The following is a pre-discussion of X-Men: Apocalypse. Feature writer Brett Harrison Davinger and editor James Tisch got together to talk expectations and/or anxieties around Bryan Singer’s upcoming franchise title as well as the current state of the superhero film; neither party has viewed the film at the of time of publishing. Check out our early review of the film here. X-Men: Apocalypse opens in theaters nationwide on May 27, 2016.
Brett: Three down, three to go in the year of superhero movies. We’ve gone through Deadpool, Batman v Superman, and Captain America: Civil War to get to where this whole generation-defining genre started, X-Men: Apocalypse. Yet surprisingly, despite X-Men having a resurgence thanks to First Class, Days of Future Past, and Deadpool, Apocalypse is being greeted with mixed-negative first reviews. It currently sits at a 51% – 5.6/10 average rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I said in my May Movie Preview when describing my lack of enthusiasm towards the movie, “Apocalypse disappointingly looks like yet another ‘if we work together as a team, we can protect the Earth from Generic Destruction Man.’” What did you think of the trailers?
James: The trailers never made much of an impression on me but I could say the same about Days of Future Past and First Class and I quite enjoyed both titles. I’m curious (and wonder if you agree) if a certain degree of superhero ennui may have settled in for Apocalypse. Like you said, this has been a heavy year for comic book adaptations and there seemed (for a while now even before the lackluster reviews) a general lack of buzz or excitement regarding X-Men: Apocalypse. Do you think the trailers played a role or it’s just that Deadpool, BvS and Captain America: Civil War kind of sucked the air out of the superhero conversation?
Brett: I think it’s a combination of both. You talk about your feeling of superhero ennui, and I feel it too – though I don’t think I’m overall as negative about these movies as you are (I certainly liked Captain America: Civil War, but wasn’t blown away by it). Besides, general audiences still flock to these movies, and critics still have something of affection for them when done well – Captain America: Civil War got a 90% – 7.6/10 average rating; Deadpool got an 82% – 6.9/10 average rating; Days of Future Past got a 91% – 7.6/10 average rating. So I wouldn’t say it’s a wholesale lack of interest/boredom in the genre itself. As for why the negative or at least apathetic response towards Apocalypse and the lack of both critical and fan buzz? I think a big part is that the ads are so lackluster. if the trailers were more interesting or offered something unique, then we’d have something to latch onto to possibly generate interest. Deadpool had the humor; Batman v. Superman had the novelty, which then turned into the trainwreck factor; and Captain America: Civil War had the benefit of years of build-up with characters we actually like.
Whether or not you liked the movie, it certainly felt like a natural culmination to nearly a decade of films at this point. The past two films of this franchise similarly had special sparks – X-Men: First Class had a liveliness, DoFP had the return of some of the original cast (inicluding McKellan and Stewart), a bigger role for Wolverine, and time travel. But Apocalypse? It doesn’t have that edge; that extra oomph needed to make it seem like something more than another disaster movie (not to mention the exhausting amount of new mutants they have to (re)introduce and reconcile). And visually, it’s blue and grey with space lasers and explosions. If this was the only game in town, it would definitely get more buzz and excitement, but after three superhero movies in three months, we need a little bit more or at least different.
James: Not to get too-inside baseball but there’s a feeling that Fox may just be beginning to realize that they have, what with the current studio desire to build “cinematic universes” of their own. While X-Men has been a profitable franchise since 2000, it seems that Fox is finding out what works rather by accident than design. Deadpool, that anarchic surprise blockbuster (now the highest grossing R-rated film in history) was famously spurred by fan support rather than a Marvel-like titan like Kevin Feige guiding it along and so may have altered the course of not just their comic book movie canon but the industry as a whole. Apocalypse, which I’m sure is fine if not exactly memorable (the impression I get from reviews), can’t help but feel slightly old-hat by comparison.
Brett: Exactly. It’s probably going to be like X2, which was a fine superhero movie and probably one of the best of “Phase 1” (2000-2008) of the current era of superhero movies, but we expect more now. Simply having superheroes doesn’t cut it. Anyway, speaking of Deadpool and Fox’s future plans, I can’t help but wonder, what are Fox’s overall plans? You look at a movie like X-Men: Apocalypse, which is set in the 1980’s, then a movie like Deadpool, which is clearly present day. They’re probably not going to leapfrog the current X-Class (or at least those willing to resign a contract – McAvoy might, but Lawrence and Fassbender might not, Lawrence especially seems done with this franchise) to present day and have Sophie Turner (new Jean Grey, best known as Sansa Stark) be the same age in the 1980s as now while cutting out all the adventures they had in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. Then you throw in all the other properties they have. We’re getting a Wolverine 3 (based on the Old Man Logan storyline) with Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart. Their attempt to make Gambit starring Channing Tatum and directed by Doug Liman is seemingly dead in the water (it was supposed to come out October 6, 2016 and hasn’t started filming yet). Plus, they are in pre-production on movies like X-Force and The New Mutants, which must also fit into this amorphous, three-decade-long time period while probably needing at least a cameo from McAvoy, Stewart, or Reynolds to show up to give the universe a sense of continuity. And this is their successful franchise – God knows what’s going to happen to Fantastic Four after last year’s legendary catastrophe. So what do you think will happen, or what would you want to see happen to Fox’s properties considering the three-decade blank caused by Days of Future Past?
