Lukewarm Takes #13: X-Men: Apocalypse
Maybe it’s just me, but it sure does seem like they’re making an awful lot of superhero movies these days, many of them based upon comic books. In fact, there are days, like today, when I watched X-Men: Apocalypse, when it sure does seem like they make too many superhero movies. It feels like they make too many X-Men movies, they make too many DC movies, they make too many non-X-Men Marvel movies. They make too many movies based on gritty indie comic books.
I know that’s insane, because our economy is wholly reliant upon the public mindlessly consuming a never-ending deluge of super-hero-related films and television shows, so to even suggest that maybe we should lay off the superhero movies for a little while is tantamount to treason and cultural heresy.
Yet there are times, I confess, like the entirety of X-Men: Apocalypse when it sure feels like the whole damn superhero medium is exhausted, and maybe should go into some manner of deep freeze for a couple of years until we have an opportunity to miss them a little. At the very least, this all-superhero-all-the-time phase of pop culture seems to be burning itself out, thank God.
We’ve explored the shittiness of the contemporary D.C Cinematic Universe in this column through Suicide Squad and Batman Vaping Superman: Dawn of Vape-Justice and some of the highs and lows of Marvel Cinematic Universe, from the thoroughly okay (Deadpool, Doctor Strange) to the unusually inspired (Captain America: Civil War).
Now we turn our attention to the X-Men cinematic universe, which helped kick off the big screen comic book superhero team boom all the way back in the far-ago days of 2000, when the world was woefully ignorant of important cultural figures like Deadpool, who would go on to win our hearts with his potty mouth and heart of gold. That Deadpool is a rascal, is what he is!
X-Men director Bryan Singer has stayed unusually attached to the franchise, returning to direct the two best entries in the series (not including the Wolverine-spin-off Logan) in X2 and X-Men: Days of Future Past, as well as last year’s X-Men Apocalypse.
As the primary shepherd of the uneven but sometimes inspired X-Men film franchise, Singer has done great things for the contemporary superhero movie and vice versa. But fatigue seems to be setting in hard and Apocalypse seems powered by a world-weary sense of grim professional obligation rather than anything resembling inspiration.
The disappointments begin with Oscar Isaac as the film’s villain, Apocalypse. Like all good people, I love Oscar Isaac. He’s Lewyn Davis! So I got excited when I heard he was going to play an all-powerful mutant from the ancient past who is resurrected in our time and sets about taking over the world.
I got concerned when I saw that the character design of Apocalypse was apparently “the Djinn from The Wishmaster, only blue and crappier.” That whiff of desperation and impersonation is heightened in an early set piece that recalls a similar set piece in The Wishmaster that was ten times as effective on probably one tenth the budget.
It’s not just that Apocalypse looks like Oscar Isaac cosplaying as the Wishmaster: personality-wise he’s a snooze. He wants to rule the world. Gosh, you know who else wants to rule the world? How about every fucking bad guy in every superhero movie ever. The stakes are generally pretty high in these kinds of films: it’d almost be nice to see a superhero movie about a bad guy who embezzled small amounts of money from his union. Also, Apocalypse is a terrifyingly powerful mutant with crazy, extremely amorphous and not terrible well-defined powers. You know who else that sounds like? Also, every bad guy from every X-Men movie.
When I saw that Apocalypse was set in the early 1980s, and might feature the disco superhero Dazzler (originally conceived as a collaboration between Marvel and disco powerhouse Casablanca Records, completely with a crazy-sounding film treatment featuring Kiss, Cher, Donna Summer, Rodney Dangerfield, The Village People and many more )I thought that sounded like it might be fun.
Well, folks, I am here now to tell you that, like Batman v Superman, X-Men: Apocalypse seems to be following a strict “no-fun” rule. It's not just dour; it's purposely joyless. I mean, c’mon, what could be fun about super-powered evil and good mutants battling it out in the 1980s? That’s some serious shit! It’s a matter of concentration camps and weighty conversations about the nature of destiny and identity and fate, not, say, breakdancing.
Yes, I was annoyed that X-Men: Apocalypse didn’t have fun with its Reagan-era setting, or, for that matter, have fun at all, with anything. Then came a sequence when that lightning-fast spawn of Magneto Quicksilver uses his super-power of being able to run real fast to race to the X-Mansion so that he can save everyone (and enjoy some Tab) in a sequence set to what sure feels like the entirety of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These)” and I found myself wishing the movie would stop trying to have fun with its 1980s setting.
