Saturday, September 24, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse Is Not The BEST Superhero Movie of 2016 ... But It Is The Most IMPORTANT One

Depending on when you think the Modern Superhero Movie Era was born, it's either about to go to college or it's at least touring campuses. You could say that it began with the first X-Men in 2000, with that movie's somewhat darker tone and sophisticated themes (relative, at least, to where the Batman-franchise had ended up by then), as well as its (again, relative) dedication to source material, deliberate universe-building and employment of prestige directors. On the other hand, most if not all of these elements were present in the first Blade movie, which preceded the first X-Men by two years (even if that franchise didn't end up having the legs or broader cultural impact of the X-Franchise). Either way, we're about 16-18 years into the Modern Era, and it's worth asking whether the superhero movie matured at all over the years. Looking at this year's crop so far, I see only one clear example of growth in the genre, but it's deeper message has gone almost completely unnoticed by critics as far as I can tell.

Generally speaking, there are really three major studio franchises putting out movies that are worth considering and comparing with one another. First, there's the the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), obviously. Second, there's Marvel's dark, brooding cousin, the latecomer DC Cinematic Universe (DCU). Setting aside Sony's stillborn Spider-Man Universe (along with other comic-inspired series such as G.I. Joe, Transformers and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), that leaves Fox's pioneering, X-Men Cinematic Universe (XCU). Each of these franchises has a distinct flavor as well as a fundamental premise that I'd argue can be summarized as follows:
  • MCU: "Being a superhero is awesome!" 
  • DCU: "Being a superhero is problematic..."
  • XCU: "Being a superhero is a metaphor."
Understanding each of the franchises through these fundamental premises sheds insight into both their mass appeal (in descending order from top to bottom) as well as their potential for growth (in descending order from bottom to top).

The bottom line is this: When 2016 is over, we will have seen two movies from each of these franchises, and out of these six movies (unless Doctor Strange pulls a real magic trick out if its hat and breaks with the Marvel formula), only one movie showed any interest in or attempt at becoming something more than a superhero movie ... and that movie is X-Men: Apocalypse, making this commercial and critical disappointment also the most important superhero movie of 2016. Before I dig into how a generally horrible and sloppy mess of a movie could be such a vital and necessary evolution of the genre, let's talk a little bit more about those fundamental premises (and the perils of peaking in high school).

The Modern Superhero Movie's Awkward Teenage Years

High school can be a hell of a time, when the first signs of real promise start to show as kids playact at being adults. They take their first stabs at athletic achievements, at relationships, at intellectual discourse. The stakes are generally low, in direct proportionate relationship to how seriously they're taken by those facing them. For an all-too-brief window of time, nothing in the world is more important than making it first base (on the playing field or off), and it seems your future can hinge on whether an underpaid grad school drop-out can appreciate your take on Hamlet.

The highs are higher than anything you've experienced before. For some sad high school heroes, they never get any higher. The lows are devastating, enough to convince you that you have the entire rotten sinkhole of existence figured out. Those with a broader perspective, though, learn that it's a fun (and important) time for what it is, but there's also a whole world beyond the classroom, beyond the football field and the homecoming dance. It can be hard to understand that, though, when you're the star quarterback playing the game of your life, or the brooding, nascent artist convinced that he's figured it all out between pilfered clove cigarettes.

If the Modern Superhero Movie is in its teenage years, then there's no question which franchise is the quarterback and which one is writing pretentious poetry behind the stands...

The MCU: Everything is Awesome!

The MCU has been on a sustained high for some time now, roughly from the first Avengers through "Phase 2", scoring another critical and commercial hit with Captain America: Civil War. Despite sprawling across thirteen films (and counting), from the intergalactic to the microcosmic, the MCU brand can be distilled to one overarching theme: "Being a superhero is awesome!"

