X-MEN: APOCALYPSE movie review

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It may have taken eight movies but the X-Men franchise finally reached its moment in the sun. Coming off its biggest creative and financial success with Days of Future Past, Fox’s longtime superhero series hit its stride after a string of near-hits and big misses.

X-Men finally showed it was ready to play with the big boys and that meant competing in the most densely populated year for superhero films, maybe ever. Deadpool differentiated itself through graphic, fourth wall-breaking irreverence; Batman v Superman and Captain America: Civil War, meanwhile, both explored the world’s response to heroism, albeit in very different ways.

X-Men: Apocalypse doesn’t have the grand, genre-bending aspirations those three films had. Instead, in a market that’s mostly trying to push boundaries, the latest X-Men film is content to be a simple, epic action film on a much larger scale than the series has gone before.

In going a straightforward route, the movie suffers from a lack of depth and more than a few integral characters being sidelined.

But once you get past the feeling of air being let out the expectations balloon, it doesn’t take long to recognize that X-Men: Apocalypse is a fun, by-the-numbers superhero flick with large-scale action, a showy villain and an expanding universe that’s closer to truly solidifying the X-Men universe for the better.

Rather than a deep, emotional conflict running under the action, Apocalypse is just focused on the superficial fight against Apocalypse and his horsemen. Barring a couple strong emotional moments, most of the film’s emotional catharsis comes from directly calling back via flashbacks to X-Men: First Class and the foundation that movie set up.

I get the idea of tying things back to the original in a third installment but this movie missteps be simply revisiting them instead of recalling and expanding upon them.

Thankfully, the film makes up for this deficiency with a number of dazzling action set-pieces, neat reintroductions of classic members, a bold new music score from a returning composer and a few surprise appearances.

Perhaps the deciding factor in chalking this one up as a win is that it actually feels like an X-Men movie. It may be a largely simple action plot but the aesthetic finally feels like it’s in the right place.

Having the main X-Men ensemble on screen doing X-Men stuff in a vibrant way is just exciting — pure and simple. And they did it without leaning on Wolverine again.

More than Hugh Jackman and flashy new powers each time around, the X-Men series found its biggest strength recently in James McAvoy’s Professor X and Michael Fassbender’s Magneto. Ever since X-Men: First Class, these two have been the glue that not only holds the new series together but also makes you look forward to revisiting these characters.

McAvoy’s Professor X is allowed to shine, displaying a new confidence since the last installment. McAvoy’s portrayal is charming and brings life to a character that can easily become too dry.

Fassbender’s Magneto, meanwhile, has a thankless role here. After getting some promising buildup and carrying the film’s most emotional moment that isn’t a callback, Fassbender is largely left to hang around until the plot needs him to hover in at the end.

As one half of this series’ Lennon and McCartney (though still not as evil as John Lennon), the character deserves to be put to better use.

But with Magneto mostly benched, Apocalypse steps in to serve as the main foil. Sure, his plan is pretty standard supervillain stuff but it doesn’t really matter that much because the filmmakers and Oscar Isaac admirably sell how frightful and all-powerful the character is. Every moment Apocalypse is on screen is made great by Isaac’s performance and some awesome, boisterous villain monologues.

In any case, he’s clearly having more fun in his role than Jennifer Lawrence, who looks ready to ride that paycheck off into the sunset and away from the series that helped establish her.

Sophie Turner makes for an interesting Jean Grey — who may get a more satisfying treatment going forward –, Evan Peters gets more time to shine as Quicksilver in another amazing speed sequence, Tye Sheridan’s Cyclops is an actual character and Kodi Smit-Mcphee as Nightcrawler is amusing.

They fare better than Angel, Psylock and Jubilee, the likes of whom are given nothing to do.

And let’s not even get into where we stand with the timeline. That is a flaming hornet’s nest, aka nothing you can or ever want to try to fix. Isn’t that right, 45-year-old Havok who looks like he’s the same age as his teenage brother?

There may be a number of things to rag on this movie for but, at the end of the day, the fact remains that there was certainly energy put into make X-Men: Apocalypse brazenly entertaining.

And honestly, after two films this year addressing the recent, buzzkill notion that we should feel guilty about large-scale superhero action, it is wholly refreshing to be given a film that goes back to basics.

