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Friday, May 27, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse



X-Men: Apocalypse's mutant power is an overwhelming sense of deja vu. When En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), the first, handsomest (until he turns blue), and most powerful mutant known as Apocalypse, awakens from a 3600 year slumber, he plunges the X-Men into an adventure where they end up doing a lot of things they've done in prior X-Men movies. Stop me if you've heard this before: Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is kidnapped and held hostage for his mutant psychic abilities. The X-Men are captured and brought to a base in Alkali Lake, where Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) was created. Wolverine goes into a beserker rage, carving up the troops of his arch nemesis William Stryker (Josh Helman) with his adamantium claws. (All greatest hits from X2: X-Men United.) Xavier and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) take turns quoting their closing dialogue from the first X-Men movie 16 years ago (which is, confusingly, 17 years in the future from this episode, set in 1983). And there's all the usual stuff to X off the list in an X-Men movie: new students joining Charles Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, visits to Cerebro underneath the X-Mansion, and plenty of callbacks to stuff that happened in X-Men: First Class, which happened 20 years prior to the events in Apocalypse, though nary an X-Man nor anyone else in that movie has aged a day. (Xavier makes mention of non-mutant Moira MacTaggert's, played by Rose Byrne, uncanny ability to look exactly as young 20 years later, and the movie moves on.) On the other hand, an X-Men comics tradition finally occurs in a movie when the X-Mansion is destroyed. Luckily, Magneto and young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) have the mutant power to be contractors.

Working from a screenplay from Simon Kinberg that crams a ton of mutants into an under cooked tale, director Bryan Singer busily checks in with the exploits of his ever-growing, under-serviced cast of mutants. X-Men: Apocalypse tells us that Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, not feeling the blues and spending most of the movie looking like her movie star self) has become a mutant folk hero since the climactic moments of X-Men: Days of Future Past, when she saved President Richard Nixon from Magneto in 1973. Lots of young mutants have her poster on their wall, including a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp), who lives as a sneak thief in Cairo, Egypt. Other than recruit a young Nightcrawler (Kodi Smith-McPhee) and bring him to Xavier's School, Mystique has precious little to do in the movie, except fail to sweet talk Magneto from destroying Cairo, get choked by Apocalypse, and then become the X-Men's drill sergeant. Mystique does find time to make jokes to Beast (Nicholas Hoult) about getting a "War Plane," a canny reference to Hoult starring as a War Boy in Mad Max: Fury Road. We meet young Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), the newest student at the Xavier School, who's just learning to control his mutant optic blasts. Cyclops in turn meets Jean Grey, the future love of his life, and host of the all-powerful Phoenix Force, which Apocalypse shoehorns in as another major plot point, setting up a second swipe at telling the "Dark Phoenix Saga" in a future X-Men movie.

When Apocalypse awakens, like Ivan Ooze did in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie, he finds he missed the Black Plague, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Brady Bunch Reunion. Like Ivan Ooze, he finds the modern world wanting, and decides to destroy it, so he can rule it, or something. Apocalypse's logic is hazy and he's not much more than a collection of villainous platitudes. Unlike Ivan Ooze, Apocalypse isn't funny and he isn't much for idle chatter when he recruits his helpers, the Four Horsemen, who are Magneto, Storm, the metal-winged Angel (Ben Hardy), and the ridiculously hot Psylocke (Olivia Munn), who makes purple telekinetic swords and whips. To work for Apocalypse means a lot of standing around and not saying anything, hence the Horsemen turn out to be as dull and uninspiring as their leader. Apocalypse steals the world's nuclear missiles, thousands of them, and strands them all in space; an idea Superman (Christopher Reeve) wouldn't have until 1987 in Superman IV. But mainly, Apocalypse just wants to kill everyone. He's cool with the strongest mutants surviving. If any of this sounds like a good idea or not to Storm, Psylocke, Magneto, or Angel, they don't vocalize it. Turns out Apocalypse, with his ill-defined mutant powers of teleportation and making walls consume people like they're frozen in carbonite, is the shits as a world conqueror. What Apocalypse is great at, however, is designing super villain costumes. He personally gifts his Horsemen with new duds, and they all look smashing (especially Psylocke). Apocalypse could have been the mutant Tom Ford, but alas, he thinks too small.