The MCU was set in motion when Tony Stark, the billionaire playboy genius, nearly died in an explosion and lived for weeks as a captive to a terrorist group. He survived only by sacrificing his only friend, a fellow captive, and returned with a shard of metal protruding into his heart. He later found out that his closest business partner planned his attempted murder, and the weapons he'd help design and manufacture were being sold to the very terrorists that attacked innocent civilians and U.S. soldiers alike. Yet, despite all that he goes through, the film closes on a triumphant note that set the tone for all that would follow: When asked to hide behind a superhero alter ego--the mainstay of comic book characters either to protect their loved ones (Spider-Man), provide a veil of privacy (Superman) or create an incorruptible symbol of justice (Batman)--Tony instant defiantly proclaims to a gathered crowd, "I am Iron Man!" (Cue the AC/DC, rock and roll!)

From that moment on, the MCU has embraced the awesomeness of power. It's not a blessing and a curse, as in the Raimi Spider-Man movies, nor is it a cross to bare as in the Blade movies, or an endless fight against injustice, as in the Nolan Batman movies. Tony Stark revels in his Iron Man technology, just as Thor delights in being the God of Thunder, and Captain America embraced the Super Soldier serum and never for one second doubts his decision. The exceptions to this rule are few and telling in themselves. The Hulk is arguably the most tragic of the MCU characters, and Marvel has never attempted to give him another solo film when the first under-performed (despite his rampant popularity among the fans). Rocket Raccoon is similarly tragic, yet he's played as comedic relief with a goofy, lovable sidekick to soften his rough edges. Then there's the Winter Soldier, whose tragic story fueled not one but two movies until he's put into deep freeze, a dangling narrative arc without resolution. Yet, despite his tormented past manifested by his inhuman, mechanical arm, Spider-Man effuses when he first meets him: "You have a metal arm? That is awesome, dude!"

Yes it is, Spider-Man. Everything is awesome.

When everything is awesome, though, its easy for the life's complexities to get watered down and narratively thin. Tony's not an alcoholic in the movies, as he is in the comics. Instead, he's the innocent victim of blood poisoning caused by his arc reactor. Bruce Banner wasn't testing a gamma bomb when he first became the Hulk, he was conducting medical research. Ant-Man blithely skips over inventor Harry Pym's dalliance with domestic abuse. He's just a bit emotionally distant with his daughter. (Somehow, this lack of fidelity to the comics didn't bother the fans who otherwise go positively ape if the costumes aren't the right colors.) Marvel's reluctance to consider character developments that aren't "awesome" is the same reason why their villains are so typically thin and uninteresting. The most interesting of the villains cause the heroes to question the use of their power--whether it's Loki using Thor's arrogance against him, Zola revealing that Captain America secretly worked for Hydra, or Zemo pitting Stark and Cap against each other. Yet, even these conflicts do not call into question the fundamental premise that being Iron Man or Captain America is inherently awesome. Even if you occasionally cause a little collateral damage or lose a friend along the way.

It's fun being awesome, and fans and critics alike have responded positively to the good times that Marvel has provided consistently over thirteen movies. When your raison d'entre is so easily reducible, though, it becomes really difficult to construct a meaningful conflict in a dramatically satisfying way.

If the MCU had a single over-arching theme song, it would be "Everything is Awesome!" from Lego Movie, only without the self-awareness to understand the satirical underpinnings of the lyrics. But who needs self-awareness when you're awesome? Who cares about some stupid college entrance exam when you aced every AP course? The MCU knows what it's doing and it doesn't need to grow...

The DCU: Darkness! No Parents!

If the MCU was the Quarterback winning the big game, the DCU was sulking in the back of the stands with the other "artists" writing gothic poems sprinkled with Nietzsche references and an unearned sense of superiority to their surroundings. These kids just know they're better than the social cliques that rejected them, and if they're not rewarded for their superior insights, it's because their genius went over the teachers' heads. They'll readily admit at the slightest prompting that they're "all sorts of f*cked up," but they'll never admit that they envy the Quarterback (or, worse yet, that they secretly mimic him when they want to get laid).