7/10

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CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR movie review

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Captain America has the weight of the world on his shoulders, and not just within this film.

Captain America: Civil War is the 13th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a sequel to the excellent Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the jumping point for the MCU’s much-hyped third phase, and is coming off the heels of both a disappointing Avengers sequel and the modestly successful Ant-Man and last summer’s creative shakeup at Marvel Studios.

Meanwhile,  the story is loosely adapted from a controversial seven-part comic series of the same name that saw the Marvel universe fractured nearly beyond repair over the introduction of a superhero registration act.

Clearly, there’s no pressure here.

With that in mind, Captain America: Civil War is one of Marvel’s most technically and emotionally solid films to date. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo show a thorough understanding of this universe’s characters and craft an effective, well-balanced film.

At the same time, oddly, Civil War is also one of Marvel’s more unfulfilling entries due to its complete unwillingness to take the universe to the next step. Even the Russos can’t sidestep common Marvel missteps here and the film feels like a big missed opportunity to be the game changer it really should be.

Before we get further into that matter though, there is one point that must be stressed going forward: this is a better Avengers movie than Age of Ultron and probably the original.

A plot that could have easily been fragmented is instead brought together very naturally here. The story wisely builds its core around the arcs of Cap, Bucky and Tony Stark and brings its many other characters into the fray in a pleasant, organic way. Side arcs like Wanda and Vision’s, as well as Zemo’s, are almost all given enough focus and content to be meaningful but not so much so that they drag the movie down or feel out of place (no magic spirit pool hokum here).

The filmmakers know that the real meat of the story is the conflict between Steve and Tony over the act, known here as the Sokovia Accords, and the added wrinkle of when Bucky reappears. The approach to the internal split is refreshingly open ended; no side is overtly right or wrong and it’s easy to sympathize with both.

Likewise, the villain of the piece is actually able to buck Marvel’s lackluster villain standard by doing something different: not being a supervillain. Zemo doesn’t have enhanced abilities or world-dominating plans but he does have fierce intelligence, relatable motivations and a very personal plan.

There’s no cliche where the villain is just a dark reflection of the hero here, just a very smart man out for vengeance. This comes off as more true and interesting than almost anything Marvel has done lately with their foils.

There are cool new characters, memorable gags and an epic airport battle (not to be confused with Marvel’s typical final aerial battle) — all good new things that keep the film feeling fresh.

But at the same time, Civil War, for how good it is, can’t escape some of the lesser aspects of the Marvel paradigm.

The film has what is probably the studio’s worst opening action sequence. The battle with Crossbones in Nigeria is artificially sped up to the point of being unaffecting. It’s a bad foot for the film to start on and unusually shoddy filmmaking from a duo that usually delivers.

More unforgivable is the handling of Crossbones. Once again, Marvel has the opportunity for a scenery-chewing recurring bad guy with Frank Grillo and, once again, they utterly waste it by killing him off.

Just like a bland, forgettable score, that’s just business as usual for Marvel and it’s not the only predictable decisions they make. The studio is still petrified of offing any of their main heroes and even with a story that was a perfect fit for such a dramatic act, they chose to play it safe.

Even though our heroes end up in separate places by the end of the film, it still feels like the status quo is kept and there’s nothing they can’t bounce back from.

It’s filmmaking without risk and thus not very rewarding.

In the ever-expanding balloon of Marvel, one door closes, while all current ones remain open and a handful are introduced.

And on that topic, we need to talk about Spider-Man. Whereas Black Panther is treated to a terrific entrance here, Spider-Man falls flat. There’s just no reason for him to be in this movie outside of the studio saying “look, we have the rights back now!”

I’m sure Tom Holland is perfectly capable and a refreshing choice for the role but they’re trying way too hard with the humor. Instead of skillful and natural comedic timing, the character just becomes annoying — within minutes of a generally short screen presence too.

We have yet to see how a different filmmaker will handle the character for Spider-Man: Homecoming but there’s notably less enthusiasm on this end after seeing a favorite character of mine be such a weak point of this film.

Don’t get me wrong, when weighing the scales, Captain America: Civil War is going to end up with much more good to its name than bad. Enough so to be considered one of Marvel’s best movies too. There are plenty of moments in this film to justify its place in the universe.

