Some Thoughts on X-Men: Apocalypse

So I finally decided to write this essay, eight months after this movie was in theaters. Why now? Mainly for two reasons: (1) It’s my blog, so I write on my own schedule, when I feel like writing about a particular topic; (2) I finally watched my copy this past Friday night, nearly two months to the day that I picked it up from Best Buy on Black Friday.

The fact that it was still sealed in shrink-wrap up until the other night tells you all you need to know about my level of excitement to see this movie again (contrast this to Days of Future Past, the movie that made me decide to finally get a Blu-ray player). Or I can let a gag line by a teenage Jean Grey pretty much sum it up:

jean-grey-john-kenri

Ouch. Unfortunately, this cleaves too close to the truth to be really funny. Image courtesy of John Kenri (@johnkenri)

Ok, let’s do this. Oh yeah, spoilers ahead, but if you’d really wanted to see this movie, you would have by now, right?

Apocalypse feels bloated. It’s a long movie, but a movie can be lengthy as long as it’s good. It feels bloated because as cool as it is to see so many characters from the comic books brought to the big screen, cramming in too many is a disservice. The more characters there are, the less opportunity there is for character development. Besides their physical appearance and abilities, did Storm, Angel, and Psylocke have any defining characteristics or personality traits (you know, the things that make characters feel like actual CHARACTERS)? Did anyone even call Storm by name?

Of the characters who’ve had significant roles in the First Class Trilogy, which ones experienced significant change in Apocalypse? Are Charles and Hank any different by the end than they were at the beginning? Erik loses his wife and daughter, but the fact that he was married and had a kid comes as a complete surprise¹, and they barely have any time on screen before being killed off. Does this devastating experience do much to change Erik, make him different somehow? Raven experiences the most interesting character development in this movie, struggling to reconcile her role model status in the eyes of younger mutants with the way she perceives herself — definitely an interesting development for a character who was solidly in the villain category in the original X-Men movies.

Several times, it felt like Apocalypse was retreading themes and story elements from the last movie. Charles explicitly does this when he recalls a pivotal experience from the most emotionally powerful scene in DoFP . There’s nothing wrong with this, except that the reference just kind of sits there and isn’t used to build on for something else.

Quicksilver’s standout scene, despite being fairly awesome, is the worst offender here. His breakout scene in DoFP was was perfect. However, once you achieve perfection, any attempt to outdo it, no matter how well done, is a dangerous road to tread. Here, the scene is bigger, the stakes are higher, and everything about it tries to be even more spectacular, but it ends up mostly just feeling overdone.

Worse than rehashing familiar material though, is introducing new material that creates problems for the overall storyline of the franchise. DoFP remedied the worst missteps of the previous movies, particularly The Last Stand, and managed to plausibly merge the continuity of the original X-Men trilogy with the First Class TrilogyApocalypse, while not undoing this, creates new problems. Apocalypse includes the first encounter between the X-Men and Angel, Nightcrawler, and Wolverine — characters whose introductions and first meetings with the X-Men have already been established in the first three films. The worst thing about this is that none of this continuity-shredding was necessary — none of these characters had pivotal roles that required them to be in this film. Perhaps the intention behind this was to establish that the X-Men universe of the original trilogy and the universe of the First Class Trilogy are in fact separate, but that then begs the question: why?

The main villain and the overall plot lacked gravitas. Part of this has to do with the difficulty in portraying a character with near-godlike powers. Paradoxically, the closer a villain is to being an all-powerful being, the more difficult it is to portray them in a convincingly menacing way (after all, a villain with super-powers who uses them for world domination is just doing what he’s supposed to do), and the weaker they seem once they are finally defeated. Normal people who become powerful villains through a combination of intellect and force of personality, rather than brute force, are the most terrifying (consider Hannibal Lecter and Gus Fring). With regard to the plot, somehow, witnessing large scale destruction taking place somehow has less of an impact than the threat of global war (the third act of First Class) or seeing its after effects (the post-apocalyptic future depicted in DoFP).

