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Film Review – X-Men: Apocalypse

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016; Directed by Bryan Singer)

Bryan Singer’s complexly compromised new X-Men film includes a nod and a wink at the precarity of its perceived position as well as to the history of the franchise. The film, the third in the reboot trilogy begun by Matthew Vaughn in 2011, is set in 1983, and one scene features students from Professor Charles Xavier’s Westchester-based School for Gifted Youngsters playing hooky to watch Return of the Jedi at a nearby movie theatre. Exiting the screening, Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan) offers a generic teenager appraisal of the Star Wars trilogy: Empire is the best, it’s darker, etc. Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), already established as having insight beyond her tender years due to her powerful psychic abilities, opines that, after all, everyone knows that the third film in a trilogy always sucks.

This is not merely a self-reflexive, self-effacing joke. Singer, along with screenwriter Simon Kinberg, understands the difficulty of satisfyingly completing a blockbuster trilogy, the dangerous potential of deflated expectations and disproven narrative extrapolations. The original X-Men three-parter of the 2000s began strong with Singer’s first two entries – entertaining, sincerely acted, politically resonant, and so important to the establishment of the Marvel superhero hegemony in Hollywood – before landing its third-film conclusion with a splat after the hackish Brett Ratner took the reins on the disappointing The Last Stand (Singer was off making Superman Returns, another of the superhero genre’s many semi-disavowed disappointments that fans may feel nostalgic for given the recent galloping fiasco for the Man of Steel). Singer knows that X-Men: Apocalypse is a landing that he must stick, and Jean Grey’s referential line signals that self-knowledge.

If Apocalypse stumbles on its dismount and receives judges’ marks below those of its two X-predecessors, the pressure and enforced level of ambition resulting from Singer’s self-knowledge, once one of his strengths as a filmmaker but here a hindrance, might be blamed. Apocalypse has so much inherently going for it, so many things it knows that it must do right and indeed works extremely hard to do right. And, truly, much of it works, of its own accord, in ideal isolation. But Singer struggles to lash its diverse plot elements, characters, emotional arcs, and metaphors together, and messiness rules the day. He knows that he has so much to do to craft a satisfying third act that, in the end, he does too much.

The ambition and scope at the director’s disposal is put to grand use in the film’s opening sequence, a prologue in Ancient Egypt of gilded mysterious grandeur that introduces Apocalypse‘s titular antagonist, a mega-powerful, practically immortal mutant (the first in human history, legend has it) also called En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac). Living for millennia by transfering his consciousness from one body to another in an elaborate ritual ceremony and gaining the powers of the mutants of the new bodies he occupies, En Sabah Nur is buried beneath a collapsing great pyramid amidst an ingenious coup attempt and passes from memory. Centuries later, in 1983, he is unearthed and awakened, and quickly forms an intention to cleanse a planet that he considers to be ruled by the weak and the inferior.

Oblivious to the coming oblivion, the scattered remnants of the putative X-Men lick the wounds suffered ten years before in the incident in Washington, D.C. witnessed by the whole world. Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) pour their efforts into the growing school at the X-Mansion, with Xavier mentoring the promising Jean Grey, whose mind powers resemble but far outstrip his own, in particular. Xavier also pines after his CIA agent love interest Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), whose memory of him and their mutual attraction to each other he wiped out at the end of First Class, and who has made an intriguing discovery beneath Cairo, Egypt.

Raven/Mystique (a stiff, stifled Jennifer Lawrence), famous for her intervention of a decade ago to save the President and worshipped as a hero by young mutants of the next generation, has forsaken her true blue form and her old friend Xavier. She trawls an East Berlin underground fighting club to rescue another azure-skinned mutant, the demon-like teleporter Kurt Wagner (Kodi Smit-McPhee), whom she decides will only be safe at Xavier’s institute.

Most compellingly, the terroristic villain of the 1973 incident that concluded Days of Future Past has gone off the grid into hiding. Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) has left Magneto behind, retreating to Eastern Bloc Poland to toil anonymously at a steel foundry and enjoy an idyllic cottage life with a beloved wife and daughter. But this attempt to live a simple life with his metal-manipulating powers concealed is doomed to end in a tragedy that galvanizes Lehnsherr on the path of Magneto.

