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Entries in X-Men: Apocalypse [2016] (1)

Wednesday
Jun012016

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

Hubris and Saturation

X-Men: Apocalypse is a mediocre movie, which, at this stage of the game, also makes it terrible. By thoroughly squandering the promise of its predecessor, Days of Future Past, in pursuit of the Disney/Marvel success formula, it unfolds as nothing more than 4k factory gears grinding on screen in surround sound.

At the end of the previous film, Singer and writer Simon Kinberg reset Fox's entire X-Men universe by adding a psychic element to The Terminator's concept: Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) projects his mind back to 1973 and prevents the rise of giant, evil robots that enslave humanity in the future. This cinematic Save Point offered a nice send-off for the original cast, while casually wiping 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand from series continuity as a favor to fans. With a clean slate and decades to fill before the timelines caught up with one another, Fox was free to further cash in on retro-nostalgia and a hot new cast of nimble, young actors.

Unfortunately, I don't mean James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, who, until this entry, played the spry versions of good-hearted Professor Charles Xavier and petulant sociopath Erik "Magneto" Lensherr, respectively. Or even Hunger Games mega-star Jennifer Lawrence. These performers' multi-picture deals (as well as the property's fate as the Disney/Marvel vacuum enters Fox/Marvel’s orbit) are up in the air, so we must now witness a second torch-passing, one that makes way for even hotter, younger actors. The result is a film that recalls the contractual necessity of Sony's Amazing Spider-Man pictures instead of the narrative necessity of, say, The Dark Knight.

This focus-tested repackaging centers on an ancient mutant named Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) who must transfer his consciousness into a new body in order to maintain the myriad unique abilities he's collected over the centuries. At the zero hour, he is betrayed by his subjects and entombed in an Egyptian pyramid. Before you can say "Blade: Trinity", two thousand years have passed and Apocalypse awakens to resume taking over the "wuhld".

Meanwhile, in the woods of Poland, Lensherr has given up playing Mutant Revolutionary and settled down with a wife, a daughter, and foundry gig. Before you can say "X-Men Origins: Wolverine", his quiet life is torn asunder with violence, and he re-engages mankind in a(nother) genocidal conquest.

Meanwhile, young Connecticut high school student Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan) freaks out in class when his laser vision begins to manifest. Before you can say "Man of Steel" or "X-Men (2000)", Scott has destroyed the bathroom stall in which he was hiding,* and finds sanctuary in Xavier's School for Gifted Children.

Meanwhile, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) attends a mutant cage match in Berlin, between a winged punk named Angel (Ben Hardy) and a young, fanged-and-tailed blue creature named Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Nightcrawler can teleport, which makes his insistence on beaming from corner-to-corner inside the cage a bit puzzling—as opposed to manifesting somewhere safer. Later on, we learn he can't move through anything protected by an electrical field. That makes as much sense as most of the other powers of convenience on display, but it would have been helpful to know the character’s limitations before the allegedly dramatic cage match began.

Exploring Apocalypse’s inconsistencies and illogic would take about as long as its two-and-a-half-hour run-time. Instead of building on the infinite possibilities that a fresh start and endless cash provide, the climax lands us in yet another wreckage-strewn playset, where meta-humans use their omnipotent powers to render an even more omnipotent monster defenseless in a garish display of swirling CGI particles and casualty-free collateral damage.

A more serious film might have sought to answer questions about all the havoc going on in the areas not occupied by a handful of warring mutants. On a planet inhabited by hundreds of thousands of “gifted” people, we don’t see any off-brand X-Men stepping up to rescue children from overturned buses—or any nefarious would-be villains looking to take advantage of sudden global chaos. It's all just ten dudes in Egypt, scrapping.

Instead, we follow a quartet of unappealing young leads as they play naïve versions of characters we’d already spent nearly two decades getting to know. That’s not a slam on the acting abilities of Sheridan, Smit-McPhee, or Sophie Turner and Alexandra Shipp (who play Jean Grey and Ororo Munroe, respectively). I’ve admired most of them in other films, but they’re totally useless here, saddled with advancing the “D” plot in a film that can’t quite muster a reason for plots “A” through “C” to exist. Few things will please me more than to be proven wrong about this new class of old X-Men, but for now, I just don’t care to see these kids headline future movies.

Fittingly, there's an exchange between three of the new-ish mutants in which they make a dig at Brett Ratners's much-maligned Last Stand. Coming out of Return of the Jedi (Apocalypse is set in 1983), one of them says that the third film in any franchise is always terrible. The irony is, of course, that X-Men: Apocalypse is that terrible third film.

2011’s First Class reintroduced us to characters we thought we’d known, largely setting aside generic bombast for lovely character moments and an intricate story. Days of Future Past dispensed with the origin stories and small-scale shenanigans that plagued the earlier (and, frankly, quaint) X-movies, leaving us with the promise of even bigger horizons for the franchise to scale. Apocalypse, despite the menacing name of its titular character, feels like the synopsis of a mid-run story arc that most comics fans don’t care to remember.

Just as the “age” in Avengers: Age of Ultron barely spanned a long weekend, the latest X-Men “apocalypse” feels downright inconsequential. Apocalypse himself has an unintentionally hilarious exchange with Magneto (paraphrased below) that underscores both the X-series’ significance to the blockbuster landscape and the disappointing carlessness with which it has let other franchises rocket past:

Apocalypse: I've been called many things over many lifetimes: Ra, Krishna, Yahweh. I was there to spark and fan the flame of man's awakening, to spin the wheel of civilization.

Magneto: So, where were you during the Holocaust that killed my entire family?

Apocalypse: Asleep.

The X-Men trilogies always start out strong, grow stronger, and then quickly flame out—often giving rise to and then reflecting the genre’s best and worst tendencies. Captain America: Civil War is a natural progression from Days of Future Past, with well-established characters pushing familiar stories into unfamiliar and exciting cinematic areas. Apocalypse is akin to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: a manifestation of brand goodwill that only promises more—not more-plus-better.

*He is not, it should be noted, brought up on manslaughter charges, since the utterly non-powered bully he'd just put through a wall with a flaming door is apparently fine and not at all litigious.