction that characterizes so many third acts has become visually rote and morally abhorrent. And how many more movies can we handle about white men given great power who churn out jokes and punches with equal aplomb? The genre desperately needs to diversify not just in terms of race and gender but also the kinds of stories on which filmmakers choose to focus. “X-Men: Apocalypse” should be a corrective measure, considering its ensemble allows for the opportunity to focus on popular female and people-of-color characters. Instead, it magnifies all the worst issues of the genre, serving up a story that would have felt dated five years ago.

“X-Men: Apocalypse” is a confused, bloated mess of a film. There are several films crammed into one, all battling for the spotlight, and none of them wholly work; there is really no central storyline or heart to the film. The first hour is almost entirely in service of setting up new players and establishing what the veterans are up to. Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) is successfully running his school for mutant kids. Raven Darkholme/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is rescuing mutants, including the walking punchline Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) on her own, and struggling with being seen as a hero. Then there are the teenaged Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) who are struggling to cope with their powers and fledgling attraction to each other. Sheridan and Turner seem to actually be enjoying themselves but their development staggers under the weight of everything else going on around them; Jean grappling with the dark side of her abilities is especially fertile ground. One of the few evocative scenes involves her having a nightmare which rocks the school and burns the walls of her room before Xavier comforts her. Even though she gets a big hero moment at the end, it doesn’t land well, given how poorly she’s developed. Singer doesn’t offer the scant interesting moments enough room to breathe. He’s too interested in hurtling to the next plot point, the next introduction, the next fight scene.

The greatest sin of “X-Men: Apocalypse” by far is how terribly it wastes some of the greatest modern actors.

Michael Fassbender can’t give Magneto’s storyline the emotional depth it needs. But could any actor distract from how that storyline embodies the most onerous cliché in regards to the treatment of women in comics? How many more wives and daughters will be killed in these kinds of films in order to give a male lead some angst?

As the movie’s world-destroying, god-like mutant, Oscar Isaac struggles to make Apocalypse even the least bit menacing. How can an actor as charismatic and dynamic as Isaac feel so torpid here? The failure to make Apocalypse engaging is mostly the fault of Simon Kinberg’s script. These operatic, world-destroying villains don’t seem to work on-screen as they do in comics. Their motivations are—at best—confusing and nonsensical. They seem so disconnected from the world the heroes move through that they almost exist in entirely different films. Perhaps, “X-Men: Apocalypse” also exhibits the worst traits of these sort of stories in the comics, which can be damningly inert, nihilistic, and overcrowded on their own, before even being adapted for the screen. Despite Apocalypse’s backstory and grandstanding, he spends more time imbuing his Four Horseman with power than wielding his own.

The rest of Apocalypse’s team are the smug yet forgettable Angel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn) and a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp). None of these characters are all that interesting but Psylocke and Storm embody the ways this entire series has failed its female characters; Psylocke is such a one-dimensional villain she seems two steps away from twirling a mustache. Singer and Kinberg are seemingly incapable of developing more than one female character at a time.

There’s also something deeply troubling about a series that trades in the language and ideas of the Civil Rights Movement without caring one iota about its characters of color. Storm is once again given very little to do. She has none of the emotional interiority, swagger or complexity of her comic counterpart. Jubilee (Lana Condor) is such a non-factor she could be taken out entirely and nothing would change. Raven and Jean are slightly better served, but Jean’s development is too inconsistent to leave much of an impact. Raven comes off far worse due to Lawrence’s obvious disinterest in the role, coasting from scene to scene with none of her trademark charisma. When Raven reverts to her natural blue form (which is probably one of the worst translations of a character from page to screen in modern comic book films) her performance somehow becomes even more unengaging.

While much has been made about how superhero films rely on the destruction of cities in order to make the stakes higher for heroes, “X-Men: Apocalypse” takes this idea to the next level with startling violence. It isn’t just one city that hangs in the balance, it’s the entire world. The destruction in the third act is so wide-ranging, so cataclysmic, that it zaps the film of any tension. There is no sense of danger here, only the distinct feeling that nearly everyone involved is counting down the minutes until this whole affair is over.

There is one scene involving the surprisingly fun Quicksilver (Evan Peters) that gives “X-Men: Apocalypse” one of its only visually interesting moments. He uses his super-speed to traverse through Xavier’s school saving people from an explosion, as set to “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” by The Eurythmics—a confounding music choice, to say the least. Singer finds some physical humor and levity in Quicksilver’s ingenious ways of saving everyone.

But it’s the only scene in a film almost 150 minutes long that gets close to evoking the bright-colored, zany nature the comics can delve into at their best. It isn’t enough to save what proves to be an emotionally empty and morally confused film. “X-Men: Apocalypse” isn’t just the low point in Singer’s series, it represents one of the ugliest superhero films in recent memory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “On X-Men: Apocalypse

  1. Pingback: On Jonah Hex | The Progressive Democrat

  2. Pingback: On The Wolverine | The Progressive Democrat

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