X-MEN: APOCALYPSE Review

The X-Men franchise over at FOX always makes for an interesting story. The original trilogy isn’t known as great, but also not bad. The third film did make some errors, such as killing off Cyclops. Sadly, the three were also at their core Wolverine movies with the actual team almost sometimes acting like guest stars. Instead of rebooting it, the company instead decided to quasi-reboot it with the prequel First Class. Then in Days of Future Past Director Bryan Singer smartly messed with the timeline. It was the perfect way to “fix” what previous movies did while maintaining a coherent continuity. So in a way, Apocalypse is the first X-Men film in the new timeline. For those that have read the comics, they know the character of Apocalypse deserves a substantial amount of hype. (He’s basically the Thanos or Darkseid of the X-Men.) Combine that with the inclusion of characters such as Jubilee and Psylocke, plus bringing back fan favorites such as Nightcrawler, we have in theory a clear winner for the X series. Sadly, it might have ended up being the worst.

“Since the dawn of civilization, he was worshiped as a god. Apocalypse, the first and most powerful mutant from Marvel’s X-Men universe, amassed the powers of many other mutants, becoming immortal and invincible. Upon awakening after thousands of years, he is disillusioned with the world as he finds it and recruits a team of powerful mutants, including a disheartened Magneto (Michael Fassbender), to cleanse mankind and create a new world order, over which he will reign. As the fate of the Earth hangs in the balance, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) with the help of Professor X (James McAvoy) must lead a team of young X-Men to stop their greatest nemesis and save mankind from complete destruction.”

During watching it’s hard not to imagine how much better the story could have been if the film was set with the X-Men already established. We wouldn’t have needed all the exposition and character introductions the plot attempts to cram in the first half. We have intros for Cyclops, Jean Grey, Nightcrawler, Apocalypse, and numerous side characters. That’s not to mention there are previous character arcs brought back. Having a lot of characters/plots isn’t a bad thing, but it’s something few films have handled well. Captain America: Civil War is the primary example on how to juggle so many characters. Each person there got adequate screen time and a viewer doesn’t walk away feeling, “Well he/she was underused!” In X-Men’s case, it’s quite the opposite.

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Perhaps Psylocke was the most awaited character. Olivia Munn doesn’t do a bad job. In fact, I’d say she was very good in the role. The problem is the writing. She rarely has any lines throughout the over two hour run time. She maybe had 4 sentences. Combine that with no backstory and her role being basically a puppet, we have the definition of a wasted character. It’s a shame, because the costume and the way she fights were taken directly from the comics. The second worst example might have to be Angel. He was also criminally underused in his appearance in The Last Stand, but at least there he was likable and got at least one important scene. Like Psylocke, he’s given no backstory and ended up being an empty-minded follower of Apocalypse. His character arc also comes to a very unsatisfying end. How about Storm? Surely one of the future leaders and noblest of the X-Men would be given an excellent role. Sadly, we don’t get much of a sense of her goddess persona from the comics, instead being a thief whom becomes brainwashed by Apocalypse for most of the film.

Besides the poor usage of characters, another negative aspect is the pacing. It’s hard to call this an action movie sometimes. Often, it’s more of a drama/thriller with a few action sequences. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because Days of Future Past pulled this off. The thing there however is that Wolverine was able to hold the film together. There are no main characters here that are quite as interesting to follow. There are no major fights for over 90 minutes. Again, this doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but the story isn’t particularly captivating. It instead saves all the exciting things for the final 20 minutes. Batman V Superman had the same formula. There were numerous problems in that film as well but at least the climax was immensely satisfying. The finale in Apocalypse doesn’t quite reach that.

The biggest disappointment of the final battle is that Apocalypse himself actually rarely fights. He keeps reminding the viewer how great he is, but rarely do we see that in combat. He beats down on Quicksilver (only after the latter completely humiliates him) but he never fights the whole team. That’s the battle people wanted to see. This is not to say there aren’t things to like. Psylocke’s brief scuffle with Beast was a highlight and for a few moments it felt like something out of a comic book. Nightcrawler’s teleportation was also fun, as well as Cyclops’ optic blast being put to excellent use. As one can see, there are some good things here, but ultimately they are too few in a final act that’s only slightly better than 2015’s Fantastic Four climax.

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The film had the opportunity to establish Cyclops as the future leader of the team. Instead, he spends most of the movie being unlikable, even a punk. (After maybe a day at the school, he recommends he and a few others go for a joyride.) Interestingly, it’s his brother Havok whom proves to be a much better focus. It’s a shame he stopped appearing after the middle act. Henry McCoy was very solid throughout and definitely someone to look forward to in future films. Quicksilver had a great, though minimal role in Days of Future Past. It was great seeing him play a bigger part here in the latest film. Like in Days, he has a big “highlight sequence.”It goes on a little too long, (and even with his speed it’s incredibly hard to believe) but still was an attention grabber.

