Tuesday, May 31, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse Review

Since no one else is talking about X-Men: Apocalypse, I guess I have to?

I actually liked it. After the plot-centric time-travel/crossover/political thriller/70’s pastiche that was “Days of Future Past”, I had very low expectations. And I had never had any appreciation for Apocalypse as a villain at all, as he seemed to be nothing but “very powerful” and “mind controlling good guys”. The reviews were mixed-to-bad, so hey, why bother.

And then I watched it, and wow, there’s some interesting things going on here.

For one, Apocalypse for the first two-thirds of the movie is really compelling. Not in acting - Oscar Isaacs is indeed wasted - and not in costume, which is only barely on this side of comical - but in *action*.

Update: Also a good review of Walter Chaw http://www.filmfreakcentral.net/ffc/2016/05/x-men-apocalypse.html

Okay, so spoilers and plot summary below. Like anyone cares about spoilers at this point.

He doesn't look megalomaniacal. He looks sad. Okay he looks sad and megalomaniacal.

Apocalypse really acts like someone who thinks he is a god, and has woken up after the past 3000 years of human history. And he reacts as if human history has been a goddamn travesty. His first scene in modern times is a Jesus-in-the-temple moment where he sees where his temple used to be, replaced only by merchants and signs of capitalist excess (cash, gold, a “cash for gold” sign). He sees a street rat using her wind powers to steal some cash, follows her, and saves her from the men who will chop off her hand for thievery. His best scene follows that, where he bemoans all the systems that now rule the world, while individuals struggle and are degraded.

Really, he says systems like a dozen times in the movie. Even I thought his Marxist critique was repetitive.

He calls the girl (who turns out to be Storm) a goddess, whom he promises to remake the world for. He calls every mutant he meets one of his children, whom he feels responsibility for. And I really believed he meant it.

At one point he apologizes for being asleep while Auschwitz happened! And then he helps a Holocaust survivor destroy the remains of that hell camp from the ground up.

It’s become a plotpoint of these mutant-minorities-are-like-civil-rights movies that the “bad guy” tries to trick the world’s superpowers into launching nuclear weapons at each other, as his great ultimate plot so mutants can rule over the remains of the planet. Halfway through the movie, Apocalypse seems to be doing this, when he hacks through Xavier’s Cerebro back to him, and uses it to take over the mind of every nuclear-weapon artilleryman on the planet, making them fire every missile at once.

This is part of the best 15 minutes of the movie, where we see all these weapons going off, and Apocalypse monologuing about how much he hates tools: No more stones, no more swords, no more arrows, no more spears…

And he fires all these missiles into space where no one can get them back.

This is an 80’s pastiche where instead of heightening the Cold War paranoia that we all may be nuked, the bad guy just unilaterally disarmed every military in the world (of nukes at least). At this point I was thoroughly on Apocalypse’s side.

(It’s also interesting that instead of being the umpteenth villain to destroy Xavier’s Mansion for Gifted Youngsters, he just takes what he wants and leaves, and the place is blown up only because a good guy was trying to shoot at them.)

A lot of reviews complain that none of these acts or the plot makes sense, but it sounds like they wanted to be text-fed the plot. Apocalypse’s actions are all entirely in theme for a “guy who thinks he is a god and hates the modern world for the many valid reasons an outsider would hate the modern world.”

So we get another villain of the type we’ve seen lately like Bane and Ultron, where they want to revolutionize the entire world for the sake of the most oppressed. This communist revolutionary villain seems pretty useful in movies where the superhero protagonist is deeply invested in the existing system (be it CEO Stark or liberal pacifist Xavier.)  Of course this villain always ends up being so goddamn crazy they want to destroy the whole world, which is a disappointing let down for an initially sympathetic character - but it makes sense as a story told from the protagonist’s point of view, since a liberal capitalist hero thinks communists can only be secretly seeking worldwide destruction.

(Which is why the last third of the movie was more disappointing, as Apocalypse goes into full on wreck-the-world mode. It at least could have benefitted from a speech like Ultron gives in the middle of Avengers, when he transitions into full destruction mode.)

Seriously, the core of the movie is from when Storm is introduced, to the Quicksilver scene where he shows off his powers. It’s an hour of the middle, and definitely the strongest all around.

Yeah, they have another Quicksilver scene. Viewers who saw Days of Future Past will remember that that movie is redeemed only by a scene showing the fastest mutant using his powers, set to “Time in a Bottle”.

This movie repeats that, using Eurythmic’s “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This”, fairly effectively (both songs capturing their respective decades, and giving a good mood for how this mutant feels out of sync with the world around him). Which gets to a difference between the X-verse, and the MCU, and the DC universe as well.