But the cracks are starting to show in the house that Marvel built. This movie was a chance to move this story and these characters forward and they largely squandered it. Marvel is still stuck in its ways and, as an audience member, that just makes fatigue set in even faster.

7.5/10

BATMAN v SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE movie review

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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice — the jumping point for DC’s shared film universe — was mired in negativity from day one. From casting backlash to flat-out hatred for the director, “fans” and film writers never held back in sharing their gripes towards with film before its release, creating an atmosphere of vitriol and frustration from the start.

The critical lashing the film took, in addition to its swift drop in the box office roster, can certainly be attributed to some concentrated disdain beforehand, but what about the film on its own (he says after spending two paragraphs talking about peripheral aspects of the movie instead of the movie itself)?

In an effort to break away from the same approach Marvel took in adapting its shared universe, DC and Zack Snyder chose to forgo a handful of set-up films and instead get to the juicy part where the universe’s heroes meet and worlds expand.

The result is a film that both revels in the glory of seeing these classic heroes on screen together, and suffers from one of the headliners being shortchanged in a film that works better as world expansion than as a concise, even story.

It’s not rare for an action blockbuster to end up running well over two hours, but when your writer hands in a script that’s equivalent to a four-hour cut, it might be time to pump the brakes. Batman v Superman is jam-packed with material — not all of which jives — and ends up being a movie that’s more a sum of its parts.

While the visuals, score, mature themes, new characters and a certain gonzo performance all should be praised, the lynchpin of the movie is absolutely Ben Affleck’s Batman. Brutal, imposing and complex, Batfleck is the most rock steady aspect of the film. Owing much of the interpretation to The Dark Knight Returns, Batman v Superman delivers what may be the definitive live action Batman/Bruce Wayne performance — an aspect that gives not only hope, but excitement at the thought of his continued presence in this universe.

And the other guy? After this film he might be in need of a course correction. Superman’s depiction in Man of Steel was refreshing: a conflicted savior figure trying to find his place in this world. Here, he’s just kind of … there, while everyone reacts to his presence. This really is more of a Batman movie than anything.

While there’s certainly a notable event that happens to the character here, Batman v Superman feels like a missed opportunity for Superman to evolve into a richer character, whereas he instead seems intent here to out-gloom Batman.

Speaking of gloom, let’s talk tone. Batman v Superman is dark. Like “why are children in this theater?” dark. Manslaughter, destruction, suicide bombs, philosophical discussions on religion and power — it’s heavy stuff.

That’s legitimately a great thing.

Superhero movies are allowed to explore more weighty concepts and should be encouraged to do so. That doesn’t make the movie “no fun,” unless you’ve been conditioned by a constant stream of comic book movies that abandon dramatic heft.

What’s understandably more divisive is the handling of the material. Snyder is not one for subtlety and Batman v Superman approaches the story with aggressive bravado. But the movie’s immense scope and serious attitude aren’t unwarranted. These are two of our most iconic figures in culture meeting on screen; this is like a modern-day opera with all the high emotions and sound and fury that can be mustered.

What can actually be integrated in the universe’s approach going forward is the concept of “dark, not mean.” Snyder seems to revel a little too much in pushing heroes towards non-heroic acts (not to mention just general cruelty) in a way that doesn’t seem genuine to the world.

We see the characters here at low points — Batman growing more vicious in his crusade from loss and Superman embattled on all sides for trying to do what he feels is the right thing — but don’t get the sense that they’ve entirely set themselves on a more righteous track by the end.

Woman Woman, meanwhile, doesn’t need any adjustment because everything is great with her. The set-up for a solo film looks promising, even if her introduction is all part of the studio’s grand universe-building plan.

A little less clear is how Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor will factor moving forward, as the actor’s fresh take on the character was an odd, sometimes annoying, sometimes endearing change of pace from the darkness of the rest of the movie.

While the concept of moving forward in a franchise shouldn’t be the main thing to talk about for a film itself, that’s kind of the point with Batman v Superman.

Essentially a set-up for bigger things to come, Batman v Superman squanders some of its potential as a great stand-alone film but makes up for it with strong internal elements that are at least thought-provoking, and at most engaging that should continue to pay off.

After all, it’s a franchise world and we’re just living in it.

7/10