X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

★★

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X-Men: Apocalypse PosterDirector: Bryan Singer

Release Date: May 18th, 2016 (UK); May 27th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Sophie Turner, Oscar Isaac

It’s fitting that X-Men: Apocalypse should arrive on the heels of Captain America: Civil War, though not for the most flattering reason. Since Marvel Studios launched its Cinematic Universe back in 2008, the studio has carved out quite the mountainous niche for itself. From Iron Man onwards, the films under the MCU banner have followed a fairly compact narrative structure: stories with potentially world-ending consequences told atop a spine of levity. Civil War is the clearest, most effective representation of that structure we’ve had thus far, its serious themes of accountability and government distrust lightened via bouts of humour. While other outings have had some success, the Russo brothers’ tonal balancing act in Civil War is as close to faultless as the MCU might ever see.

Back, then, to X-Men: Apocalypse, a feature that strives to have more in common with this Marvel prerogative than its own pre-established mantra. Bryan Singer’s film, penned by Simon Kinberg (they last worked together on Days of Future Past), is probably the funniest X-Men instalment to date, bearing a commendable number of snappy one-liners and some less commendable instances of accidental amusement. But elements of its story are also deeply serious and the filmmakers struggle to marry this seriousness with the humour, at times to the movie’s downfall. The issue is not that Singer and Kinberg want to make us laugh, it’s that the filmmakers’ deployment of humour is grossly misplaced. More on that later.

It’s pretty much your bog-standard superhero showdown: a big bad (En Sabah Nur, played by an Oscar Isaac struggling valiantly against the character’s broad strokes) rises from the dust and ruin of a fallen ancient empire to wreak havoc upon the 1980s, and it’s up to the good mutants (led by Charles Xavier, played by James McAvoy) to stop him. En route to worldwide recalibration — an odd sequence sees Nur decry the weakness of humankind and our technologies via television montage — the super-mutant recruits a handful of powerful followers, one of whom is Magneto (Michael Fassbender), plucked from a covert life in Poland with his wife and daughter. There are a bunch of others involved but that’s about the gist.

Unsurprisingly, most of the others are mutants and again we see a few treated unfairly, like freak attractions. We are introduced to Angel (Ben Hardy) in the midst of a one-sided cage fight and reintroduced to Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as his next opponent. Scott Summers’ (Tye Sheridan) unearthed Cyclops ability sets him apart in high school and primes him for bullying — lots of characters are either new or feel new because they haven’t had the chance to shine before, not that many get a chance to shine here. This demonisation of mutants, a class/race theme the X-Men series has sought to investigate more intensely in the past, is why Erik Lehnsherr wants to keep his true identity a secret from fellow co-workers and the authorities.

Lehnsherr is by far the most interesting character, not least because he’s the sort of intellectual powerhouse who can back up an Icarus and Daedalus reference (careful) with actual menace. While the excellent work carried out by the likes of Kinberg in previous outings has afforded Lehnsherr intrigue, it’s really Fassbender who has instilled authority and ethical contention into the character. A terrific moment in Apocalypse sees Lehnsherr have his peaceful family life unmasked through preventing the death of a co-worker, and Fassbender’s expression of subtle anguish as Lehnsherr realises his veiled existence is about to be torn apart is wonderfully judged. I won’t give anything else away about the catalyst that sends Lehnsherr over the edge other than noting its compelling moral dichotomy.

It’s fair to say this instalment is less concerned with class warfare undercurrents than before (Days of Future Past pitted human against mutant with more complex personal tension). Humour takes precedence in moments that otherwise would be weighty, most notably during a scene where Lehnsherr, Magneto tendencies in full flow, interrupts his own heartbreaking diatribe about loss and tragedy with a cheap made-for-laughs F-bomb. There are also unintentionally funny lines, such as Moira MacTaggert’s (Rose Byrne) revelation that Nur’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse might have fed religion and not vice versa (“The Bible got it from him”). Another hokily hilarious moment: an 80s hard rock guitar riff playing over a brooding shot of Nur.

Elsewhere we see a throughline about sacrificing oneself for the greater good, or bad. The film’s prologue — almost a National Treasure spin-off short — depicts the reinvigoration of an ageing Nur and those putting it all on the line to ensure his rebirth. Later, Charles offers himself up in a mental battle like any hero worth his or her weight in righteousness would do. Beneath these two opposing leaders are fractured souls: all four Horsemen are broken before teaming with Nur, for instance, while Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) feels the brunt of inner turmoil on the good side. Turner offers promise as the mind manipulator, a well-balanced mixture of Sansa Stark’s newfound steel and a teenager’s self-doubt, but the material doesn’t serve her well: “You’re not the biggest freak in the school now,” Grey laments to Summers as if reading from page one of How to Create School Stereotypes.

