Monday, September 26, 2016

Philip Pullman vs. Hayao Miyazaki

“Philip Pullman vs. Hayao Miyazaki”
A Review of Kubo and the Two Strings by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG
USCCB Rating, A-II
Reel Rating, One Reel          

            In The Usual Suspects, Roger Kint stated that “the greatest trick the Devil ever played was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” That may have been true in the 20th century, when fascism and communism terrorized the world, but now the Devil has shifted his strategy. In the 21st century, his trick is getting people to believe that Jesus Christ promotes his agenda. Kubo and the Two Strings, which had tremendous promise, is such a trap. Keep kids far, far away.
            Snatching a trope from Disney, as a baby Kubo (Art Parkinson) is rescued by his goddess Mother (Charlize Theron), but not before his grandfather, the Moon King, kills his human father and rips out his left eye. They spend the next twelve years in a cave hiding, with Kubo earning money on the streets of rural Japan by telling stories with his shamisen. “Never go out after sunset,” Mother tells him, “or my sisters will find you and take your other eye.” Kubo is not only a great storyteller, but divine blood gives him special powers. As he plays the shamisen, origami figures come to life and dramatize his stories. While he has the admiration of the townspeople, his life is still a mystery. Injured in the rescue, his mother suffers from an unknown mental disorder, and it’s hard to discern whether her tales are true. As he learns more about his past, the tables are upset again and again, culminating in a hero’s quest to find his father’s armor and confront his grandfather. The spirituality starts out simple as well but becomes more complex before revealing its sinister nature in the third act.
      At this point, an important distinction needs to be made here between traditional paganism and neo-paganism. Ancient pagan societies, deprived of God’s direct revelation given only to the Israelites, had to make do with the natural law that God gives every human person. Born with the impulse to worship, they created religious systems out of the most important aspects of their immediate universe: water, the sun, food, plants, fire, war, sexuality, family, the Moon, and so on. While severely flawed, their search for truth was genuine, and early Christian missionaries were able to use their philosophies to bring them to Christ. Paul’s ministry to the Greeks in Acts 17 is a perfect example. Kubo and the Two Strings is steeped in Shinto tradition, like the films of Hayao Miyazaki. This does not cause any problems as long as it remains honest. Yet soon, Kubo loses its way. 
Neo-pagan systems are those from societies that are culturally Christian yet choose to return to pagan ways of thinking; the New Age movement is the most prominent example. This cannot be helpful because it knows the Truth and actively denies it. The practice of magic (spells, curses, hexes) in either case is never morally acceptable. Yet traditional paganism can be useful in literature to help illustrate unseen truths as long as children are mature enough to understand the distinction. In the beginning, Kubo seems to be advocating a pagan worldview with underlining Christian themes. Yet soon it is revealed that the evil Moon King is a stand-in for the theistic Deity. “I want your eye,” he says, “so that you cannot see the imperfection of this world.” In this regard, Kubo is similar to the Philip Pullman’s atheistic His Dark Materials series, where God is actually an upstart angel who is accidentally killed by the protagonist. These darker, anti-theistic themes are mixed with Christian tropes to make it more digestible to a Western audience. The New Age movement does the same thing.
Like Pullman’s hero, Kubo conquers his grandfather with the help of his deceased parents. However, the Moon King does not die but is reduced to an old man who cannot remember his past. “Who am I?” he asks Kubo. Kubo smiles. “You are kindest, most compassionate man in the village,” he says. Kubo creates a noble lie to turn the King into a humble peasant, writing him “a new story.” This idea of taming evil is unfortunately common in children’s literature. While every person deserves mercy, sin itself can never be made docile. It must be destroyed. People also need to be saved by Truth, not falsehoods.
Even in regards to its background, Kubo twists ideology to fit a modern interpretation. Ancestor worship is common in the Shino religion, but those who are gone still exist as spiritual beings who can help the living. In Kubo’s world, ancestors – who are shown onscreen as ghosts – are memories. Memories are nice, but cannot intercede on your behalf. “They never die as long as we remember them,” Kubo states. I would remind him of Wood Allen’s adage: “I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen. I want to live in my apartment.”
Kubo has received huge critical acclaim, largely for the quality of its animation. This is a fair opinion; the animation is breath taking, full of color and life. The writing, voice acting, and music too are spectacular. However, these qualities only make this film an even sadder tragedy. With ParaNorman and Boxtrolls, Laika has had a bad track record recently of promoting New Age progressive spiritual values, and Kubo reaches a new low point. If Pixar is the pinnacle of Hollywood animation, Laika is the bottom of the barrel. What a waste.

 This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on August 26th, 2016.
           


Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Shattered Innocence

Pete's non-dragon family
“Shattered Innocence”
A Review of Pete’s Dragon by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG
USCCB Rating, A-II
Reel Rating, Three Reels            

            It was not a difficult task to make 2016’s Pete’s Dragon better than the original as the 1977 version is easily one of Disney’s worst movies – if you remember that film fondly from your childhood, I invite to listen to just the first song. Yet even if it had been a success, this year’s adventure would probably still have been better. It’s rare to see a movie strike the perfect tone from the first few minutes, then successfully carry it through to the end, even if the story is completely predictable. The sad part is that, like its two protagonists, this Dragon doesn’t fit well into any niche and will likely disappear as soon as it is seen.
            In the first act of predictability, poor young Pete (Oakes Fegley) finds himself another victim of a Disney opening. Orphaned and abandoned in the woods, he is befriended by a friendly Dragon he calls Elliot (John Kassir). Six years later, he is found again by Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a kind-hearted forest ranger, who wants to help Pete. The rest is easily guessed: Pete wants to go back to the woods but can’t, Elliot is worried about Pete and goes looking for him, a hunter who sees Pete wants to catch him, a finale occurs that involves a little bit of danger but not too much, and everything works out for everyone, even the hunter. One can imagine the plot of Pete’s Dragon being similar to a ridiculously easy game of connect-the-dots. Yet the acting, writing, cinematography, score, and visual effects are so good, it’s hard to notice.
            Most Disney films involve a sense of lost innocence as children deal with adult problems, but it has never been shattered in such a dramatic way. In the first scene, Pete – barely five years old – reads a picture book about a lost dog as his parents drive through a windy forest road on vacation. They are happy and safe. Suddenly, the father swerves to avoid a deer. In the backseat, everything goes into slow motion. Pete looks puzzled, then curious, as he notices the items next to him floating in the air. He knows nothing of death or suffering and is unaccustomed to laws of physics. He smiles at the new world of upside down objects. Then the crash. Pete walks away from the wreckage and looks back, somehow knowing his parents cannot follow him. He realizes his world is over, and there is nothing he can do. Yet he saved by a supernatural creature. Again, due to his age, he finds nothing extraordinary about this, only grateful to have a friend. Only later does the audience learn that Elliot too is lost, and their common experience bonds them as friends in pain.
            When Pete is thrown almost violently back into the world of his species, he has no idea how to behave. He is alone again until Grace and her daughter manage to reach out to him. Unfortunately, the phenomena of feral children is quite real, with many documented cases. These poor children, who lived on their own for years with or without animal help, are so psychologically damaged that it is nearly impossible for them to successfully integrate into society. Beyond these rare cases, how many children have been abandoned, purposefully or accidentally, only to die far from the eyes of society. Indeed, every person is lost from original grace, far from Eden. Pete’s Dragon allows its characters to feel this loneliness deeply and demonstrates how it is only comforted through positive relationships: friendships, romances, and spirituality. This follows from the first scene to the last.
            Grace is skeptical of Pete when he talks about Elliot, but her father is not. Played wonderfully by Robert Redford, he freely tells elaborate stories to schoolchildren about his battles with the “Millhaven Dragon.” “Just ‘cause you don’t see something, doesn’t mean it’s not there,” he tells her. “And just because you say something happened, doesn’t make it true,” she smirks. It’s easy to not believe when the story sounds fantastical, but as the facts line up, Grace confronts her father. It turns out that his stories were highly embellished, but not false. “I just stood and looked at him,” he says. The same is true of many things that seem impossible. When someone trustworthy experiences something supernatural, the first instinct should not be to disqualify it based on its improbability but on the character of the witness. Pete’s Dragon could have been told as a mystery where the dragon isn’t revealed until the end or even not at all. Including the dragon front and center from the beginning demonstrates that the Universe is full of the miraculous, and it’s our job to discover and believe it, not the other way around.
            Despite being wonderful overall, there was one specific element that grounded the film and took the audience out of the experience. Grace lives with a man named Jack. They have a large, multi-story house with a fireplace. They have a twelve-year old daughter together and read stories with her on the couch before they put her to bed. They love each other dearly. By any standard, they look and act like a married couple. Yet in a quick throwaway line, it is learned early on that Grace is Jack’s fiancĂ©, not wife. This fact changes nothing in the story, and when it is implied they are married shortly before the conclusion, nothing about the relationships changes. There is absolutely no reason they should not be married. None except to prop them up as a “modern family” that is traditional in everything but name. This awful trend which had plagued Disney as of late is bad enough even when an important part of the narrative, but here is totally unnecessary.
            Pete’s Dragon is a lost film in search of an audience. It is too sentimental and small for adults, yet too serious and scary for children. Like its spiritual cousin The BFG, it will not make any money and be forgotten almost instantly. Yet like Pete and Elliot, it will find a second chance among those who browse the dark corners of Netflix and are willing to give effort in finding quality entertainment.
           

