New Mutants is the Defining Film of the 2010s

Always slightly late to the table, the Swampflix crew won’t be filing our collective picks for the best films of the decade until sometime in February. Meanwhile, pro critics have already been making busy work of distilling the 2010s into digestible Top Ten lists long before they’re even officially over. All of this discourse pinpointing the films that defined the decade—titles like Fury Road, The Social Network, Boyhood (blech), and latecomer dark horse Parasitehas me thinking about what one movie could possibly define the entire era. And since it’s apparently become acceptable to declare such things with incomplete data (some of these lists arrived as early as October), I’m just going to go ahead and stake my claim now: New Mutants is the defining cinematic work of the 2010s. It’s a film no one has yet seen. For all we know, it may not yet even be complete. Yet, its behind-the-scenes tinkering and disastrous presence in the cultural zeitgeist encapsulates so much of what mainstream filmmaking has become over the course of the decade.

It’s obvious to me that the defining film of the 2010s would have to be a superhero picture, considering what the MCU has ballooned into since Iron Man kicked off the franchise twelve years and twenty-three sequels ago. It feels like the only non-sequel, non-remake feature films that make significant box office returns anymore are superhero movies and talking-animal animation disposables, and only one of those categories eats up critical discourse space with an alarming regularity. Marvel & DC tentpole films have become such oxygen-sucking behemoths that interviewers are now encouraged to ask arthouse auteurs light-years outside their wheelhouse for an opinion on their merits (see: Scorsese’s “theme park” nontroversy). Now, the lie about the superhero movie’s cultural dominance is that the genre is in itself a vast medium open to endless possibilities — so that smaller, experimental mutations of the genre could allow for much more variety & creativity than you’d expect from a typical comic book adaptation. New Mutants was supposed to be a major experiment in that genre deviation — breaking with the superhero picture’s usual sci-fi & fantasy modes to deliver a full-on horror film. Instead, it’s become an oft-repeated joke, delivering the exact same punchline with each new announcement every few months.

I swear I saw a trailer for New Mutants in a movie theater two years ago. That surely can’t be, since the movie does not—in a practical sense—exist. It does have an excellent hook, though, as a horror film offshoot of the X-Men starring teens in a spooky asylum, like a superhero version of Dream Warriors. What it doesn’t have is the strong, personal creative vision we’ve been promised from these superhero genre detours. Supposedly, the film was a passion project helmed by two nerds who grew up with a shared adoration for its comic book source material (the same dudes who adapted The Fault in Our Stars of all people), but it’s since been taken out of their hands by the true filmmaking elite of the 2010s: boardroom directors & studio executives. The reason the movie has been delayed for two full years (so far) is because it’s been hijacked from its (admittedly mediocre) creative team to be retooled & reshot into oblivion in an attempt to “save it in the edit.” This is a signature Major Studio move that has ballooned many, many budgets in recent years, to the point where films are guaranteed to be flops before they’re actually released (Fantastic 4, Monsters Trucks, Sonic, Solo, etc.). What started as a potentially fun, tiny genre experiment is now a years-spanning money pit & a public embarrassment — a distinctly 2010s trajectory.

So if a final, set-in-stone cut of New Mutants does not yet exist, how is it that the film’s already had multiple rounds of theatrical trailers advertising its release? That’s because the #1 fetish that movie studios have discovered this decade is announcing release dates. They love it. They’re addicted to it. Years before most blockbusters (especially ones on a superhero scale) are even completed, their studios will announce their far-off release dates in a truncated press release. Now, most audiences aren’t going to have a three-year plan about what movie we’re going to be watching opening night on a specific Friday in the distant future (not least of all because it’s not guaranteed Earth will be inhabitable in the distant future). These calendar real estate claims have nothing to do with getting butts in seats. Rather, they’re about keeping almighty Intellectual Property name brands like X-Men, Avengers, and Batman in constant cultural conversation even when there’s no current product to advertise. That way, we’re constantly talking about Marvel movies that aren’t even out yet instead of smaller, original productions that could actually use the critical oxygen — thanks to fun press tricks like release date adjustments, casting announcements, and “leaked” set photos. New Mutants had had no fewer than four release date announcements to date, which means it’s done more to keep the X-Men brand alive in The Discourse than even Dark Phoenix, a film that was actually released (but no one saw). The only reason these release date delays were necessary to announce via the press is because the film didn’t make its initial self-imposed deadline thanks to its behind-the-scenes retooling. In a best case scenario, New Mutants would have been rushed to meet that initial, arbitrary deadline whether or not its CGI or sequencing were entirely completed to their best possible standard. Instead, its “delayed” release is being used as IP kindling for naive bloggers (Hello) to keep talking about X-Men movies even though we didn’t even enjoy the other, completed entries in the series of recent memory. It’s doing a great job even though, again, it does not exist.