MCU just treats superpowers as an effortless extension of the smooth and confident heroes. There a lot of casually raising your hand to blast a mook across the screen, but nothing of how it *feels* for a beam of light to come out of your hand, or flying across the air. (Hulk and Antman try to do this a little more, depending on the movie.) Since versions of Quicksilver appear in both MCU and Xverse, he’s the easiest comparison, and Quicksilver in the MCU does nothing but appear out of nowhere, say or do something witty, and then disappear to another place.

Another good contrast is beams. Iron Man, Thor, and Vision can all shoot energy beams of some sort. (The shared trait is hardly a coincidence, of course.) These beams always do exactly what the wielder wants (unless they’re distracted by love, of course), for as much power as is appropriate to the situation, with no depiction of how hard it is to use this sort of weapon. There’s no feel to it.

XM:A introduces the reviled character of Scott Summers aka Cyclops, who can’t control the lasers coming out of his eyes. The movie does a very faithful effort depicting Cyclops as the incredibly derpy X-men he’s always been, so good job there. And it also sympathetically shows what it’s like having a finger of god coming out of your head! His eye beam is wild and uncontrolled, burning large amounts of property and generally embarrassing Cyclops. It flares violently and lasts for far too long, not a single clean shot. This one character gets across how these mutants are cursed as much as gifted, and how it feels to be cursed with uncontrollable power. I liked that. (Jubiliee, a character with very similar problems, was sadly underused.)

Xavier promises to help him control his power, and amplify it. In fact, Xavier spends a lot of the movie helping mutants increase their power, which culminates in the climax with him screaming at Jean Grey to unleash her full power (a very questionable idea for anyone who knows anything about the inevitable Dark Phoenix storylines.)

This is interesting, because it sets Xavier up as parallel to Apocalypse, who is seducing mutants by increasing their powers as well. In fact, parallels between the hero and the villain are obvious in most movies, so what’s more notable here is the lack of difference. Apocalypse’s main violation of morality is how he feels brute power is justified to attain his goals… and Xavier doesn’t really have a problem with that.

Apocalypse orders a captured Xavier to broadcast a message to every mind on Earth about how he is going to take over the world, and the powerful should be exalted. Instead of refusing, Xavier sends this message into everyone’s brains, but a) also uses the opportunity to send a secret message to Jean Grey, and b) ends it with saying the powerful should protect the weak. Okay Charles, this really isn’t better. You still felt mass-mind-invasion was an acceptable medium for your propaganda. In fact, because it was your voice, most people of the world still think you are trying to take over the world.

(Ethics of mind-control are another theme of the movie, with Xavier being unable to talk smoothly with someone he feels guilty about mind-wiping, his students giving him side-eye for mind-wiping, and eventually reversing the mind-wipe (though again, without asking permission or anything.))

[Insert comparison of Apocalypse’s four horsemen, and Xavier giving in and creating a standing army for the first time, as the last note of the film. Also another comparison of Apocalypse and mutants constructing his temple with their powers, and the film ending with various telekinetic mutants reassembling the Xavier mansion.]

Symbolically this is most highlighted by Apocalypse’s grand plan to merge with Xavier, transferring his consciousness to Xavier’s body. The process begins enough to even start to change Charles’ appearance, which is their explanation for his trademark baldness at the end. It’s hard not to read this movie as two “will to power” narratives merging in the end. Sadly, the only sign that Xavier will do anything with this new militarism is that Mystique is back leading the team.

(Jennifer Lawrence gives no great performance, but the writing around her character continues to be as top notch as ever. Now she is hiding from her role as a superhero role model, which is symbolized by her blue skin appearance, so she’s back to looking “normal”, a position she has always wrestled with. The most touching moment of the movie is probably a shot of Storm’s Mystique calendar (who Storm idolizes), as Apocalypse turns her into a more powerful-but-enthralled mutant soldier. I really like how Mystique is the one always wrestling with the core of “what does it mean to be a mutant/hero/symbol”, especially given her power set and default appearance.)

Otherwise a lot of the arcs were very… short. Quicksilver, Jean Grey, Magneto, Moira all get their story, but in each case it’s a very one dimensional story where not much character progress happens. For them it felt more like a TV show, maybe a season finale, then a full on movie. The lengthy military-prison/Stryker/Weapon X act was all entirely pointless, or more symbolic than I can interpret here. This is the part of the movie you could probably turn off.

But overall? Still good and interesting. Still a lot of stuff to engage with. It’s funny given the call out to Star Wars rankings, that the quality ranking of this trilogy seems to be very different from Star Wars, with the first movie as obviously the best, the second as obviously the worst, and this movie firmly in the middle.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Stuff in Civil War

Clocking in at 2 hr 26 min, there’s a lot to Captain America 3: Civil War. And I don’t just mean “a lot of superpowered characters” or “a lot of witty dialogue”, but kind of everything all over the place. There’s a great deal many threads that could be cut and leave the plot intact, so it’s fascinating to think about what those mean. At some point I’ll talk about some of these threads, but here’s just a list of *stuff* in this movie that deserves reflection.

Spoilers ahead.