The DCU was launched with Man of Steel, directed in they typical overdone style of the (studio-dubbed) "visionary" Zack Snyder. Presented as a sort of "spiritual follow-up" to the DCU's more accomplished older brother, the Dark Knight Trilogy, it presented a world in which Superman is first and foremost "problematic." Young Clark Kent is told by his adopted father that using his nearly limitless powers to save people will only freak people out, to the point that it's better to let a busload of kids die or to watch a tornado whisk his father away than save his life. As it turns out, Pa Kent was being conservative in his paranoia. It's not just Clark's superpowers that are problematic. His very presence on Planet Earth threatens the entire human race. Even without revealing himself or his abilities, General Zod tracks him down for the purpose killing every man, woman and child on the planet--a threat that only befalls humanity because Superman is among us. This is the superhero as the cause of the problem, the misunderstood artist at his absolute nadir of greatness, and it's been the template for the DCU franchise so far.

Whereas Iron Man ended with Tony Stark verbally pumping his fist in the air, Man of Steel ended with the U.S. government attempting to spy on Superman, only to have their satellite smashed into the ground in front of them. The message is clear on both sides: Superman is not to be trusted, and he's not interested in allaying our fears about him. In the next film in the franchise, Superman is under Congressional investigation and Batman fights crime by branding criminals and sending them to their deaths. Both men instinctively distrust each other and decide they must be stopped (well before and independent of Luthor's meddling). Because everything is serious. Dark and serious.

If the MCU's theme song is "Everything is Aweomse!", the DCU also takes their theme song from the Lego Movie, fittingly sung by Lego Batman:

Yes, this is real music
Dark, brooding
Important, groundbreaking
Check out the lyrics
No parents
Super rich
Kinda makes it better
In the DCU, it makes perfect sense that the third film in the franchise was Suicide Squad. The "heroes" are barely distinguishable from "villains" in the first place, and doing good will almost certainly blow back on you (or at least piss a lot of people off). Even the Flash, poised to become the DCU's answer to the fun-loving Spider-Man of the MCU, appears to cause a disproportionate amount of damage to the convenience store he "saves" from a simple robbery in his first appearance in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. These are characters who wreak havoc by their very presence, and so far, the studio has found no satisfying narrative conclusion to that premise except--time and again--turning those with super powers against themselves to eradicate the threat they've created, often via suicide.

The DCU is dark. Like really, really dark. So dark you wouldn't understand it. What's the point of college? What's the point of growing up? It's just more darkness ...

The XCU: Mutants are Gay (or Jewish, or Black, or Whatever)

The XCU distinguished itself from other superhero movies by the very first scene of the first entry in the franchise, featuring a young Eric Lensherr getting dragged away from his mother at the gates of Auschwitz. It's hard to imagine a heavier, more portentous opening scene, and it's followed by an almost equally heavy speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate about the "dangers" of mutants in the present day. It's a speech that could have been given by a real-life Senator against the real-life "threat" of homosexuals in our homes and schools. We then meet a grown Eric, playing the mutant Malcolm X against Professor X's MLK. The metaphors are thick and heavy-handed. But in the XCU, superheroes are never just superheroes. They are minorities of all stripes, making their way in a world that fears them.

The metaphor quickly strains against the limitations of the genre, as well as the burdens of fidelity to the source material. X2 brings the barely-concealed subtext to text when the mutant Iceman is asked by his mother, "Have you tried not being a mutant?" The human villain in X2 attempt a genocide against the humans, who retaliate by attempting a genocide of their own. (In real life, with rare exception, the oppressed minority don't attempt or even try to turn the tables. That's left to the feverish imagination of the oppressor as justification for keeping the oppressed down.)

