X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

[TRANSCRIPT]

You can tell this movie takes place in 1983 because of Jean’s giant shoulder pads. But also because, halfway through, she, Cyclops, Nightcrawler and Jubilee cut class to go see Return of the Jedi in a proper mall theater. As they exit, they begin the Great Nerd Debate over which piece of the Original Holy Trilogy is the best. Jubes favors Empire, because she’s always been the spirit of her age. Scott Summers, future Team Leader and unreconstructed teacher’s pet, favors the original, without which “none of this would be possible.” Jean, the eternal peacemaker (when she’s not being possessed by one of the fundamental creative forces of the universe), buttons up the whole scene by saying, “At least we can all agree the third one’s the worst.”

Okay, number 1 – That’s pretty fucking rich coming from a Bryan Singer movie. I don’t remember anyone twisting your arm and forcing you off Last Stand, Bryan. What, did The WB flood your house with Agents of the Matrix? Did they hold a gun to your dog’s head and go “Make us the worst Superman movie ever, or the puppy gets it”? Is that the story we’re telling now? If so, I’ve got at least six bridges to sell you.

And Number 2 – no we cannot all agree, Sansa Jean. It’s just that so few of us have the time or patience to argue points like this. Most recognize (even if only on an unconscious level) that such arguments are not, in any way shape or form, rational. Statements like, “the third one’s the worst,” are statements of faith, and who wants to be an ecumenical scholar these days? The pay’s lousy, and everyone hates you, mistaking your attempts at nuance for contrarianism.

Personally, I never understood the hate Return of the Jedi gets. Yeah, yeah, I know – these days, everybody just says “Ewoks,” and leaves it at that, but ya know what? Fuck y’all – Ewoks are awesome. Reading contemporary reviews, you find most of the hate Jedi got in its time came from OG Star Wars Haters, who (correctly) saw a horrible future in the original movie’s success, and had pretty much the same thought walking out of Jedi that I had walking out of Revenge of the Sith, twenty years later: “Well, at least that’s over with. Finally! Now we can all move on with our lives” Part of me wants to go back in time, give them all hugs and pats on the head and say something like, “Oh, my sweet summer child!” The rest of me just wants to straight-up tell them how horrible this future really is, because most OG Star Wars Haters were conservative shitheads with sticks so far up their asses even the Lord Impaler would go, “Damn.”

And I gotta admit, history is on Sansa Jean’s side…at least, from her temporal perspective. If I were there, I might say something like, “Well, what about Goldfinger? Or The Good The Bad and The Ugly? Those are third films and, if anything, they’re the fucking best of their trilogies.” And she could just as easily hit me back with, “What about Son of Frankenstein? Or Dracula Prince of Darkness? Or The Creature Walks Among Us? Or Jaws 3, which is literally playing right the hell over there?” Most of my good counter examples, like Last Crusade, Dream Warriors, and Back to the Future III, are still in Sansa Jean’s future. Hell, Temple of Doom and Nightmare on Elm Street 1 won’t even be out for another year, and Back to the Future 1 won’t arrive until a year after that. So I’m inclined to cut her slack.

Evil Me: You? Cutting a hot redhead slack? And a Jean Grey, no less? What a shock. This is my shocked face.

Except to say that, if you’re leaving your first viewing of Return of the Jedi with dry eyes and a stable voice, able to have a rational conversation about its place in the Emerging Nerd Cannon, you really should check your pulse. Either you’re already dead, or dead inside, which is honestly worse. Like these X-Men films.

I didn’t enjoy the previous X-Men movie, Days of Future Past, as much as some. To my mind, it went the long way around the barn to reboot everything…something Matthew Vaughn already did perfectly well three years prior, with First Class. Days of Future Past was a grand exercise in lily-gilding, falling prey to all of this series’ worst inclinations: the sidelining of everything to make room for more Wolverine; the stunt-casting of great actors who’re given shit-all to do (again, why cast Ellen Paige as Kitty Pryde and then stick her in a room the whole film? At least Peter Dinklage got to go places); and the reduction of a historical disaster (Richard Nixon’s presidency) to a cool backdrop for the punch-em-up climax. But some were able to look past all that and see the hopeful, uplifting story of Charles Xavier accepting his destiny…with a little help from his future self. And Wolverine, naturally. And what can you do except shrug and say, “Okay. Good for you, bub”?