The biggest offender in this release date fetishism and, if we’re being honest, the biggest offender in all things is Walt Disney Pictures. And, thanks to Disney’s monopolistic acquisition of 20th Century Fox, New Mutants is now officially a Walt Disney film. So far, Disney is seemingly committed to theatrically releasing New Mutants in April of 2020, but it wouldn’t be the first, second, or third time that plan changed. It’s just as likely that the film will be demoted to a straight-to-streaming release on Hulu, Disney+, or whatever other streaming service the great dictator mouse absorbs by next Spring. Or maybe they’ll scrap the production entirely, making it the newest ghost to haunt the famed Disney Vault. No matter what happens with New Mutants‘s release in 2020 (or, just as likely, 2022, 2025, or never) I can’t think of a more definitive 2010s trajectory for a movie than that. New Mutants was supposed to be a small, fun experiment that cashed in on the superhero movie’s box office invincibility to push the genre into new, weird directions. Instead, it’s now a Disney acquisition that’s little more than a ballooning budget & a series of release date announcements meant to keep its almighty IP alive in the cultural zeitgeist. It’s likely doomed to be unceremoniously dumped on a streaming service rather than reach wide theatrical distribution, and it’s all but guaranteed to be forgotten in either instance. What one movie could encapsulate mainstream filmmaking in the 2010s better than that?

-Brandon Ledet

Deadpool 2 (2018)

Although they’re clearly not made for me, I’m starting to become fascinated by Deadpool movies as a cultural curio. There usually isn’t any fun to be had from sitting through a comedy you find thoroughly unfunny and the reference-heavy Family Guy irreverence of Deadpool seems custom-built to create a laughter-free vacuum of punishing bro humor around me. What’s fascinating about these movies to me is watching them in the theater anyway, where laughter is a constant, thundering flood. To watch a Deadpool movie in public is to feel as if I am from a different planet than the rest of the room. Edgy hack jokes about suicide & child rape, lazy references to vintage pop culture ephemera, and mater-of-fact namedrops of unrelated comic book characters all land as if they’re carving out previously undiscovered, revolutionary forms of comedy the world has never seen before. Audiences gasp, involuntarily muttering “Wow” and “Oh My god” after every supposedly transgressive gag in total disbelief of the films’ comedic brilliance. Jokes that have been run into the ground though months of being repeated in advertisements somehow earn belly laughs so deep it’s a wonder no one vomits. Just as I was with the first Deadpool movie, I was befuddled throughout Deadpool 2 by why everyone around me though it was hi-larious that this “annoying prick” of a lead character (the movie’s words, not mine) broke kayfabe by saying “Patrick Stewart” instead of “Professor X” or suffered sub-Rickles insult comedy routines form real-life shitbag TJ Miller or celebrated a weapon’s forcible insertion up his enemy’s ass. I felt partly like a land mammal attempting to swim with the fish, partly like the only person in Jonestown with concerns about the Kool-Aid. I was surrounded by creatures I didn’t understand: true nerds.

Although my outsider’s discomfort watching Deadpool in public continued into this sequel, it was a marginal improvement on the first film, which barely feigned a superhero origin story around its bro-friendly meta humor. Directed by Atomic Blonde/John Wick vet David Leitch and afforded a more legitimate big studio budget, Deadpool 2 feels a little more authentic to the action genre it’s spoofing. When Deadpool himself isn’t sucking all the oxygen out of the room with his constant flood of “Ain’t I a stinker?” metacommentary, the movie manages to stage a few halfway decent gags, such as an early yakuza-themed sword-fighting montage set to Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” (even though that exact song was already similarly employed in Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, of all lowly places). Romantic tragedy, conversion therapy anxiety, and existential self-loathing are all taken more seriously here than they probably even need to be as the movie builds a time-travelling revenge plot around Deadpool’s sudden desire to have a family and the threat of X-Men antihero Cable. Genuinely entertaining performances from James Brolin (as Cable), Hunt for the Wilderpeople’s Julian Dennison (as Deadpool’s troubled, unwanted ward), and Atlanta’s Zazie Beetz (as Domino, a superhero character who much better deserves her own franchise) all helpfully distract from the Ryan Reynolds/Deadpool-shaped hole at the film’s self-corrupted center. The comedic payoff to a team-building montage spoof was lifted directly from a better-executed bit in MacGruber, but comes awfully close to achieving legitimately well-crafted humor. The film even finds ways to make Deadpool himself occasionally funny, against all odds, by pausing his dialogue to focus on the physical horrors of his superpower: a body that stubbornly refuses to die. If you generously squint at Deadpool 2 from a flattering angle in just the right light, it almost resembles a mildly amusing, ZAZ-style action spoof. Deadpool himself is always on hand to deflate that balloon, though, ruining any and all good will he can with as many child molestation quips or referrals to Cable as Thanos as necessary to spoil the mood (or bust a gut, depending on your POV).

