Thursday, June 9, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse

It’s funny—there was a time within the 16 years of this franchise where things were appearing grim, seemingly looking like we were witnessing the downfall of 20th Century Fox’s X-Men franchise.  Outspokenly, I’ll say that it was the campy X-Men III: The Last Stand (which I’d admittedly liked) that had put a few nails in the coffin, just waiting for the next installment to hammer in the rest.  Can we blame Brett Ratner?  No, I don’t think so.  How about Bryan Singer’s departure to go and direct Superman Returns?  Probably not.  Did X-Men Origins: Wolverine have something to do with it?  I’d say yes, but I have to be fair and admit that that wasn’t the problem either.  Was it all of the above?  Yes, I think that’s what it was.  All of those turns of events played a part in the murky turn the franchise took, but I’ll tell you what saved it from spiraling any further—taking the story back to the beginning in X-Men: First Class.

Introducing other mutants in the 1960s, as well as tying well-known historical events into the story, was a breath of fresh air.  While it was great to get the characters all together in the original 2000 film, it was nice to see how this all came about—how Charles and Eric became friends, how they became enemies, how Professor X first united other mutants into his School for Gifted Youngsters, how he lost the use of his legs…everything that wasn’t answered in the first set of films were answered in X-Men: First Class.  Although Hugh Jackman was only in the movie for a cameo, the movie was unique in that it was successful without having Wolverine play an integral part in the story.  At this point in the franchise, the four previous movies all featured Jackman, front and center, as the main protagonist or one of them.  So it’s safe to say that everything was turned on its head with the reimagining of the X-Men films.

Speaking of reimagining, X-Men: Days of Future Past really set that in motion, didn’t it?  It was an intelligent and logical thing to do, having the future changed in that story in order to reboot the franchise.  At the same time, the movie gave us one of the best stories in the series, continuing on the backstory of these characters to see how they had gotten to where they are.

So with X-Men: First Class being set in the 60s and X-Men: Days of Future Past being set in the 70s, of course X-Men: Apocalypse is set in the 80s (Why go off the rails with a successful theme like that?).

Going back to the first statement of this post, how the franchise appeared to be losing steam…there was the teeniest bit of wishful thinking—by me—of that happening.  A lot of other comic book fans (especially fans of Marvel Comics) would love to see the franchise go back to Marvel Studios and have them incorporate the characters into their cinematic universe, which is why I had that minuscule crumb of hope.  Sony has already agreed to share Spider-Man, Fox had lost the rights to Daredevil, Punisher might land in there somewhere, The Fantastic Four may slip away from Fox…so maybe we’ll see the X-Men meet up with The Avengers sometime in the future…who knows?  The cash-cow of that franchise, Hugh Jackman, has just announced that the next film he’s working on will be the last time he plays the character of Wolverine (although it’s thought that he may return to team up with Ryan Reynolds in a Deadpool sequel), so what will Fox do after that?  They can’t go on making X-Men movies (completely successful anyway) without him.  I’ll say that they’re in a pickle.

So, until that day comes, we’ll just have to enjoy Fox’s X-Men cinematic universe, where all the other Marvel characters don’t exist—no Spider-Man, no Hulk, no Iron Man, No Captain America—just these mutant superheroes.  But it’s not so bad.  In the meantime, let me synopsize X-Men: Apocalypse and you can judge for yourself…

The first and most powerful mutant, Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), awakens after a centuries-long slumber and takes on his Four Horsemen—Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), and Magneto (Michael Fassbender)—to destroy the world in order for the mutants to take control.  Professor Xavier (James McAvoy), with the help of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), must lead a group of young mutants to defend the Earth against this new powerful enemy.

I must say, straightaway, that this movie was quite good and enjoyable, continuing on from the teaser we’d all seen after the credits of X-Men: Days of Future Past.  Most of us have been trained now to sit through these comic book movies, waiting for an extra scene that’ll give us a clue or Easter Egg as to what’s to come in the sequel.  Sometimes it’s a clear message as we’d first seen in Iron Man, seeing Nick Fury show up to talk about The Avengers Initiative; but sometimes you need to be a lifelong comic book reader to understand, like when they showed the teaser at the end of Days of Future Past.  I have to admit, I was a bit lost until I scoured the internet to find out what that scene (a weird-looking blue guy obviously using some colossal power to build the pyramids in Egypt) meant and how it would play out.  X-Men: Apocalypse eloquently continues that after-credits stinger seamlessly and answers the question right from the get-go.

Even though Bryan Singer, along with Fox and their execs, are utilizing these new actors and actresses as they take the franchise back and through earlier timelines, this new film loses that feel of the two previous films—First Class and Days of Future Past—going right back to the feel of the very first two outings.  Now that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it just seems like Singer wants to make sure this is his baby and that he’s back on it for the long haul.

