Saturday, December 10, 2016
X-Watch: X-Men - Apocalypse (2016)
In many ways, the entire point of this movie is to show how Charles Xavier lost his hair. I mean, they had to do it sometime, so why not at the two-hour, ten minute mark of a very, very long movie where nothing really works very well?
I got into superhero comics when I was about 11 or 12, right about the time of the Mutant Massacre storyline in X-Men, X-Factor and New Mutants. Of the literally 10's of 1000's of comics I've read, the comics I read in that first year or two are pretty well burned into my brain. Just before I got into comics, the villain Apocalypse made his first appearance in X-Factor, and would show up again to exploit the injured Warren Worthington III, aka: Angel, and make him into the 1980's requisite "Wolverine of the group" when he returned to X-Factor. I actually really liked those comics.
The movie is set in it's own version of events, but that isn't so much a bug as a feature. While it's not the worst movie I've ever seen, it's just so weighed down with characters and not-terribly-interesting plot developments and a runtime it doesn't earn, it's hard to get excited about the movie.
My enthusiasm for X-Men began to wane about the same time X-Men #1 sold 5 millions copies circa 1991, but as someone who didn't really know when to quit, I stuck with various X-titles sporadically well into college, although upon selling my collection a couple years back, I really had no recollection of most of post 1994 or so issues I had in my longboxes. I am sure I read them, but X-Men became deeply muddled across a huge number of X-titles, spotty writing, cross-overs that went nowhere, and bad ideas hatched that drug on for way too long and with no real idea how to wrap them up.
The real loss was Chris Claremont unceremoniously leaving X-Men and the tonal shift the books never recovered from, including when Claremont has returned to various titles of the past 20 years.
But I missed a lot of what is now considered X-Lore. While I considered Apocalypse to be a major X-villain, he seemed to take on massive importance with a story that sprawled millennia, but I only noticed it thanks to watching an X-Men cartoon at some point in the late 90's.
No one, critic or fan, seemed particularly jazzed about X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) when it hit cinemas this summer. It fell in the crush between the bombastic and hilariously bad Batman v Superman (that we're still picking over like an aircraft disaster) and the well received Captain America: Civil War. It's hard to ignore that X-Men has never exactly been a superhero concept and more of a sci-fi story, and that difference which has always been a point of tension in the comics makes X-Men an oddball, as always, as superheroes of all types are now popping up on a monthly basis on the silver screen.
But there's also been a LOT of X-Men. I think we've got about ten X-movies at this point, if you include Wolverine films and Deadpool (and you should). Fox hasn't given two good goddamns about maintaining continuity across the series, coupled that with time-travel and rebooting the entire series in X-Men: Days of Future Past.
If you're around my age, you've been with X-Men since that first awkward, clunky film in which Storm's dialog made no sense, Magneto's plan was bizarrely silly, and it all feels so small and quaint on a re-watch. And this film directly contradicts the events of that movie over and over, from "meeting Wolverine for the first time" to "meeting Nightcrawler" in X2, to Jean talking about how her powers aren't anywhere as near as powerful as Xavier's, to about ten different other things. Time travel, I get it. I guess things changed. But instead it feels like a movie where the fans know the work better than the people working on it, and that's going to be a problem down the road as the X-movies continue.
The story itself might have been interesting in the pitch meeting, but clearly the studio wanted as many X-Men on the screen as possible this go-round, and the entire film suffers for it. You can almost feel the laundry list of things they wanted to see, and once-pretty-good director Bryan Singer went ahead and delivered upon.
We have no less than seven major characters, all vying for focus, which extends the length of the film to a weary two hours twenty minutes, while also not really spending any time on any particular character or their arc. It's a movie told in bullet points, asking the viewer to fill in everything from personality for all the characters but Magneto, and certainly any emotional experience of anyone on screen. This train is moving and we simply do not have time to wait it out so you can learn anything about Cyclops or Jean Grey, and absolutely screw this Angel character who has gotten the shaft something fierce in two X-films at this point.