Meanwhile, the ancient mutant as terribly powerful as he is frightfully boring (Isaac, who oozes personality in every other role he’s tackled, can’t summon a whiff of it for this stultifying demigod) portal-jumps across the planet, assembling his Four Horsemen followers in a subplot that plays like the getting-the-team-together rising-action plot of an unconventional heist movie of the sort that Singer should probably be making instead. He comes across a young Ororo Munroe, the future Storm (Alexandra Shipp, better in the role even in a limited dose than Halle Berry was over three-plus films), robbing market stalls in Cairo, then recruits purple-psych-energy-wielding Psylocke (Olivia Munn, saddled with a horridly objectifying skintight dominatrix costume) from her position as enforcer to black-market dealer and mutant-tracker Caliban (Tómas Lemarquis) before being led by her to Angel (Ben Hardy), who we first see battling Wagner in the East Berlin fight pit.

The Fourth Horseman is the re-emerged Magneto, prepared to channel his anguish at once again losing loved ones into Apocalypse’s plan for global annihilation. En Sabah Nur converts Lehnsherr to his cause/leather fetish club by marshalling his lineage of rage with the subtlety of a hammerstroke: he takes him to Auschwitz, confronts him with the Nazi murder of his parents and millions more, and goads him into disintegrating the historic camp of genocidal horrors from the ground up. Lehnsherr’s arc in Apocalypse dwindles away from there, but the heavy-acting Fassbender imbues his character’s quasi-chamber piece with a sincerity and emotional realism that sets it apart from the rest of the overworked superhero epic around it. Magneto’s destruction of the death camp is provocatively subversive as well. In a blockbuster milieu increasingly obsessed with destroying global landmarks, trust Singer (with his established and fruitful interest in the historical and psychological dimensions of Nazism) to turn this tendency inside-out by vaporizing the sobering surviving testament to the monstrous inhumanity lurking inside of political ideology in the midst of a comic-book popcorn movie. In a franchise once bursting with potent political metaphors, Lehnsherr literally reducing this brick-and-metal embodiment of arrogant genocidal evil to dust as he chooses to participate in a recurrence of that very evil is the strongest on offer in Apocalypse.

Indeed, besides another witty, bravado time-slowing sequence featuring super-fast Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters), there’s very little of sustaining interest to Apocalypse beyond Fassbender’s Polish steelworker melodrama and its Holocaust-evoking climax. All of the above-mentioned X-characters are given at least limited arcs, and it’s difficult to pinpoint wrong notes for anyone: the characterizations are all reasonable enough. There are just so many of them. Too many. Singer frequently resorts to knocking certain characters unconscious, simply so he can focus on other ones, if only for a moment. But with so much thrown at the wall, not nearly enough sticks (I haven’t even mentioned the lengthy mid-film digression that is a visit to a secret Rocky Mountain base and research facility – apparently within helicopter range of upstate New York – that presents as a set-up for a tangential film for a character who otherwise plays no important role in this film at all). Even if each micro-narrative is internally consistent and thematically well-conceived, they never cohere into a whole, never form a team or a family as the X-Men manage to do by the film’s sequel-teasing end.

X-Men: Apocalypse is never as appallingly wrong-headed as Batman v. Superman managed to be, and is more competent in practically every way. Bryan Singer is an incomparably more interesting filmmaker than Zack Snyder, or even than the Russo brothers, whose Captain America: Civil War was the summer’s other character-stuffed superhero blockbuster (and a much better one than Singer or Snyder managed to produce). Still, Singer is so often working at cross-purposes with both his own strengths and those of the material that his peculiarities and skills are swallowed in the grandiosity, quite literally lost in the plot. In the process, Jean Grey’s in-joke becomes less an anticipated staving-off of an ignominious fate and more a proscribed self-fulfilling prophecy. Apocalypse never really narrows in on what it wants, or needs, to be, and thus settles into the discomfiting position as the least of its three-film cycle.

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