Saturday, May 28, 2016

'X-Men: Apocalypse' is unsatisfying: Or how Bryan Singer lost his mutant groove

"X-Men: The Last Stand" no longer has to worry about being the worst movie in the "X-Men" film franchise.

That distinction now clearly belongs to "X-Men: Apocalypse." As Jean Grey says in the film upon seeing "Return of the Jedi": "At least we can agree the third one is always the worst one." It's the conventional wisdom of critics and fans -- and it's certainly appropriate and true with the last of the "X-Men: First Class" trilogy.

That's not to say "Apocalypse" is without its highlights.

Sophie Turner as Grey is one of them.

Finally, we get to see the talented mutant show off the scope of her powers instead of being held in check as the older version of Grey was in the first trilogy. (Spoiler alert!) Her Phoenix moment to help defeat Apocalypse (a hardly recognizable Oscar Isaac - better known as gutsy, likable hero pilot Poe Dameron from "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," who goes way too big playing the one-dimensional baddie) is the greatest visual moment in the entire series (End spoiler)

Turner unfortunately lets her British accent slip occasionally.

"X-Men: Apocalypse" collage courtesy of
Another triumph is Kodi Smit-McPhee as the perpetually likable Nightcrawler. Not only does McPhee make Kurt Wagner every bit as interesting as he is in the comics, the special effects and makeup team did a super job with the blue-skinned teleporter's skin and hair. On the down side, the script depends a bit too heavily on Nightcrawler "bamf-ing" he and his fellow X-Men from one place to another, so much so it becomes a plot device.

Hugh Jackman's inevitable, extended cameo is a treat. It's a pleasure to see Wolverine (simply called Weapon X here) truly unleash his beserker rage. Singer makes a great decision to show Logan not just tearing guards, but the very fear he creates when he is out of his cage.

(Another spoiler!) When Grey gives Wolverine the gift of part of his past during the mind-meld, it's a nice moment which connects the characters on an emotional level. Sure, it's a beauty-calming-the-beast cliché, but it also somewhat foreshadows Wolverine's infatuation with Grey later. (End spoiler)

The most interesting Singer and the writers make is putting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) in the uncomfortable position of being seen by Professor Charles Xavier's young students as a hero. This rock-god status hearkens back to how Mystique handles Magneto at the end of "X-Men: Days of Future Past," which is referenced as a turning point in the history of mutants. It
seems the drive of "Apocalypse" is to redeem Mystique or at least decidedly put the shapeshifter on the side of angels.

That being the case, that would make it natural for Lawrence to leave the franchise -- and her role -- on top.

But her heart isn't into it; Lawrence plays Mystique as if she's going through the motions. Was she doing this just for the paycheck and fulfill her three-film contract? It's obvious Lawrence had it written into her "Apocalypse" contract to be in the Mystique bodysuit/body paint as little as possible. That's cemented by the fact that she does very little shapeshifting.

This presumed redemption of Mystique from her philosophical gray area in "Days of Future Past" is problematic when seen through the lens of the rest of the franchise. How does she become Magneto's right-hand woman in the original trilogy when it's clear in the closing scene of "Apocalypse" that Xavier has put her in charge of training the new X-Men?

By this film, it's obvious the "First Class" trilogy is as much Mystique and Magneto's stories as it is about how Xavier groomed his students to be better people and control their mutant talents. The problem is none of the three characters seem essential to "Apocalypse" and with Lawrence's heart into giving it her all as Mystique, the film suffers.

Equally tough is the script's handling of Magneto.

Actor Michael Fassbender gives another nuanced performance as the always complex Erik Lehnsherr. He and Grey use their collective powers to rebuild Xavier's mansion. (And isn't the X-Mansion becoming like the U.S.S. Enterprise in the "Star Trek" films in that it gets trashed pretty regularly?) Magneto just can't quite commit to working on the side of angels or have the kind of hope James MacAvoy's Xavier does for human-mutant relations. Just as in the better written X-Men comics, Magneto isn't purely evil, but he can't/won't side with his "old friend" Xavier on a regular basis, but his reasoning is decidedly muddy.

What also would be a highlight -- the quirky-cool Quicksilver -- has become a cliché.

The speedster once again saves the day (well, almost! R.I.P. Havok aka Alex Summers). As in "First Class," the slow-motion sequence featuring Quicksilver is accompanied by a period pop-rock piece, the killer Eurythmics hit "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," but there's a been-there, done-that feel to it. And knowing just how fast Peter Maximoff is, it cheapens Summers' already pointless death.

Quicksilver is fun in his extended cameo in "Days." Evan Peters has much more screen time this around, but aside from his bombshell to Mystique that his mom and Magneto "did it" (i.e. Quicksilver is Magneto's son), Quicksilver doesn't bring the fun in what's a very heavy film.

In fact, "Apocalypse" doesn't bring nearly enough fun. It takes itself much too seriously -- not quite to the extent of "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" -- but my argument remains the same. By being so serious-minded, a few of the lines that should be funny feel forced. "Apocalypse" is operatic in scope -- especially with the world-destroying mindset of the terribly uninteresting villain -- and in turn, is hard to take seriously.

Almost as pointless as Havok's death is the gorgeous Olivia Munn as Psylocke. She has a half-dozen lines -- possibly less. Fans who had been looking forward to the popular character making her big-screen debut surely will be disappointed. Psylocke is used only to round out Apocalypse's Four Horsemen (Angel, Storm and Magneto being the others) -- and oh yeah, to look good while kicking ass.

"Apocalypse" is more of a direct sequel to "First Class" than "Days of Future Past." Singer uses so many flashbacks from Matthew Vaughn's film it's as if Singer is trying to convince us he made "First Class."

The stakes are high in this film, but ridiculously so. If this dedicated comic-book fan who lives this movie genre can't buy into it, how can Team Singer/Team/"X-Men" expect most audience members? Taking 45 minutes for the Apocalypse/Mystique-Nightcrawler/Scott Summers-Grey/Quicksilver storylines to gel doesn't help matters.

Grade: C

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