Of course there's a really lengthy scene with Quicksilver that's meant to showcase his amazing speed powers once again, and that worked in Days of Future Past, but here it feels like a retread, dragged out for too long. And the character, for reasons that make no sense, is just in stasis from the past ten years - like the movie openly acknowledging that it just isn't trying. And for DC readers, the scene may remind you of Joe Kelly's phenomenal "Flash saves an entire city" moment in JLA #88, which was one of the craziest things I remember ever seeing in that absolutely insane title.
The story itself follows an impossible decade after the events of X-Men: Days of Future Past and two full decades after X-Men: First Class, making it clear a byproduct of Charles Xavier and Magneto's mutant powers is to remain young and that everyone around them doesn't really age, either. Sometime in BC Egypt, a mutant with ill-defined powers has been ruling with a quartet of sidekicks as his heavies. A betrayal (that kind of makes no sense, because why wouldn't people assume he was a god?) occurs and Apocalypse is buried beneath a mountain of rubble. a few thousand years later, he surfaces and plans to do something to Earth and it's inhabitants, but we're never really told what or why or who he is or what he likes or doesn't like. He's just a bad guy and he's trying to change the status quo.
Apocalypse's gig is recruiting other mutants and then boosting their powers (he can also manipulate any physical object on a molecular level and use TV signals like Wikipedia), so he lands a young Storm, Angel and Psylocke before recruiting Magneto, who, like Deadshot in the abysmal Suicide Squad, is the only character with an actual plotline. Apocalypse is semi-immortal, with the ability to absorb powers from whichever physical vessel he moves into next.
Somehow this all leads to various events such as the X-mansion exploding, a visit to the underground/water secret base from X-Men, Scott and Jean becoming buddies, and J-Law not really selling the whole Mystique look, but here she is for another go-round, half-assing it in a movie where she's not exactly the star.
And, of course, the kidnapping of Xavier to get his powers, which means he loses his hair. (Spoilers) Something about which not one character says a single word, like he's using his mind-powers to make everyone just go about their normal business.
The movie could have been an hour shorter had (spoilers) the film not inserted Hugh Jackman for a scene, but clearly the studio felt they needed him in there, or they'd not bothered with hand-waving the origin of some fairly major X-Men who could have stood their own film where Chuck Xavier is a background player.
I had totally forgotten Moira MacTaggert was ever in these movies, but there she is, back again for no reason, still not Scottish. And, horrifically, Chuck X has wiped her memory of him for no good reason, so she spends the whole movie introducing herself to people she already knows for absolutely no payoff. It's kinda @#$%ed up.
Psylocke makes her triumphant debut, played by Olivia Munn who helps realize exactly how terrible the Psylocke costume really is and always has been. Look, I've never gotten over the slipshod change of Psylocke to a "ninja" in the comics, which puts me in the minority, but here she's not British, she's not a telepath, and she's not even interesting. So... we got that going for us.
It's not an awful movie, but it's also nothing essential. It doesn't feel much like anyone who made it cares, and there's so many issues with this decade-by-decade time jumping stuff they're doing, plus time travel, it's a huge distraction from just telling the story of superheroes who protect the world despite the fact they're hated and feared.
Because these movies, over and over and over, the world actually DOES have all the reasons it needs to wipe out every damn last mutant who walks the Earth. We've almost has nuclear oblivion in Cuba and now Magneto messing with the Earth's entire magnetic field, rending and destroying cities on the other side of the planet. A "well, we stopped that one guy" bit doesn't exactly sound so great on your fifth go-round. And, hey, they just let Magneto walk off again because he happened to turn turncoat once again.
I don't mind another go at X-Men, but they need to quit writing their films by refrigerator magnet poetry. I'm certainly losing interest in the series (I've skipped two Wolverine movies), and it's much the same reason I left the comics once Claremont left - they forgot that the characters have a core mission, and it'd be nice to see them remember to get back to mutants as metaphor and work from there. Maybe making up for some of the damage done might be a good start.