Another low-point in clumsy period detail/in-jokes: characters leaving Return of the Jedi observe that the third entry in always the worst, a groan-inducing dig at X-3: Last Stand’s well-deserved reputation as the worst and most Bret Ratner and Kelsey Grammertastic of all the X-Men movies. The character might as well turn to the camera and give a big wink to let audiences know that while there are no actual jokes in Apocalypse (unlike scenes where characters contemplate and confront the never-ending shadow of the Holocaust, of which there are several!), Bryan Singer would like you to think he’s in on the joke all the same.
In terms of the timeline of the franchise, Apocalypse takes place ten years after the end of Days of Future Past. Mutants are keeping a relatively low-profile and enjoying a time of relative peace with puny man-animals when Apocalypse is resurrected and begins to win followers with his, “Let’s destroy this degraded, corrupted world and replace it with something better that we control! And by ‘we’ I mean ‘Me’” message.
Honestly, before Trump was elected, I would look askance at an evil, ancient mutant would-be God taking over the world, but of our own volition, we elected Donald Trump President, so maybe we should try a millennia-old figure of pure evil. Here’s what I like about Apocalypse: He’s not politically correct. He’s not beholden to the Powers that be. He speaks his mind and seems ready to not just drain the swamp but also slaughter most of humanity. He’s a straight shooter, and I like that.
Meanwhile, our old frenemy Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is laying low and living as a simple man behind the Iron Curtain in Poland when some deeply misguided fools mess with his family. A distraught and grief-mad Magneto abandons his common-man identity and pursuit of the straight and narrow and goes back to the dark side, eventually hitching his wagon to Apocalypse’s Squad of super-powered bad guys.
Apocalypse was smart enough to give Fassbender, a bona fide heavyweight thespian, its heaviest lines and most dramatic scenes. He’s the one called upon to gaze at Aushwitz and contemplate man’s inhumanity to man in general and man’s inhumanity to him specifically. Fassbender is up to the challenge but the movie doesn’t have the emotional heft or substance to be able to integrate the Holocaust without it seeming in bad taste.
Back at X-Mansion, the X-Men seem to be in rebuilding mode, giving Apocalypse an opportunity to re-introduce us to characters we already know and dislike, like Cyclops. Cyclops was such a terrible character in the original X-Men movies that it totally obscured that James Marsden, the actor blandly playing him, was actually charming and funny and charismatic.
In a trademark act of poor judgment, Apocalypse decides to focus on re-introducing Scott Summers/Cyclops. Cyclops is played by Tye Sheridan, an actor I like from his performances in the southern-fried heavyweight trio Tree of Life, Mud and Joe but there is absolutely nothing he can do with the character here. The same is true of Angel and Nightcrawler. This feels unmistakably feels like a B or a C team, even with beloved characters like Nightcrawler.
Jennifer Lawrence is as charismatic and magnetic a movie star as we have today but as Raven/Mystique, all Lawrence ever seems to be doing is moving an unnecessarily complicated and convoluted plot forward.
Everyone here just seems to be glumly going through the motions. A heavy sense of contractual obligation hangs heavy over most of its major players, including Hugh Jackman. Throughout the first two acts of Apocalypse, I found myself missing the swaggering, brooding charisma and leading-man focus Jackman has brought to both this franchise and Logan, which I adored in no small part because it felt almost nothing like Apocalypse.
Then some bum-ass second rate mutants are describing a man being turned into some kind of weapon by the government that sure sounds like our boy Big Wolfie, AKA Stabby McScissorhands and faster than you can say, “contractually obligated cameo” Jackman is back in action stabbing people, then picking up his check, cashing it onscreen using one of those phone apps and then buying himself a really nice yacht with the money he made just that day's work. “Oh boy, it sure does pay to be in a big film series like this!” Jackman, breaking the fourth wall, says directly into the camera in the only truly honest moment in this entire bloated mediocrity.
Jackman’s ragingly anti-climactic climactic cameo is Apocalypse in a nutshell: it gives you what it thinks you want so ineptly that it makes you feel guilty and misguided for even wanting it in the first place.
Apocalypse is so dour, humorless and boring I’m half-surprised it’s not actually part of the D.C Universe. Oh well. That’s what terrible, terrible crossovers are for. Maybe Apocalypse could tangle with Steel? No matter who ended up triumphing, the real winners would be the moviegoing public and all those comic book geeks that keep franchises like this rolling right along long after the inspiration has run out.
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