Thursday, May 26, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse

I promise, at some point I'll go back to writing about things that aren't superheroes.  Though that would require Hollywood to stop blasting superhero stories at us in such close succession (I haven't even written anything about the second season of Daredevil, though you can get a sense of the existential despair it plunged me into from the thread starting at this tweet).  Coming at the end of that barrage, it's perhaps understandable that the third (or sixth, or eighth) X-Men movie should be met with a muted, not to say exhausted, response.  And some of the reviews have gone further and been downright brutal.  I'm here to say that both of these reactions are unearned.  X-Men: Apocalypse is by no means a great movie, and it has some serious problems.  But I still found myself enjoying it a great deal more than any other work in this genre since Deadpool.  Perhaps this is simply the relief of a superhero story that is not about grim-faced men taking themselves very seriously, and which instead tells an unabashedly silly story in a totally committed way.  Or it might be because alongside the flaws, there are also things to praise in X-Men: Apocalypse, things that hardly any other superhero works are doing right now.

If there's a core flaw to X-Men: Apocalypse, it is that what it really wants to be is a six-part miniseries.  You can even see the places where the chapter breaks would have gone, complete with intermediate climaxes leading up to a world-destroying conflict with the villain Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac, largely wasted on a nondescript character covered with the kind of makeup that forestalls any attempt at acting), who wants to kill off most of humanity so that the survivors can rebuild, stronger than ever.  Apocalypse eventually comes to seem like the highlights version of its own story--just the big, climactic moments; hardly any of the connective tissue.  As flaws go, however, this one is a lot less disruptive to the viewers' enjoyment than, say, the seemingly endless let's-get-the-band-together scenes in the first act of Avengers.  It's easy to sense the movie that Apocalypse is trying to be, and as a result the actual product is rushed, but not incoherent.

On the other hand, Apocalypse's compressed, just-the-highlights approach also means that most of its characters are underserved.  The X-Men films have always been characterized by a wide ensemble, and have tended to handle it more elegantly than the comparable Avengers movies (or even Civil War).  But the sheer weight of events--mostly explosive ones--that happen in Apocalypse means that a lot of its cast gets lost in the shuffle.  This is particularly true of the four disciples that Apocalypse gathers to help in his world-destroying plan.  Angel (Ben Hardy) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn) are there to act as warm bodies in fight scenes, and are otherwise completely wasted.  Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is coasting off the previous two films' character development, but even so his presence by Apocalypse's side feels barely-justified.  Worst of all is Storm, who has a kickass introduction and is played to perfection by newcomer Alexandra Shipp, but who the film then pretty much forgets about--a particular problem since Storm is, of course, a major good guy in the X-Men universe, and her turnaround in Apocalypse thus deserved a lot more screen-time than it gets.

Other characters, however, get better handling.  Existing good guys like Charles Xavier, Beast, and Havoc get just enough screen time to establish their rapport and the community they've built at Xavier's school, but the film really belongs to Mystique.  Jennifer Lawrence--whose naked and blue time the film reduces to a bare minimum--is predictably wonderful as a woman struggling with a painful past and crushed hopes.  Her growing realization that she's become a heroic figure within the mutant community, and slow acceptance of a leadership role in it, are one of the most gratifying choices made by the rebooted X-Men movies.  Similarly rewarding is the film's new version of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), a problematic character whose handling in the original X-Men trilogy revolved mostly around her fear of her powers, and Wolverine's unrequited love for her.  Turner's version is still saddled with a character whose only possible development is into a force that must be violently stopped (usually by men), but in this movie, at least, she plays Jean as someone who is learning to understand, control, and use her powers.  In the middle part of the movie, it's Jean who drives the action, using her powers to lead the juvenile members of the X-Men on a mission to save Xavier and Mystique.  And where previous X-Men movies might have depicted Jean unleashing the full force of her abilities on Apocalypse as a surrender to a force she can't control, in this movie it's painted as a choice, an embrace of power that makes Jean one of the X-Men team's foremost members.

