Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Rewatch/Newatch: X2: X-Men United + X-Men:Apocalypse

2003 + 2016, d. Bryan Singer

X-Men: Apocalypse is a bloody mess of a movie.  It's an unruly behemoth of disparate ideas barely coming together to make a underwhelming whole.  Like all the X-Men movies since the very first, it's an assembly of disparate stories taken from the comics, mashed with the rampant introduction of too many fan-favourite and B-list characters without enough time or effort to explore them, built around a series of set pieces rather than actual important plot progressions.

Apocalypse isn't nearly as bad as X-Men Origins: Wolverine nor X-Men: The Last Stand because, at the very least, director Bryan Singer is fully invested in these characters and this world they inhabit.    But even as the shepherd of the cinematic X-Men for the past 17+ years, he still doesn't quite know how to get them on the screen in their full glory.  The final moments, where Mystique (of all people) lead a quintet of young, in-costume X-Men in a Danger Room simulation against a group of Sentinels *finally* hints at putting the X-Men we've always wanted to see on screen.

But that's then end, let's go back.

Even prior to seeing the film, I wasn't very psyched for it.  Unlike Days of Future Past -- which has a similar tone and marketing campaign, but also the added benefit of bringing two generations of X-Men together the big screen -- Apocalypse's promotion was dull.  The posters were dull, the costume design looked dull, the action looked dull.  At this stage the threat should be all that's needed to sell an audience on the next X-Men movie, but the ads couldn't even tackle Apocalypse with any grand vigor.  In the comics he's monstrous.  Set photos and commercials showed him as something far less imposing.  The film would have to work at building him up...which it didn't quite succeed at (almost, but not quite).
The collected covers of Empire Magazine presented a better vision of X-Men Apocalypse
than anything else used to sell the film.  Look at that monster of a bad guy that never actually
showed up in reality in the film.

Apocalypse starts well enough, though, with a quite interesting Egyptian sequence spotlighting some of the backstory for the titular villain.  I honestly don't know anything about Apocalypse as a character so this filled in things nicely (whether comic accurate or not, don't know, don't care).  He gets stronger by transferring his consciousness into new mutants, thus gaining their power.  There's some hinky Egyptian/Kirby-esque technology thrust in the mix as part of the process of transference, but it's actually part of the charm.  He also has four key agents amidst his legion of worshippers, wearing elaborate headgear to single them out.  They're his four horsemen of this era, and one can tell they're powerful and feared.  In this sequence you get the sense that a long reign has come to an end (Apocalypse looks old), thus the transference.  There's a logic to much of what we see (and a comic-booky forgiveness to some of the larger-than-life bits). 

After the prologue, we're transported to 1983, and introduced to Scott Summers in high school, just as his mutant powers of optical force blasts are manifesting.  I thought mutant powers came alongside puberty, but I'm not an expert.  Scott's brother Alex (returning from First Class) takes him to see the Professor, where he meets Jean Grey (an outcast among outcasts, because her psi powers are all kinds of freaky haywire).  Jean gets a bit of an extended focus compared to the other kids in this film, primarily because they're setting up the Phoenix Force, totally calling a do-over from the botched Last Stand interpretation, which they can do now since Days of Future Past has radically altered the X-Men cinematic timeline.

Raven/Mystique, now a legendary mutant folk hero, is out tracking down mutants who are being abused, in this case an illegal German fighting ring where they force mutants to fight one another.  Reigning champ is Angel (he's just defeated the Blob as we cut to him), and Nightcrawler is his latest opponent.  Forced to defend himself, Nightcrawler proves capable and singes off Angel's wings on the electric fence mistakenly, for the sole purpose of making him sullen and angry later, and thus suitable to becoming one of Apocalypse's acolytes.

Raven takes a shining to Nightcrawler (I don't remember if she knew Azazel in First Class, but in the comics, Mystique and Azazel are Nightcrawler's parents...I don't think they're following suit here) and takes him back to Charles' school, returning for the first time in a decade.  Hank McCoy greets her, still clearly infatuated with her even after all this time.  Charles, meanwhile, is out researching a tremor felt round the world.  He finds out that his old flame, Moira McTaggart, was in the vicinity of the tremor's epicenter so he and Alex (why Alex? Who knows) go to greet her, noting that Charles had erased her mind of her entire First Class encounter.  Moira fills them in on her research into Apocalypse and for some reason becomes a tag-along part of the entire story, even though she's 100% meaningless to the plot after this.

Magneto, meanwhile, works and lives in a remote eastern block village where he's seemingly happy, living a quiet, trouble free life with a wife and daughter whom you know from the first second you see them exist only to die and fuel Eric with rage.  And so it goes.  Apocalypse recruits Storm, leader of a gang of petty child thieves on the streets of Cairo, and follows it up with recruiting Psylocke, who then takes him to Angel, and finally he finds Eric.  His four horsemen are set and then...whatever.  There's really no purpose to his horsemen.  He enhances all their powers, giving Angel deadlier metallic wings, enhancing Psylocke's psy-weapons, giving Storm greater elemental control, and boosting Eric's magnetic sensitivity.  But beyond having Eric slowly destroy the world, the rest of them aren't really serving him.