Me, I’m basking in the glow of being right, and being told I was right by the film itself. When we catch up to Professor X here, he’s pulling a choice quote out of T. H. White’s 1958 King Arthur novel, The Once and Future King. You might remember this as the book Magneto was reading that back in his plastic prison in X2, and various comics over the years have cemented it as one of Xavier’s problematic faves. “Let us now start fresh, without remembrance,” Charles quotes to his students, “rather than live forward and backward at the same time.”

In the context of King Arthur’s Britain, the quote means, “Let’s set aside our differences before the Dark Age Merlin keeps ranting about swallows us all.” In the context of these X-Men movies, it means the same thing as the last line of MST3k’s theme song: “Then repeat to yourself, ‘it’s just a show’ – you should really just relax.” All those continuity questions that have fascinated and annoyed us fans,ever since X-Men Origins: Wolverine told an origin story that didn’t need to be told (since the whole point of X2 was that it didn’t matter) are officially Null and Void. We’re in a new continuity now, with a new, fresh-faced cast, and we’re about to see a new story about how the X-Men came together to save a world that hates and fears them. Just like Matthew Vaughn already did in 2011.

Of course, if you are still trying to make this continuity make sense, you’ll drive yourself even more insane than I am. Remember Days of Future Past‘s cliffhanger ending, where it looked like Mystique had replaced The Once and Future Colonel Stryker? Remember its after-the-credits teaser? This movie sure hopes you don’t, because they got a “name” actor to play the villain after they shot that.

So back in 3600 BC, the mutant En Sabah Nur managed to convince almost everyone in what-was-then-Lower Egypt that he was a god incarnate, mostly by transferring his consciousness into the bodies of other mutants, collecting their powers like Pokemon. Those who weren’t convinced rebelled against him and managed to bury him…sort of alive…sort of not…until 1983, when he’s awakened by a group of…worshipers…? And the whole cast seems to feel his awakening, either through their own psychic powers, like Jean, their own super-science instruments, like Hank McCoy…or through earthquakes that somehow send shock-waves all the way from Cairo to Poland, like Magneto.

Speaking of, our Magneto begins this movie with a whole new, happy family to lose, so he can get back to his factory default supervillain setting. What, you thought just you watched him go through two movies worth of character development? Silly rabbit. Catch Erich in the wrong mood and he’ll totally join up with your vague, megalomaniacal plan to wipe out human civilization. Yeah, he pushed a coin all the way through Kevin Bacon’s head in order to stop just such a plan less than two movies ago…and that was awesome…but you’re not supposed to care about that either. If you did, you might notice how Kevin Bacon’s plan to cause World War III by causing the Cuban Missile Crisis made a hell of a lot more sense than Apocalypse’s.

What even is Apocalypse’s plan? This movie’s so over-stuffed, and the plan changes from Act to Act, so you could be forgiven for not getting it. At first it seems to be, “recruit an army of mutants by enhancing their powers.” Then he hears about Magneto’s No Good, Very Bad Day at the hands of Communist Poland’s Public Security Force and the plan becomes, “Get Magneto to fuck with the Earth’s magnetic poles, reducing civilization to dust.” (Pretty sure this was the plot of one of the bad Ultimates comics from the mid-2000s.) Magneto’s curiously silent about the undeniable fact this will kill any mutant who isn’t agile enough to dodge a planet’s worth of debris, but consistency is for suckers.

Then Apocalypse overhears Charles’ attempt to give Erich some telepathic grief counseling and the plan becomes, “put my brain in Charles Xavier’s body, gaining his massive mind-control powers, and use them to convince everyone I’m a god again…but also the Magneto thing at the same time.” Yes, the Magneto thing will severely reduce the number of minds available to control, but if Apocalypse had any sense, he’d have used his brief contact with Cerebro to get the US and USSR to nuke each other, rather than fire their missiles into space.

