27 May 2016

Apocalypse: Through the Looking Glass

Memorial Weekend is upon us folks, and if the first weekend of May wasn't enough for you, this is really the start of your Summer Sextravaganza. It's truly the time to settle in and clench for week after week of ad nauseum blockbuster assault until you puke in ecstasy. This is a rare Memorial Day Weekend where we have two pretty big films opening against each other set to cannibalize the shit out of their audiences. On the one side of the aisle we have the eighth X-Men film in sixteen years, X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), which promises to bring the greatest X-Foe to the screen. On a not too distant side of the spectrum is Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016), which infinitely feels like a film that's dropping way too late to follow-up another movie that made seriously surprising bank but hasn't totally held up well since. Who wins this weekend? Let's overanalyze:

It's important to keep focus on the three major influences a film can have. I generally file this under a film's critical, commercial, and cultural potential. You can consider a film successful if it excels at any of these aspects, and its success grows if it can hit two at once, and if it strikes at all three then we've got a really special piece of art on our hands. Where does Apocalypse and Alice fit?
Jennifer Lawrence wrote it in her contract that the Mystique
make-up would be more flattering in each installment.

Reviews for Apocalypse are already pretty harsh, with some even calling it the worst superhero film ever. I'm cautious about reviews that are piling in and tending towards groupthink, which seems really easy to do with blockbusters meant to appeal to nerds. We tend to make up our minds quickly and fear deviation from the Internet's general consensus. I only say this because when looking at a film like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), everything presented in the trailers (except for that first trailer, which was so good) looked like total shit. I'm much more on board with the marketing material presented for Apocalypse, which looks equal parts campy, ridiculous, intense, awe-inspiring, and comic-accurate. This is a big turn-around for Singer, who has come full circle from X-Men (2000), which always seemed somewhat ashamed of its origins, like it was trying to disguise its pulp origins. Apparently X-Men movies need to be period films to make their gaudy costumes work, but I'm okay with that.

Commercially, I would suggest this is almost guaranteed to make bank, although this will likely come more from overseas markets. The bright colors, all-star cast (or as close as we're going to get these days), and sheer spectacle, apparently at the possible expense of story, are all tailored towards solid international play. It's already lead the world in its opening last week and could keep surging for a while without any real competition besides Alice.

Having said that, the X-Franchise seems to have a solid ceiling compared to other superhero films. This is of course acknowledging that Days of Future Past (2014)'s $747 million is a weak haul. It doesn't really have that all-encompassing Dark Knight (2008) or Avengers (2012) under its belt to secure its place in the billion-dollar club. I actually amazingly overlooked Deadpool (2016) earlier, which means this is actually the ninth X-Movie, which is still notably the highest-grossing film in the franchise.

There's a lot riding on this, and by all means all signs should point to it being the culmination of these nine films. Apocalypse is the biggest and most powerful comic book villain ever put on film in direct conflict with our heroes (a cogent argument exists for Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer [2007]'s Galactus, but c'mon - that's horseshit). In its own way this is how the X-franchise beats Marvel's Thanos and DC's Darkseid to the punch, although it doesn't quite feel as epic. It's essentially built its franchise expansiveness within its own films, using Days of Future Past as its team-up movie linking two trilogies' worth of characters. Apocalypse also practically serves as its "Heroes Fight Eachother" movie, even if we haven't seen this exact incarnation of Storm and Angel in the mix. Still, each of the Horsemen besides Psylocke have been introduced in previous films, and bouts like Storm vs. Cyclops, Beast vs. Archangel, Psylocke vs. Mystique (whose character has, for the better, been so mutated by Jennifer Lawrence's pedigree and talent, that she's become the central protagonist of the First Class Trilogy) are nearly as compelling as watching Cap wail on Iron Man.