When Apocalypse discovers Charles, he knows his mutant power to control others would come in handy, so by about the halfway point the film reveals its plot of "Charles is kidnapped, and Apocalypse is going to transfer his consciousness into him and thus destroy/take over the world".

As you can see it took me four paragraphs to just introduce the cast of this film (and that's not counting the cameos like Jubilee).  It's too much and most serve little to no purpose in the grand scheme of the story.  We all like seeing characters we love represented on the big screen but if you have no time for them, no time to give them character or personality, then what's the point?

And I even forgot about Quicksilver, who's one of the most appealing characters to appear in any of the X-Men films, but again doesn't get much growth beyond where he was 10 years ago (in-movie time) in Days of Future Past.  He arrives in time to save everyone from an exploding School for Gifted Children, well, everyone except Alex (a death that provides no real meaning or inspiration for Scott).  Then Stryker shows up for some reason and knocks everyone out. But he only takes Quicksilver, Moira, Raven and Hank (Jean, Scott and Nightcrawler stow away, hidden by Jean).  They're taken to Stryker's dam/base up north for some reason, experiments I guess (why Moira then?) but we never really find out what for, because the kids let Weapon X loose for an obligatory Wolverine cameo and he wrecks the place.  Those kids aren't nearly as horrified by Logan's berzerker massacre as they should be.

By the time we get to the finale, where they face Apocalypse, it's a completely unearned climax.  Apocalypse is certainly a threat, but it's Magneto doing most of the bad stuff at the moment.  Raven and Quicksilver try to talk him down from his world-ending ways, while the others try to save Charles.  It's not a bad sequence overall, but it doesn't feel properly set up.  Apocalypse and his horsemen should have been raising an army of mutants to survive the world's end and to go to war with any who try to stop them. The fighting also wasn't very smart.  There's not much of a team effort here.  Apocalypse threat level should have meant the end for everyone opposing him almost immediately but it's not quite the case.  He toys with them.  How much better would it have been if the team coordinated an attack while Quicksilver and Nightcrawler were basically helping keep their teammates out of harm's way as Apocalypse retaliates.  How about the characters use their powers intelligently, and as a team?  There's a lot of pointless leaping about and once again a whole "let's all blast him" kind of ending (which was pretty much the end of every Fantastic Four movie so far).

Mystique gets a defining characteristic for the first time in being a Che-like idol and inspiration to mutants. It's perhaps the most earned moment for any of the characters in any of these X-Men movies.  Mystique was never much of a major player in the comics, but simply by being attached to one of the biggest celebrities in Hollywood, she gets some gravitas and purpose, and becomes the leader of the X-Men.  Seriously.  It doesn't follow the comics at all, but it does feel 100% justified.  This movie, if nothing else, did right by her.

The same can't really be said for most of the rest of the cast.  Wasted potential, in almost every case.  The exceptions are Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is utterly charming, the relationship between Scott (Tye Sheridan) and Jean (Sophie Turner) is swiftly established (but works, mostly...when they meet, Scott is the boy who can see nothing, and Jean is the girl who sees everything, it's a nice contrast), and Jean really gets to cut loose and show off.  But Psylocke, Storm, Angel, Moira, Weapon X, Apocalypse, Hank McCoy, Quicksilver, even Charles...they don't really get much of anything to do here here.

If this franchise moves forward, which no doubt it will, it needs to drop Charles strictly into the mentor role, it needs to ditch Magneto for a little bit (or give Fassbender a solo film as anti-hero), and it needs to focus on a core cast.  If that is Storm, Quicksilver, Cyclops, Phoenix and Nightcrawler, led by Mystique and Beast, then so be it.  But focus.

The nadir of this film finds a defeated Psylocke (a totally game Olivia Munn in some ace cosplay) sneering at the triumphant X-Men and skulking off...probably never to be seen again...unless she's responsible for the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants in the next movie or something.

Speaking of useless/pointless, 1983 only made sense as a setting because the previous two films were period pieces.  First Class made perfect use of the Cold War, particularly the Cuban Missile Crisis, while Cold War paranoia in the 1970's seemed to only be exacerbated by the idea of mutants as weapons destabilizing global power.  The 1980's here is barely even a style choice.  Beyond some wardrobe or hairstyle touches, there's no impact to the film at all as a result of its timing.  It didn't even go for an 80's aesthetic or pastiche which could have made a huge difference in how the film played out (by going pastiche it could really overplay 80's-style coincidence-driven storytelling).

The film was written by Simon Kinberg, who also wrote the latest Fantastic Four movie, Days of Future Past and The Last Stand.  He seems to be one of those go-to superhero script writers studios seem to stick with, like Fox's version of David Goyer.  They really need to cut that guy loose from writing duties.