Let’s discuss the characters, with the new mutants first.

Apocalypse is the new baddie, as I’d mentioned in the synopsis.  He’s an all-powerful mutant who is unstoppable and thinks of himself as a god, able to kill anyone and everyone he sees and can give more power to any mutant he chooses.  Now this is how writers can trap themselves, because I’d noticed that, yes, he kills a lot of people—some in very horrible, yet, cool ways—with simply a thought to do whatever.  But why is it that he doesn’t use such powers when he can?  Like, say for instance, when he comes across the mutants as they stand up to him…why doesn’t he tear them apart with a simple thought?  But I do like some of the powers he uses, like when he changes the molecular composition of rock to liquid form and have it swallow someone up, changing it back to rock.  Sometimes he uses that power to put someone in, head first, so they’re obviously going to die a horrible death, suffocating inside a rock.  Overall, I just felt he was a bit inconsistent as the main heavy.

Psylocke is a character we haven’t seen before within the films of the franchise and she looked to be pulled right out of the pages of the comic books.  Her throwback outfit kept my attention—in more ways than one—and Olivia Munn’s portrayal was impressive.  Not being too familiar with the X-Men comic book run, I hadn’t really heard of the character, but the simplistic representation of how she’s able to form some sort of lightsaberish sword from her hand was pretty awesome.  I’m looking forward to seeing this character in further X-Men films.

The character of Jubilee (Lana Condor) is featured throughout this movie, almost as a background character, but never establishing what her powers are.  In fact, I had to go online to look up what they actually are and they’re actually pretty cool.  I guess she’s able to generate bright bursts of energy from her hands, mentally controlling them to strike out at varying levels of power.  Why Bryan Singer chose not to depict that in the movie and elected, instead, to just present her as a background character seemed a bit off.  Hopefully we get to see the character’s full potential in later films.

Now, for the characters that we’ve seen before as adults, but showcased here as younger versions, were rather notable.

Sophie Turner plays the younger version of Jean Grey and I really can’t fault her performance because she played the part very well.  However, the casting of the actress had me a bit troubled.  As the scene played out where we first meet her in this film, I had no idea who she was.  Watching this strawberry redhead with blue-green eyes walk into the scene, I’d just thought she was some new mutant we haven’t seen before.  Knowing that Famke Janssen played the adult Jean Grey in the original three films (as well as a cameo in Days of Future Past), I was familiar with her features, namely the brown eyes.  It just takes me out of the movie a bit when the filmmakers are trying to convey to the audience that this young girl is the same character.  I don’t know…maybe I’m a bit picky in that regard.  But her character is developed quite well at the beginning and radiantly (literally) at the climax. 

Although there was a younger version of Scott Summers in the ill-begotten X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the origin of the character was given to us a little better and more logically in this film.  I have noticed the actor in this film, Tye Sheridan, in a few other movies before seeing him here.  He had played a wonderful part in a small indie film, Joe, with Nicolas Cage and I knew this kid was going places.  He had a lot of heart playing the young Cyclops here and it was very believable he’d grow to be the confident older version we’d seen in the original films.  Sheridan filled Marsden’s shoes convincingly and the franchise is in good hands with this young man.

One big character in the X-Men comics, and one who’d made a big splash in the film franchise when he made his debut in X2, is the character of Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler.  Though Alan Cumming had done a terrific job bringing the mutant to life—and I don’t know why he hadn’t come back for the Last Stand sequel (that was a HUGE letdown, Fox), Kodi Smit-McPhee was equally as impressive as the adolescent version of the character here in X-Men: Apocalypse.  Able to nail down the German accent and mannerisms already established, Smit-McPhee seemed a little wasted here and I wish they would’ve taken advantage of him more in the story.  He did have a few amusing stolen scenes (like smiling for the ID photo), but for the most part, he’d just remained a background mutant.

A big upgrade to the character of Ororo Munroe/Storm came from the performance of Alexandria Shipp as she performed the younger version of the character we associate so well as being played by Halle Berry.  Though Berry gave it the best she could with the material she had to work with, Shipp tripled that effort with adapting the look the character has in the comics and working well in the situations she was given.  With the original set of movies, Berry was criticized for trying to keep up a weird accent in the first film and losing it in the following films.  However, Alexandria Shipp presented her accent perfectly and seemed to use the power of Storm to great effect.  She seemed a lot more useful to the story given here, more so than during every one of the other movies Berry had been featured in.

