‘X-Men: Apocalypse’ is a better film than ‘Captain America: Civil War’

05.27.16 1 year ago

Note: There are copious spoilers below. Proceed no further if you haven't seen Captain America: Civil War or X-Men: Apocalypse.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a big superhero movie fan. In fact — psst! — I actually think there are far too many of them being churned out these days. Judge me all you want for this, but my relative indifference gives me something of a unique perspective in today's geek-driven movie culture, which has a tendency to focus more on the deeply-interwoven drama between the films' costumed characters and/or adherence to comic-book lore than the directorial eye at work behind the lens. (You can thank — blame? — Marvel's serialized approach to their sprawling, prolific MCU for that.) And from this more removed vantage point, I can say with an utterly straight face that X-Men: Apocalypse is a better film than Captain America: Civil War — Rotten Tomatoes averages be damned.

About those Rotten Tomatoes scores. X-Men: Apocalypse currently stands at a not-great 47% on the critical aggregator — a steep drop from its predecessor Days of Future Past, which was certified “Fresh” at 91%. Captain America: Civil War, meanwhile, stands at a stellar 90% — the highest average of any superhero movie released so far this year. And for the life of me, I can't figure out why.

Anyone who loves action movies — and okay, even those who don't — knows that an action movie lives and dies on the success of its action scenes. And sorry-not-sorry, but the action scenes in Apocalypse are head and shoulders above the action scenes in Civil War.

For starters, Apocalypse boasts one of the best action sequences — if not the best action sequence — of 2016 with a bravura slo-mo Quicksilver rescue at the X-Mansion that occurs about midway through the film. It is wildly fun, inventive and a testament to the continuing visual panache of Bryan Singer, who despite being firmly entrenched in the blockbuster arena for the last decade and a half still demonstrates an auteur's eye where it counts. Just when Apocalypse threatens to become another standard-issue superhero tentpole, Singer injects the film with a bracing shot of adrenaline, set to the synthy strains of the classic Eurythmics single “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” I can't say I've had that much fun in a theater for a long time.

That sequence aside, Apocalypse demonstrates once more that Singer knows his way around an action scene better than almost any other director working today. As opposed to the much-heralded Russo Brothers — who also helmed 2014's Captain America: The Winter Soldier — he allows his scenes to breathe, giving them a sense of spatial coherence that's often completely missing in Civil War's jarringly-edited fight scenes, which also feature far too many close-and-medium shots for my tastes. Take the below clip, in which Tony Stark, Black Widow, Sharon Carter and Black Panther are subject to over 60 edits in a single minute as they face off with Bucky Barnes in a no-holds-barred brawl:

I repeat: 60-plus edits in a single minute, and those are only the edits I was able to count. The cuts here are often so quick that it's nearly impossible to register them, resulting in a sense of frustration on the part of the viewer. Additionally, the emphasis on tight framing is actually detrimental to the sense of scope that I assume we're supposed to feel with these writ-large superhero epics. Quite frankly — and I really, really hate to say this — many of the action scenes in Civil War reminded me of Pitof's slightly less-coherent work on that awful 2005 Halle Berry Catwoman movie: 

Before you jump down my throat, let me be clear: Civil War is a far, far better movie than Catwoman, and the Russo Brothers are far, far better directors than Pitof. Though the edits in the respective films' action scenes are similarly abundant, Civil War at least demonstrates some sense of continuity between shots. That said, the way I felt while watching both movies, at least during their action sequences, was virtually the same: a sense of utter bewilderment, verging on a burning desire to look away from the screen. Aren't action scenes supposed to draw us in, not repel us?

Unfortunately, the three Apocalypse clips released by Fox thus far don't give an accurate representation of the film's action dynamics, but from where I'm sitting the film offers a treasure trove of sequences that feel epic in the way a $200 million movie should feel. The ancient Egypt-set opening set piece alone, while admittedly corny as hell (almost no one expects subtlety from the superhero genre), is also a grand, stupidly entertaining ride with sweeping visuals that wouldn't have felt out of place in a CinemaScope epic from the 1950s. What the scene lacks in convincing character drama or dialogue, it more than makes up for in eye-popping visual flair.

In no way am I saying that X-Men: Apocalypse is a perfect film; it undoubtedly has its share of problems. For starters: it is overlong (like Civil War and most other superhero movies); the third act in particular is bloated and poorly paced; it has difficulty servicing its multitude of characters (also like Civil War); and its title villain is a big letdown (for one thing, the character looks visually diminutive when he should have filled up the screen). But whereas Civil War's dizzying action scenes at times left me feeling literally dizzy and alienated from what was happening on screen, Apocalypse's visuals felt immersive and absorbing. And that counts for a lot — especially to a non-superhero fanatic like me.

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