Charles Xavier wasn’t bad, but not particularly amazing either. Sadly, James McAvoy can’t seem to command a presence like Patrick Stewart. Michael Fassbender as Magneto was much more engaging. The story smartly shows why he would consider joining with Apocalypse. (Although his dropping the f bomb was completely unnecessary. When did PG-13 films start to allow that?) Like the previous two movies, Mystique plays a rather substantial role. Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of the character has been solid. The direction in the end is questionable, mainly because it seems like it’s just being done for the sake of her having around as a main character. By the end her being a good guy has grown tiresome.

As it should be, Apocalypse was the primary centerpiece in marketing. He’s not only a major X-Men villain, he’s a major Marvel character in general. His first on screen appearance would be a big deal. FOX hasn’t had a great track record with comic book antagonists (such as Dr. Doom and Galactus) but for the most part in the X series the villains have been adequate. Apocalypse is a highlight most of the time here. Oscar Isaac commands a presence whenever he’s on screen. The story dives briefly into his backstory, with him being the first mutant. The writing is excellent as it portrays him as this false-god figure. The only real problem doesn’t have to do with the character, rather the direction. He goes around for most of the film gathering followers, but rarely fights. When he does, it’s more metaphysical. He doesn’t even turn giant, one of his most popular abilities from the comics. (Well he does, just not in reality.) It was an immensely wasted opportunity for Fox because they had the chance to showcase that they can do grand comic book-like fights. Instead we get a lackluster showing for what should be a very powerful villain.

There’s certainly a lot of negatives, but this is not to say Apocalypse was a terrible experience. There are quite a few things to like and it’s fun seeing the team together at the end. As a sort of origin it does an okay job establishing the members, romance between Scott and Jean, and setting up for the future. The soundtrack is also solid throughout. The sad thing is that while most of the characters are good, the writing doesn’t utilize them well. I really liked Lana Condor as Jubilee for example. She brings the quirky character to life in every scene she’s in. But the writing has her do nothing of importance! Instead, Moira MacTaggert, a character whom can be cut out and it wouldn’t matter in the slightest, is given more to do. The film is one big wasted opportunity to showcase all these comic book icons.

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Overall, X-Men: Apocalypse is something of a disappointment. Focus is divided between the big conflict and setting up the team. The story couldn’t seem to juggle all these characters, which is perhaps its biggest flaw. The pacing also needed to be better. The two main actors of Batman V Superman can hold a film together because they’re compelling. There were no Oscar-worthy or even somewhat standout performances here. Oscar Isaac as Apocalypse might have been the best. He had great lines and a powerful persona, but the writing never capitalized on it with actual combat. The climax doesn’t make up for the long exposition. There’s plenty of cool things to see, but sadly they aren’t enough to stop this from probably being the most mediocre entry in the X-series.

5.5/10

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CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR Review

Marvel never fails to surprise. Age of Ultron as the second Avengers movie was a shocking announcement, but Civil War might have it beat. The idea of a film adapting the famous comic story was but a dream years ago and the company has made it reality today. The original comic is lauded by many as one of the greatest Marvel events of them all. It was the first big “hero vs. hero” story which is so abundant today. The idea was to have Captain America go against the country he has on engraved on his shield, to stand up for ideals while Tony Stark agreed with the government on a controversial subject: the registration of superheroes. There’s a fascinating political backdrop of course but the main draw was to see which sides the heroes would take and of course the Cap vs. Iron Man conflict. In many ways their relationship is like Batman and Superman’s. The films have done a solid job at exploring that, and today they go head to head. Civil War is one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had in a theater. It’s a fantastic film and you’ll walk away feeling like you got your money’s worth.

Political pressure mounts to install a system of accountability when the actions of the Avengers lead to collateral damage. The new status quo deeply divides members of the team. Captain America (Chris Evans) believes superheroes should remain free to defend humanity without government interference. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) sharply disagrees and supports oversight. As the debate escalates into an all-out feud, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) must pick a side.

 

The Russo Brothers made their directing debut with The Winter Soldier, which many still consider to be the best MCU film. They return here and showcase how to do a movie featuring multiple characters. Often a film is unable to devote enough time to so many people (and in this case, introducing three big players) but the directors succeed. Every character is given adequate screen time. What I personally like however is that despite having all these Avengers, the film still watches like a Captain America story. Early on in marketing fans jokingly called it “Avengers 3,” but it’s a Cap story guest starring the Avengers. One could argue of course that Civil War is better from a general perspective, because the audience watching a Cap film would be leaning toward his side automatically. I believe the story however does an excellent job showcasing both viewpoints.

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It’s only in recent history that comics started to explore the collateral damage of superhero conflicts. Because the Avengers are enhanced humans operating outside the government, should they be registered with the UN? This is a question the film throws at the viewers. To back up that idea, we’re shown scenes of the past movies from the civilian perspective. Tony Stark blames himself for Ultron’s destruction of Sokovia, so it makes the viewer consider that point of view. (Also the mother saying she blames Tony for the death of her son in that country.) Cap challenges this question of registration, and the writing is fantastic. The round table discussion with the characters was a lot of fun to watch. Even if you know which side you’re on going into the film, the story does a good job making each at the very least understandable.

