In A Crowded Golden Age Of Superhero Movies, “X-Men: Apocalypse” Still Has A Place

Eight years before Iron Man, when Marvel’s interconnected movie universe was just a studio’s daydream, there was X-Men. In many ways we have Bryan Singer to thank for establishing the success of today’s superhero blockbusters. Singer grounded his mutant world in realism and heart, proving that movies based on crime-fighting, cape-wearing people with funky abilities can have social, political, and emotional relevance; something fans have known for decades, but the general public remained mostly unaware of. (Ew, comics? Comics are for nerds!)

Singer also proved these movies have staying power. Sixteen years and nine films later, the X-Men franchise is still chugging along, except they’re no longer the biggest superheroes on the block.

So, after all that time and competing against countless other caped crusaders, does X-Men: Apocalypse have anything worthwhile left to say? Kinda.

Part of it depends on your point of view. Given the staggering 48% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the critics sure don’t think so. (For reference, previous films Days of Future Past, First Class, and X2: X-Men United scored a respective 91%, 87%, and 86% with critics. Yeouch.)

Audience scores are better — a respectable, if not stellar, 74%, certainly enough of a difference to highlight the viewing priorities between both camps. Having said that, it’s still less than Future Past (92%), First Class(87%), and X2 (85%).

Me? It’s no miracle of cinema on its own standing, it doesn’t match the heights of creative ingenuity and thematic pathos we’ve come to associate with Singer’s entries in the franchise, but it’s fine. Good, in fact! Nothing revolutionary, but a solid, enjoyable, smart middle ground that presents its ideas and characters clearly.

If Civil War is the masterpiece and Batman v Superman the godawful mess, then Apocalypse is the perfectly okay one.

So why did critics and some fans hate it so? Where’d this apathy, even vitriol, come from?

Ever since The Movie That Must Not Be Named, The Last Stand, broke fandom’s collective heart in 2006, the franchise has been inconsistent. (Putting it nicely.) The Wolverine spinoffs ranged from ugh to so-so, First Class flourished in character intimacies but stumbled over a middling plot, and Days of Future Past was a nigh-masterpiece. Following DOFP, the movie that finally opened up the X-Men world beyond the endless recycling of Xavier and Magneto doing their peace vs. war dance, that continued to anchor the backbone of the story upon that rich relationship, and featured everyone working toward a greater goal of survival as a well-honed, integrated team of vulnerable, complicated people (not enhanced entities, not gods, people) — Apocalypse can feel like a step backward. I get that. There’s a giant well of X-Men comics legacy to mine from, so many resonant stories of internal conflict; complex relationships; moral salvation; acceptance transcending xenophobia; clashing ideals between the members of a found family. Instead we’ve got a checklist of expectant cliches.

  • Facing off against a generic egotistic villain who wants to commit worldwide destruction after watching 1980s TV. (Me too, dude.) Fans have waited decades to see Apocalypse onscreen, but he’s underwritten, underwhelming, and lacks menace despite the internet’s boyfriend Oscar Isaac doing his absolute darndest to sound creepy beneath all that makeup. (WHY WOULD YOU HIDE THAT BEAUTIFUL FACE?)
  • The giant action set pieces don’t inspire awe, fear, or…really any emotion. In a genre so tired of mindless CGI destruction it became the subject of two movies within three months, that’s a shame. The death toll in Apocalypse must be astronomical, but there’s nary a blink of acknowledgment from our mutant crew. Singer’s previous outings concerned themselves with the safety of the unnamed individual, and the lack of actual human stakes in Apocalypse renders all that destruction dull. It’s not that the visual effects are poor (Quicksilver’s set piece is again a showstopper), or that the mano-a-mano fights are mindless brutality lacking emotion; they’re just empty. We’ve seen it all before.
  • It lacks the levels of grim political metaphor that usually characterize the movies’ through-lines. The loss of those social allegories could even be argued as the loss of the X-Men’s core meaning. (To be fair, we’ve had four films successfully tackle some of the comics’ ingrained themes already, and Apocalypse is a different kind of nemesis with a different thematic focus.)
  • Skimping on substantial characterization for our younger, slightly different versions of Jean Grey, Cyclops, Storm, Nightcrawler, and Angel, along with new additions Jubilee and Psylocke. Most of that’s due to the plot’s breakneck speed as it jumps from scene to scene to squeeze everything into two and a half hours, and it means the newbies are overlooked, underdeveloped, or both. Jubilee, a beloved X-member and one of the few characters of color, has all of maybe two lines and never even demonstrates her powers, which is frustrating given the movies’ longstanding lack of diversity. Psylocke fares better thanks to Olivia Munn clearly having a blast, but she and fellow Horseman Angel both suffer the curse of simply being ill-defined secondary characters. Believable reasonings and past hardships are touched upon, but how much do we really care about them despite the badass metal wings and purple psychic sword?