James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender return to form powerfully, with Fassbender giving us a little more depth with Magneto than we’d ever seen before.  As with the First Class film, his character is driven because of similar circumstances and he really hammers it home here.  Yet, during some of the story, especially within the third act, he seemed useless and it’s questionable as to what he’s doing exactly in some scenes.  I don’t think it gives much away, but during a good portion of the climax, he spends a lot of time floating within a sphere of metal debris, not saying or doing much, but seemingly meditating as he waits for the battle to conclude.

Also returning is Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult as Mystique and Beast respectively.  I don’t know what to think about the saga of Mystique, as we all know she’ll become this weird villain that sticks to Magneto’s side, yet in films leading up to this one, she kind of goes back and forth.  In First Class, it seemed she was good until she decided to side with Magneto at the end of the film.  When it came to Days of Future Past, she appeared to be the baddie throughout the movie until she developed a conscience when it ended.  Now, she’s back to being the goodie-goodie mutant, not seeming as if she’ll ever turn bad.  Some people have expressed an interest in having a Mystique standalone movie, but I think that’d be boring…if she wasn’t in this movie, I wouldn’t have missed her.

Alex Summers/Havoc (Lucas Till) is back to introduce his little brother to the group and remains a sidekick to Professor X throughout the beginning of this film, not doing much else until a pivotal part of the movie…there’s not much more I can say about Till’s performance.  Maybe we can really see his range in the film, Monster Truck, when it’s released.

Another rebooted character, Angel, is played by Ben Hardy and he doesn’t do much but play second (or third or fourth) fiddle to Oscar Isaac’s Apocalypse.  Don’t get me wrong, he’s a pretty cool character, especially after getting his armor from the main villain, but he just remains a contextual character with a few battle scenes here and there.  Just like Psylocke, however, I hope to see more of him in future films.

I guess that just leaves the standout of the movie, just as he had been in Days of Future Past—Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters).  Although the scene he’s featured in here in this film is a lot like the one in the previous film, it’s both powerful and comedic as he saves the day.  But his interactions with the other mutants is wonderful and with quite a bit of chemistry as he seems to mesh with the other characters brilliantly.  Peters has very good comic timing and adds a lot to this film.

So, the direction, as I’d mentioned, is not bad.  Bryan Singer is a very good director, establishing himself as a go-to man for superhero films such as this.  Though he’d missed the mark when trying his hand in the Superman franchise, I’d hazard a guess it was not all his misdoings.  He seems to be trying to right all the wrongs fans have complained about since he’d started his career within the X-Men series, so I really can’t fault him for that, nor can I say he’s not a good director.  However, it was nice to see a fresh take in the X-Men mythos when Matthew Vaughn took over the directing reigns when he had helmed First Class which seemed to help out Singer when it overlapped into Days of Future Past.  I’d say if Fox wants to save the Fantastic Four franchise and not let Marvel have the rights back, they should probably let Bryan Singer take over and direct (or produce) a reboot.

The special effects, at times, were a bit extreme and didn’t seem realistic, sometimes going balls-out with too much CGI.  Most of the time, however, it looked awesome and blended well with the actors during a lot of the action scenes.  The scenes, especially, during Quicksilver’s heroics at the mansion were spectacular and really gave the audience an idea as to how fast this character can take his powers.  All in all, the effects have improved throughout these films.

If there’s a complaint that I could make, it’s that the third act seems to play out too easily, that the battle concludes without a hitch.  Also, and I don’t think this spoils anything if you’ve seen the final trailer to this film, the cameo by Hugh Jackman as Wolverine seemed unneeded.  Bryan Singer went on the record to say that the scene is pivotal to all the X-Men films and I really don’t see what he’s talking about.  It seemed like a cheap way to get Wolverine fans excited as a way to get more tickets sold for the movie.  Don’t get me wrong…the scene was cool and I loved it, but don’t tell me there was something essential about that cameo, Singer.

So, my final “bit” on X-Men: Apocalypse?

Throughout the X-Men canon of films, there have been ups and downs, whether it was a standalone movie or one of the sequels.  What we have here is one of the ups, definitely, but there have been better ones in the inventory of X-Men flicks.  Days of Future Past has set the bar so high, I don’t know if Fox could ever get better than that…it’s possible, but I don’t see it.  Apocalypse is certainly up there in entertainment and I look forward to whatever they do next.  I wouldn’t mind seeing this one again and I highly recommend it.  Now…bring on WOLVERINE 3!!! 

As a post script, and it goes without saying, but there’s an after-credits scene.  As a forewarning, you have to be an X-Men comic book fan to understand it.  As passionate as I am about comic books, this was something I knew nothing about until I researched it online when returning home.  So don’t expect a Hugh Jackman scene or something so easily understandable…it’s a scene for the diehards and it sounds big as it seems to be setting up a bigger villain for the next movie.