But that’s easy for me to say. I’m used to an Apocalypse who plays the extra-long game, and whose convoluted plots are usually either tied up with, or formulated in response to, the Once and Future Grey-Summers dynasty. They could’ve done that here, since we have a new Scott and a new Jean to lash to destiny’s wheel…but then, how could they turn Magneto back into the angry-sad-villain everyone knows and apparently loves? His righteous anger is more “relatable” than Apocalypse’s cold, detached god complex…making me wonder if Apocalypse needed to be in this movie at all.

Except he “needs” to be here for the same reason Magneto “needs” to be his Fourth Horseman. The same reason Storm and Angel are turned into his First and Third. Why not have recognizable characters henching for your bland, world conquering one-off villain? Who cares? Only nerds, who’re going to show up anyway, because Psylocke is here, too, in her book-accurate costume and everything. Brand recognition is way more important to our corporate masters, and their employees, than actual story progression. Hence this film, which we should all know by now (and some of us suspected, even at the time) is little more than a glorified, two-and-a-half-hour-long set-up for Yet Another Dark Phoenix movie.

But let’s take it seriously, for a second, as the third part of the First Class Trilogy: Erich, Charles, and Raven’s Excellent Adventures. First Class was mostly Erich’s journey from Angry Young Man to Charismatic Revolutionary. Logan’s presence aside, DoFP covered Charles’ journey from total burn-out who’d lost all but one friend to someone who could reasonably become the Charles Xavier we all met back in 2000, give or take a few decades of seasoning. This should be, and kind of is, Mystique’s movie – the cap stone of her circular journey all the way back around to Ol’ Chuck’s viewpoint: “Peaceful co-existence between mutants and humans is good…especially when its backed up by the paramilitary strike force I keep in the basement of my sweet mansion/school. Along with the warplane. And the machine that lets me read everyone’s minds. And the giant robots.” (Did the Sentinals wind up at Westchester’s Army/Navy Surplus Store after Magneto demonstrated how easy they were to co-opt? Or did the Nixon Administration actually let him keep them, the way the Gotham PD occasionally lets Batman take souvenirs back to his cave? “Thanks for saving the President so he could get impeached and resign in shame…basically ruining all our careers…have some giant robots!”)

Too bad Mystique’s arc is truncated and rushed, like everything else. She begins the film, basically, where Erich ended up at the conclusion of First Class, minus any of Erich’s righteously angry charisma. Her one tactical debate with Charles sounds a lot like the Charles and Erich debates of yore…despite the fact her being a bad enough dude to save the president on live TV at the conclusion of the last flick has made her an international hero, especially to Xavier’s gifted youngsters. She’s contemptuous of this…until circumstances force her into that role. With Erich going Full Depressive Nihilist, Xavier kidnapped by Erich’s new boss, and Beast relegated to a glorified tech support (as is sadly usual, by now), the role of Team Leader falls to Raven, whether she likes it or not.

Cyclops and Jean are too young anyway. The movie seems to remember this about halfway through, when the rest of the main cast gets extraordinarily rendentioned to everyone’s favorite X-Men movie location, Alkali Lake, by everyone’s (apparently) favorite reoccurring villain, Col. William Stryker. If he weren’t here, who would Scott and Jean take down by themselves? Apocalypse, right out of the gate? Way to undermine a supposedly world-ending threat.

Not that they don’t wind up doing that anyway. While this desperately wants to convince you it’s the concluding chapter of one trilogy, it is also hyper-conscious of being the first act of X-Men: The Next Generation. I’d call them “All New, All Different,” but they really aren’t, since we met all these “new” characters as adults twenty years ago. They’re slightly more interesting here, being so raw…but the relative ease with which they take the Weapon X program apart really undercuts the need for a team leader…even if she is played by J-Law.