It’ll be a sad day when a new actor is chosen to portray the Sentinel of Liberty, because Chris Evans once again does a great job. The thing about Captain America is that he doesn’t wield the shield to represent America, he wields it to represent American ideals, which is freedom, truth, and justice. As seen in the comic and the film, he will rebel against the country when he believes it is conflicting with those ideals. (Even though he wasn’t the one to say it in the film, I’m glad this famous quote was used.) The road to him rebelling against the government here was well established with, as I’ve said, fantastic writing. The entire Winter Solider angle was heavily marketed, almost as if it would be the entire point of Cap turning against the law. Thankfully it’s more of an add-on than the absolute main reason.

The films have briefly explored Tony Stark’s problems with depression, and of course one can imagine the saddening thought of being responsible for the creation of a sociopath robot whom destroyed many innocent lives. It makes sense that he would agree for registration, which in his mind helps right wrongs. The back and fourth dialogue between him and Cap was a blast to watch. While the two are the heart of the conflict, every character is a highlight. Just about every line Falcon had gave me a good laugh and Scott Lang’s arrival was fun, just for a couple of examples. This is best exemplified in the film’s big middle conflict.

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Interestingly enough, the movie’s big highlight isn’t the climatic fight, it’s the center conflict. This is the battle marketed in trailers where we see both teams come at each other. Words cannot describe the amount of fun one has while watching it. This is where all the good stuff happens. This is where we see Spider-Man (more on him soon) and iconic moments which shows just how in tune the writing is with the comics. It’s incredibly done and pretty much the epitome of a fan’s dream. There’s so many highlights in this sequence it’s hard to think anything will top it.

Of course it’s a lot of fun when you’re sitting there and watching, but at the same time from another perspective the fight feels like it should be a little more serious. Just about everyone the whole time is cracking jokes and based on their faces look like they’re having a good time. In the comic when the teams first collide it was brutal, and the reader could see that. Here were these longtime friends fighting for real, fighting to win. Even though the film’s version of their first fight is a great time, I think it would have been great to see that gritty, bloody battle between old comrades. It’s a Civil War after all, not sparring practice. Another thing is that because the middle conflict is so great to watch, it kind of takes away from the climax fight. After all, once the story introduces Spider-Man, it’s hard not wondering why we don’t get to see more of him after that battle.

As a longtime Spider-Man fan, seeing him alongside Cap and the others was a treat I’ll never forget. The way he fights, talks and just about everything does not disappoint. While technically not being significant to the overall story, (you can cut out his role and it wouldn’t affect the plot) he added another whole dimension of epic enjoyment. Tom Holland in his brief scenes portrayed a young Peter Parker well. I’m very excited to see how he does when the focus is completely on him in his solo film, Homecoming. Of course, Spidey isn’t the only new hero established. Black Panther also makes his debut. Somehow the story manages to incorporate his origin, and amazingly it works. As stated earlier, this film is the perfect example of how to juggle so many characters at once.

Mysteriously, almost none of marketing featured the film’s antagonist, Baron Zemo to the point where many forgot he was even in it. Even with the superhero conflict happening, the story manages to interweave his plot into it. Zemo wasn’t bad, even solid. Though, it would have been nice to get a costume reveal at some point and a bigger conflict with Cap. Steve’s biggest nemesis is Red Skull, but a close second is the Baron. Hopefully in the future we’ll see that conflict. Also, it’s great to see Hydra still being a force in the background. Like the comics, they’re always there in some capacity.

The fights in the Captain America movies tend to be the best from Marvel, and this one is no different. The opening act battle with Crossbones was easily one of the best choreographed fights from any comic book film. The chase/battle sequence between Bucky and Panther was also very good. The climax as stated doesn’t quite reach the greatness of the middle, but at the very least features some of that brutality I was referring to earlier. Though, the circumstances are a little plot convenient and felt like just an excuse to have Tony and Steve come at each other again. The soundtrack is pretty strong throughout. I particularly liked how early in the Wakanda sequence the soundtrack would feature fast-paced music for the intense fights and then slow down with detective-like music as Falcon surveys the area.

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Overall, Civil War is a blast. It’s a Captain America story at its core as he fights for what he believes in. As a comic book fan it’s quite amazing seeing all the characters come together. There are too many iconic moments to name, and the film is expertly paced. There’s no sense of dragging on or a rather long wait for an extended action sequence. (As was the case in Batman v Superman.) As an adaption it captures most of what made the original story captivating. The idea of registration is nicely explored from both sides of the argument. The Bucky aspect of the story was definitely interesting, though the ending to it is kinda disappointing. Any disappointment however is forgotten when one remembers how amazingly spectacular Spider-Man was. If it’s one film that can combat the first Avengers for sheer enjoyment, it might be this one.

9/10