Monday, November 28, 2016

Random Observations on X-Men: Apocalypse

I finally saw X-Men: Apocalypse recently. After reading so little positive feedback about the film since it released in May, my expectations were low. They were lowered further by my lukewarm response to the X-Men films. If X2 is the apex of the franchise (and it is, no question), then Last Stand is the absolute nadir. It's been ten years since I saw it but I'm still can't talk about it without raising my voice and swearing. It shat upon my favorite comic book story of all time, after all. So, I like some of these films, dislike others, but tend to find something entertaining in nearly every one of them—except for Last Stand. No way.

As for last entry in the series, Days of Future Past, I enjoyed it fine. As with most of the films in the franchise though, when I apply even the slightest bit of critical scrutiny to it, the entire thing falls apart like a house of cards. So I'm not sure I'd say it was a good film, but I found it entertaining. After seeing Apocalypse, I've come away with basically the same feeling. It's a bit of a confounding mess (aren't all of these superhero films, to varying degrees?) but it seems like the filmmakers know it's a bit of a car wreck and are leaning heavily into the skid. They're rolling with it, all the way. Which makes sense because the story its loosely based on in the comics is even more inscrutable. That was a sprawling year-long crossover event in the 1990s that pushed the limits of how far a comic book event could go before readers collapse from exhaustion. The film isn't nearly as batshit crazy (nor as fun) as the comics were, but it's still bizarre and in many cases entertainingly so. It's also still a mess, that can't be denied.

So with all that in mind, here are some of my rambling thoughts about the film.

Looking appropriately apocalyptic.
Olivia Munn is terrific yet mostly wasted as Psylocke. Look, Munn takes a lot of hits around the internet for being nothing but a pretty face (and body) who lacks in acting chops but somehow keeps getting work. This always strikes me as patently unfair—and sometimes even sexist—for a few reasons. She's been okay in some stuff, forgettable in other stuff, and also very good in certain stuff. She was very funny in her brief stint on New Girl. When she's matched with the right role, she can bring it. Psylocke is most definitely the right role for Munn—she looks a lot like the way the character is drawn and she's a mega fan of comics in general and this character specifically. So, it seems only right that she was cast. Her costume is ridiculous but that's almost the point—while wearing it, Munn looks like she stepped right off the comic book page and into the screen. As a live-action adaptation of Psylocke's classic costume, it's nearly perfect. It's also appropriately garish because Apocalypse is a big, loud, colorful film. It doesn't shy away from comic book excess, like most superhero films trying to stay "real" often do. As I said earlier, it leans into it's goofiness, hard. Munn's Psylocke costume is a perfect visual representation of that.

In action, Munn is phenomenal. She appears to do all her own stunts and they're never less than awesome. Sometimes we watch superhero movies to explore themes and ideas that make us think harder about life and ourselves. Other times we just want to see things like Munn somersaulting through the air while slicing a car in half (don't ask why the car was in the air; I told you this movie let's it all hang out) and then landing while brandishing her swords like a boss. It's a killer moment and you almost expect her to say, "That all you got?" Bad-ass. Scenes like that make the movie enjoyable. Sometimes we forget that superheroes in the comics do outlandish things that we could never do in real life. Sawing a car in half while flying through the air is one of those outlandish things that superhero films should do more often. So kudos to them for that and other similarly cool scenes of Psylocke in action.

My inner geek squealed with joy at this scene.

However. Munn is severely underused and besides the great stunts isn't given much else to do. That's a shame. It's clear that Munn had fun with this role and loves the character. Psylocke is an important character in the comics, one with a lot of depth and nuance. None of that gets explored in the film. But, she does use her psychic energy (represented like purple flames, just like in the comics) and, lest we forget, slices a car in half.

I just wrote three paragraphs on Olivia Munn's relatively small role in this film. It won't surprise you then to hear that I'd like to see a Psylocke solo film where Munn gets to explore the character's interesting (and often troubling) history while also doing things like slicing a car in half. Can someone get on that, now? Thanks.

James McAvoy and Michael Fasbender have a bromance for the ages. As if we weren't sure of this from the previous two films, they hammer home the message: these guys play off each other so well that I'd be willing to watch a two-hour long film of them sitting down for a game of chess. They make the characters of Charles Xavier and Erik "Magneto" Lehnsherr their own while also bringing to life the qualities that each possesses in the comics. It doesn't hurt that the filmmakers are as in love with them as we are, so they're given plenty of moments to shine. The two characters have been the heart of this recent wave of X-Men films, and with good reason. They flesh out the backstory behind the terrific performances by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan from the earlier X-Men films. There are a lot of things to nitpick with these movies, but it's hard to have problems with McAvoy's and Fasbender's performances.

Kitty said it best.