Part of the reason why Apocalypse can get away with being so rushed, so compressed in its storytelling, is that the climaxes that it delivers every time Apocalypse reveals the full scope of his powers are exhilarating and beautifully executed.  Apocalypse isn't a very interesting villain, but the sheer scope of his powers means that he is still scary.  In one scene, he unleashes all of the Earth's stockpile of nuclear weapons, and you keep expecting it to turn out to be a dream, or for Xavier, Magneto, or Jean to stop it, until you finally realize that no, this is really happening.  I can't remember the last time that an action set-piece in a superhero movie had the power to shock me in the way that this sequence did.

But of course, none of this would work if Apocalypse didn't have such a firm handle on its action components.  I was never a huge fan of Bryan Singer's first two X-Men movies, but there's no denying that with his return to superhero filmmaking he demonstrates just why he was the one who made this genre of movies viable.  The action scenes in X-Men: Apocalypse put to shame just about every other attempt in this genre in the last ten years, and simultaneously bring home how cluttered, busy, and overwhelming every other superpowered free-for-all on our screens has been.  (Someone will no doubt bring up the Russo brothers, but it's important to note that their forte has been one-on-one fights, mostly between people without extravagant powers.  When it comes to city-destroying mayhem, the best that the MCU has to offer is Joss Whedon's work in the Avengers movies, and, well.)  It is, for example, totally unsurprising that the film tries to top the "Time in a Bottle" sequence from X-Men: Days of Future Past, in which Quicksilver (Evan Peters) zips around merrily, solving everyone's problems in his own good time.  But what's amazing is that Apocalypse actually succeeds at this, effortlessly upping the stakes and bringing across the true extent of Quicksilver's powers, while still stressing his fundamental silliness.

There are, however, some problems with this movie that its stunning set-pieces can't overcome.  Unlike X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past, Apocalypse is not a very political movie, which means that it doesn't delve into the question of mutants' place in the world, and how they interact with human society.  For the most part, this is a function of its story and villain--Apocalypse doesn't care about human vs. mutant disputes, and is happy to deal out death equally to both groups, so long as a select few, whom he sees as the elite, survive.  And while it is, as I said above, a little refreshing to have a superhero story that doesn't try to engage with real-world political issues (which it will inevitably do poorly) but instead just gets to the business of a bunch of good guys fighting a bunch of bad guys with the fate of the world hanging in the balance, the complete failure to engage with any political issues contributes to the sense that Apocalypse underserves huge swathes of its story and cast.  Storm, for example, is introduced as a punk-ish thief in Cairo, with an Arabic-language magazine cover featuring Mystique hanging on her wall.  There's an opportunity here to connect to Arab nationalism, to the frustrations and resentments of the third world with the systems that have kept it poor and exploited, and to the way that revolutionary figures can have cross-cultural appeal.  But the film's neglect of Storm after these opening scenes means that any chance at a political subtext is lost.

This is particularly unfortunate because Storm is one of only three people of color in this movie (the others are Psylocke, and Jubilee, played by Lana Condor, who gets only a few lines and doesn't participate at all in the super-heroics).  The lack of focus on her, as well as the fact that the staff at Xavier's school seems to be made up entirely of white men (we see some female teachers in background shots, but none of them even get to speak), reinforces the sense that the mutant problem, in the world of X-Men: Apocalypse, is one that afflicts mostly white, middle class Americans.  That certainly seems to be the thrust of the plotline that introduces Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), who arrives at the school shortly before the film's events kick into gear, and seems designed as its point of view character.  But though unobjectionable, Scott Summers fades into the background when Jean Grey and Mystique get to interact with one another, and it would have only done the film good if there had been similar interactions between Mystique and Storm.

If there's one problem that really comes close to scuttling X-Men: Apocalypse for me, it is the film's handling of Magneto.  In my past writing about the X-Men movies, and particularly the rebooted universe beginning with X-Men: First Class, I've been pretty sympathetic to this multifaceted villain, and since then I think I've only gotten more entrenched in that position (it doesn't help that Xavier's approach just gets less tenable the more you think about it; as Steven Attewell points out in some recent discussions in his People's History of the Marvel Universe series, it's increasingly disturbing that an organization nominally devoted to securing mutant rights spends so much of its time fighting other mutants).  But Apocalypse takes Magneto beyond the pale, just at the point where it clearly believes that it is returning him to the fold.  The film's obvious intent with Magneto is to tell a story in which he experiences a horrific loss, responds by giving in to violence and anger, and is then brought back to his senses by the reminder that he has people who care about him and believe in his goodness.  The problem with this is, first, that the execution is terrible--it's here that Apocalypse's rushed, compressed nature works most powerfully against the film's intended effect.  The minute we meet Magneto's saintly wife and daughter, it's obvious that they're going to be killed off in order to provide him with angst, and their characterization is so nondescript that it's virtually impossible for us to empathize with his grief and anger over their loss.

