19 May 2016

Screen Time: X-MEN: APOCALYPSE

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE
Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Oscar Isaac, Rose Byrne, Evan Peters, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Olivia Munn
Director: Bryan Singer
Runtime: 144 minutes
Certificate: 12A
Release Date: 18th May 2016 (UK) / 27th May 2016 (US)


Stewart R: It felt like 2014 was a make or break year for 20th Century Fox and their stewardship of Marvel's mutants; though championing the transition of superheroes from page to screen back in 2000 with Singer's X-Men, the studio had been forced to hit the reset button following Brett Ratner's X-Men: The Last Stand (a film that still remains one of the highest grossing in the series) and went retro with Matthew Vaughan's '60s set X-Men: First Class. That film was well received for the most part critically, but failed to bring in the big dollars at the box office at a time when Marvel themselves were escalating their game dramatically. Roping Singer back to the fold along with the collective casts from both cinematic iterations of the X-Men franchise and one of the most famed storylines from the source material produced, X-Men: Days of Future Past, a film that finally reaped a box office windfall, solidified the 'soft reset' of plots with an exciting time travel story and put the X-franchise in a very promising position indeed.

Following the series standard of decade-hopping windows gifting a view into the world of Charles Xavier and his mutant companions, X-Men: Apocalypse transitions things to the 1980s where the Westchester school enjoys a time of relative peace. Magneto remains on the run, but has found refuge and solitude after his dramatic threatening of the American Government, while Raven travels the globe, saving mutants from the clutches of humans who would exploit them. Meanwhile, something old and powerful stirs in Egypt that could change the world forever...

The jump to the 1980s and introduction of one of the most infamous X-villains, creatively birthed in that very same decade, makes a lot of sense in principle; the stylistic trappings of the garish '80s would maintain the chronological visual evolution of the series while Apocalypse represents a threat not just to mutantkind, but the planet as a whole at a time where the X-Men are just a faded idea, the original team are scattered while the world remains fearful and suspicious of homo superior as a species. What materialises on the screen however, is a bumpy romp that simultaneously hits the 'fun' and 'fan service' buttons while forgetting many interesting elements the previous two films played with and once again continuously plucks the Charles/Erik string without producing any new sounds.

Kicking off in ancient Egypt, we're introduced to Isaac's En Sabah Nur as his redefined origin and powers - no Celestial technology here sadly, damn those pesky rights issues - are captured in a glorious set-piece complete with treachery and Horsemen acolytes that leads into yet another 20th Century Fox clichéd tunnel-coaster ride title sequence (please stop now!). From there Singer bounces around the large cast putting events in place to call them to action in one form or other once Apocalypse's true intentions become clear and the clock begins ticking.
And what a cast it is! Not only does Singer have to introduce us to Apocalypse's new Horsemen, but also a slew of new students whom we've previously seen as older versions of themselves and now meet in teenage form. The students get the better end of things with Turner's Jean Grey and Sheridan's Scott Summers getting at least some moments of definition as they both try to deal with powers that dance upon the edge of control in a school for mutants that even struggles to accept their unique abilities. We even see the odd glimpse at their relationship to come, but the demands of the bulbous script and the runtime prevent this promise from being delved into further. They're lucky in some respects as Psylocke, Storm, Angel and even comedic relief Nightcrawler get next to no true definition or development outside of being a set-piece/CGI tool or one-liner in waiting.

