Wednesday, June 01, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse

X-Men: Apocalypse (3.5/5)

In order to enjoy the recent X-Men films, the first thing you have to do is completely ignore issues of continuity. These films don’t so much ask the audience to suspend disbelief when it comes to their fictional timeline as they ask you to wrestle your disbelief to the ground, lock it in a safe, and catapult it into the stratosphere. The same character reappears in different times at widely different ages, events from film to film are conveniently forgotten, and characters don’t seem to age over the course of decades. In X-Men; Apocalypse, for instance, Havok, who joined the X-Men twenty years prior in 1962, looks like he’s still in his mid-twenties. Maybe you can pass this off as some good genes, but then why does he have a brother, Scott Summers (Cyclops), who’s still in high school? You could go mad trying to diagram a timeline of the X-Men films.

But this wasn’t always the way. The X-Men movies are a fascinating example of how superhero films have evolved over the last fifteen years. Appearing after Blade but before Raimi’s Spider-Man, the original X-Men film attempted to take the sometimes goofy premise of the comics and ground it into something that resembles the world we live in. At the time this enraged the nerd community who were upset that Wolverine was too tall and the X-costumes were too drab. But it payed off handsomely with the general public and helped start off our current superhero obsession.

As time went on and people became used to the idea of people who had incredible powers and silly names and costumes to go with them, superhero films have embraced many of the elements that make superhero comic books unique. There’s less concern about grounding these movies in the “real world.” Currently, Marvel’s films are moving towards a match-up between its heroes and an evil man who sits in a throne in the middle of space collecting magic rocks. Likewise, the X-Men movies have embraced time travel and the idea that mutants had a massive impact on important historical events.

I’m all for increasing the insanity quotient in the modern superhero films because I think it’s what makes the genre unique. Sure, every now and again I want to watch a Nolanesque, semi-realistic representation of Batman, but when our characters can shoot beams of energy from their eyes, sometimes realism is overrated. So I don’t think Apocalypse would have worked as a villain in earlier iterations of the X-Men films, but an ancient mutant who convinces others to worship him as a God and transfers his consciousness from person to person to obtain immortality seems right at home sixteen years after the first X-Men movie debuted. Overall, X-Men: Apocalypse is overstuffed, overlong, convoluted, lumpy narratively, and the third act goes on for far too long. Which is to say, it’s a superhero film made in the past five years. Other than these common complaints, Apocalypse is an enjoyable ride that benefits from director Bryan Singer’s deft eye.

Subscribing to overt Darwinism, the film’s titular villain has an even more extremist view of human/mutant relations than Magneto, and he spends the film, naturally, threatening the extinction of all of humanity. For the film’s first half,Apocalypse gathers his “four horsemen,” soldiers who will aid him in his conquests. But as the film opens, we’re introduced to Apocalypse in ancient Egypt over five thousand years ago. This introduction plays like a little narrative itself, and one of the my favorite moments in the film is the first shot, which consists of a moving bird’s-eye shot that renders the Sahara Desert into abstract lines before the camera pans upwards to reveal massive pyramids. The intro ends with the betrayal of Apocalypse by his human worshipers who have devised a way to bury him deep in the ground. The events go by with few words, Singer preferring to tell the narrative visually.

Later in the film, Singer takes a meta-dig at the third X-Men movie, which was hastily directed by Brett Ratner. The well-crafted intro fully justifies Singer’s choice to throw some shade like a hip-hop MC. My suspicion is that of all the characters in all of the X-Men movies, Singer probably relates most to Quicksilver who had the showstopping moment in the previous entry, Days of Future Past, in which he moved so quickly that time appeared to crawl to a near stop. Once again, Quicksilver saves the day, this time from an explosion that tears apart the X-mansion. Sure, it’s a cover of an old favorite, but Singer manages to tweak the formula enough to make it just as fun and exciting as in the previous film. As a director, Singer also has similar control over the placement and movement of characters. Quicksilver is a representation of his near godlike power, a comment on the director’s mastery of the mise-en-scene.

Throughout the film, Singer brings a real director’s vision to the proceedings. As in Days of Future Past, he dabs splashes of primary colors in an homage to the film’s comic book origins. (Singer’s interest in use of light goes back to The Usual Suspects where he translated film noir’s chiaroscuro into expressionistic lighting). He also makes great use of both foreground and background. Nightcrawler, who like in X2 is a standout character, will often pop into the foreground of a frame disrupting the original focus of the shot. In one particular scene, Magneto confronts former coworkers who have outed him as a mutant only to be interrupted by Apocalypse. When Magento tells Apocalypse, who at this point he doesn’t know, not to try and stop him from killing these men for their betrayal, with the wave of a hand, Apocalypse simply melts these men into the floor. These victims who are slightly out of focus and in the background of the shot suddenly and unexpectedly fall to their death. The scene is visually surprising because it makes use of foreground and background and occurs in a single shot where another director would choose to cut. (The use of superpowers are particularly gruesome in this installment,)

While another 2016 superhero film, Captain America: Civil War, easily has a stronger script, there are times when Singer’s understanding of the visual language of cinema makes the Russo brothers look like they should go back to directing boring old television because they don’t quite have the chops to keep up. And about that script. The film is all over the place. There’s a moment where the newly recruited X-Men are captured by Stryker, the U.S. colonel responsible for Wolverine’s adamantium claws. This detour takes us away from the central conflict between Apocalypse and the X-Men, and in all honestly it seems like these events occur solely for a brief Wolverine cameo.

And while it would kill fourteen-year-old me if he heard me say this, Apocalypse just isn’t that interesting of a villain. When reading X-Men comics I thought he was a great villain because he looked cool and was incredibly powerful, but his motivations are mostly retreads of the more conflicted and thus more intriguing Magneto. And the only reason why Apocalypse apparently needs his four horsemen henchmen is because he’s named Apocalypse, which, come to think of it, was pretty much the same reason in the comics.

As the X-Men films have become more complicated, they have also become more unwieldy. But there’s still plenty to like about the latest X-installment. Sure, it doesn’t have the immediate hook of two generations meeting across time like Days of Future Past, but there’s enough to set the film apart from the current glut of superhero films that I’m curious to see where we go next.