 This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on August 16th, 2016.

Much Ado About Nothing

Ain't afraid of no ghost
“Much Ado About Nothing”
A Review of Ghostbusters by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13
USCCB Rating, A-III
Reel Rating, Three Reels            

            It has been a bit perplexing to watch and endure the gargantuan amount of hype surrounding the second go-around for Ghostbusters, most of it negative, some it truly vitriol. It was all for naught. Ghostbusters is mostly funny, not too edgy, and always entertaining. This is a pretty good description of the original, and perhaps that’s all some fans had wanted. 
Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) plays a brilliant particle physicist hoping for tenure at a prestigious university. Her hopes are dashed, however, when she discovers that her old lab partner, Dr. Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy), is selling copies online of a dubious book on the paranormal they co-wrote years ago. Soon jobless, she joins Abby, engineer/quartermaster Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), and street-wise Subway worker Patty (Leslie Jones) on a mission to discover why ghosts are suddenly popping up all over New York City.
For such a silly, slender premise, this movie generated some serious internet chatter. (Perhaps that really shouldn’t be surprising.) As of this writing, its trailer is the tenth most disliked video on YouTube, and the only movie trailer in the Top 30. Some criticism has focused on feminism and gender-bending, reacting to the casting of all females in previously male roles. This response is understandable in the context of a society in which gender theory has gone completely and wildly awry. Yet, in this instance, there is nothing about the characters that demands a specific gender and there are no serious romantic themes or storylines. Despite the cast, there was a significant lack of gender-related humor—an oddity for a Paul Feig film. Another possibility was burnout over an endless amount of sequels, spin-offs, remakes, and reboots. This is a better criticism as Hollywood has been franchise crazy as of late, but even the most original films depend on established storytelling patterns.
The most likely culprit is nostalgia for the original 1984 Ghostbusters movie. Often, a series is rebooted either because of poor reception for the original or because a significant length of time has transpired since the first outing. Yet Ghostbusters was a beloved classic that premiered only thirty years ago. It was nominated for two Oscars, had rave reviews, topped the box office for five consecutive weeks, and even was rated the 28thfunniest movie of all time by the American Film Institute. 
As a Millennial, I have a healthy sense of distance that may put this criticism into better perspective. Both films rely on the same sense of humor, created by SNL alums as an extended skit that found comedy in a dumb idea. Both of these films also succeed under the same parameters, and while they share a basic Universe, the jokes are completely different. If one needs any more validation, the new Ghostbusters contains no less than five cameos from original cast members. Sadly, the late Harold Ramis and Rick Moranis are missing.
As a stand-alone film, Ghostbusters is Paul Feig-lite. It has all his usual trademarks—Kristin Wigg, Melissa McCarthy, scatological humor—but is his first PG-13 offering. It’s funny but restrained. Especially good are McKinnon as a nerdy Gilligan type and Chris Hemsworth as Kevin, the objective beefcake yet incredibly stupid receptionist. Who knew Thor had such good comedy chops!
As a theologian, I suppose I should say something about the nature of ghosts, evil, and the paranormal. But let’s face it: Ghostbusters really doesn’t care. It’s a childish romp through gadgets and slime, and a pretty good one at that. In the end all the worry was much ado about nothing, and if you are a scholar of Shakespeare, you’ll find that joke really funny. 

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on July 28th, 2016.


RomComs Need an Attitude Adjustment

Alice and Tatiana, not Mike and Dave
“RomComs Need an Attitude Adjustment”
A Review of Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, R
USCCB Rating, O
Reel Rating, Two Reels           

            It must be said for the sake of honesty that Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates is a really stupid movie with many immoral qualities. Yet in this same spirit, it must also be said that my wife and I, enjoying a rare moment without our children, had a wonderful time. Even when following the common conventions of the genre and adjusting content for adults, respect for common decency must always remain. While certainly entertaining, Wedding Dates ignored this fact many times, not enough to be considered a total disgrace but enough to sour an otherwise sweet and enjoyable romp.
            Mike (Adam DeVine) and Dave (Zac Efron) Stangle, your typical late twentysomething man-children, are brothers still living in a rundown apartment selling their own brand of liquor with dubious marketing techniques. They have a bad history of ruining family events, so their father insists that they bring dates to their baby sister Jeanie’s wedding. “I don’t want you going stag and riling each other up,” he fumes. Fortunately, she is the only thing they love more than lighting fireworks from their crotch. Their quest goes viral after posting a craigslist ad, insisting they only want “nice girls.” This catches the attention of the equaling irresponsible twentysomething woman-children Tatiana (Audrey Plaza) and Alice (Anna Kendrick), who feign respectability to get a free trip to Hawaii. Yet things quickly get out of hand as their ruse unravels and the Stangle boys find themselves in more trouble than ever.
            Here is a confession that should never leave the mouth a respectable male, but after science fiction, romantic comedy is my favorite genre. The act of falling in love is an awkward yet gentle dance with misinterpretations and farce, best summarized by Owl from Bambi:

You're walking along, minding your own business. You're looking neither to the left, nor to the right, when all of a sudden you run smack into a pretty face. You begin to get weak in the knees. Your head's in a whirl! Then you feel light as a feather; and before you know it, you're walking on air. Then you know what? You're knocked for a loop, and you completely lose your head! It can happen to anybody. So you'd better be careful.