Apocalypse does have its good points and some truly enjoyable moments. For one thing, it’s hard to conceive of a more perfect use for Metallica’s The Four Horsemen as background music. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 was also put to excellent use. James McAvoy, as always, is delightful to watch as Professor X. It was especially fun watching him revert to a flustered adolescent state during his meeting with Moira MacTaggert. His character development through the last two films was one of their strongest features, and in this film, he truly feels like a younger version of the Professor X we came to know in the original trilogy.

My overall reaction to Apocalypse is probably the worst possible one that anyone can have to a creative work: I found it boring. The action scenes and visual effects are well-done and have some creativity. But at their core, X-Men movies are about people with special powers. Powers are cool and allow for great action scenes and special effects, but it’s the characters, the people that make the stories and provide a framework for the action. X-Men movies work better when the focus is on characters. Think back to all of the best moments from all of the X-Men movies and I think you’ll find this to be true.

I realize that all of the movie reviews I’ve written so far come off as extremely critical. The truth is, I really do like the X-Men films as a whole, and the only reason I choose to write about them in the first place is because I care about them. As I’ve said in other places, I want every movie in a franchise I care about to be a great movie. Of course, I know this isn’t possible, and I don’t think that anyone who makes movies ever sets out to make a bad, or even a mediocre one (no one motivated at least partially by noble intentions, anyway). As harsh as I’ve been on Apocalypse, I believe that the filmmakers did their best to make the best movie they could, and I’ll give them credit for that. Even a misstep like including too many characters is probably a reflection of their love of the source material and their desire to see more of those characters come to life.

I’m sure I’ll watch Apocalypse again at some point, but probably in the way I tend to watch weaker entries in a movie series: more out of a sense of completion and a desire to experience the entire story, and not so much for its own sake, unfortunately.

  1. It seems more like a clumsy attempt to reconcile fraying continuities resulting from completely different character incarnations existing in different franchises than an effort at advancing Erik’s story arc. In case you’re even less knowledgeable about the X-Men mythology than I am, at some point in the comics, Magneto has two children, also mutants, known as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. In the Avengers film universe, both characters appeared in Age of Ultron. Quicksilver is killed, while Scarlet Witch survives and goes on to join the Avengers. Quicksilver is now an established character in the X-Men movies, so I can only presume that the death of Erik’s daughter was a way to balance things out on a cosmic scale, or at least on a franchise level. Side note: if your level of knowledge of the X-Men mythology is the same as mine, you might have assumed, as did I, that his daughter in Apocalypse is a version of the character known as Scarlet Witch, his daughter in the comics. And you’d be wrong. It turns out that Magneto had another daughter before Scarlet Witch, something I found out after writing the paragraph above.
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Black Friday Movie Deals: 2016 Edition

I’m kind of late with this, but I thought it would still be worth writing about. I went through my annual Black Friday ritual of scouring the shelves at Best Buy and Target for movie deals. Kind of slim pickings this year. I scored X-Men: Apocalypse and Creed on Blu-ray for six bucks each, but that was it. My wife also picked up Shaun the Sheep on DVD for four dollars because we saw it in the theater as a family and enjoyed it.

2016 was the year for mediocre big-name franchises that had awesome trailers and that I was excited and hopeful for, but which turned out to be disappointing overall. Captain America: Civil War and Apocalypse fill the first two slots, and Rogue One completes the trifecta now that it’s out. I look forward to getting it on Blu-ray next Black Friday. Then again, I’m not sure if Star Wars movies are ever part of Black Friday sales — I didn’t see The Force Awakens significantly discounted this year, which is when I would have expected it to have been.

Apocalypse ties the score at 4-4 between good and mediocre/bad X-Men films. I wasn’t expecting anything as glorious as Days of Future Past, but I was hoping for at least a good movie with Apocalypse. Mediocre. That sums it up well. Too much focus on big action sets and mass destruction special effects, not enough on characters and story. That’s typically what creates the distinction between the good X-Men movies and the others. Apocalypse isn’t a terrible movie, but even though I made it a point to get it on Black Friday, it’s still sitting in shrink-wrap.