I should probably be grateful for the minor details that break up Deadpool 2’s oppressive stench of Gen-X comic book bro humor, like the years-late inclusion of a (barely onscreen) same-sex couple in a major Marvel release or the fact that is a macho superhero who isn’t afraid of high heels or pegging. Fixating on those touches or the welcome presence of Domino & Super Ricky Baker feel like sifting though the scraps for momentary joys, however, an exercise that’s only occasionally rewarding in the few blissful moments when Deadpool himself is not cracking wise. The most the Deadpool franchise offers me, personally, is the experience of sitting in a room full of people from an entirely different planet, cowering from the deafening horror of their baffling laughter. Deadpool 2 is a slight improvement on its predecessor, but I almost wish it were much, much worse, so I could get as much out of that alienating experience as possible. The movie isn’t quite decent enough to earn genuine enthusiasm, so I’d almost prefer if I didn’t see anything of value in it at all. That way the absurdity of sitting quietly in a cinema packed with guffawing space aliens might hold more novelty for me as a cultural experience. A worse Deadpool 2 might even deter me from tuning back in for the inevitable Deadpool 3, where I’m sure to relive this comedic alienation all over again—confused, scared, and alone in a crowd.

-Brandon Ledet

 

X-Men vs. The Avengers: Determining the Worst No-Stakes Offender

Avengers: Infinity War offers an interesting conundrum for a movie critic, as it defies consideration as an isolated piece of work. Overall, the film felt to me like the MCU in a microcosm; there were some aspects I really liked mixed with some I couldn’t care less about. Like with the MCU at large, I could’ve done without Stark & Strange, the CGI spectacle could be really numbing, and its absurd length felt paradoxically too short to fully serve its myriad of storylines & too long to maintain constant, undivided attention. The bizarre critical dilemma it presents is that it can’t be separated from the MCU at large at all. Not only does it represent both the highs & lows of its franchise, its impact is meaningless without 18 previous films informing its in-the-moment significance. Considering the merits of Infinity War as an isolated work of art would be like critically assessing a randomly selected episode of a soap opera, a single pro wrestling match from a months-long angle or, perhaps most appropriately, a mid-stream issue of a comic book series. It’s a tough thing to evaluate in isolation, as it’s built on a structure that requires both knowledge of its characters’ previous arcs and acceptance of its medium’s need to never truly wrap up a storyline. This type of storytelling’s endless self-propulsion requires always leaving a door open for The Next Big Show. The tagline for Infinity War is “An entire universe. Once and for all,” but we know as consumers that a more accurate descriptor would be “Once or thrice a year.” It’s difficult, then, to invest any emotional response in the film’s at-the-moment consequences, since they convey a kind of finality that we know will inevitably be undone in the next summer’s sequel(s). Adapting a comic book story structure to blockbuster cinema has created a never-ending franchise that can’t afford to introduce actual stakes to its everlasting gobstopper “plot.”

That’s not necessarily a bad ting, though. I love pro-wrestling. Millions of people watch soap operas every day. Comic books are at least popular enough to have justified this franchise’s launch in the first place. Like with consumers of all kinds of serialized storytelling, MCU fans are entering these films recognizing that their storylines can never fully reach a satisfying conclusion. At the very least, they can assume that the death of a major character who’s already scheduled to appear in an announced sequel will inevitably be reversed through supernatural shenanigans. There’s a surplus of dubious character deaths in Infinity War that anyone familiar enough with the film to be watching it as the 19th entry in a series is going to be skeptical of, if not outright dismissive. The one aspect of the film that helps distinguish it as an isolated work, however, is that it does not acknowledge that inevitable impermanence. It commits to its own tragic consequences by ending on a disaster of mass death & mayhem. All signals of an optimistic future for its doomed characters are extratextual, based entirely on those deranged Disney press conferences where the corporate bully claims future weekend release dates for their bottomless wealth of sequels planned centuries into the future. We can fully expect as an audience that Infinity War’s damage will be undone by the end of the next Avengers sequel, but the film ends without any indication of that impermanence. I mention this because I’ve seen plenty of comic book movies (both in the MCU and outside it) do the exact opposite in the past, to their own detriment. For instance, if Infinity War were an X-Men sequel, its mass death downer of a conclusion would have wrapped up tidily at the climax, then immediately been undone by a convenient, quick denouement. I know this because I’ve seen the X-Men movies do it more than once, most egregiously in its two most recent entries.

I’m about to vaguely spoil two recent-ish X-Men movies, but don’t worry; nothing really matters in that franchise. In just two pictures, X-Men has become the authority on the comic book Reset Button, assuring that its individual battles have no stakes in the context of franchise-wide storylines. The current trajectory of the X-Men series has been a decade-by-decade nostalgia trip. The prequel X-Men: First Class plays like a swanky 60s spy picture. Days of Future Past deals largely in 70s political thriller genre beats. Apocalypse functions as a Ready Player One-style indulgence in 1980s aesthetic. The next film on the docket will presumably push through to touch on 90s grunge or pogs or whatever. Even beyond these temporal divisions, X-Men movies typically feel more independent from each other than MCU entries, with each individual episode resetting the rotary dial for the next adventure to arrive with a mostly blank slate. The most backlash I’ve seen to this repeatedly mashed Reset Button plot structure was in the reaction to The Days of Future Past’s ending. Days is a sci-fi time travel movie that splits its efforts between a possible future reality and an alternate version of the past. The movie largely concerns preventing a grim future by nipping past evil in the bud, which the heroes inevitably accomplish to no one’s surprise. What was surprising is that, after victory, omnipresent series favorite Wolverine awakes in a timeline that ties together both the First Class prequels & the early 00s series that preceded them, undoing many major character deaths through an afterthought shrug of time travel shenanigans. I understand why this tidy conclusion rolled many viewers’ eyes when the film was first released, but I was personally much more annoyed by a smaller moment in the next picture. There’s a scene late in X-Men: Apocalypse where characters with mutant powers stand in an open field with their arms extended, palms open, while their destroyed home base magically reassembles itself. Every broken brick & board smoothly floats back to its proper assembly in a low-rent CGI spectacle, not an inch of the once-destroyed structure out of place or conveying damage. It’s maybe a 20 second clip, but there was something about its magical ease that really irked me. I’ve never seen the impermanence of consequence in comic book movie storytelling represented so succinctly in a single scene before or since.

