Sunday, June 12, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse


It's astonishing and frankly impressive that for 2 hours and 20 minutes, X-Men: Apocalypse frantically tries to convince the audience that something happened, but upon their reflection during the end credits, the conclusion that nothing actually happened is inescapable. The amount of narrative incidents in this film can be counted on one hand: the characters gather, they are separated, they reunite, the film ends. The stakes are paradoxical: shrill and hyperbolic while at the same time inert and devoid of any necessity.

Eh Sabah Nur wants to destroy the world because I guess nobody is worshipping him, so he enlists Magneto and some famous X-Men played by non-famous people to turn Cairo and Sydney and maybe New York into literal dust. The epic widescreen shots of the destruction, a seemingly mandatory inclusion in superhero cinema, are almost completely absent of people. The audience, already distanced from such vistas thanks to digital cinema, can't even apprehend a human dimension when none are depicted. In many ways, X-Men: Apocalypse is the superhero drama taken to its most absurd dimension: a by-the-numbers excoriation of the audience's desire to see mass chaos and energy beams and people in awkward flight.

Don't get me wrong, I quite liked this movie, but let's not pretend this isn't anything but one of the worst blockbusters in recent memory. As I pondered the film and its inept grasp at entertaining, I couldn't help but re-evaluate Batman v Superman: Dawn of Friendship. After seeing Civil War once, I was ready to raise my rating of BvS. After suffering through Civil War a second time, I was fully prepared to actually like Snyder's paean to gods and mortals. Certainly, after seeing X-Men: Apocalypse, Bryan Singer's fourth X-Men film, I'm ready to consider Batman v Superman: Dawn of Friendship the best superhero film of the year.

Firstly, at least Snyder understands visual storytelling. Consider the fetishistic but evocative prologue, when Bruce ascends to the skies on a spiral of flying bats. Compare this almost totemic imagery to the flatness and incoherence of Civil War dramatically inert prologue, with its hyperbolically muted colours and shaky cam. When these images are revisited in their respective films, at least BvS has the wherewithal to repeat with a difference. Civil War with its tone deaf attempts at topicality, makes space for fictional Africans over actual Africans, because it's easier to imagine Wakanda than it is to imagine Lagos beyond a zone of "Africa-ness." Even Tony Stark's motivations aren't fueled by the lived experiences of those he touches. Instead, he's spurned into action by the death of an American tourist in a fictional Eastern European country.

Likewise, X-Men: Apocalypse roots its destruction and misanthropy in some fictions: alternate histories, unreal digital metropolises, Vancouver forests masquerading as Poland, Montreal city blocks pretending to be Cairo(!). It's all so completely removed from any real moment that this film might perhaps be one of the best escapist works of art in recent history. This is a fantasy to be uttered in the same breath as Lord of the Rings or TRON.

The screenplay to BvS, unlike this film or Civil War impresses upon the viewer the vast gulf between the audience and the gods it depicts, but still depicts that gulf as existing. The other two films erase the difference, erase humanity from the equation as easily as CGI will destroy a city. BvS wants to keep reminding you that gods are fallible. X-Men: Apocalypse wants you to forget that humans even exist.

Because of this erasure, X-Men: Apocalypse struggles to maintain any dramatic stakes. It also doesn't help that the screenplay recapitulates the same conflict introduced (and resolved) in the previous film. Magneto and Raven each grapple with their moral decisions, but every time, they eventually make the right call. The first 40 minutes of X-Men: Apocalypse has to carefully put them back in the same position as the beginning of X-Men: Days of Future Past to relive the same moral dilemma. It's exhausting and completely deflating for the moral stakes that X-Men: Apocalypse is striving for.

The moral position of Apocalypse is fucking dubious at best. Perhaps the most painful sequence for the audience to sit through features Auschwitz, a locale that Singer has returned to more than once. Eh Sabah Nur teleports Erik to the deathcamp, the site of his parents' deaths and the emergence of his mutant ability, and amplifies Erik's powers. He asks the Master of Magnetism to dig deep, find the pain, and then destroy the camp entirely. Magneto, in what was presumably intended to be an act of catharsis by the filmmakers, turns Auschwitz into "particles" (the classic cliché of early 2000s CGI). He screams. It's a liberatory moment. But we can't forget the context of this supposedly cathartic moment: Eh Sabah Nur is trying to convince Magneto that genocide is a good thing, by taking him to a famous site of genocide. The utter deafness of tone here was galling enough that I guffawed in the theatre. One could argue, I suppose, that Erik is meant to be positioned in this odd gray moral zone, where we're meant to cheer for him but also remember his complicity in terrorism.