The returning members fair a little better, but not in an even manner. McAvoy's Xavier comes across as a little too naive and bumbling early on for a man who's lived through the events of the past two films, while Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg pull Fassbender's Magneto over the hot, emotional coals of loss not once, but twice, to needlessly remind us how fate supposedly hates him and he has no choice but to lash out at the world. Fassbender gives the threadbare, early portion of the script he's provided with his all to his credit and Magneto's story just needed one or two beats more in the first act to really hit the mark rather than feel rushed as it does. After that though, he's simply appearing for his powers alone and to stand in awkward poses with the other Horsemen while Apocalypse goes about his machinations and monologues a little. It's left to Jennifer Lawrence to carry much of the film as Raven, the reluctant team leader who pulls things together in the darkest hour, and she plays her part convincingly throughout, albeit less acrobatically than we've seen before.
Isaacs does well enough as the first mutant and would-be cleanser of the world in which he's freshly awakened, but the script doesn't know whether to make him a true, power-hungry villain, or misguided saviour of a planet that he believes to be weak and sick. This is not the clear cut 'survival of the fittest', despotic Apocalypse from the comics and outside of Magneto it's never made clear as to why Storm, Psylocke and, to a lesser extent, Angel would want to help him see the world burn. He turns to each of them with a twisted, duplicitous compassion, yet it never feels fully convincing that they would follow him so devoutly without a mind-control element in place or similar thirst for power themselves. They're not evil, callous or criminal in intent initially, but their motives are never explained and they simply do as they are told or urged to. For a character at the receiving end of ancient Egyptian treachery, and all too aware of the chance of history repeating itself, it also doesn't hold weight that Apocalypse would broadcast his plans to the entire world, potentially sparking challenge to them, if he wanted to see them completed.

Thankfully it's not all doom and gloom as through the confused elements there are joyous moments of unashamed action and brevity that come close to matching those witnessed in Days Of Future Past. Quicksilver's introduction to the Xavier Institute is a true highlight, straying close to repetition, yet escalating things in explosive, laughter-inducing fashion. The strangely advertised cameo - something that perhaps would have been better left as a full blown surprise - when it appears, is worth the admittance fee alone, finally capturing the frenzy that has been promised for years, yet never truly enacted on screen until now. Even the final act, grand showdown is exhilarating enough in its own predictable way.
As the dust settles it feels as if X-Men: Apocalypse is Singer attempting to fully reassert his grasp on a franchise that, lest we forget, he ditched out of to make Superman Returns. Days Of Future Past was his tentative easing back in and this is him trying to undo what he perhaps sees as a past failure while embracing the source material a little closer, at least visually, if not in spirit. There's a somewhat needless scene which pokes fun in X-Men: The Last Stand's direction (and that scene is perpetuated by going categorically against Scott Summer's 'boy scout' character to do it), but when it boils down, this latest film shares similarities with Ratner's effort, especially within the structure of the third act. In both we get the villain spending time gathering troops, someone requires saving to prevent true catastrophe whilst a fully visible, global-level threat manifests itself in real time.

The cliché would be more palatable if Singer took a little time to pay more attention to the vein in which the previous two instalments were made, giving more focus to the era in which the story is set, but outside of Xavier's Miami Vice haircut and the odd Ms Pacman arcade machine you'd barely know that this was a 1980s set story. Considering the decade long period the world has had since Magneto took Trask's Sentinels and threatened Nixon in front of the global audience during the '70s, you'd think that governments everywhere would play a bigger role here and the tension between humans and mutants would be all too clear to see, but the script does away with human interference in a single sequence, decreeing them uselessly neutered through a plot point that doesn't make sense in terms of the method of incapacitation. That's before you even consider what Apocalypse does and what his endgame is anyway, and then the film proceeds to escalate the destruction in a different manner to levels that may make it hard for any further chapters to keep themselves in check.

It ultimately feels as if X-Men: Apocalypse is the result of the studio and director finally realising that audiences can deal with the vibrancy of comic book fare captured in a live action format; it's bright, action packed and pays the patient comic book fans back by showing them some of what they may have witnessed on the page (or in animated form) over the past 40 years. Where once lycra, spandex and '80s design were mocked - even onscreen first time around - we now see their influence start to show through with reckless abandon. However, in reaching this point the concession is the weakest screenplay of this relaunched series, hamstrung by having to squeeze all of that fan service in and leaving the recurring cast regurgitating character notes they've already chewed over a handful of times already and the newer additions barely able to find a morsel between them. X-Men: Apocalypse is bright in terms of spectacle for sure, but rather unpolished and lacking in terms of the substance to be found amongst the mayhem. 5/10

(Additional: There is a post-credits scene at the very end of X-Men Apocalypse)

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