Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Zaki's Review: X-Men: Apocalypse

Ten years ago I took a shank to X-Men: The Last Stand, a sequel I found so disagreeable that I likened it to "studio-mandated seppuku" (which might have been a bit hyperbolic in hindsight). On the other hand, two years ago I was quite effusive in my praise of X-Men: Days of Future Past, which I called the very best of the Fox series. So, if we're using those two entries as the benchmarks, the goalposts of what to expect from these things, then X-Men: Apocalypse, the ninth film based on Marvel Comics' line of comic books, falls somewhere in the middle: neither as bad as the worst, nor as good as the best. It's just...fine.

Lacking the "All Mutants Unite!" marketing hook that Days of Future past employed to bring together two generations of X-casts (scaling new box office heights in the process), Apocalypse settles back into the "rebooted" timeline begun in 2011's terrific X-Men: First Class, content to fill the gap between one entry and the next without really leaving a mark of its own. Like the just-okay The Wolverine three years ago, it's entirely adequate at keeping the franchise fires lit for Fox (lest the rights revert to Disney/Marvel), while coasting on whatever goodwill audiences have built up over the series' long life.

Beginning with a prologue in ancient Egypt that feels like a cross between 1994's StarGate and the Mummy movies, we're introduced to the titular baddie, an immortal mutant also called En Sabah Nur, who transfers his powers, countenance, and consciousness into a youthful new body (Oscar Isaac) when an insurrection by his followers puts him into suspended animation for several millennia. From there, we jump to the present -- or rather, the mid-'80s, ten years after the White House showdown that closed out Days of Future Past.

With the existence of mutants now known to the public, Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), along with Hank McCoy, a.k.a. Beast (Nicholas Hoult), has opened his "School for Gifted Youngsters." Among his students are Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), who will one day become Cyclops (and gets more to do in this one movie than the character's every prior appearance put together), and Jean Grey (the terrifically cast Sophie Turner), who will one day become...uh, Jean Grey. Meanwhile, Xavier's former friend Erik Lensherr, a.k.a. Magneto (Michael Fassbender) has chosen a life of anonymity and begun a family (let's see how long that lasts...).

However, when Apocalypse is wakened from his slumber in Egypt and seeks to reshape the Earth in his image, Xavier must reconnect not only with Lensherr, but also with his foster sister Raven Darkholme, a.k.a. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). The shape-shifter, whose prominence as the Most Important Mutant Ever has grown in direct proportion to Lawrence's own outsized box office footprint, has spent the interim between sequels smuggling mutants to safety, in the process becoming a sort of "mutant pride" urban legend to young muties the world over thanks to revealing her blue-skinned self to the world ten years earlier.

As the various heroes and villains criss-cross the globe, we're introduced in rapid succession to fan favorites Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Archangel (Ben Hardy), and Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and reintroduced to Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) and Alex Summers (Lucas Till), both of whom had prominent roles in First Class. All the X-Men, new and old, get fun beats to play (especially Evan Peters' Quicksilver, back for his sophomore appearance, who gets a showstopper of a number that I guarantee will have you humming Eurythmics the rest of the day), but things start to feel a little overstuffed after awhile.

And while I have a certain amount of familiarity with -- and fondness for -- these characters (one bit of fan-service had me grinning ear-to-ear), I can't imagine how it'll feel to someone coming in cold. Granted, at this stage in a long-running franchise, I'm not sure how many newbies will suddenly jump in for the ninth go. The audience is pretty much baked into the cake by now. But regardless, even for the longtime fans, this should all be riveting stuff given the life-or-death stakes that are in play, but despite a threat that's supposedly so dire, there's just something very ho-hum about the whole thing. Then again, perhaps it's unavoidable that this is where we've ended up.

When the first X-Men debuted in 2000, before Spider-Man, before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it was pretty much the only game in town. But sixteen years later, Apocalypse is the fourth superhero movie to hit theaters in five months. And mere weeks after Captain America: Civil War pretty much mastered the superhero jam, mere months after Deadpool thoroughly took the piss out of the X-Men brand from the inside, it's easy to feel some of that superhero fatigue coming on as we settle in to watch various super-powered folks tossing haymakers at each other while elaborate CGI effects move hither and thither in the background.

Part of the problem here is Apocalypse himself. Now, this is tough for me to say, as one of the dings against these films has been their unwillingness to stay truer to their comic book roots (as evidenced by the snicker-snort "Would you prefer yellow spandex?" line in the 2000 original). But the comic genre has moved far enough along that what would once have been anathema is no longer so, which makes it perhaps the perfect moment to introduce the very comic book-y Apocalypse into the movies. But Oscar Isaac is also done no favors by writer/producer Simon Kinberg's script, which leaves his powers ill-defined, and his personality more somnambulant than seductive.

And it's not just Isaac who suffers at the script's hands. Fassbender, so magnetic (sorry) in the previous installments, feels adrift here, his presence more the result of a dreaded sequel-clause in his contract than any compelling story reason. McAvoy, on the other hand, continues to be a terrific Xavier, and the newcomers playing the classic characters make enough of a strong mark that I look forward to seeing them continue in their roles. That's actually the biggest difference between my general apathy with Apocalypse and my active dislike of The Last Stand in '06: The series has been around long enough that it can survive an occasional middling entry.

Based on a coy one-liner he slips into this, one assumes The Last Stand's negative impact remains a sore spot for Bryan Singer, who chose instead to direct Superman Returns that year (whoops). Still, since returning as a producer on First Class, Singer has become one of the brand's main minders. And indeed, if anyone deserves credit for these movies' success and longevity, it's him. However, while the last few entries were a triumphant return to form for a franchise that stumbled badly with both X3 and 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men: Apocalypse is a step in the wrong direction. Luckily there'll be plenty of opportunities to make up for it. C

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