Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
May 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse

Fake plastic mutants

The cheap-looking X-Men fight a cheap-looking god in the sloppy, scattershot Apocalypse

X-Men: Apocalypse
20th Century Fox
Director: Bryan Singer
Screenplay: Simon Kinberg, based on characters created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee
Starring: Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Oscar Isaac, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Sophie Turner, Evan Peters and Nicholas Hoult
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 24 minutes
May 27, 2016
(out of four)

At last, the superheroes in superhero movies have found their rightful place among the gods.

Implicitly, this has always been the case. Super-powered beings tend to occupy an elevated space by default; recent outings have only made it more official. In Age of Ultron, they are brought to their feet by an omniscient, omnipresent force very deliberately posed, in one key scene, at the center of a grand cathedral. In Dawn of Justice, the Man of Steel is worshiped; we see a group of devotees literally reaching to touch his garment. In both movies, statues are erected that practically place their characters in the pantheon of Greek gods. And now, in X-Men: Apocalypse, the latest entry in the franchise that refuses to let go, we meet Apocalypse - the first mutant, a god in his own time, who is resurrected in the early 1980s, insists that he is humanity's almighty, and proceeds to operate as a one-man Book of Revelation.

So this is where the X-Men are fighting their battles now. Which makes me wonder where, exactly, they can go from here that wouldn't be inherently anticlimactic. They've teamed up to defeat Nazis and now they've teamed up to take down an evil god. What's next? Trump? Imagine playing a video game and defeating the final boss, only to realize that you have to just keep on playing, with increasingly lower stakes. Once you've defeated God, I mean ...

But back on subject: The film's theological flavoring doesn't begin and end with its antagonist. Not to be outdone, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is presented as a sort of god figure himself. He spends a good portion of his time inside (and connected to) Cerebro, his own personal geolocation and thought-penetration system. While Cerebro has appeared in previous movies, the way director Bryan Singer presents it here takes on a particularly godlike tenor. We glide across a virtual globe, its inhabitants appearing as smeary white blurs in a sea of blue noise, Xavier placidly listening to their thoughts like prayers while hovering (along with Singer's camera) omnipotently from above.

But speaking more practically, Apocalypse himself (a complete waste of Oscar Isaac's talents, like Marlon Brando being hired to play Chewbacca) is more absurdity than all-powerful threat (let alone deity), a fact the movie - with its dramatic earnestness, cloaked as it may be underneath a veneer of summer-movie playfulness - never realizes. He came from a world of mortals but, in his second life, is a mutant among mutants. Individually, he may be the most powerful among them (and can absorb other mutants' powers), but collectively there's still plenty of competition. As the movie plays out, he ends up being a rather toothless villain - which is to say, just another villain, having ultimately no more or less impact than anyone else our heroes might (or have) come across. (What was I saying about superheroes existing among gods again? OK, so maybe these movies aren't going in this direction successfully, but it's certainly where their heads are at right now.)

The threat he theoretically poses is ... well, about as familiar and obvious as the name that identifies it. Calling your supervillain "Apocalypse" - not to mention the movie itself - is an act of redundancy. At this point in the genre, virtually every superhero movie is about the looming threat of the end of the world. Your name is "Apocalypse," you say? Get in line, pal. We had one of those just last week.

That humanity is at stake is incidental - which is partially by design and partially just poor design. The unique thing about the X-Men series as opposed to other superhero franchises is that it's so much about the mutants' survival in a world that's hostile them - rather than just focusing on how these superpowered beings can serve the wants and needs of the people. Civilized human society has been the enemy as often as a defined villain, if not more. But then the film creates a problem for itself that ... well, that most X-Men movies create for themselves. Apocalypse is so eager to show us as many mutants as possible that it stretches itself far too thin, with few (if any) having much of a dramatic impact. 2011's X-Men: First Class was able to focus primarily on Charles and Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) even while including countless other characters new and old; few other entries in this franchise have been able to pull that off. It helps that the performances of McAvoy and Fassbender were as great as they were; now, a few years and two sequels later, both of them look bored in their roles, and no one else is picking up the slack. Their apathy leaves the film with a gaping void, as this pending apocalypse seems to have nowhere to leave its dramatic or emotional mark.

It's almost impressive how little mortals - or humanity as a whole - matter in this movie. Among humans, only Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) - the government scientist who in an earlier movie apparently had a short-lived Thing with Professor X that I'd completely forgotten about - matters. Elsewhere, a portion of the plot is set in motion by the deaths of Erik's wife and child, except those deaths have no impact because we only just found out Erik had a wife and child and ... sorry, wife and child, I don't believe I caught your names? Doesn't matter. It's a way to get Magneto involved in the story. Everyone else falls into place from there. In sticking with the traditions of this franchise, the Good Guys and Bad Guys are flexible from movie to movie, or even scene to scene - which is philosophically and morally interesting, but seems more like a logistical excuse to move characters around to fit plot than any real attempt to explore the characters' moral relativism.

Without much of anything to enjoy (beyond a terrific use of Quicksilver's skill set in a setpiece scored by the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams"), it struck me, more tha never before, just how bland a visual stylist Bryan Singer is. His X-Men are the Las Vegas casino of the superhero universe. The characters always just look like people walking around in plastic costumes - they never look like bodies, or fashion choices, or physical representations of a bold cinematic aesthetic. Just cheap plastic. They would fit in nicely on Hollywood Blvd, alongside the four competing Spider-Men, both Jack Sparrows, tons of Power Rangers, and the living statue. Apocalypse and Psylocke (Olivia Munn) are especially egregious in this case - the former caked in blue makeup and constricting metal armor, the latter in a purple leotard and thigh-high tights, a costume that looks basically identical to how it appears in the comics ... which is kinda the problem.

Add that to the list of grievances: Not only is X-Men: Apocalypse an unwieldy mess of a film, but leaves its 21st Century All-Star Team of a cast (Lawrence! Fassbender! Isaac! McAvoy! Byrne! Sheridan!) looking like a bunch of idiots.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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