The (rightfully) maligned third entry, X-Men: The Last Stand, twisted the metaphor to the breaking point, resulted in a message best described as "mixed." The metaphorical conflict in the movie concerned whether mutants should embrace a "cure", recasting the literal genocide of X2 into a cultural genocide, evoking the cultural assimilation of minority populations as well as bogus "cures" peddled by the Religious Right against the "disease" of homosexuality. The mutant conflict, on the other hand, concerned Jean Gray's transformation into the Phoenix, who loosely follows her comic book counterpart by unlocking enormous power inside her. Her power is so great, in fact, that it threatens all of existence and forces Wolverine to kill her to save the universe (or something).

So, what does that mean under the metaphor the XCU has meticulously built? If everything is metaphorical, are the Jews, the African-Americans, the Homosexuals simply too powerful to be left to their own devices? Wouldn't it have been far better for Jean Gray to have received the "cure" than to be killed? And what about Rogue, who very reasonably embraced the "cure" so that she could touch another human being without killing them? Maybe it's best if we don't think too much about it after all...

Finding itself painted in a narrative corner, the XCU rebooted itself hard. X-Men: First Class functions as a period piece remake of the first X-Men (even returning to the same Auschwitz scene that opened the first movie), while Days of Future Past is an even closer remake of X2, with humans again manipulating the mutant powers of a X-Man against mutant-kind, only to find their genocidal efforts turned against them by Magneto (etc. etc.).

The road has been rocky, filled with wrong turns and dead ends. But the ambition was there from the beginning, the effort to tell a superhero story that was about more than just being superheroes, whether being a superhero is awesome or problematic.

Which brings us to Apocalypse...

The Modern Superhero Movie Goes to College, Flunks His First Essay

Let's get this out of the way first: X-Men Apocalypse is a terrible movie. The plot has the pacing and internal logic of a B-grade video game. The special effects range from passable to embarrassing. The performances often suggest the actors have somewhere better to be.  It's an occasionally-entertaining mess at best.

It's also the most ambitious superhero movie to come out this year, and possibly since the Modern Era began.

To see where I'm coming from, you'll have to accept this central conceit: En Sabah Nur, the titular Apocalypse, is the embodiment of the religious ideology that is fueling ISIS and other such apocalyptic political movements. Like ISIS's vision of a "restored" caliphate reclaiming a stolen glory in the name of God, En Sabah Nur traces his roots to the distant past, held up as a god during Egypt's mythical golden age. He is "unearthed" by a modern day cult and immediately claims a foothold among various disenchanted people from various walks of life, each easily radicalized by En Sabah Nur's proclamation of a new world to burn away the corruption of the modern world and its "false leaders."

In one of the film's most telling sequences, En Sabah Nur entices a young Storm by explaining how he will "save" the world, but first using an Arabic word translated as "burn." This "lost in translation" moment reflects and captures the difficulty the West has speaking to and understanding the disenfranchised youth of ISIS, who may speak of "jihad" as both an internal spiritual conflict as well as an external military conflict, often at the same time.

Because Apocalypse is a comic book adaptation, En Sabah Nur must gather his "Four Horsemen." Because his comic book counterpart did so. It's simply not organic to the plot in any way, and the film has been rightfully pillared for giving this development short shift. That said, the selection of the Horsemen andd their individual backgrounds speak directly to the type of people that an ISIS-type movement would attract, and in surprisingly sympathetic fashion:

  • First, there's Magneto, inexplicably rebooted in Apocalypse as a family man, in hiding and concealing his mutant powers despite spending the past two movies learning to embrace them. He's living a sham life as a factory worker until he uses his magnetic powers to save a fellow worker, thus "outing" him to the local authorities. Returning to the metaphorical roots of the franchise, Magneto is yet again the stand-in for the persecuted religious minority. Assimilation fails him, and when he is discovered for who he is (in the act of saving a man's life, no less), he is threatened with a gross injustice. En Sabah Nur kills those who would persecute him, redeems his fallen family, and empowers him to tear down the walls of Auschwitz. 