Like the Johnny Appleseed of mutants, Magneto has been spreading his seed around, not just fathering Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who, like in Days of Future Past, steals the show with his speed but in a sequence that is somehow both more elaborate and perfunctory, but also having a new family in Poland, where he works in a steel mill. Having gone completely apeshit in 1963 and 1973, Magneto is right on schedule with his homicidal tantrums when he is discovered by local authorities who murder his family. Once more, an X-Men movie becomes about saving Erik's soul, and saving the world from scary Erik, until Charles is able to remind Erik of their bromance and he finally calms down. So Erik's good for another decade, all pals with Charles and Mystique again at the conclusion of Apocalypse until his next inevitable meltdown in 1993. As for Charles, perhaps the strangest choice in Apocalypse turns out to be the secret origin of how Xavier loses his hair: Apocalypse trying to transfer his consciousness into the world's most powerful psychic somehow snatched Xavier's edges bald. Did Apocalypse realize if he'd succeeded, he'd have been in the body of a paraplegic? No matter, he's probably got a mutant power for that.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Captain America: Civil War



Sokovia. The most important fictional country in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The fallout from the devastation of Sokovia in last year's Avengers: Age of Ultron rips the Avengers asunder in the sensational Captain America: Civil War. Ostensibly a third Avengers movie bearing Captain America (Chris Evans)'s name and featuring him as its centerpiece and star-spangled moral compass, directors Joe and Anthony Russo's Civil War is an assured and magnificent escalation of Marvel's superhero movies. It is certainly the best Avengers movie thus far, deepening Marvel's superhero characters by exploring their personal beliefs and testing their loyalties to each other. Deftly juggling over a dozen superheroes - plus introducing two immensely important new additions to Marvel's movie pantheon in the Amazing Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) -- in a dense, globetrotting (Lagos, Vienna, London, Berlin, New York, Bucharest, Siberia, Wakanda), action-packed extravaganza laced with clever character beats and endearing humor, Civil War makes us love the Avengers even more than we already did, even as they lay the smack down on each other. 

Accountability is the big issue facing the Avengers. After a mission in Lagos to apprehend the super villain Crossbones (Frank Grillo) goes sideways, resulting in the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen)'s attempt to save Captain America's life from a bomb accidentally killing dozens of innocents from the African nation of Wakanda, the Avengers' methodology is called into question by the new Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt). "The world owes the Avengers an unpayable debt," admits Ross, before declaring the Avengers, who operate with unlimited power and no government supervision, vigilantes. The United Nations wants the Avengers accountable to them. The UN plans to ratify the Sokovia Accords, international law that places the Avengers under UN jurisdiction, giving the UN the power to tell the Avengers where and when to fight or not fight evil.

The Avengers are required to sign the Accords or quit being superheroes. Captain America, played as stalwart and admirable as ever by Evans, sees this as an affront. He feels with the kind of power the Avengers possess, "The safest hands are our own." Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), who essentially kicked off this age of Marvels when he became Iron Man eight years ago, is riddled with guilt over his personal and professional failures. Stark supports signing the Accords. The Avengers debate the issue, intelligently and entertainingly. Most agree to sign, including, surprisingly, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). She and Stark agree: capitulating now staves off something worse down the road. We agree with them; it's the smart, safer move to sign. Captain America cannot yield his beliefs and will not sign. And we agree with Cap, because we trust Cap. Everyone is right. But who's more right? Civil War tests everyone, Avengers and the audience, probing for answers, as we thrill at the conflict that results.

Meanwhile, the Avengers implosion is the endgame of a devious plot by Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl), a Sokovian spy who lost his family in Age of Ultron, and wages a silent war on the Avengers. Zemo bombs the UN signing of the Sokovia Accords in Vienna, murdering King T'Chaka of Wakanda. Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), is framed for the act of terror. Cap sets off to find Bucky before the Avengers and T'Chaka's son T'Challa, the Black Panther, do, triggering the hostilities of the Civil War as The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye, and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), rally to Cap's side. Meanwhile, Stark recruits some hitters to back him up, including a reluctant Black Widow, and his loyalists the Vision (Paul Bettany), War Machine (Don Cheadle), and best of all, Spider-Man. 

As a villain, Bruhl underwhelms, but he's really besides the point, just a means to the glorious ends of seeing Marvel's superheroes have at it in an incredibly entertaining superhero spectacle. Some of the best bits are old buddies Black Widow and Hawkeye fighting it out but still asking each other if they're still friends, Black Panther and Winter Soldier hacking away at each other with robot arms and vibranium claws, the Falcon letting loose his terrific drone Redwing, and everything Spider-Man says and does. Civil War finally delivers the young, brash, wise-cracking-in-battle Spidey we've always wanted to see, to the chagrin of pretty much all of the other Avengers. But the show stopper turns out to be Rudd's Ant-Man, so grateful to be included in this melee, and when he suddenly grows into the 60 foot-tall Giant-Man. Stark's stunned reaction -- "Does anyone on OUR side have their own SHOCKING and FANTASTIC ability they want to share now?!" -- is hilarious and pitch perfect.