In a self-aware quip, Jean remarks “the third one’s always the worst” after she walks out of a theater showing Return of the Jedi. Obviously that’s directed at The Last Stand, but it’s applicable to Apocalypse as well.

So why the hell did I love it?

In part, Apocalypse benefitted from the see-sawing quality of the other, non-Singer movies. I’ve come to manage my expectations about X-Men, and although that’s sad, 20th Century Fox didn’t dream up a unified movie universe where every time a character sneezes, it fits into a cohesive plan; Marvel did. We’ve learned the hard way not every flick in this franchise is going to match the high caliber established in, say, X2.

In full, the characters.

Above all else, character is key. Marvel’s deliberate, thoughtful crafting from the ground up of its cinematic iterations is why the studio’s become a multi-billion dollar success. I’m a fan first and foremost before I put on my critical goggles (judge me for that if ye must), and if you can make me feel, if there’s cohesive development across the space of a trilogy, I’m satisfied.

Despite clunky dialogue and rushed developments, I was invested in these people. Erik had an arc. Charles had an arc. Raven had an arc (even if JLaw’s boredom with the makeup chair was painfully obvious). All three experience change that coalesces right where it should, when it should. There’s one part where I felt tears prickle (what is your dark magic, Fassbender, three for three you’ve made me cry), and for better or worse the already infamous scene of Erik revisiting Auschwitz is the fucking darkest thing you’ll see in a blockbuster all summer.

Jean and Scott and Storm even have mini-arcs! Not the most impressive, substantial ones, but it’s still hugely refreshing after the previous films failed to do them justice. I’d watch an entire movie about young, scrappy Storm stealing to survive at least twenty times, especially because she’s always been done a disservice as the lone black woman without a narrative focus created specifically for her (even in this film, the amount of time and detail paid to her journey paled in comparison to those of the other kids; totally unacceptable). This Scott is a brash, impulsive, understandably angry kid on the cusp of discovering his new role in life, and the same in reverse goes for Jean — quiet, isolated, fully aware of how powerful she could be and fearful of it. Sophie Turner was inspired casting, capturing that delicate balance between Jean’s strength and uncertainty as well as her inherent kindness. Even better, this Jean isn’t told to conceal or restrain her powers, but embrace them, and (sorta-spoiler?) plays a pivotal role in the finale. That’s the Jean Grey I’ve been waiting sixteen years to see. A (hopefully proper) Dark Phoenix film is practically a given at this point; Scott has the potential to flourish as he evolves into the group’s levelheaded, natural leader; give me an entire movie about Storm.

From a critical perspective, it’s weak on plot; from a fan’s perspective, from a character standpoint, it’s an entertaining romp and a gloriously satisfying watch. My priorities are my people— you capture the essence of the characters I love and do them justice, I’ll forgive a lot of the rest.

Am I talking too much about doing characters justice? THERE’S NO SPECIFIC REASON I AM WHY WOULD YOU SAY THAT!!!

Singer’s always given us the best onscreen X-Men. Apocalypse may be the quietest of his work, but if it’s the new-and-younger trilogy’s swan song, it goes out on a solid note. If not, X-Men still has relevant, worthy, meaty yarns to spin, especially if the more essential themes of the comics came to the forefront in future installments. Altruism, morality, loyalty, combatting and overcoming prejudice — those things always hold resonance.

There’re a lot of superheroes out there telling great stories, but as long as the X-Men can keep do their thing their way, there’s more than enough room for them. Even if it’s hollow, uncomplicated fun.

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