Summers fares little better, moping and angry in one scene then cockily orchestrating a mall trip the next. Their arc factors in burgeoning love, another trope explored under various guises with varying success. For Grey and Summers it’s about the immaturity of youth and finding common ground in how they are each unable to fully grasp their powers. Charles is whipped into an awkward frenzy when he reacquaints with Moira, she unaware of their previously held bond, he having erased it from her memory in First Class. The most effective relationship (or lack thereof), though, is also the most nuanced: shared by Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank (Nicholas Hoult), at least there is some historical clout behind it.

Newton Thomas Sigel delivers scintillating shots from above as nuclear rockets shoot skyward, images that brilliantly denote the scope of Nur’s plan. It’s a shame such scope falls by the wayside during a climactic battle scene that devolves into a disengaging CG stramash, something the MCU has also struggled with. It’s clear the filmmakers are visually better than their final act, especially when you factor in another superb Quicksilver (Evan Peters) sequence from earlier in the movie. Again it is one of the best scenes, vibrant and witty and full of style and flair. Peters’ version of the character is an alacritous gem, free of the cynicism incumbent upon other mutants who have spent so much time fighting wars. He really ought to be a banner act.

McAvoy’s hair is more glorious than ever in preparation for the balding we all know is coming, and that aesthetic prerequisite is indicative of the film in a general sense. There is a lot of surface promise going on, a bunch of mild chuckles and some solid acting endeavour, but when it comes down to thematic development there is a sense of inevitability. You can see how all the pieces are going to fit and that hasn’t always been the case with X-Men. I did find the two and a half hours enjoyable enough, but then this is a movie that had Oscar Isaac and Michael Fassbender standing next to one another reciting baloney, both limited by bad tone management. That’s almost unforgivable.

X-Men: Apocalypse - Rockets

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright: 20th Century Fox

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

★★★★★

Captain America Civil War PosterDirectors: Anthony and Joe Russo

Release Date: April 29th, 2016 (UK); May 6th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction

Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Sebastian Stan, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie

Cards on the table: I’m a massive Captain America fan. Film series and character, but especially character. In The First Avenger, Steve Rogers is puny. A frail, ailing body with great aspirations and an admirable mantra. So he becomes a super solider and fights for his country against the Nazis. It’s great. By the time The Winter Soldier rolls around, Rogers is doing laps of the Capitol building in the year 2013. From the confident patriot, he’s now the unsettled defender of American freedom in a truly globalist world. It turns out Hydra has infected SHIELD; Rogers’ reliance on authority takes a hit. He still fights for freedom, but against whom?

Fast forward to Captain America: Civil War. His corporate distrust has never been more palpable — Rogers, once a willing propaganda figure for the USA, is now thoroughly anti-government. Which poses something of a problem given a guilt-ridden Tony Stark (he funds the projects of MIT students as it “helps ease his conscience”) has aligned himself with a legal arrangement drawn up by the United Nations to help govern superhero affairs. It’s why this incarnation of Stark, completely different from the incarnation relayed by Robert Downey Jr. in the first Iron Man movie, is so interesting. Just like Rogers, Stark has flipped, but in the opposite direction: no longer the rebel, now a willing integrator. And we sympathise with that penchant for integration as much as we do Rogers’ disassociation.

The aforementioned Sokovia Accords are developed in harmony by a conglomerate of nations following the Avengers’ role in the destruction of various cities across the globe. Spearheaded by the UN, the Accords split the protagonists evenly down the middle with Rogers heading up the ‘out’ gang and Stark the ‘in’. From the moment sides are established, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely serve up viable sparring justifications: Rogers fears the new world and its new politics, and believes each superhero should be accountable for his or her own actions. Stark regrets the path his actions have paved, that in shaping a team of valiant world-defenders he has also bred deadly foes like Ultron.

Markus and McFeely have been with Captain America from the beginning and they’ve done the character justice on the page, though kudos also ought to go to those who have helped shape Iron Man. You really feel the weight of history behind each persona and both actors use that pre-established weight with considered aplomb — the first glance between Rogers and Stark in Civil War is momentary, fleeting, and yet the definitive visual symbol for what is to come (spoiler: a disagreement or two). It occurs during a crisis meeting where the film tests our moral mettle via a slideshow showing Avengers-induced decimation, a meeting notable not only because it sets the fragmentation touchpaper alight, but also because it represents the bureaucracy in Stark’s argument.