Can someone remind me why Charles mind-wipe Rose Byrne's Moira McTaggert after the events of First Class? If they told us why I don't remember. To protect her? That's weak sauce. Either way, it's disturbing but also completely in line with Charles's actions in the comics—dude is constantly invading people's minds and manipulating them for "the greater good." For a supposed hero, Charles does a lot of shady stuff with his powers. He always justifies it as necessary in order to save people from harm, but sometimes its questionable. I did love the scene where McAvoy seemingly improvises his stammering awkward conversation with Byrne (whose Moira has no memory of Charles) in their (second) meet-cute.

Jean Grey goes full-on Phoenix and it's absolutely glorious. This scene, when Jean takes down Apocalypses by frying him to a crisp with the Phoenix Force, is outstanding. I could watch it over and over and geek out just as hard every time. First, she's walking on air. That goes right up there alongside slicing cars in half in mid-air when I'm compiling the best bad-ass scenes from this film. The visual effects did a tremendous job of impressing upon us the stunning cosmic power Jean possesses when she unleashes the full force of the Phoenix. It's a jaw dropping scene that does a much better job of adapting the Phoenix to screen than Last Stand did (let us not speak of that film again here). Sophie Turner turned in a good performance as Jean, especially in scenes like this and the one where she uses her telepathy to give Logan back his memories. But guys, seriously, the Phoenix scene is radical.

These movies are still neglecting a huge part of the appeal of X-Men comics. What's that, you ask? The female characters in X-Men comics are, for the most part, fantastic. They're usually rich and varied characters with subtle shades of grey and each with their own agency. Plus let's not forget they kick a lot of ass. Storm, Rogue, Kitty, Jean, Psylocke, to name just a few, are all complex and interesting characters as well as some of the most powerful in comics. So far in this franchise, we've rarely seen any of these women be anywhere near as awesome as they are in the comics. I've covered Psylocke already. Rogue and Kitty are severely downplayed in these films, which hurts my heart. They're not even in this one. Jean has been important in the films but also not that well defined. Storm? No matter which movie or who's playing her, she's never come anywhere near her level of importance in the comics. It's depressing that the filmmakers have more often than not subordinated the female characters while elevating Logan, Charles, and Erik. By doing so they're completely ignoring one of the core strengths of the comics, one every fan knows: the women are the best characters in X-Men comics.

What about Mystique, you say? Don't get me started. Mystique is an intriguing arch foe of the X-Men in the comics. In the films she's portrayed by an actress who doesn't seem all that invested in the part and whose motivations are usually dependent on plot and not character. And as with Logan, Charles, and Erik, Mystique has hogged far too much screen time. The internet will tell you this is because Jennifer Lawrence became a mega star after First Class and I tend to agree. It's a shame though, because the character isn't interesting enough in these films to warrant all of the attention.

Besides the emo hair, Nightcrawler was terrific.
Nightcrawler and Quicksilver were sufficiently fun and visually delightful. Alan Cumming was quite good in X2 as an older and more somber Kurt Wagner, but Kodi Smitt-McPhee is a blast as a younger and goofier version of Kurt. His "bamfing" all over the place was enough to put me in geek heaven, plus his humor was well timed and genuinely made me laugh. Evan Peters turns in another great performance even if the character he's playing, Quicksilver, bears hardly any resemblance to his comic book version. That's not Peters's fault plus it's for the best; in the last two movies the filmmakers have made Quicksilver far more fun than he's ever been on the page. Peters is a big reason why, of  course.

Um, how many people died during Apocalypse's, well, apocalypse? Sure, the X-Men prevented full scale apocalypse, but the big guy and his four horsemen got some damage in first. I mean, Magneto alone must've murdered thousands with all the building razing he was up to in those scenes. It seems highly unlikely these places were devoid of human life, but I don't recall seeing any shots of people perishing either. Color me confused.

The murder of Magneto's family was ludicrous. It's an understandable yet not exactly creative motivation for the return of Magneto. It works because of Fasbender's acting. His reactions throughout the film, but especially in this scene and immediately after, are electric. Still, one arrow penetrate two people's bodies, killing them both almost instantly? I...don't...know. I'm clearly no expert in archery or death-by-archery, but this seems specious.

Even Cerebro gets a 1980s makeover, complete with a heavy Tron vibe.
The scene where Charles is using Cerebro and Apocalypse invades his mind was off the hook. This is the best Cerebro scene in any of these films yet, hands down. McAvoy sold it and made me believe when Charles was overwhelmed by feeling the enormity of the power of Apocalypse. Even watching Nicholas Hoult, as Hank McCoy/Beast, furiously trying to rip out all of Cerebro's connections to prevent Apocalypse from accessing its full scope and power was a blast. It doesn't hurt that Hoult looks an awful lot like me any time I have to find the correct damn cord to unplug behind the entertainment center.

There is so much more to love and hate about this film. I could go on. It's a long movie, packed tight with crazy set pieces and wildly over the top characters. But it also had some real affecting moments woven throughout. After watching it I was initially less than impressed. Now, after a few days to let it settle in, I'm realizing I enjoyed it more than I thought. It's still not the X-Men movie I dream of seeing one day, but at times it does a good job of translating the spirit of the comics to the screen.

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