Rogue Element 132: Let’s Get Together: Captain America: Civil War vs. X-Men: Apocalypse
By Avril Brown
A well-made, entertaining and successful superhero ensemble film is a tricky beast to tame. As with any movie, the story matters. As George Lucas once infamously said (and later ignored, much to ‘Star Wars’ fans’ dismay): “A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.” In this digital day and age, a superhero film is rarely boring judging by special effects alone, but whether it soars or sinks is very dependent on the quality of the story being told.
Part of what makes an ensemble story not suck is the amount and quality of due diligence given to the major players. What is the point of inviting so many people to the party if we are denied an opportunity to see their tricks? A display of power is not the only thing we want to see from the front runners; we need a reason to care about them, so we need an adequate amount of background intel in order to giving a flying fig.
Balance is key, and finding it is like finding Waldo in the middle of a Where’s Waldo cosplay convention. A proper accord must be struck between telling a compelling story, presenting the major characters and providing several extensive fights scenes (these are, after all, comic book movies).
That being said, let’s explore what worked and what didn’t in this years’ biggest ensemble films.
The third installment in the Captain America franchise started with a bang; almost too much so, I felt upon initial viewing. Both action and story clipped along at such a rapid pace I found myself wishing they would actually take a beat and let us absorb everything before moving onto the next phase. However, this was actually a slow-burn type of film where by the end of it you can fully appreciate the sheer genius of the understated villain story, and the well-executed hero one.
An important element to remember is this is a Captain America movie, so his ideals, actions and allies are the true core of the story, but Captain America has become an Avenger, and therefore the villain is not after the Cap specifically, but all Avengers. Hence the ensemble. Here is a man driven to vengeance by his losses, and what he seeks is not death but devastation, and in some ways, he wins. Kind of hard to swallow for a superhero movie, yet it works.
Civil War succeeds spectacularly at achieving the main bullet points for a winning team movie. The main characters and their relationships are decently explored (there are some rather adorable scenes between Cap’s besties, Bucky and Sam), the story was well laid out (the twist ending was a gut-wrenching surprise) and there were some kick ass fight scenes, each unique in their own special ways. Plus, the biggest and baddest of the battles was in the middle of the movie rather at the end, but you didn’t feel the movie was lacking because of that particular change up.
That’s not to say the movie didn’t have flaws. You definitely had to have seen ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ to understand pretty much every important aspect of this movie, though they did a fair job of trying to catch up new viewers without being redundant. Bucky was a central catalyst to the whole story and yet he had a very muted and lackluster conclusion. The incident which was the final straw for those seeking to control the Avengers, an explosion inadvertently caused by the Scarlet Witch which killed a dozen Wakandan peacekeepers, would have killed possibly hundreds more if she’d let it explode where it was: in the middle of a busy market, and yet no one is pointing out that fact.
I may be getting a little nitpicky on that last one, particularly since I can say with absolutely no reservations that I loved Civil War and consider it almost on par with ‘The Avengers.’ I also just like to acknowledge that nothing’s perfect. Speaking of…
Any X-Men fan will tell you that Apocalypse is one of the most formidable of their foes; definitely an extinction-level, multi-chapter, spawning an alternative universe kind of bad guy, so one would expect a lot of large displays of badassery. On that score, ‘Apocalypse’ did not disappoint.
The introduction, though a little drawn out, did its job of establishing En Sabah Nur (aka Apocalypse) as a seriously intense fellow, at least judging by his four horsemen. These trusted disciples are as fierce as their powers, and while we don’t see much of En Sabah Nur’s particular skill set, you’re made to assume he’s packing given what his people are capable of.
Given the early reviews I was expecting a distinct lack of power display, but thankfully this was not the case. We get to see quite the array of amazing mutant abilities in addition to some key background character history. In the comics Apocalypse brainwashes his horsemen in addition to giving them a serious power boost, but in the film they join him of their own volition, so establishing some emotional vulnerability is vital to understanding why they chose this path. The only one who was denied this treatment was Psylocke, and yet she seemed the most committed to the cause. Hm.
Again, with a name like ‘Apocalypse’ you’re to expect quite the emphatic exhibition and they deliver, but most of these are from everyone else besides the big man. Yes, he boosted their powers, and sure, he can melt people into walls, but what is it about this mutant that is so apocalyptic when he seems to gets everyone else to do his heavy lifting?
Things get pretty repetitive towards the end as well; lots of the same speeches, posturing and delaying the predictable. While the teams really come together and the side battle scenes are tight, the main battle is somewhat, well, dull and easily foreseeable. While it was stated early on that Jean Grey was a powerful mutant with a tenuous control over her powers, we were given no substantial visuals to back that up. To really build up a game-changing, pivotal character like Jean, we need to see what it is that makes her so potentially dangerous.
There were many elements of humor which kept the audience laughing; definitely an important factor in a feature film of this length and depth. Quicksilver once again stole the show with his breakout scene, and while one could argue they essentially used the same gimmicks and set up as his debut in the previous X-Men film, the truth of the matter is it worked damn well then and even better now.
Part of the problem with a lot of sequels is they are following a rather tough act, and it is by this successful stick they are measured. ‘Days of Future Past’ was a highly enjoyable film, and everyone was expecting, or hoping, the quality would continue upwards, as it did with the Captain America trilogy. ‘Apocalypse’ was leaps and bounds beyond the last third installment in an X-Men franchise, but that’s not saying a lot. It delivered action, drama, and build up, everything an end of times super powered film should have, but it carried on a bit too much in all aspects and was, therefore, not quite what it could have been.
When you think about it, all X-Men movies are ensemble films, therefore one cannot help but be a harsher critic on the franchise which, in theory, should have this formula for success down pat. So in terms of the box office encounter between the ensembles, Civil War most certainly takes the cake, but Apocalypse has its good points which cannot be discounted. However, when it comes to the next generation of superhero film franchises, as En Sabah Nur said himself, Only the Strong Shall Survive.