More importantly, there is the simple fact that there are only so many times a person can decide their own suffering matters more than the survival of the human race, before that stops being an excusable reaction to trauma, and becomes a reflection of their shitty personality.  Despite what Charles and Raven keep telling him (and us), the Magneto in X-Men: Apocalyse does not, in fact, seem to have any good in him.  On the contrary, he seems to be a selfish, self-absorbed person, whose reaction to pain and anger is to start murdering people left and right, and then to happily act as a key component in Apocalypse's plan to kill billions of people.  It's downright galling that his last-minute decision not to do so is presented by the film as a meaningful turn to the light, with newscaster voiceovers at the end of the movie informing us that he is now being hailed as a hero--for stopping the calamity that he himself caused.

(On a personal note, I find Apocalypse's handling of Magneto particularly offensive because this version of the character has made so much of the fact that he is a Holocaust survivor.  As it happens, there have been survivors who lost their entire families to the Nazis, rebuilt their lives after the war, and then lost their families again.  The film's attempts to justify and excuse Magneto's murderous reaction to such a trauma are an affront to these real survivors' resilience and enduring humanity in choosing not to do the same.  That Apocalypse's seduction of Magneto to his ethos of destruction and death culminates in a visit to Auschwitz only makes the film's use of the Holocaust more risible.)

The only positive note in Apocalypse's handling of Magneto is the way the film uses Quicksilver, who enters the story knowing that Magneto is his father and eager to connect with him.  In the film's climactic scene, Mystique and Quicksilver confront Magneto and try to convince him that he still has something to live for.  While Mystique appeals to Erik's humanity, Peter is obviously nonplussed by the monster that his father has become.  When questioned, and given the opportunity to declare himself as Magneto's son (which, unbeknownst to him but obvious to us, would restore to Erik something of what he lost with the deaths of his family), Peter instead says obliquely "I'm here for my family."  At the end of the movie, he announces that he might tell Erik the truth some day, but not yet.  Aside from being a clever character note--surely any reasonable person would balk at letting Erik Lehnsherr claim them as family--it's also a moment of judgment against Magneto in a film that doesn't contain nearly enough of them, and a thin thread to cling to for those of us who refuse to see him as a redeemed figure.

It's in talking about moments like this one that I come closest to articulating why I enjoyed X-Men: Apocalypse so much more than objectively better films like Civil War, and despite the fact that it has so many glaring flaws.  When Quicksilver chooses not to acknowledge his relationship to Magneto, he reminds us that he has an inner life and a story of his own, and that this is true of so many (though, unfortunately, not all, and not always the most compelling) of the series's characters.  Taken together, they create a sense of community, of family, that none of the other superhero series currently running have managed.  Even the MCU, despite its best efforts, always feels more comfortable in its standalone movies, and has yet to convincingly argue that its characters have real, lasting relationships, or that they've formed a community.

Perhaps another way of putting it is that the X-Men films--and particularly the rebooted, post-First Class films--know what their story is about in a way that the MCU and the Justice League movies don't.  Where just about every other superhero franchise is still stuck rehashing 9/11 and the war on terror, the X-Men movies are creating their own world, and with it their own identity.  What they do with this world is rarely as interesting or as comprehensive as I would like (and the mutant metaphor remains a millstone around this story's neck, especially since the movies are so resistant to letting people of color take center stage).  But after two years of superhero stories struggling to root themselves in our politics and failing miserably, it's honestly a relief to return to a universe that is complete in itself.  X-Men: Apocalypse is flawed in many ways, but it wears those flaws more lightly than many other, better films' accomplishments.  It isn't trying to prove to us that it's worth engaging with.  It's simply telling a story, and inviting us to come along.

6 comments:

wreichard said...

Well said. Saw this yesterday and agree pretty much all the way around.