But going back to 2003's X-2: X-Men United, the picture is only marginally rosier.  Oh who am I kidding, it's like Casablanca comparatively.  There's so much restraint in X-2, primarily due to budget.  As a pre-show message and end-credits message reminded us on Apocalypse, it took 150,000 people to make the movie, and it's these kind of overblown budgets that lead to exhausting overblown, disconnected spectacles.  In X-2, the smaller budget leads to more innovative and necessary uses of effects.  Fight sequences are more tightly controlled, more intimate, less grandiose, and more exciting as a result.  Despite being over a dozen years old, it's a more impressive film in most ways.

But the story of X-2 is also more personal.  I wasn't a huge fan of it when it first came out (I thought it unfairly focussed on Wolverine yet again, to the detriment of all the other characters more...and I still think that, but it doesn't make it bad outright), but it's a much tighter film, story wise, and it juggles it characters and its cameos so much better.  A screen display gives an easter egg list of mutant names to giggle over, while quick cameos from Colossus and Shadowcat are all that's needed (if just to let us know they're there).

But Rogue, Iceman and Pyro all get a nice junior X-Men position in the film and a meaningful journey.  Rogue's fearful of her powers and what they'll do if Bobby gets close, Bobby's a little less fearful, but frustrated by the situation (plus we meet his mutant-phobic family) and Pyro just can't help but let the fire rage inside and out.  Jean's having difficulty fighting what's inside her, while having to question her attraction to Logan and her commitment to Scott.  Charles has to face his greatest failure as a teacher, and Logan is still digging into his past.  Even Eric gets his moments, where he tows the good/bad line so perfectly well (Sir Ian McKellen is awesome, but we all know that).  And Mystique, while not given the same amount of weight as with Jennifer Lawrence in the role (Magneto provides a bunch of exposition which should be hers, unfortunately) she's a major player throughout this film.  She doesn't get a journey though, but she does get a lot of cool moments.  She's the Quicksilver of the piece.

X-2 is a fascinating watch following Apocalypse, because it's the truly the precursor to it.  It's a film that perfectly highlights why Raven was so important to the different causes Eric and Charles were fighting for in Days of Future Past.  Raven in the current run falls on Charles' side, where she becomes the team's leader, and a hero of their people.  In the old trilogy, she was beside Eric, his lover and chief weapon.  He calls her "my dear" but you never get the sense there's any true love there.  He certainly appreciates her talents but he's got her in his thrall and uses and relies upon her as a right hand, lesser so as a partner.  One doesn't get the sense she has a lot of say in their schemes.

Likewise, it's interesting in X-2 how Jean is treated.  In Apocalypse, Charles needs her to control herself, and promises she will learn how to,  so that she won't be so afraid herself and others won't be so fearful of her.  But Famke Janssen's Jean is older and still afraid of what's inside her, of what she's capable of.  She's not learned to control it, nor has she learned to escape her fear.  But in Apocalypse, set some 20 years earlier, Charles urges a teenage Jean to let go, and the Phoenix force erupts from her.  She challenges and helps defeat Apocalypse, and becomes a changed character as a result.

This aspect of synergy I like more than the actual story of Apocalypse, or X-2, the intentional differences in choices made and actions performed, and how they shape a character.  It's a very X-Men thing to do.

Even Logan, his memories of escaping the Weapon X program in X-2 are different than how it plays out here.  And it's Jean who helps him.  Jean unlocks his cage, setting him free, and then unlocks his mind, giving a piece of himself back that he wouldn't get in the original trilogy until 17 years hence.  I'm curious to see how the next Wolverine movie reconciles the multiple paths Logan has taken thanks to Days of Future Past, but equally interested to finally have that character retired from the screen, allowing the focus to shift elsewhere.

Kelly Hu is featured here as Lady Deathstrike, a badass mutant with extendable adamantium fingernails.  She's a lady Wolverine with a mutant healing factor as well.  Stryker controls her with a serum extracted from his son, so she's completely brainwashed and doesn't speak.  She just stands around looking mean and cool, but has little to do but fight.  See also Psylocke.  The fact that Jubilee also gets excised from both X-2 and Apocalypse (she's referred to by name in the former, but not at all in-costume like she is in the latter) means these X-films have a real problem with their female Asian characters (not to mention not a single non-caucasian male mutant...although Apocalypse does make a joke about how many blue characters there are, which makes it all the more embarrassing for their lack of diversity).

It's time for the cinematic X-universe to let go of it's caretakers, Singer and Kinberg, and let go of some of its regurgitated opposing forces (Stryker, Wolverine, Magneto), and really embrace some of its more wild, comic book inspirations.  Costumes, Danger Room simulations, aliens... hell I'll even take a New Mutants vs. Arcade film if they want to do that.  Let's have some fun, and not be so serious all the time.  I look over the 7 X-Men films to date (I will include Deadpool, because Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead are so awesome in that), and the first one from 2000 is still my favourite because it's so full of promise.  They've had 16 years and a half dozen additional films, and they're only now just scratching at fulfilling that promise.