June 4th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Gross desserts on the sex-education menu

CANBERRA OBSERVED Suggested parallel less a Murphy than a furphy

EDITORIAL Obama rewards Vietnam: a particularly nasty regime

ENVIRONMENT Land sinkage, not rising sea levels, the real threat

LIFE ISSUES Who am I? Baby's first memoir

SOCIETY Haircuts and tattoos: new rebels get funky

LIFE POLICY Queensland abortion bill is out of step with voters

SEXUAL POLITICS Gay 'marriage' and the given in human procreative behaviour (part 1)

RURAL LIFE Some of the reasons why farmers need a new bank

It's a queer theory that says kids can transgender (Part Two of two)

MUSIC Digital sonics by no means free of glitches

CINEMA Action movie lacks punch: X-Men: Apocalypse

BOOK REVIEW Tragic betrayal

BOOK REVIEW Great reformer or great dictator?

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Action movie lacks punch: X-Men: Apocalypse

by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, June 4, 2016

X-Men started the modern era of superhero movies.

Released in 2000, it introduced the cinema-going public to the notion of a shared world of super-powered heroes and villains, one where a single hero did not hold sway, and where both the heroes and villains were more complex and flawed – where villains had real reasons for their villainy and where heroes weren’t always that heroic. And it went a step further by exploring the response of society, including the government, to the question of extraordinary individuals.

In this it re-presented Stan Lee’s pioneering work in the 1960s, with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, at Marvel Comics, in reinventing the superhero. Until that time comic-book heroes were fundamentally heroic and their villains villainous. Lee and his co-creators at Marvel decided to present the heroes as flawed characters with imperfect lives, making them more relatable to audiences. And by giving the villains real motivations, often born of their own pain, it encouraged a more thoughtful readership.

In this, the comic-book world went from simplistic stories to a more complex modern mythology, one echoing the great stories of humanity, from the Greek epics to the Bible to Shakespearean drama, one where characters were at once individuals with their own struggles, as well as universal archetypes.

Crucial to X-Men’s success was that the superpowers of the heroes and villains came from within, not without. Instead of being the consequence of science gone wrong (like Spider-Man or the Hulk), the individual’s wealth and genius (like Iron Man or Batman), or them actually being aliens (like Superman or Thor), their powers came from the mutation of their DNA. These ‘mutants’ were a new stage in human evolution, one that inspired both awe and fear, and one that led to responses both xenophobic and welcoming from humanity.

This wasn’t an accident, as the comics came about at a time when the world was still grappling with the enormity of the holocaust, and the United States was in the midst of the civil right struggle.

The mutants responded to society’s injustices by either striving for peaceful co-existence, or seeking a militant separatism. Those for peace, and for defending the weak, were led by Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), a wheelchair-bound psychic whose political idealism was offset by a ruthlessly pragmatic realism. Those against were led by the man who was his oldest friend – holocaust-survivor Erik Lensherr (Ian McKellen), better known as Magneto, a man with mastery over magnetism.

A number of films later came X-Men: First Class, which depicted the young Charles (Jame McAvoy) and Erik (Michael Fassbender) as they worked together for the greater good. This was followed by the time-travelling X-Men: Days of Future Past, which cuts between a future genocide of mutants and the efforts of their younger selves to stave off the cause of this genocide – conveniently resetting the timeline of the movie universe, rendering the previous films almost irrelevant, and thus allowing the creators to reboot the series from within itself. And this is how we end up with X-Men: Apocalypse.

Apocalypse begins with a prelude set in Ancient Egypt where the god-like and tyrannical En Sabah Nur, aka Apocalypse (Berdj Garabedian), is about to transfer his consciousness into a new body, when he is betrayed by his human followers and entombed in the rubble of his own pyramid.

It then cuts to the 1980s. Xavier is running his school for mutants, shapeshifter Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) is rescuing mutants from mistreatment, and Erik is living secretly in Poland with his wife and daughter. En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac) is accidentally awoken by CIA agent Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne) and, unimpressed by the world he finds, decides to “cleanse” it of the weak.

The stage is set for a conflict both physical and intellectual, if not outright theological – as themes of faith and false gods come to the fore, especially with characters like the devoutly Catholic Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and the self-deifying Apocalypse, as well as the Job-like lamentations of Erik, as he is again afflicted with tragedy.

X-Men: Apocalypse, however, goes with the “Apocalypse” part of its title and focus on the physical conflict to the exclusion of all else. This leads to impressive fight scenes, but ones lacking the emotional depth that the other X-Men movies had. The inner conflicts plaguing the characters are largely ignored – which is disappointing for a series that has had such tensions as a key element.

Still, the story is not over. We know there’s more to come, and maybe it will be better.

Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).

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