Apocalypse had great potential as a villain. After the fact, I thought maybe he was meant to be Jungian shadow figure of a sort, the embodiment of each of our heroes' darker natures. But he was left to be nebulous because too much was jammed in. I didn't even realize it was Oscar Isaac till I saw the credits.

Still, the other elements more than made up for it, even it it wasn't the best of the series. I particularly liked how cognizant the story was of the arcs coming in from and heading out to other movies; this made it feel like a very solid episode.

Crabbit Minger said...

X Men Apocalypse has the same problem as Batman V Superman, The Hobbit trilogy, Star Trek Intro Darkness, Age of Ultron, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Steven Moffatt’s Doctor Who and to a lesser extent The Force Awakens. It puts fanservice and world building above just telling a decent story. The entire Alkali Lake scene derails the film for a good 20 minutes just so they can gratuitously reboot Wolverine’s origins. Any emotional impact from Alex’s death is robbed by the director’s choice to instead focus on a fan pleasing retread of Quicksilver’s slow motion antics. While these scenes are somewhat entertaining in their own right they don’t really gel into a cohesive experience.

The movie also suffers from a chronic lack of focus. Days of Future Past was able to get away with its continuity porn approach as it had a very tight focus on its leads, Charles, Erik, Raven and to a lesser extent Wolverine. Apocalypse on the other hand never really develops a set of concrete protagonists, leap frogging awkwardly from Charles, Jean, Scott, Mystique and never really anchoring itself around a clear lead. Consequently its story beats and character arcs never pay off in a satisfying way. While seeing Jean face her fears and unleash her full power on Apocalypse was pretty badass it still fell short as her insecurities had only been established in one scene in the first act and by the climax the movie had been so occupied with stuffing in as many characters as possible that I’d forgotten all about it.

Apocalypse also indulges in another aggravating trend that’s been popping up in superhero films lately, namely that superpowerd characters can get away with whatever the Hell they like as long as they end up siding with the heroes. In the Avengers Wanda gets away with all her past crimes purely by grace of palling around with the heroes. The original Avengers film and the deleted scenes of The Winter Soldier even imply Natasha burned down a kid’s hospital during her stint as a mercenary. But just like Erik here the filmmakers see no problem with them getting off scot free.

Not only does this show a lapse in their ethical judgement but also says some pretty bad things about Charles and Raven, as they’re willing to let an unstable mass murderer roam free simply because he’s a friend. Part of me even fears they may be indulging him purely because he’s another Mutant in which case they’re no better than all the Protestant Scottish families who sheltered UVF terrorists from the law during the Troubles.

Chris said...

"Unlike X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past, Apocalypse is not a very political movie, which means that it doesn't delve into the question of mutants' place in the world, and how they interact with human society"

I had heard this and thought it was kind of a shame... and also wondered if the simple fact of moving into the eighties meant politics were now too controversial to address meaningfully. "Civil rights (with mutants!) are good and people who were against them are bad!" in the sixties and "Vietnam was terrible and Nixon and his henchmen were bad!" in the seventies aren't terribly controversial things to say nowadays. Moving into the eighties means you'd be on to the era of things like Reaganism and the religious right and other things that too many people today identify with, and that's a lot touchier than they might be willing to address. (More's the pity).

"More importantly, there is the simple fact that there are only so many times a person can decide their own suffering matters more than the survival of the human race, before that stops being an excusable reaction to trauma, and becomes a reflection of their shitty personality"

You said something like this about Tony Stark in the comments a couple threads back. I was watching a couple of Marvel movies again over the weekend, and your comment popped back into my head when I got to this part:

"'Oh, boo hoo! My wife and children are dead!' ... SO WHAT it's mean? We all got dead people! It doesn't give you the right to get everybody else killed along the way!"

One of the simplest, best (and most badly needed) moral statements in the MCU to date came from the silliest character one of their silliest movies (I mean that in a good way). You go, Rocket. Can I introduce you to some people back on Earth...?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

wreichard:

Yes on your point about character arcs - stuff like Mystique's growth or her and Beast's never-to-be romance. It's something that the MCU films haven't managed, for reasons that have never been entirely clear to me - their characters and actors are just as good, if not better, but they struggle with a sense of being part of a continuing story.