"He's my friend," Captain America says to Iron Man about Bucky in the most famous exchange in the movie. "So was I," Stark retorts. There's a very pleasing undercurrent of friendship for a movie called and about Civil War. Virtually all of the heroes' actions are because they're trying to do what's best for their friends. Cap tries to save Bucky because they go back nearly a century and no one else believes his innocence. (Bucky also rightly wonders aloud if he's even worth all this trouble.) The Falcon, who is presented to be utterly fantastic, the ultimate wingman (pun intended), sides with Cap out of friendship, and so does former SHIELD agent Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), though strictly friendship with Cap isn't her primary motivation. (Falcon and Bucky grinning at Cap for kissing Sharon makes us want a Falcon/Winter Soldier buddy movie right now.) Meanwhile, Vision, following Stark's orders, tries to keep Scarlet Witch (a Sokovian ex-pat living in America as an Avenger the media solidly blames for the Lagos tragedy) safe in the Avengers compound until Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), the first Avenger who believed in her, comes to bust her out and make her #TeamCap. Poor Natasha Romanoff is the one most caught in the middle of this schism between Stark and Cap: her head sides with Stark, but her heart and loyalties side with Cap. Ever the double agent, Black Widow tries to do right by both sides, and pays the price. Speaking of paying the price for loyalty, no one suffers more than Stark's best friend James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), the main casualty of the Civil War. The amazing feat Civil War accomplishes is keeping all of the Avengers likeable and honorable despite their differences.

Amidst all this chaos, the additions of the Black Panther and Spider-Man to the Avengers universe were seamlessly done. As the Black Panther, Boseman brings the necessary honor and regality to the now-King T'Challa of Wakanda, even when he's consumed with a quest for vengeance through much of the movie. Yet, Civil War still makes room for clever quips, like the Falcon assuming T'Challa must really like cats if he's dressed like a cat. (Falcon also scoffs at his winged gear being classified as a "bird costume.") Meanwhile, Stark pays a visit to a house in Queens, New York and introduces us to young Holland's Spider-Man while also not letting the fact that the new Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) is also young and attractive escape his attention. Marvel trumpets the youth of their new Spider-Man by making a point that to him The Empire Strikes Back is "a really old movie." (If Peter Parker is 15 or 16, then he was born right around the time George W. Bush first became President. Now we all feel old.) When Captain America battles Spider-Man, we grin as Cap does when he learns Spider-Man is a kid from Queens and commiserates that he himself is a kid from Brooklyn. If there still isn't enough Spidey in Civil War for you, the final tag at the end credits spotlights the web-slinger and the final words of the credits are the promise that "Spider-Man Will Return."

"Congratulations, Cap. You're a criminal," frowns Rhodey midway through Civil War. Indeed. Yet, while Captain America defies international law to lead his Avengers gone rogue and keep Bucky out of Stark's hands, he somehow remains in the right. One can forgive Tony Stark for his bitterness. Six years ago, Stark stood in front of Congress and grandstanded about keeping the Iron Man tech out of government hands, but that hard-partying, irreverent Stark disappeared when he flew a nuclear missile through the wormhole over New York City and saw the Chitauri fleet in the first Avengers movie. Stark is a changed man, and not for the better. He's now the guy he never wanted to be, the one who bears the burden of answering to bureaucracy, responsible for the Avengers and their failings to people who can never understand what it costs to do what they do. The secret of how and why Tony's parents Howard and Maria Stark were murdered becomes a pivotal plot point in Civil War as well, fueling the division between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark. It becomes a sad state of affairs that when we finally see The Raft, Marvel's maximum security super prison, its only prisoners are the former Avengers who sided with Captain America. "The Avengers are yours now," Cap writes to Stark at the conclusion of Civil War, but a head count makes one ask "What Avengers are left?" In the end, I remain #TeamIronMan. I think Tony Stark was right. But Captain America was also right. The beauty of Civil War is the audience can be left debating whose side they are on until the glorious day the Avengers finally assemble once again. That day can't come soon enough.