Wednesday, June 1, 2016

"X-Men: Apocalypse" (2016)

Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence
Written by Simon Kinberg
Directed by Bryan Singer
Rated PG-13: Violence, language
Running Time: 144 Minutes

Ten years after publicly stopping Magneto (Michael Fassbender) from killing President Nixon, shapeshifter Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) travels the world seeking to help desperate mutants flee persecution. In East Berlin, she finds Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a teleporter forced to into a cage-fight against the winged Angel (Ben Hardy). But in helping Nightcrawler escape, she hears word that Magneto has resurfaced: he'd been living in Poland, settled down with a wife and daughter until the townsfolk discover who he is. In one tragic moment, his wife and daughter are both killed, and Magneto is on the run again and vowing revenge.

Soon after, a mysterious mutant appears to Magneto, Angel, the weather-controlling Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and the telepathic Psylocke (Olivia Munn), promising them all enhanced powers and retribution for their suffering at the hands of humans.

Meanwhile, Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) meets with CIA agent Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne) for the first time in 20 years and discovers that this mutant is an ancient being known as En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), who was the inspiration for biblical tales of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. With old allies Mystique, Havok (Lucas Till), Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult), along with newcomers Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Charles and the X-Men face their gravest challenge yet: the Apocalypse itself.

It's easy to forget that there are now nine X-Men films (if we count "Deadpool"), that the first "X-Men" way back in 2000 was one of the films that jump-started the current superhero film era. Part of the problem is that we're now three movies deep into a sort-of reboot of the series featuring younger versions of the characters — except that we're now ignoring previous appearances of younger versions of these characters. So while a young Cyclops appeared in the atrocious "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" film, this young Cyclops is somehow 10 years younger and in a completely different situation.

In fact, it's probably best not to try and think about these things, since it basically also means that his brother Havok is probably about 20 years older than him, since these new "X-Men" movies like to jump about 10 years each without really aging any of the characters. McAvoy's Xavier even comments on how Rose Byrne's Moira barely seems to have aged in 20 years (indeed, "Apocalypse" comes only 5 years after her first appearance in "X-Men: First Class"). Elsewhere, Angel would have to be born some 20 years earlier than the previous iteration of the character in "X-Men: The Last Stand" and who knows about Jean Grey, previously shown to have been recruited in a time when Xavier and Magneto ran the school together. And here's the franchise's third or fourth Jubilee, here 30 years before the others.

Aside from its astounding continuity issues in regards to the ages of its characters, "Apocalypse" is a bit of a mess in general with the characters mostly stumbling around not quite sure what to do about themselves or Apocalypse. The film lacks focus and the sense of urgency from "Days of Future Past," but it still manages to be an enjoyable mess. It strives hard to build the X-Men team into a mostly recognizable version of the hugely popular 90s lineup. It also seems like we might need to just straight-up forget the idea of Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique ever becoming the villainous creature that Rebecca Romijn's adult version was in the first trilogy of films.

That last bit is too bad because it would probably be interesting territory for Lawrence, who aside from the detestable snake she played in "American Hustle" has thus far stayed away from such roles. Meanwhile, McAvoy and Fassbender continue to be the best casting decisions these prequel movies have made, both in the way they inhabit their characters and in their chemistry with each other.

Oscar Isaac is sadly wasted as Apocalypse. He plays the character much more quietly than one would expect, often speaking barely above a whisper, but the excessive makeup on his face sort of dulls the effect of much of his performance.

It's Bryan Singer's most "comic book-y" X-Men adventure to date, which has both pluses and drawbacks. Singer still knows how to make a scene like Magneto killing half a dozen cops with a single tiny piece of metal feel cooler and more emotional than some other directors might, but he's also unused to the kind of wide-scale destruction this movie features. The "X-Men" films have always been smaller-scale than Marvel Studios' oft-city destroying antics, but here Singer employs sequences of CGI monument destruction right out of a Roland Emmerich picture, but not quite to the same effect. Sure, we see images of New York, Cairo and Sydney being torn to shreds by Apocalypse and Magneto's newly enhanced powers. Yet these sequences don't have nearly as much heft as the smaller scale, more intimate action sequences in the picture.

Even a cameo by Hugh Jackman's Wolverine laying waste to Stryker's (Josh Helman) secret Weapon X base, as wholly unnecessary and out of place as it is, feels cooler than some of the bigger set-pieces in the movie. It's because Singer's strengths lay totally in the smaller moments, and that's also why his X-Men movies tend to be stronger than others' but here he overreaches. The overarching problem here is that Apocalypse is a villain that's kind of out of Singer's wheelhouse, the kind of grand, scenery-chewing (literally) over-the-top creature that Singer's not suited for.

But fret not, as "X-Men: Apocalypse" does have a number of small, powerful moments. Much of the film's first two acts work incredibly well, especially the sequences that introduce or reintroduce us to characters like Magneto, Quicksilver and Storm. And there are lots of little bits of levity sprinkled about that keep things from getting too grim, like Cyclops accidentally blowing away Xavier's favorite tree or an entire sequence of Quicksilver dashing about the mansion rescuing students in slow-motion.

"X-Men: Apocalypse" does get more right than it does wrong, even ignoring its vastly twisted continuity. It's not as focused or enjoyable or cool as "Days of Future Past" nor as effective as "X2: X-Men United" (from which it borrows quite a bit), but it is a good time at the movies.