CM:

I ended up enjoying the movie more than you, partly because the things it ended up focusing on - chiefly Mystique and Jean - felt satisfying to me. I don't disagree that a lot of this comes down to fanservice - Mystique would probably not be as prominent a character as she is if she weren't played by a superstar, and of course you're absolutely right about the Wolverine scene. But as I write in my review, it feels as if the backbone of this series is strong enough to withstand that - Mystique, for example, is a good enough character that she works as the central support of the film, even as Charles is sidelined.

I definitely agree about the problem of ignoring popular characters' crimes because they're popular, though I think XMA's problem here is more that what it does with Magneto is done so badly. There were ways to subject him to trauma that might make him sympathetic to Apocalypse's attitude without turning him into a monster, and without then turning around and insisting that he is still redeemable.

Chris:

You'd think the early eighties with their intensification of the Cold War and growing economic dissolution in the USSR would be a very easy setting to tell an X-Men story in, but that's just not anything the film is interested in. I would actually say that the 90s, when the next movie is meant to be set, would be tougher to get a handle on politically, though the sense I got from XMA is that next time around we'll be doing the Dark Phoenix story. So perhaps we're done with political X-Men movies just in general.

Rocket's line: what gets me is how inconsistent this approach is. Some people get a big "so what?" Some people get treated like woobies (it drove me crazy that Daredevil S2 did this to Frank Castle, who was bloodthirsty psychopath). And some people get treated like heroes no matter how badly they screw up and how many people they kill.

Chris said...

Well, once you're in the nineties, you're getting so close to the original trilogy's time frame that I'm not sure what there is to do other than set it up.

Yeah, it's definitely inconsistent - I'll leave my Punisher rage at the door, should you decide to write a Daredevil Season 2 review as well. The reason the Rocket line jumped out at me was that it was actually directed at a protagonist, even if it's not the lead protagonist. That makes it different from, say, Jessica Jones lecturing Kilgrave or a crazy mutantphobe about the same (it's always easy to be judgmental when it's towards the villain of the narrative).

Retlawyen said...

I've always felt like there is a Magneto sized hole in the X-men film franchise. That is, Magneto as originally presented in comics. A Mutant Supremacist. A simple villain. POV is that humans are inferior, wipe em all out as nature intends.

But if we emphasize that Magneto is a Holocaust survivor, then mutants = jewish folks, and the idea that they are going to wipe out all the other humans is obviously not a story anyone is interested in telling. So Magneto becomes this weird grey figure. He doesn't want coexistence, repeatedly telling Charles that that can't work, but what does he want? He's the Malcolm X in this metaphor, yeah? What's the redeemed version of Magneto's plan?

And this keeps coming up. X1, make all humans mutants. X2: Kill all humans. X3...I honestly forget, but then in the time travel one he's basically just protecting his own and they make him a villain. Like, is this the same guy as in X2, who wanted to use Xavier and Cerebro to kill billions? Cuz THAT guy is a villain. Protecting yourself from folks shooting at you...who remind you that they are'just following orders'... we can't really equate those, right? That scene is there to make us think grey-neto has a point?

So here comes Apocalypse, making mostly Magneto's original argument. I mean, he couches it as "strong > weak", but very clearly the strong are going to be mutants. He's just a villain, and I think it makes the movie so much better. There is no last minute attempt to redeem him. His viewpoint is simple to understand, and thoroughly refuted by the good guys. They fight him. He is stronger than any of them, but by working together they beat him. Roll credits.

And throughout this Magneto skulks around. No way around it, this new guy has stolen his lines. This is the villain he can't be allowed to be (since we aren't going to let a Holocaust survivor be evil), and he can't exactly line up with Xavier on team civilization. He teeters between the two, and as you point out, it messes his character up badly. He kills everyone in a coastal city on earth at the climax of this movie, right? Or at least the ones near the water...or in buildings, or in boats, or on bridges...kills thousands, yeah? But he is palling around with our protags there at the end? It is character assassination of the worst sort. Everyone involved is acting wildly inhuman.

Ironically it gives Stryker and his ilk a valid point. If a mutant can kill thousands, as part of an attempt to kill billions, and the 'respectable' part of the community are cool with that. Then... Like, I'm trying to figure out the film's pov on this, and there's no way that it isn't dreadful.

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