Tuesday 20 December 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) - Movie Review

With the Marvel Cinematic Universe as ubiquitous as it is, it can be easy to forget just how important the X-Men films have been for the common conception of comic book movies. At the start of the millennium, the genre was in a pretty bad state: Vanguards of the art form Superman and Batman had both fallen on legendarily bad times, the kitschy ways of the 80’s were sticking around for god knows what reason like with Captain America and the unreleased Fantastic Four film, and to make matters worse, we weren’t even getting that many of them that were worth noting. Blade was pretty much the one and only comic book superhero film that was watchable. And then noted filmmaker Bryan Singer teamed up with Solid Snake (seriously, the OG voice actor for Solid Snake wrote it) and up-and-coming actor Hugh Jackman to make history for the format. Pushing the surface badassery of Blade into mainstream-recognised maturity, it changed the landscape from then on; it set the groundwork that the MCU went on to flesh out. No question, even in the wake of negative reviews, I was looking forward to the next instalment in this legendary series, especially given how amazingly well Days Of Future Past turned out. This is X-Men: Apocalypse.

The plot: En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), a mutant who has lived since the days of ancient Egypt, has awoken from his slumber in 1983, ashamed at how humanity has turned out in his absence. Recruiting like-minded mutants to his cause, he sets out to turn the world to rubble and rebuild a new civilization from the remains. Sensing the presence of a new threat in the world, the X-Men team up once again to save the day, but it seems that even they may have met their match.

Our returning cast are still as strong as ever: James McAvoy’s learned pacifist, Michael Fassbender’s scorned freedom fighter, Jennifer Lawrence’s matured emblem of the mutant cause, Nicholas Hoult’s inventive tinkerer, Evan Peter’s cheeky speedster, even those coming back from First Class like Rose Byrne and Lucas Till; they all check out. As for the newcomers, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner and Kodi Smit-McPhee give nice turns as younger versions of the characters of old, Ben Hardy, Alexandra Shipp and Olivia Munn give an appropriate amount of rightful menace as Apocalypse’s Horsemen, and Oscar Isaac himself imbues his mutant progenitor with a very godly air, not to mention coming across like someone with the ambition and capability to re-write the world.

Even amongst its fan base, the X-Men films have garnered a reputation for being films about Wolverine with the rest of the mutants as the support. As such, this film has a real mission on its hands to be able to prove that it can deliver a satisfying story without relying on Wolverine to deliver the drama. Well, while he does play a smaller role later on in the film, this isn’t his story. Instead, this is about the X-Men as a team and mutantkind as a species, what the series has always been about at its core; it’s just that here, it’s pushed right into the foreground. As a depiction of the starting days of the original team, it builds up a decent amount of rapport between them that it gives the feeling of the origin of what would become the chemistry of the beginning trilogy. As for the characters set up during the prequels, they have long since developed into respectable characters in their own right, pretty much ensuring that they can carry on this film without the metal-clawed berserker tying everything together.

Much like Days Of Future Past, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 if we’re being honest, this has the structure not necessarily of a film but of a colossal-scale event comic: Large cast of characters, most of whom get their mutual time in the spotlight, combined with a large scale story and stakes within that story. Also much like Days Of Future Past, I have no real issue with the narrative here because, for as many characters as it tries to juggle, it does an admirable job with all of them. The narrative splits its focus between Xavier and the X-Men gradually learning more about the oncoming threat, and the threat itself gaining power both in the literal sense and in its numbers. Now, admittedly, some characters don’t quite live up to their potential or even what the filmmakers set out for them: Nightcrawler isn’t exactly the comic relief that the hype pre-amble has set him up to be, and some characters like Angel and Jubilee are still being underutilised for no real reason; yeah, even though one of those is one of Apocalypse’s lieutenants, he’s still kind of bland. But for the most part, especially where it concerns Professor X, Magneto and Apocalypse, the action is grounded enough to make the grand scope of the events still feel like they can be contained in a single film.

While still continuing with the prejudiced minority themes of the other films, and building on Cold War-era nuclear fear with part of Apocalypse's ultimate plan that turns one of Superman IV's dumber moments into something palatable, this story also delves into elements of philosophy and fate. Through the inclusion of Apocalypse, we get a more literal depiction of the relationship between man and their creator. This is where Magneto’s character arc reaches a certified crescendo, as his personal history combined with what Apocalypse shows him and allows him to do creates what feels like a natural apex for the themes of personal power. Good god, Fassbender only seems to be getting better with time, because this is the kind of intensity and poignancy that makes him dangerously close to besting Ian McKellen in the same role. Then again, knowing Magneto’s actions further on the series’ timeline, it would make sense that a large portion of that mentality would be inspired by what Apocalypse showed him. I don’t know what it is, but films this year featuring the main characters fighting what are essentially their gods? Sacrilegious or not, it has resulted in some damn good drama.

All in all, this was honestly really good, if a bit inconsistent in places. While it may not measure entirely to the tremendous effort of Days Of Future Past, it has more than enough merit between its acting, characters and effects work to make for a satisfying conclusion to what is essentially a trilogy starting with First Class. Maybe it’s out of knowing that, even with this film’s faults, Simon Kinberg is capable of far, far worse, but the divisive reception this has gotten so far seems a little off to me.

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