Civil War is the first Marvel movie I’m aware of where the titular character is the villain. Not that Captain America was an out-an-out bad guy in this film, but when Tony Stark emerges as the voice of reason opposed to Cap over the need for oversight over superheros (or whatever term they use for superheroes in the MCU), I’m siding with Team Stark.

Civil War also made it abundantly clear that part of building a shared cinematic universe means keeping things in a state of relative stasis for as long as possible. Sure, crazy earth-shattering events take place across the almost innumerable movie and TV franchises, but nothing ever really changes. In fairness, this is understandable, as you want to be extremely careful when handling an intellectual property you paid $4 billion for.

Disney/Marvel had the opportunity to make what would have been a bold move in the cinematic universe while staying true to the comics: have Tony Stark kill Captain America and have Bucky become the new Captain America. But they took (what is at least for now) the safer, more commercially-friendly route: tell a relatively self-contained story which has clear and obvious ties to other elements in the expanded universe but which doesn’t disturb the status quo too much and which sets up nicely for more sequels to come.

We’re in the golden age of super hero movies and this is the magic formula for success. But every golden age brings chaff along with the wheat, and the formula will have to change once audiences are glutted on more and more of the same. But Disney didn’t become massively successful by being careless; I’m guessing they’re aware of this and have prepared for it with their long-term plans; maybe we’ll finally see things get shaken up with Infinity War.

Funny thing, Civil War was also on sale for $6. I passed on it because I didn’t feel terribly interested in seeing it again, but I kind of wish I had gotten it now.

Some Thoughts on the “Rogue Cut”

I rarely do any shopping on Black Friday anymore, with one exception: movies. I’ll typically head out to Best Buy and then Target late-morning after the crowds have mostly subsided, searching for a few specific titles that were in their ads, but also eager to find out what hidden treasures lie in wait on the shelves. Mad Max: Fury Road on blu-ray for eight bucks?!? Yes, please!

Last week, I added seven new movies to my collection, most of them costing eight dollars or less: five movies I wanted to see, plus one each for the wife and the kid for Christmas. That probably sounds more selfish than it actually is; my wife and I typically enjoy the same types of movies, so even when I buy one I’m interested in seeing, we will almost invariably watch it together. The other two movies are ones that we’ll watch as a family, but they’re not ones that I have any personal interest in seeing.

The most recent one my wife and I watched from my Black Friday excursion is the “Rogue Cut” of X-Men: Days of Future Past. I’m assuming that if you’re reading my thoughts on a re-cut of a movie that’s already been available to own for over a year, there’s not much left to spoil for you, so I’m going to speak freely.

I don’t usually don’t get terribly excited about director’s cuts of films, but I like DOFP so much that I thought it would be worth it for the Black Friday price. “Rogue Cut” turns out to be quite a clever play on words. Rogue does have more screen time in this version, appearing in the dystopian future, not just in the redeemed future at the end. But there are several other features that make this a “rogue” version of the theatrical release. For example, there are tweaks and changes to many scenes, oftentimes several seconds of additional footage where the scene previously ended, and a few instances where brief snippets of dialogue were seamlessly spliced into the middle of already existing dialogue.

Most of the time, it was clear why the additional footage was originally cut; there was only one instance where I felt that any of it enhanced the scene (although I can’t recall it at the moment, so maybe the improvement wasn’t that significant). None of the extra footage was bad, per se, but it almost always felt unnecessary, slowing the pace and dulling the crispness of the scenes as presented in their theatrical version. And what’s with the lingering shot of the World Trade Center? We already know that Wolverine went back to 1973; showing the towers doesn’t do anything to reinforce that knowledge or have anything to do with the plot or characters and only serves to focus the viewer’s attention on something unrelated to the movie.