James: It’s all enough to heap more praise onto Feige. I have no interest, really, in blathering on about the virtues of the MCU but at least there’s a unifying vision at hand. The X-Men continuity errors could probably be wiped clean pretty easily (if not logically) if Fox can get their act together but I’m not sure how it can held together without a few essential ensemble players – one of the joys of the last couple of X-Men films for me has certainly been the chemistry between McAvoy and Fassbender. That’s something that will be hard to replicate.
Brett: The chemistry between McAvoy and Fassbender is what sets the past two X-Men movies apart from pretty much every other superhero movie. Even with Civil War and all the time spent with Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, there is an intensity in Fassbender/McAvoy’s performances that have made the past two films feel intimate and dramatic. And both Matthew Vaughn and Brian Singer knew that their relationship was the key. Despite the “larger” threats of Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) and the Cold War in First Class and Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) and the Sentinels in DoFP, the final conflict really came down to Professor Xavier vs. Magneto. Maybe that’s why Apocalypse is ringing a bit falser for me; it looks like they will push aside those characters and their history in favor of Generic Monster Man and tons of new characters.
And to speak to your other point, ironically Deadpool remains the outlier. Apocalypse probably won’t do the business of DoFP or even Deadpool (not to speak of Civil War or BvS). It might have been easier to reboot/soft reboot the team (similar to what happened in First Class) since Gambit fell apart and I’m sure no one would lose sleep over the loss of Wolverine 3 IF we didn’t know that 30 years down the line there is a jester waiting to screw around.
James: Perhaps Generic Monster Man would be more enticing if the franchise over the years seemed really interested in organically deepening more of its characters. One of the weaknesses of the X-Men films so far, I think has been that only a few central characters (Prof. X, Magneto, Wolverine and maybe Mystique) have really ever had much to do. It’s something that’s always seemed a bit strange in my eyes considering the absolute wealth of characters at Fox’s disposal.
Brett: That’s possibly the bigger problem with the X-Men franchise as a whole. It exists throughout Phase 1 (2000-2008) and Phase 2 (2008-2016) of the modern superhero genre (I describe these periods in more detail here.) Phase 1 never really appreciated the continuing story. Much like the Burton/Schumacher Batman movies or for a more favorable comparison, the pre-Craig James Bond movies, every movie was a new adventure. There might be some carry over in the form of minor characters or call-backs, but they were mostly stand alone movies. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, have shown the benefits of the continuing story and characters who change with each new installment. X-Men has struggled to figure out how to manage that. And a big reason is that the First Class was a soft reboot that started the present franchise 50 years before present day, so they have essentially a half century of history to play catch up with. (And lest we forget, a big reason for that is that they stupidly killed off three of the most important characters in X-Men: The Last Stand so they needed to reboot somehow.)
James: And that’s a striking difference. It’s difficult to see how this “world” could continue without Hugh Jackman as Wolverine or even Michael Fassbender as Magneto. By softening the focus and allowing actors like that to make indelible impressions without the consistent (for better and worse) presence of an over-arching agenda, the X-Men films can’t help but feel a little negligible in comparison. Though, truth be told, I would happily take First Class or Days of Future Past over nearly anything in the MCU.
Brett: Even though I’m not as down on the MCU as you are, I’d somewhat agree with that. It would have been nice if Fox clearly had a more unified plan and concentrated approach towards bolstering the X-universe rather than trying to reset everything to zero with DoFP and instead causing a mess of everything else. Though, let’s say theoretically Apocalypse ended with some random mutant jettisoning everyone from 1980-whatever to 2016, leaving 1990-2015 reasonably murky. Do you think people would have had a problem with that?
James: Yes and no. Fanboy reaction can be extreme (bordering on the insane) from time to time and that would be a big enough event to freak everyone out and clamor on message boards for a while. But, if something like that happened, and the next film turned out to be really strong all may be forgiven. You’re only as good as your last move. That’s why Warner Bros. is currently losing their minds over how to properly strategize DC.
Brett: All the time and money spent making the movie, promoting the movie, selling the movie, putting in Easter Eggs for Justice League and future films. Hundreds of millions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of hours. And it all comes down to one word – Martha.
James: It’s going to be hard to live that one down. Pressure is on, Wonder Woman.
Brett: Well I can’t imagine Zack Snyder is in a good place right now. He pretty much went straight from the Batman v. Superman promotional tour, which was all about how bad the reviews were, to filming Justice League as Warner Brothers and DC are panicking because of how badly Batman v. Superman did and it can be virtually assured that all of their stresses are landing directly on his shoulders. Every day it seems like there’s a new report showing how DC has no idea what to do.