The film's moral dubiousness isn't helped at all by the climax, in which Erik turns Cairo (actually, Montreal and/or a soundstage) and some other famous cities into particles, destroying billions of dollars worth of property, killing untold thousands, injuring tenfold more, and once he's convinced that Eh Sabah Nur is actually a bad dude, stops. The epilogue of the film has Charles and Erik smiling at each other, as if Erik hadn't just murdered thousands of people. In a film full of glorious missteps, this perhaps might be the most subtle. The X-Men prequel series has been about the complex relationship between Charles and Erik, their bond, their friendship, but at what point is Charles complicit in Erik's crimes? At the end of the epilogue, Erik walks out of the X-Mansion as if nothing happened, as if his actions weren't so morally reprehensible that he has become the monster that he despises, ie Eh Sabah Nur himself.

The titular villain is barely a presence at all, despite having many digitally modulated lines to sound threatening. His whispers, amplified and pitch-shifted, just exacerbate the audience's suspicion that all he needs is a hug, or a Mom named Martha. Never before have I seen a blockbuster of such stakes predicated on a dude's fragile ego.

Similarly, has there been a recent blockbuster with more male tears? I think not. Xavier and Erik are crying constantly in this movie, almost confirming the easy queer reading that they're fighting against their mutual desire. In their final scene together, James MacAvoy's eyes are so wet, you'd think he was about to burst into wailing sobs of anguish over losing (yet again) his possible lover and best friend. Bryan Singer is not the type of director that inadvertently misses on the possible queerness of a scene, so I can only assume that the unspoken romance between the two is intended as text.

Even though I probably hated the plot more than anything, Singer's motifs and skills still come to the forefront. He has such a knack for parallax movement in a frame (I spoke at length, with screenshots, about this here) and while he doesn't do as much in this film as in the previous film, there's still moments where his visual eye shines.

As with Days of Future Past, the highlight of the film is the Quicksilver sequence. However, its impact is blunted slightly by its repetition. We expected it, Singer delivered, it's all very by the book. Its familiarity breeds apathy, unfortunately, despite showing off some of Singer's more dazzling visual skills. Luckily, Singer invests in Quicksilver's character, an attempt to develop what was previously simple comedic relief. Using the natural charisma of the actor, Quicksilver struggles with his desire for a father (AREN'T THEY ALL IN THESE FILMS) and his sense of duty. It's not entirely successful, acting almost as synecdoche for the rest of the film's effectiveness. While I was entertained by his character arc, it slips from my memories like the tide through my fingers. The particulars go, but I'll recall the spectacle.

Similarly, the spectacle of Psylocke's costume will stay with me. Elizabeth Braddock has a long history in Marvel Comics, almost none of which is very progressive or interesting. Most of it is her victimization at the hands of classic X-Men villains, big in stature and confused in motive. In the comics, bear with me for a second, she is a white woman with purple hair, the sister of Brian Braddock, Captain Britain, and she has psychic powers, but nothing noteworthy. In the late 80s or early 90s, her body is swapped with an Asian ninja assassin who wears practically no clothes. X-Men: Apocalypse keeps the race of this second Psylocke with the multiracial Olivia Munn but makes the costume even less practical ie they had a boob window:


Yikes. It doesn't help that Munn seems completely unaware that she is in a movie at all. She doesn't appear to notice that she's acting in a film, opting instead to pose as if she is the subject of a still photography shoot. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; in fact, in a film filled with melodramatic acting, her lack of physical and acting presence probably leaves her the second least tainted by association with the film (with Fassbender obviously being the least; he seems physically unable to give a bad performance). Like a lot in this movie, her character doesn't really work, but I found it watchable nonetheless.

None of the characters really work as there is still motivating them beyond "world destruction." As the film frantically tries to convince you that much has happened, you realize that the characters bounce from location to location without much connective incident. It's almost as if this was a series of setpieces concocted with a screenplay written after the fact. This gives the characters little propulsion. Not much makes them move from point A to point B beyond the omnipresent "and then" that plagues most of these comic book movies. Despite decades of lore and some decent writing, these screenwriters struggle to hone the motivations of the characters, opting instead for (again, dubious) moral imperatives of protecting the innocent. Yet, even with this simplicity, I find myself drawn to Singer's X-Men movies, even when, like this one, more doesn't work than does.

It's an entertaining piece of shit, that's for sure. I will definitely rewatch this day-glo nightmare more than once.