In addition to the new and altered sequences involving Rogue (more on this later), another significant change in the action involves Mystique’s return to the mansion. Rather than breaking in, this time she knocks on the front door, seemingly having taken Charles’ words to heart and deciding not to go through with killing Trask after all. She takes some time to reconnect with and seduce Beast before proceeding to sabotage Cerebro. Extending this sequence adds little to the story except to make it feel clumsier and more bloated than the theatrical cut which managed to keep things moving here at a brisk pace with a few lines of dialogue instead.

Rogue’s increased presence (if it can honestly be called “presence” and not merely “screen time”) in the film unfortunately carries about the same amount of weight as the added footage involving Mystique. It’s fun to see Rogue in the future (even a dystopian one) alongside the futuristic versions of the other characters, but does her presence actually contribute anything meaningful to the story? Plotwise, she was rescued in order to stand in for Kitty Pryde by absorbing her time-traveling/projecting powers after Wolverine accidentally wounded Kitty. But it all seems shoehorned and shallow, as if the true purpose of including her was for the sake of her having a larger role in the story, not because the story needed her.

As with “presence,” it is probably generous to describe her as having a “role” in the story due to how passive she was; she exists more as a plot device than as a character. To top it off, Bobby’s (Iceman’s) death during her rescue seemed more of a means of ticking boxes on the storytelling checklist than a moment that evoked much pathos. (“The stakes are too high and this mission is too dangerous to have the heroes escape without paying some sort of price; we have to kill at least one of them to make it believable!”)

The juxtaposition of Magneto breaking into the mansion to rescue Rogue with the scene set in the past where he breaks into the facility to retrieve his helmet is well-executed on a technical level, but this does not alleviate the fact that Rogue’s presence doesn’t add much to the story. It was a wise decision to forego her inclusion in the theatrical release, having a wounded Kitty endure instead. The one possible improvement this sequence makes to the movie is that it shows how the sentinels were able to locate the mutants’ hideout. However, it didn’t seem like they ever had any problems finding them before, so again, unnecessary.

Additionally, introducing a future-Rogue who still has her powers raises a question about the continuity from the first films to DOFP: why does Rogue have her powers in the future when she chose to receive the mutation vaccine at the end of X3? Of course, one could argue that there are other questions about continuity that exist (even in the theatrical version), the most obvious one being what Professor X and Magneto are doing in the future, alive and with their powers at full strength, again, given the events of X3. A possible counterargument is that the post-denouement in that film suggests that even some of the most – ahem—, shattering events that took place in that movie could be undone. However, the real explanation might simply be that Brian Singer and company decided to undo the worst parts of X3, which is accomplished quite nicely by the rapturous ending of DOFP.

Releasing another version of a movie allows the creators another shot at making their film even better. A studio can certainly use it as nothing more than as a callous means to double-dip from their fans’ wallets; but if done right, it can be worth the double-dipping – or worth the wait if you’re like me and don’t buy the first release of a movie if you know there’s an extended edition coming. The extended editions of the Lord of the Rings films remain the gold standard by which to measure extended editions/director’s cuts of movies. Very little of the additional footage was superfluous, a great deal of it enhanced the story, and it wasn’t until the extended edition of Return of the King that any of the new material noticeably detracted from their quality – and these editions added about a half hour running time each to films that were already pushing three hours or more! Sadly, in the case of the “Rogue Cut,” more does not equate with better.

So, is the “Rogue Cut” is worth owning? Well, the blu-ray package includes both versions of the film, not to mention a director’s commentary which the original release lacks. So, if you don’t own DOFP yet, there’s no reason to opt for the original over the “Rogue Cut”. If you already have the original, it would be hard to justify an additional purchase, especially since the theatrical version is superior. Maybe if you’re a real die-hard X-Men fan and want to see everything there is, or if you really, really, like commentaries (as I do). As for myself, seeing DOFP in the theater was the tipping point for me finally getting a blu-ray player (yeah, I tend to lag a few years behind with technology). I thought the “Rogue Cut” sounded interesting when I first heard about it, but as much as I like DOFP, I had not intended on buying a copy of the “Rogue Cut” until the moment I found it on a store shelf at a bargain price on Black Friday.