This all makes the critical drubbing disappointing, moreso if it's actually true that it sucks balls. I think this could have had a decent cultural effect. Most X-films have had something great about them to reflect on, even if it's odd or out of place. What happens to a toad when it's struck by lightning? I'm the Juggernaut, Bitch! The two Wolverine movies, for better or worse have stuck in our memory, even if The Wolverine (2013) comes off better if not less relevant. Quicksilver's "Time in a Bottle." X2: X-Men United (2003) remains one of the best films ever, and only needed Nightcrawler's White House Attack and Magneto's prison escape to do it. I generally trust in Bryan Singer's creativity, although Jack the Giant Slayer (2013). There are a lot of superhero films this year, and most of them are pushing the genre into unfamiliar territory. I think Apocalypse's detriment, as indicated by early reviews is quite possibly that it's not pushing the genre anywhere and comes off as stale and insignificant, despite its villain's omnipotence, role as franchise apex, and cast and crew quality. The result is a simple misread of the zeitgeist. I'd be curious if it's reappraised in a few years. Or if critics are just haters.
Mia Wasikowska wandered into Beorn's shack

Let's move on to Alice Through the Looking Glass. Early reviews are pretty damn awful, and the synopsis seems completely vapid. Alice in Wonderland (2010) really came out of no where, and made a ton of money despite being a pretty worthless film. I actually like some of the concepts that abound, and the world is pretty immersive, if not full of CGI that's now aged in a way that's not great. It's solely to blame for the current glut of Disney live-action remakes, although Wonderland weirdly advanced the story while also re-making it. It's an altogether odd affair that was bolstered mostly by the 3D ticket sale boom of 2010.

I suppose that precisely, Through the Looking Glass isn't actually a live action remake, because even though it's based on the Lewis Carroll book sequel to the more famous Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), it's never really had a definitive adaptation, although elements have been lifted and slotted into previous Wonderland adaptations. So, what is this, then? A sequel to a live action remake that's also a literary adaptation. Sick, bro. Is this even a franchise?

Creatively, something like Snow White & The Huntsman (2012) had a lot more going for it from a production design standpoint. Even though at the time, Wonderland was only the fifth film to crack the $1 billion mark (which it did in March, by the way - see also: every fantasy film that's been released in March ever since trying to capitalize on this "dead" time), it hasn't really entered into that cultural discussion as a beloved modern classic. At all. Through the Looking Glass doesn't seem to want to add to that conversation.

It'll almost certainly make money, but as a sort of children's fantasy adventure I think there are better options out there, namely The Angry Birds Movie (2016), which seems a much more positive affair. I suppose it's really targeting that 12-14 year old market more, possibly sliding more female than male. That same age group on the boys' side is probably watching Apocalypse this weekend, or at least buying those tickets and sneaking into Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (2016). I can't really see it winning the weekend, although based on prior investment, you actually need to lean on Alice over any X-Men movie. There might be enough goodwill there to push it through. Somehow it could be considered the broader option.

Critically and culturally I'd predict Through the Looking Glass an abject failure. With director James Bobin taking over from and putting his own spin on Tim Burton's distinctive aesthetic, I'm curious if it's more Muppets (2011) or Muppets Most Wanted (2014). If it's more the former, we're in good shape. I'm sure it will make some coin, but it feels more like Maleficient (2014) numbers than Alice in Wonderland numbers. Remember back in 2014 when we had like six $200 million movies that were all kind of successes but not really bombs? That must have been rough to write hyperbole about, Internet. Based on how this summer is sandwiching blockbusters, I think it'll hit around that mark.

So what are you seeing this weekend? Crazy shit or crazier shit? Who will win the battle for America's soul? Leave it below!


  1. Yeah I'm really puzzled about "Through the Looking Glass" too. I don't know anyone who was clamoring for a sequel. Even my pal who really liked the first film gave me a big old "meh" when I asked her if she was seeing the sequel. Like you I really didn't care for the first film too much. I actually think the video game version that came out about a decade ago already hit the high points of a Burton-esque vision of "Alice in Wonderland" and had a much better story to boot.

  2. I'm unfamiliar with the video game, but I do love when shameless tie-ins actually match or extend the narrative better than subsequent films!


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