The latest rumor is a Harley Quinn spin-off film, which I presume is for marketing purposes more than artistic reasons (I have to assume Harley Quinn merchandise sells better than Wonder Woman merchandise). I’m sure Robbie will be fine in the role, but much like how they jumped into Justice League right after Batman v. Superman without having time to breathe, maybe they should take a short break and see how the public reacts to the character and her strengths before saying “People like Harley Quinn based on five minutes of footage! She gets a movie!” There seems to be no order or control at DC HQ, just a mad rush to get to where Marvel is (and beyond) that’s getting even madder and more rushed.
They still expect to get Justice League Part 1 to come out next year, completely blind to the main reason behind the turmoil: Zack Snyder. I’ve complimented him in previous articles, I still think he has strengths, but let’s face it – he’s the reason Batman v Superman failed. And throwing more restrictions and producers at him will not make him a better filmmaker, it will just lead to a bigger mess.
James: It reeks of desperation to best Marvel. Fox, too, is faced with it (best example: the Fantastic Four disaster last year, which was nothing more than a pitiful excuse to maintain rights to the characters). It feels like a shit show that may not pave the way for too many winners down the road – if I were more of comic books guy I would be mortified. Instead, I’m just weary that some pedestrian movies may be in the pipeline. On terms of WB’s latest venture to turn Robbie’s Harley Quinn into a standalone vehicle, I’m conflicted. The fast tracking of the project is entirely based on early fanboy reaction to trailers and nothing more – I’m still somewhat holding out hope for Suicide Squad since the marketing materials have been fun and express a sort of visual spontaneity rarely seen in comic book adaptations, but we’re still months away from verifiable proof the movie (and Robbie’s portrayal) work. I can, theoretically, get psyched that WB is interested in a more gender-balanced universe (something the MCU struggles with – hey, where exactly is that Black Widow film?) but things have to stick in the public conscious before franchises are built.
Brett: I get what you’re saying about a more gender-balanced universe, but is that really what they’re doing? Just because a character happens to be female, doesn’t mean the movie will be good or that it’s being made for the right reasons. “Let’s have a Harley Quinn movie with a bunch of female characters from the DC Universe.” Are they doing it because they think a Harley Quinn movie with a bunch of female characters from the DC Universe would be good or because “well, we need to figure out someway to introduce our canon of characters into live action so sure, why not…and we get positive diversity buzz too.” The end result might be more female-centric movies, but doesn’t it do something of a disservice to do it just to do it? Or because Hot Topic can sell more Daddy’s Little Monster t-shirts?
James: That’s a can of worms and ripe with conflicts onto themselves. You’re absolutely right on terms of end results – little doubt a standalane Harley Quinn project will expand the reach of feminine expression on film (unless WB somehow can develop the an incredibly subversive, nearly Mad Max: Fury Road-like movie out of it) but out of all ideas out there floating around, it’s certainly not the worse. Likewise if slightly off subject, Ryan Reynolds talked up during the Deadpool press tour that he would be down for the character to have a boyfriend in future installments – whatever qualitative levels that expand the character if such actions took place aside, it’s a bit more intriguing (especially to comic book agnostics like myself) to consider a bit outside-the-box thinking here.
Brett: There’s certainly ways to make these movies different and more subversive even if not necessarily groundbreaking. I have to credit Captain America: Civil War for letting the final battle actually be between Captain America, Bucky, and Iron Man and ending on a relatively dark note of separation rather than ending the movie with Baron Zemo hitting a button and releasing a space monster that unites everyone. The conflict didn’t stop because someone was pulling the strings since the underlying issues between the characters remained valid. And I also have to give the movie credit for making the climax being a personal fight rather than a giant monster battle. Deadpool obviously used a traditional plot but played around with it using meta humor and an amazing main character.
Maybe Suicide Squad will be similarly different enough, but who knows? (Though rumors that the entire Third Act needs to be fixed is less heartening, but not surprising considering DC.) Suicide Squad might end up being an outlier – the good DC movie – or it could likely suffer a similar fate as future DC properties. The company seems like they’re in panic mode and will try to be everything to everyone, falling victim to the fall quadrant approach. If Batman v. Superman was any indication, their tendency seems to be to throw more and more into the movie instead of stepping back and seeing what can be removed; the original cut of Batman v. Superman was four hours.
James: As William Goldman famously said, “Nobody knows anything…… Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”
Brett: That’s a fine lead in to my final question, let’s take an educated guess on which will work. X-Men: Apocalypse, Suicide Squad, or Doctor Strange – which sparks your fancy most?
James: Doctor Strange if only because Tilda Swinton is in it and she is incapable of ever being boring, casting controversy and all. You?
Brett: Are you forgetting her turn in Constantine?
James: Never saw it.
Brett: I am kind of the same position as I was in with BvS v. Civil War. I trust Marvel to make a more compelling and efficient movie, plus I am interested to see them delve into the magical side of Marvel for the first time. Not to mention how the cast for Doctor Strange is amazing – Mads Mikkelsen alone is enough to get me to see it and hopefully him playing off of Cumberbatch isn’t a let down. Suicide Squad certainly has more of a wild card factor to it in that we don’t know what to expect – reshoots and all (and seeing how DC tries to recover from Batman v. Superman is enough to have me intrigued). Regardless, to get back to where we started, it certainly seems like Apocalypse is the odd man out due to not being the odd man.