For better or for worse, the massive, sustained success of the MCU means that more of this serialized blockbuster storytelling is on its way. I found myself watching a trailer for an upcoming Star Wars prequel this past weekend that ends on an action sequence cliffhanger teasing that Chewbacca may or may not die in the film. Everyone who’s ever seen any Star Wars movie before (read: everyone) knows that Chewbacca will not die in that prequel. That momentary crisis has no potential consequence in its larger series, but that’s just how these kinds of stories are told (including the old-timey radio serials Star Wars was originally inspired by). All we can do, if we’re going to continue to tune in for the next episodes in these ongoing series, is celebrate the examples that commit to their consequences in the moment. Avengers: Infinity War might not ultimately mean anything in the grand picture of individual characters’ fates, as it will likely be undone by its successor next summer. At least it committed to its own consequences, though, instead of undoing them on the spot. In X-Men: Infinity War, the mass character deaths would’ve been a climactic crisis immediately undone by the surviving superheroes standing in an open field, arms outstretched, putting their friends’ pieces back together again with their mysterious powers. I only mildly enjoyed Infinity War overall, the way I only moderately enjoy the MCU overall, while recognizing that there are individual elements I’m really into: Captain America, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor, Black Panther. I do respect that it didn’t reset its own consequences we know through extratextual means to be impermanent the way a more traditional comic book series entry would have. When I first reviewed X-Men: Apocalypse I asked, “What’s the point of any of this if it can all be fixed & rebuilt with the light shake of a CG Etch-a-Sketch?” By saving its own magical reset for a later date (which I’m sure was announced at a press conference five years ago), Infinity War sidestepped that annoyance completely, even if its in-the-long-run storytelling amounts to the same general effect as what’s undone in Apocalypse: no effect at all.

-Brandon Ledet

Logan (2017)

I don’t like Wolverine.

This has been a topic of much contention with my fellow comic book nerds for a long time, but there are a host of reasons why he doesn’t appeal to me as a character. First, it’s never made much sense to me that Professor X has a spot on his peace-oriented team for a man whose powers and enhancements make him a perfect assassin or soldier. I’ve also never seen myself reflected in Wolverine the way that I see aspects of myself in Kitty Pryde, Emma Frost (under Joss Whedon’s pen), and (especially) Beast; nor do I see something I could aspire to be in Wolverine the way that I did and do in Storm’s serenity or Nightcrawler’s happiness in spite of a lifetime of abuse. I certainly understand the allure of a character without a past and the desire for redemption (although the importance of this desire was intermittent), but Wolverine never worked for me as a character.

I think that this is mostly because, despite his meager origins, the character of Wolverine evolved into a straight white male power fantasy, especially among the more self-pitying members of the nerd subculture of the eighties and nineties. Macho Wolverine gets the girl, takes no shit, and leaves his enemies shredded to ribbons: he’s the ultimate enviable hero of the platonic nineties nerd before Hollywood came along and turned comic books and superheroes into the hottest trends on Earth. Following this popularity explosion, the character was inescapable, which is probably my foremost issue with him. Don’t like Angel, or Jean Grey, or Psylocke? No problem: there are plenty of Marvel comics without them, including long periods of time in many X-books. Don’t like Wolverine? You’re out of luck, bub: try to find an X-Men comic from 1985 to 2014 where he’s not a presence (give or take an Excalibur here or there), and if you turn to another Marvel book for a Wolverine-free reading experience, you better not want to check out Avengers, or New Avengers, or even Power Pack. It’s essentially the same reason that, despite my long and storied love of Star Trek, I don’t like Data (a crucifiable offense in many circles): both he and Wolverine are such pets of vocal fans and some creators that they become the entire focus of what is supposedly an ensemble, to the detriment and derision of other characters*. You can even see this in the way that he was not only the de facto star of the X-Men films in which he appeared, but also got his own film franchise.

That franchise reaches what claims to be its final film in the recently released Logan, a gritty neo-western masquerading as a superhero film. The plot finds the titular Logan (Hugh Jackman) caring for an aging and increasingly senile Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) with the help of Caliban (Stephen Merchant) in the Mexican desert in 2029. The combination of a cataclysmic event and genetic suppression has rendered them among the last mutants on Earth, until Logan is drawn back into the world of heroism by Gabriella (Orange is the New Black‘s Elizabeth Rodriguez), a woman who begs him to help save a child named Laura (Dafne Keen) from Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), a cybernetically enhanced mercenary. Their redemptive road trip also features appearances from Eriq La Salle and Elise Neal as world-weary farmers who provide shelter for the group.

My apathy and weariness about Wolverine aside, this is a good movie. Sure, it makes no logical sense within the confines of the different timelines that the other films in this franchise have provided without a conspiracy theory board of newspaper clippings, post-it notes, and red string, but 20th Century Fox doesn’t care anymore, so why should you? The one problem I’ve never had with the film version of Wolverine is Hugh Jackman’s consistently strong performance regardless of the variable quality of the material available, and this is his best work as the character to date. This is despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that, for once, we’re not reflecting back on his mysterious past as we have in literally every movie in which he appeared in this franchise and are instead seeing a man at the end of his career and, perhaps, his life. Logan deals with the more mundane aspects of growing old, like obsolescence in a changing world, the dementia of an elderly father (figure), and the betrayal of his own aging body and the disease thereof, despite his much-touted healing factor. This is not a character who is obsessed with learning about (or altering) his past, but one for whom the past is prologue to a slow, painful existence in an all-too-real dystopian future.

This is not the Sentinel-ruled technicolor hell of Days of Future Past, nor is it the candy-coated “corrected” timeline in which Jean, Scott, and Hank are alive: this is a dusty, economically depressed future in which life is cheap, crossing the border into Mexico is an ordeal, and Canada provides asylum to those on the run from an authoritarian government that hates them because they are different, all while said government not only condones but supports the imprisonment of and experimentation on children of color and treats Mexico like its dumping ground. This film has been in development for a while and takes a great deal of inspiration from graphic novel Old Man Logan, but it is particularly fascinating that the first X-film released following the election paints such a realistic picture of a dark future in comparison to the optimistic ending of Days of Future Past, which was released solidly in the middle of Obama’s second term, when the tide of freedom and progress seemed to flow ever-forward.

Logan never becomes explicitly political, however, instead allowing this interpretation to emerge from its subtext. This is, first and foremost, a story about a retired, past-his- prime gunbladeslinger who has long since lost what little place he had in the world before being brought back in for one last stand. You’ve seen this movie before, but dressing it up in these clothes puts a spin on the material that is fresher than I expected, in the same way that Winter Soldier was reinvigorating as both a government conspiracy thriller and a superhero flick. I’d love to see more movies like this, to be honest: James T. Kirk and Company as the Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai, Black Widow having to Die Hard her way out of a building, or, hell, even Steve Rogers trying to save the old community center from being torn down to make way for those awful condominium/shopping center hybrid abominations.

Where the film doesn’t work for me is in its insistence on defining Logan’s little group as a family. The discovery of the genetic connection between Logan and Laura and the latter’s decision to help her does not necessarily an intimate connection make, and Xavier’s “This is what life looks like” moment rings falsely sentimental for the character, given all that we’ve seen him do and accomplish over the course of these films. For such a bloody and violent flick (which, make no mistake, Logan is), a fair amount of the emotional resonance that the film seeks to create works, but the occasional references to Laura and Xavier as Logan’s family work better when they’re subtle (like when he passes them off as his father and daughter) than they do when characters explicitly state that they are family. That aside, however, this serves as a fitting swan song for Hugh Jackman’s contribution to the franchise, especially if you’re  willing to forgive stilted dialogue and the occasionally unearned moments of pathos.

*Here’s the part where I admit that I love the Wolverine and the X-Men animated series, despite my general apathy towards the character; although Wolverine is the title character, WatX was much more of an ensemble piece that gave every character plenty of development and attention. He’s also cast in an unusual role as the reluctant leader with the atypically angsty Cyclops serving as the team’s loner. The show also has one of the darkest storylines ever constructed for what is ostensibly a show for children; it’s definitely worth checking out.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

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I’ve only enjoyed 1 out of 4 of the major superhero releases that have hit theaters so far this year. Well, 2 out of 5 if the new Ninja Turtles movie counts (I am silly & weak). Either way, those are not great numbers & I’m starting to wonder if I’m the problem, not the films themselves. X-Men: Apocalypse, Batman v. Superman, and Deadpool all have their rabid defenders (especially that last one, unfortunately), but they each gave me a distinct “What am I even doing here?” anxiety while watching them in the theater, as if I had accidentally stumbled into the wrong prayer service at a funeral home. I was hoping that Apocalypse was going to be a repeat of the Days of Future Past scenario where critical consensus was  little harsh on what was mostly a decent, ambitious-but-messy superhero plot. Instead I found myself scratching my head for the entirety of its massive 147 min runtime, questioning why I left the house in the first place & silently wishing the apocalypse promised in the title would actually end this franchise for good. Of course, producers don’t think that way & Apocalypse wound up functioning as not one, but two franchise reboots for a property that’s already hit the reset button twice in the last five years.

The worst thing about that reset button is that it frames X-Men in a world without consequence. It’s fairly common for a superhero movie to have a seemingly insurmountable Big Bad threaten to End It All for vaguely hateful personal reasons that apparently call for the destruction of all life. Apocalypse‘s titular Big Bad even conforms to the recently omnipresent trope of the supervillain threatening to end humanity in order to “save the world” or whatever. As we saw at the end of Days of Future Past, though, this is a series where the slate can be wiped clean with the mere wave of a hand, so that threat is thoroughly empty. New, hip teens can be brought in to replace the aging X-Men of yesteryear with essentially no notice or pretense. If Apocalypse destroys Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters or the entire planet that hosts it, it’s no matter. A couple CGI-aided actors in leather jumpsuits can stand around in an empty field and put it all back together using only their minds & magic fingertips. So many tiny parts are interchangeable in the X-Men series that the big picture never changes at all. A character’s sibling can die in an explosion, leading to single moment of solemn reflection, but then be forgotten forever because nothing truly matters. Another character may have gotten not one, but two origin stories before in the very same franchise, but why not toss out a third for the sake of a violent comedy bit? Who gives a shit? Wipe away a memory, create an alternate universe, regress a character’s age & allegiance until they look like a Hot Topic/Disney’s Descendants knockoff of their former selves: there’s a million ways to erase history for in-the-moment convenience & X-Men: Apocalypse‘s single spark of ambition is the way it’s hellbent on exploiting them all.

Apocalypse frames its story around some Gods of Egypt-type nonsense in its early machinations, but its true gimmick/reason for existing is to make a superhero version of VH1’s I Love the 80s. How do we know it’s the 80s? In case the Cold War communism & Hot Tub Time Machine-style “Look at these goofy clothes!” visual cues aren’t enough, a character helpfully declares, “Welcome to the 80s,” a line that’s so amusingly mishandled that it recalls a moment in Tremors 4: The Legend Begins where a character anachronistically explains, “Well, this is The Old West . . .” 2011’s X-Men: First Class was an actually-refreshing mashing of the reset button, revitalizing an exhausted franchise by giving it some 60s mod spy media swank & a few fresh faces. Days of Future Past brought in some 70s political intrigue & sci-fi wankery that managed to keep the period piece angle fresh. I’m not sure what, if anything, the 80s setting brings to the table in Apocalypse: Cyclops wearing Ray-Bans? A trip to the mall? The film even missed an opportunity to include “Walk Like an Egyptian” on the soundtrack, which seems like a huge oversight considering the its dual timelines. The temporal setting plays like a vague afterthought handled mostly by the costuming department instead of directly influencing the plot or form. I’m interested to see how the 90s nostalgia is handled in the next installment’s natural progression, but Apocalypse‘s That’s So 80s stylization leaves little room for a promising future (past) there.

With the plot of Apocalypse not worth much thought or examination (a mean baddie from ancient times fails to destroy the world in the 80s & Wolverine pops in for brief contract-fulfillment), it’s probably best to discuss the film in terms of how it handles its many rebooted, retweaked characters. Honestly, though, there’s not a whole lot going on there either. Jennifer Lawrence looks downright miserable as Mystique, grimly going through the motions in the guise of a disaffected 80s punk. Newcomers Sophie Turner & Tye Sheridan are disappointingly dull in their respective roles as Jean Grey & Cyclops, especially considering the promise of their just-getting-revved-up careers, but at least that’s somewhat faithful to the charisma vacuum established by Famke Janssen & James Marsden in past entries? Wolverine is thankfully relegated to a cameo role here after getting more than his share of screen time in past entries, but since that role once again returns to his Origins it plays disappointingly like a Groundhog Day purgatory of a mutant/actor who can’t escape his past. Quicksilver’s literal show-stopping gag from the last film is repeated here as a special effects centerpiece, but I have a hard time caring about it much either, given the character’s winking-at-the-camera “Ain’t I a stinker?” PG Deadpool humor. The immensely talented Rose Byrne also returns only to be a continual butt of a joke that’s never quite funny. Only Michael Fassbender’s turn as Magneto registers as exceptional in any way, but the emotional severity of his work feels like it’s in an entirely different movie than the grey mush that surrounds him, so when he yells, “Is this what you want from me?! Is this what I am?!” at an indifferent god, it plays as overwrought & entirely out of place.

That leaves the conundrum of Oscar Isaac’s villainous performance as Apocalypse, which, while not necessarily great, stands out as the film’s sole source of entertainment value for me. Guardians of the Galaxy had a weird way of stealing Lee Pace’s sex appeal by turning him blue & covering up his luscious eyebrows. Apocalypse does one better and blues/obscures Oscar Isaac’s entire beautiful face, even accentuating his nose with a phallic cleft that recalls Dan Aykroyd’s prosthetic dick nose in the cinematic abomination Nothing But Trouble. Isaac’s performance is even stranger than his make-up, though. I swear he’s doing a dead-on, goth-bent impersonation of Tony Shalhoub throughout the film as he continually breaks the fourth wall & delivers Anonymous/Redditor-type monologues that would make Ben Kingsley’s Iron Man 3 baddie The Mandarin blush at their inanity. Isaac & Apocalypse are underutilized & more silly than threatening, but they’re easily the most entertaining aspect of a film that’s largely a pleasureless void. This may go down in history in Isaac’s worst performance in a so-far phenomenal career, but I gotta admit it was a lot of fun to watch.

I may have missed a few details here or there while periodically rolling my eyes during X-Men: Apocalypse, but I saw enough of the film’s zany 80s wardrobe, seriously questionable CGI, and wildly out-of-place body horror (don’t worry; there’s no permanent consequences for physical dismemberment here either) to get the gist. The movie sucks. Worse yet, it knows it sucks, as evidenced by Jean Grey’s admission after a screening of Return of the Jedi, “At least we can all agree the third one is always the worst.” Not only is that statement oddly anachronistic (the endless sequel cycle was not quite solid yet in 1983 outside Jaws & Star Wars), it also draws attention to the mess X-Men has made of itself at large. Is this the third entry in the franchise (starting, presumably, with First Class)? Feels more like the ninth for me, considering everything that’s branched off from Bryan Singer’s original adaptation in 2000. In the 16 years that have followed, the series has seen some highs & lows of note (those two Wolverine standalones being especially rough), but I don’t know if it’s ever felt this lifeless or devoid of purpose. What are we still doing here? What’s the point of any of this if it all can be fixed & rebuilt with the light shake of a CG Etch-A-Sketch? Why was the series’s eternally malleable gene mutation theme not put to any metaphorical use here, despite it being the one thing that distinguishes it from the rest of the superhero pack?  Without that metaphorical distinction, what reason does the audience have to show up in the first place? I don’t have the answers & it doesn’t seem that Bryan Singer does either.

At best X-Men: Apocalypse feels like it’s treading water until it can deliver a Totally 90s nostalgia trip in its upcoming sequel. And it knows that it’s delivering a mediocre product in the mean time, as evidenced by statements before & after the screening noting that the movie’s production created thousands of jobs for hardworking folks who are just doing their best, as if buying a theater ticket for yet another drab superhero disaster is somehow an act of charity & not a total waste of hard-earned money. I remain dubious to that point.

-Brandon Ledet

Deadpool (2016)

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Every year or so there seems to be a Ryan Reynolds vehicle waiting to test my resolve to stop trying to fall in love with the dude’s work. Last year it was the horror comedy The Voices, which pulled me in with an amusing premise & a candy-coated color palette only to waste it all on Reynolds’ unlovable smugness. This year Deadpool fits the bill. I was once again fooled that this was the Ryan Reynolds vehicle for me, because this time there was a Ryan Reynolds vehicle for everyone. Hell, I could even repeat my opening screed from my review of The Voices to cover a lot of how I felt watching Deadpool in the theater: “Comedy is risky. If you fail to connect with your audience the time you spend together can be brutal. Just ask any stand-up who’s bombed a set. That disconnect between audience & performer can be even more punishing if the material is aggressive.” Deadpool is both aggressive & aggressively unfunny. It’s making tons of money & most of the people in the theater where I watched it were howling at every gag, so there’s certainly an audience for what it’s selling, but I was left stone cold. Reynolds can play a perfectly good cad when you’re not supposed to like him (as with his turns in Adventureland & Waiting), but I find his shtick much harder to stomach when you’re supposed to cheer for his assholery. I’m still having a difficult time buying him as a leading man and an anti-hero.

Deadpool is, more or less, the Family Guy of superhero media. It’s a crass, hopelessly juvenile comedy that believes “adult content” means decades-old pop culture references & an onslaught of abrasive language. The thing is that a lot of people really like Family Guy & I’m not one to begrudge anyone from enjoying themselves at the movies, so I’m honestly glad the film has found a satisfied audience. For me, though, the pop culture-referencing, Gen-X snark that that properties like Deadpool & Family Guy seem determined to keep alive feels hopelessly outdated, a relic of the 90s. Watching the MCU films for the first time with Boomer for our Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. recaps, I’ve noticed that the earnest side of the superhero spectrum is what plays much more fresh & endearing in a modern context. Properties like Thor & Captain America (especially Captain America) are much more readily enjoyable to me than the bloated ego snark of properties like Iron Man (speaking of films that made tons of money & did nothing for me). Deadpool is firmly on that snarky, self-satisfied Iron Man end of the spectrum, always willing to poke fun at itself or detract from its run-of-the-mill Origin Story Formula by tossing out a name like Bernadette Peters or Wham! as if its detached irreverence was more of a game-changer than it would be to actually try a new idea in earnest. At the very least it could’ve gone further in the irreverent direction & functioned as a full-blown ZAZ-style spoof of superhero conventions instead of trying to have it both ways all while appearing not to genuinely care about anything at all (à la Seth MacFarlane). Deadpool is willing to wholeheartedly participate in the most generic tropes of its genre, but it wants you to know the entire time that it’s totally above it all & doesn’t give a shit. It’s not an endearing attitude.