We see more of that bureaucracy later: when the returning General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) cuts a mission deadline from 72 to 36 hours, for instance, and also during a key UN conference. “Victory at the expense of the innocent is no victory at all,” states Wakandan leader T’Chaka (John Kani) at said meeting. These are significant words in any circumstance, but coming off the back of Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky — its premise based on powerful people juggling a young girl’s life before a potentially deadly terrorist strike — they resonate with significantly more gravitas. They place Rogers in a predicament that is ethically unusual for a blockbuster hero, especially one built upon a foundation of untainted righteousness: in arguing for free will, Rogers is by proxy defending the notion that some may die on the road to ultimate freedom.

There are grey tendencies in both camps that serve to ripen the narrative core. The ultimatum posed to the Avengers that they must sign the Accords or retire comes across as too heavy-handed, autocratic almost, while Rogers’ stubbornness suggests an insurmountable ideological purity that is perhaps blinding him from the harsh realities of modern geopolitics. The density of the fractured dynamic between those involved, especially between the lead duo, is endlessly compelling and fairly new to the genre I think, at least to the extent depicted here — you could argue X-Men: First Class tackled something similar, though even then Magneto’s presence shepherded a noticeable cloud of villainy.

Previous Marvel movies have been chastised for their lack of proper stakes, for their inability to suspend our disbelief when it comes to decisive matters such as estrangement or death. The nature of announcing franchise instalments years in advance has undoubtedly tainted the element of surprise (chances are Thor will make it past the end credits of Film Two when he’s on the call sheet for Film Three). Which makes Civil War all the more impressive. There are stakes this time, genuine gut-punchers centred on the solidity of relationships between various characters with whom we’ve spent the better part of a decade. If you don’t get that sense of clout from seeing such personal combustion, the frequent use of bold text to outline numerous city names ought to induce a big-time aura.

And despite all the bickering, there remains a wonderfully light touch; a vitality, a hilarity. At times the action is brutish — an apartment ambush involving Cap and Bucky (Sebastian Stan) borrows tepidly from the more crunching style seen in both Daredevil and Jessica Jones. It’s also fantastical: a monumental airport duel between the two teams almost certainly trounces all that has come before in terms of Marvel silver screen choreography. It’s at this point Ant-Man comes to the fore, Paul Rudd stealing scene after scene atop a wave of witty quips. We have seen him before but this is Ant-Man’s introduction to large scale superheroism and it is perfectly handled. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man is another positive, a bit immature, a bit overawed, a total do-gooder.

Though it may become ground zero for those looking to pull off their own future balancing act when it comes to handling personnel in an action environment, the airport clash only amounts to around one-fifth of Civil War’s runtime. The filmmakers manage to carve out meaningful narrative space for all their recruits throughout the piece in a way that does not indicate last minute hot-shotting. Black Panther gets a solid run-out, played with brooding authority by Chadwick Boseman who affords the newbie an air of instant importance. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow returns in a role that requires as much emotional interaction as it does ass-kicking.

Having landed the daunting task of sorting out so many moving parts — different enemies, different friends, different allegiances — the Russo brothers succeed by matching those variables to the many moving moralities on display. I haven’t even mentioned Paul Bettany’s Vision, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, or Anthony Mackie’s Falcon. Nor have I brought up Daniel Brühl’s scheming villain Helmut Zemo, who might be a tad underserved but then it isn’t really about the baddie on this occasion. This is a formidable cast all in good form. Even Marisa Tomei sneaks in a playful jab clarifying aunts come in all shapes and sizes (take that internet).

Anyone who has any inkling of how blockbuster cinema works will likely recognise what they perceive to be a predictable arc unfolding. But the directing duo and their filmmaking collaborators work hard to induce genuine unpredictability, be it through character decision-making or surprising story reveals. Again the Russo brothers mix hard-boiled geopolitics with a palooza of popcorn-crunching proportions, and again they succeed. In trilogy terms, the Captain America series is by far the best the genre has cooked up to date (Nolan’s Dark Knight films are as much superhero movies as they are love stories) and Civil War is an ideal way to Cap it all off.

Captain America: Civil War - Chris Evans

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures