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God Complex: “X-men: Apocalypse”

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016, Dir. Bryan Singer): 

While other comic book movies are about the money shots — the effects-laden finales, the showdowns between the high-powered heroes and the supercharged villains — Fox’s X-Men franchise, particularly the entries directed by Bryan Singer, has carved out its own niche by privileging character beats over spectacle. Sure it’s fun to watch mutants go toe-to-toe, but what tends to stick to the memory from these movies are the quiet moments. However many times Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) snarls, slices and dices, it doesn’t carry the force of his response when he’s asked whether it hurts to have those claws come out of his hands: “Every time.” Ian McKellen can look downright uncomfortable floating around and manipulating metal as Magneto, but it doesn’t matter when he’s playing Mephistopheles, seducing a rebellious teen: “You are a god among insects… never let them tell you any different.” While Marvel’s superhero movies stick to relatively simple superheroics, and DC inflates its cinematic protagonists to the level of myth (just look at every money shot in Batman v. Superman for evidence), the X-Men live within messy human dimensions.

xapoc-03This series has never been elegantly plotted — just try to make sense of the time-travel convolutions of the previous entry X-Men: Days of Future Past — but it’s always struck a chord by drawing parallels between its misfit mutants and civil rights movements, and embracing its soulful heroes’ contradictions. At their best, these films plug into the freak and geek in all of us, and address our anxieties about being accepted and finding (or losing) one’s place in the world. It’s this worldview that results in moments such as the one in the latest X-Men opus, X-Men: Apocalypse, wherein kindly Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) tells Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), the kid with the laser eyes who will someday become Cyclops, “You have a gift.” “It doesn’t feel like a gift,” replies Scott, fully aware of the personal trials and societal disapprobation to come.

xapoc-07The heart of previous X-men movies was the ideological conflict between Charles and his erstwhile comrade Magneto (Michael Fassbinder), with Charles stumping for MLK-style tolerance versus Magneto’s more radicalized Malcolm X approach. Apocalypse abandons social allegory altogether and plunges straight into the rhetoric of myth, and the myth who turns out to be the film’s baddie hails all the way from ancient Egypt. Suffice to say that Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) is one bad mutant, and after sleeping for a few millennia he’s now awake, pissed off, and ready to subjugate man and mutant alike. For no discernible reason, he needs four comrades to accompany him (four horsemen, get it?), and enlists a motley group of helpers, including Magneto. His goal? The usual: Reduce the world to ash. On the side of the angels, we have Magneto’s ex-comrade Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), his bastard son Quicksilver (Evan Peters), and a host of mutants-in-training from Charles’ School for the Gifted.

x-apoc05Apocalypse has taken a lot of early flak from critics, not entirely deserved — it’s not an out-and-out disaster on the level of X-Men: Last Stand. Unfortunately, it’s not a patch on the first two X-men entries or Days of Future Past, either. The series has taken on the overstuffed, overplotted qualities of the Marvel movies, particularly Age of Ultron, and although Singer does his best to move things along, he’s neither virtuosic or spirited enough to make his setpieces sing. He remains a capable director of actors, and despite all the dizzying shifts in locations and character introductions, most of the cast get a chance to at least make an impression. Of the newcomers, Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey comes off the best: defiant and apprehensive in equal turns, she’s the closest thing this movie has to volatility. Peters get to live it up the most as the proud slacker Quicksilver, even if his wisecracks aren’t so wise any more, while Rose Byrne as CIA agent Moira Mactaggert accomplishes a near-miracle, communicating an impish sense of fun despite her character being nothing more than an exposition dump. The unexpected weak link is Jennifer Lawrence; in an apparent sop to her current stardom, she’s bumped up to the status of mutant leader and hero in this one, but she’s more convincing as a sly free agent than as Joan of Arc.

xapoc-02The X-men movies’ secret weapon has always been wit: even when bad things are happening, there’s a playfulness to the character flourishes and the action scenes, whether it’s McKellen perforating people with a puckish wave of the hand, Alan Cummings’ Nightcrawler bamf-ing his way into the White House, or Peters’ Quicksilver taking out a platoon of guards in slow-motion as Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” sighs away on the soundtrack. Sadly, wit is scarcely in evidence in Apocalypse; instead, we have Isaac overwhelmed with makeup and armor, barking and muttering and making grand pronouncements as Apocalypse. Going for the cosmic in his performance, he ends up being just plain comical. Isaac’s grim demeanor seems to infect the other actors, including poor McAvoy and Fassbinder. The two of them bravely emote, but the script allows them little screen time to ping-pong off each other, when it’s not smothering them in eye-rolling dialogue at every turn. “Is this all I am? Is this what you want from me?” Fassbinder screams to the heavens as the camera arcs overhead after a particularly dramatic moment. It’s all very serious, and to drive home the point, we have a scene in which Fassbinder decimates the old prison buildings at Auschwitz (like Tatooine in the Star Wars movies, we seem to end up in Auschwitz an awful lot in this series). The X-Men films have always flirted with cheesiness, but they haven’t been as weighed down by this much melodrama since Last Stand. Even a late-game, unnecessary cameo from Jackman’s Wolverine is more brutal than exhilarating.

x-apoc04Any remaining vestiges of fun live in this film’s margins. When Apocalypse shows up in the modern world, his arrival is amusingly underscored by an old Star Trek episode on TV (“Who Mourns for Adonis,” naturally). Most of the story takes place in 1983, but apart from a Return of the Jedi crack (“The third film is always the worst”), copious amounts of hair gel, and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) donning a Michael Jackson jacket, Singer doesn’t take advantage of the setting like Matthew Vaughn did for the ’60s in his X-men: First Class movie. Speaking of the ’80s, the film’s show-stopper is Quicksilver grooving to the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These)” as he pulls off a daring rescue; even though the scene is a pale echo of his “Time in a Bottle” shenanigans from the previous movie, it’s still a breath of fresh air compared to the solemn storytelling that burdens the rest of the film. Any other attempts at humor — Charles’ faltering romance with Moira, Beast (Nicholas Hoult) forgetting his meds and going all blue and furry — are strictly throwaway.

By the time X-Men: Apocalypse‘s  finale collapses in a swirl of CGI dust, the die has been cast: like the Avengers series, we’re meant to feel a connection with a new, young group of crusaders primed for franchise success for future film summers to come. The movie is ultimately about moving pieces into place, and as such it churns away with competence and scant inspiration. Now that we’ve left civil rights behind and embraced Armageddon, where can we go from here? It’s too early to abandon hope for the franchise, but we’ve reached a crossroads where big-budget theatrics are threatening to overpower the series’ soul. “We still are children, stumbling in the dark,” intones Charles in the film’s opening voice-over; Apocalypse takes us further away from seeing the light at the end of tunnel.

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