From what I gather from comic book aficionados (both friends & internet commenters who’ve been viciously picking at the small list of critics who’ve dared to give this film a negative review), it’s the exact qualities I loathed about this film that made Ryan Reynolds & Deadpool as a character such a perfect match. From the outside looking in I have no reason to disagree with that idea. Deadpool’s 4th wall-breaking, winking at the camera, “Ain’t I a stinker?” meta snark is custom made for a comedy style Ryan Reynolds has been perfecting since the late-90s. In effect, both Deadpool & Ryan Reynolds have been working in the realm of Gen-X sardonic humor since it was actually in its heyday two decades ago. The movie wastes no time in setting that tone either. The opening scroll forgoes telling you who actually worked on the film to include credits for “A Hot Chick”, “A CGI Character”, “A British Villain”, “A Gratuitous Cameo”, etc. One of Deadpool’s first memorable lines is “I know, right? Whose balls did I have to fondle to get my own movie?” It’s pretty much a steady course from there. There’s a nonstop onslaught of “witty” jokes about death, poop, genitals, sexual orientation, babes with bangin’ bods, and things going up dudes’ butts (including a pegging gag that threatened to be playfully progressive for a half-second before falling back in line with the film’s bro-pleasing sensibilities) that eats up the film’s runtime, just barely distracting you from the fact that you’re watching yet another by-the-numbers superhero origin story. Personally, the biggest laugh I got out of the film is when the “British Villain” asked Mr. Pool, “You’re so relentlessly annoying. Why don’t you do us all a favor & shut the fuck up?” but those more in tune with Deadpool & Reynolds as personalities are a lot more likely to find humor that lands. Jokes are certainly in no short supply, since the film has zero interest in taking anything seriously (except maybe in a couple ten minute stretches when it pretends to be a cancer drama or a romance of the ages).

As much as the humor failed to connect with me, I did appreciate the way Deadpool staged its action sequences. Deadpool himself has a cool look to him, especially the way he totes both guns and swords into battle & it’s nice to watch a superhero film where the protagonist actually keeps his mask on for most of the runtime (especially since it saved me from Reynold’s eternally smug grin in this case). While I found most of its “adult” humor about as charming as Ben Kingsley’s potty mouth brute in Sexy Beast, the film’s R-rating worked wonders for its gore. The decapitations & blood-soaked torture upped the stakes to grindhouse horror levels that I honestly wouldn’t mind seeing in a more worthy superhero property. The rating also made room for a lot of naked Ryan Reynolds footage, which I know is sure to please plenty of folks who like to treat him as what Liz Lemon would describe a “sex idiot.” It was also cool to see X-Men characters Colossus & Negasonic Teenage Warhead in action if not only because X-Men is one of the few superhero comics I’m actually familiar with. Even the bloody, well-choreographed action sequences can be botched in their own way, though. Particularly, the opening sequence involving a fight-to-the-death on a freeway is really fun to watch, but is broken into frustratingly small pieces by elongated flashbacks that create a dual timeline structure, making the film feel like an incoherent mess on top of being painfully unfunny. The main goal of Deadpool is sarcastic humor & the genuinely awesome action sequences are often swept aside to serve that purpose, probably because they feel too sincere to fit the character’s M.O.

Like I said, I was never the target audience for Deadpool. I gave it an honest shot, but it was just never meant to be. The film never really tries to win over an outside audience, either, which I’d count as a huge positive. I didn’t need to be included here for the film to be successful. There’s a specific brand of mainline Nerd Culture™ that I always fail to connect with and although the definitions of what falls under that umbrella are intangible, Deadpool is firmly Nerd Culture™-friendly in a way that feels authentic even when it’s not funny or enjoyable or especially well-made. It’d be difficult to boil the film’s Nerd™ aesthetic down to a specific image or two, but I can at least point to its insistence that the meme-ification of unicorns & Ugly Christmas Sweaters is still verifiable as comedy gold. The thing is that unicorns & Ugly Christmas Sweaters are the exact kind of quirk you’d find crawling all over Facebook timelines or Target store fashion racks, so they’re not nearly as “weird” or “subversive” as Nerds™ believe them to be. Deadpool is a film that broke all kinds of box-office records for an R-rated property’s opening weekend, so the Nerdy™ gatekeeping that usually accompanies products like this is more than a little silly considering how many people loved what the movie was selling. I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing that this movie was a widely-loved Nerd Culture™ property that made tons of money (I just spent most of the last two months singing The Force Awakens’ praises after all). I just got the distinct feeling that I was on the outside looking in with this film, which is fine. There were a lot more people in on the joke than I expected and I’m glad they had a good time where I failed to.

Side note: One thing that struck me as odd about this film’s sense of humor is that it felt compelled to repeat minor jokes as if they were callbacks to gut-busting one-liners. Off the top of my head, there were references to unicorns, shit-stained pants, and Agent Smith from The Matrix that were repeated twice apiece with little to no effect or change in their second occurrence. If they had occurred more often they might’ve played like a running gag, but just hitting the same note twice felt awkward at best, hopelessly lazy at worst.

-Brandon Ledet