  • Next, you have both Storm and Angel, also reflecting the injustices of modern society. Storm is forced to steal food to survive, a victim of economic injustice and the failures of modern capitalism. Angel, on the other hand, has been captured and forced to fight in cage matches for the amusement of others. The metaphor is a little strained here, but it tracks with modern sex slavery. Both characters, though given thin development, are natural recruits for a religious movement that promises to wipe away those that commit such injustices.

  • Lastly, there's Psylocke. If the other characters are given thin character development, hers is effectively non-existent. She is presented merely as a thug, for lack of a better word, who seems to simply enjoy violence for its own sake, following whichever leader happens to be in the room. Yet, even this narrative shorthand has something to say, that not all recruits are "victims" with sympathetic backstories. Some are simply inclined to violence and prone to follow.

The struggle between En Sabah Nur and the X-Men likewise has fascinating parallels with the conflict between radicalized Islam and the West. When Professor X first discovers En Sabah Nur, the villain quickly hijack's the Professor's mutant power to "hack" the world's defense networks and communicate a message to the world. This is ISIS using the West's own tools against it--cyberterrorism, recruiting over the internet, manipulating the media. While the world shudders at the frightening words of this unseen terror, En Sabah Nur constructs a stronghold by overthrowing the government of a Middle Eastern city. A towering pyramid stands in for ISIS's vision of turning the clock back to an imagined past, built on the rubble of the modern present.

The resolution of the conflict also provides two separate outcomes for the West in this conflict. First, the Professor responds to En Sabah Nur's hijacking of his mind, in which he's forced (like a hostage in a video) to parrot the lines of his captor to the world, by subverting the message and turning it back on his hostage-taker. Rather than telling the world, as he's instructed, that "The Strong shall crush the Weak", he says instead that "The Strong must protect the Weak." That is, using En Sabah Nur's own terminology, the Professor sends his own message of hope and spiritual resolve.  The terrorist's tools of recruitment and spiritual propaganda have been turned against him.

This is not the end of the conflict, however, and En Sabah Nur is ultimately defeated when Jean Gray (again, in this new timeline) unlocks the Phoenix insider of her.  The mighty, metaphysical force of Apocalyse is defeated by the mightier force of rebirth. There's a message of hope underlying this (frankly, stupid) fight between two empty, poorly made lightshows, but also a sinister undertone exposed by En Sabah Nur's final words in the face of the Phoenix's bright light: "It has been revealed." In other words, the Apocalypse has not been defeated, only replaced. Whereas Professor X subverted the villain's message of doom with one of hope, the Phoenix merely replaced one destructive future for another. En Sabah Nur recognized this, welcomed it even, just as ISIS welcomes--encourages, even--a Crusader-mentality from the West. Game recognize game. 

*                 *                 *

Look, it's not a "good" movie and I'm not pretending for a second that it's not a mess on nearly every level. The editing is sloppy, the effects haphazard, and the plot shoehorns in elements from previous entries in the franchise that worked then but stick out now like a hand of sore thumbs. But unlike either the MCU or the DCU, the XCU shows that (in the immortal words of En Sabah Nur) it is "leeeearning." The XCU movies by their nature and at their best have something more to say than "superheroes are cool, but also troubling." They're not just superhero movies about being superheroes, to be judged by the colors of the costumes or the gee-whiz moments. They have something to say about the world we live in, a world in which superheroes are merely metaphors, a narrative means to an end.

That first year away from home can be rough. Freshman year can hit you upside the head and make you doubt whether you really are the A+ student or the star athlete you were in high school. You might realize the world is bigger than you thought, and all those deep thoughts of yours were really just wallowing in the shallow end of the pool. It can be frustrating when the work that got you a passing grade (praise, even) just a year ago now looks pedestrian at best. But if you're willing to grow, mature ... mutate if you will ... you might just have something intelligent to say about the world. The XCU has a lot to learn from the MCU about making an entertaining blockbuster, and at least a little to learn fro the DCU about style. The MCU and DCU could both take a cue from X-Men: Apocalypse, though, when it comes to saying something--anything--about the world we live in.

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