Speaking of third parts of X-Trilogies: In a curious parallel to Last Stand, the X-Men’s most physically powerful (former) member is turned, here, into a more-or-less mindless engine of destruction, taking orders from the Actual Villain because…well, it seems like something to do. Until they’re talked into a moment of clarity by the designated anti-hero and (arguably) main character of this whole franchise. Mystique doesn’t kill Magneto, the way Wolverine killed Jean…because it’s not like he’s died and come back to life as often as Jean has…actually, it’s a lot like that, but never mind…Had Mystique killed Erich, her character arc might’ve been at least a little closer to complete. Would’ve been a nice parallel to that one scene in Days of Future Past where Erich tried to kill her and wound up making things worse. But that would’ve written Michael Fassbender out of the first franchises 20th Century Fox placed on his shoulders, as well as upending that status quo this movie was clearly made to establish.

That’s partially why, again, like Last Stand, the X-Men here actually do unite at the end to face down a greater threat to all of human-kind, be they standard-issue, or mutant. Xavier tells Apocalypse that he loses because he is fundamentally alone, while they are a modern, fucked-up family of foundlings, refugees and frenemies…and if this had been some kind of over-arching theme, this movie might’ve had a chance. Apocalypse is always an arrogant shithead, convinced of his own superiority and possessed by the kind of violent, Social Darwinist outlook Movie Thanos couches in concern trolling about resource scarcity. There are shades of that arrogance here, especially after Angel dies in a plane crash. (Irony!) Apocalypse takes one look at his corpse and pronounces it “Useless,” prompting Storm to turn on him…but it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it line in a movie full of ’em. Like the citizens of that other Apokalips in that other comic book/movie universe, our villain here doesn’t do nearly enough evil speechifying. He gets, like, one good one…but since he’s using Xavier as a psychic megaphone at the time, ol’ Chuck can’t help himself but tack an uplifting message on to the end.

Wish I could do the same. But to me, the Apocalypse of this title is literal. I haven’t had any real hope for the X-Franchise since 2011, and the more time passes, the more First Class starts to look like a temporary reprieve from two decades of disappointment. No matter how much promise is inherent in these flick’s premises, casts, or production designs, something always seems to come along and fuck shit up. And this time, I think that “something” was named Fant4stic.

I don’t have any real proof. Getting that would require me to go to LA and start asking questions people don’t want to answer…and I’d rather cut out the middleman and just straight-up fellate an exhaust pipe. But I’ve got plenty of circumstantial evidence. The dates certainly line up. We know producer/writer Simon Kinberg spent most of 2014 and -15 balls deep in the Fant4stic fiasco, desperately trying to either save the film from Josh Trank, or conspiring to take the film away from him, depending on whom you believe. Either way, he must’ve known Fant4stic was about to leave a gaping, 4-shaped wound in Fox’s balance sheet by April, 2015, when this Apocalypse started filming. (Remember the flurry of contradictory statements about whether Fant4stic shared a universe with these X-Men? And You Thought It Was Safe remembers! The North remembers!)

Nobody (save, perhaps, Ryan Reynolds) knew Deadpool was going to be a smash hit until it came out, and even Wolverine’s fans were leery of Logan before they saw it. So I suspect Kinberg and Singer and everyone else in the text-wall of credited Producers rushed this fucker out of the oven, literally half-baked, to make sure they’d have a guaranteed “win” in their columns for Q2 2016. There’s a third way to read Sansa Jean’s line about “the third one’s always the worst,” and that’s as preemptive damage control. Our filmmakers going, “Yeah, we know this one’s not gonna be as good as the last two…but look, sometimes, shit happens.”

That it does, but it seems to keep happening to the X-Franchise. Almost like the creative team behind them has a serious case of burn-out, and a just-as-serious case of professional type casting. They are Fox’s designated “superhero people”…or they were, at any rate. With the Disney assimilation now complete, we can only wait to see what the future may bring. And grit our teeth through what we know it’s bringing next. Fox has always been too cheap and scared to do the Shi’ar Empire up right, so we’re once again skipping the Phoenix Saga and going Full Dark, no stars.

Screw it. If you want a good X-Men series, watch Doom Patrol. Best X-Men live-action series…thing…in…fifteen years? When did Evolution go off the air…? Yeah, let’s say “fifteen years.”

GG

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