The joy of this adventure is seeing how the couple, or in this case couples, will eventually get together. Love involves letting someone in and letting yourself out, which is always uncomfortable. Yet the other person is doing the same, and that is what creates great comedy.
Wedding Dates begins promisingly by having the girls in on the secret before the boys. Think Some Like It Hot but with vastly inferior dialogue. The word “dialogue” is used specifically because the story process and character development is pretty sophisticated, but there seems to be a five f-word per scene minimum. The best aspect is the acting. DeVine, Efron, Plaza, and Oscar-nominated (and Twilight alum) Kendrick are all young actors at the top of their game. Plaza especially is a comic genius who could make the New York phone book sound funny.
The setup is incredibly well done and holds tremendous promise, yet at almost exactly halfway, it crashes, burns, and only occasionally recovers. It is far more graphic than necessary, well beyond its R-rating. A perfect example is a scene where Alice, in her own friendly but disturbed way, discretely pays to get Jeanie a massage with a bit more than usual. It’s a scene that could be funny if handled properly, but instead the audience is treated to something that would make Hugh Hefner blush. It does not serve the story and takes the viewer completely out of the experience. Comedy often involves upsetting social norms but must happen in a manner that does not offend. Wedding Dates is full of scenes that offend, offend again, and keep going.
Surprisingly, these characters, despite their poor behavior, remain entirely loveable and even profound at times. They are all damaged and act out because they have no other outlet. They deserve a film that challenged their shenanigans rather than indulged in them. Then they would get a happy ending that didn’t involve scented candles and regret.


Something We Should Remember

Hank and Dory
“Something We Should Remember”
A Review of Finding Dory by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, G
USCCB Rating, A-I
Reel Rating, Three Reels            

            Finding Nemo, which at one time was the highest grossing animated movie ever, marked the beginning of a seven year stretch of nearly flawless movies that made Pixar the most prestigious company in the business. It’s amazing it took them thirteen years to get here. Perhaps it is fitting, however, as the first film wrapped up so nicely. It was so good that Finding Dory’s premise is based on a single line of dialogue from the original. It begins with a nearly identical idea to the original, searching for Dory’s family instead of Marlin’s, yet takes the premise in quite a different but welcomed direction. Finding Dory a film that didn’t really need to happened, but probably a good thing that it did.
            Dory’s most recognizable quality, aside from unwavering optimism, is that she suffers from “short-term memory loss.” This characteristic was a source of humor in the original, but here its implications are taken much more seriously. As a child, Dory’s parents worried about her ability to survive outside their care, and rightly so. In classic Disney fashion, she is traumatically separated soon afterwards before meeting up with Marlin and Nemo in adulthood. A year after their adventure, Dory begins to have flashbacks to her childhood and decides use these pieces to find her parents. Thus, our heroes are off on another whirlwind adventure, this time including British seals, a near-sighted whale shark, a chatty clam, and the “voice of Sigourney Weaver.”
            Though a ton of ocean fun, Finding Nemo was permeated with a profound sense of loss. That is here too, but with an added layer of realism. Dory’s handicap is the central emotional force of the story. Like parents children with autism or physical disabilities, Dory’s mom and dad find alternative means to help her remember like songs and special objects. Perceiving that she like seashells, they create a small path back to their den, so Dory can find her way when lost. Marlin, however, is dismissive of his friend, believing her totally incapable of the task ahead. Yet time and time again, Dory proves him wrong, not just by her determination but the subconscious memories planted through these techniques.
            Dory’s new companion, once she discovers her parents may be in a Californian rehabilitation aquarium, is Hank the disillusioned octopus, voiced by Ed O’Neill. A close cousin of grumpy cat, he does not want to return to the ocean and agrees to help Dory in exchange for a trip to a permanent exhibit in Cleveland. He harbors a deep fear of the outside and all other beings, wanting to be in a place “where nobody can touch you.” Unlike Dory, Hank is extremely mobile and resourceful, able to slime quickly across the ground, camouflage into anything, and swing from pipe to pipe through the air like Tarzan. Dory sees that he is broken, just like her; his paralyzing phobia prevents him from living a healthy life and connecting with others. This journey will bring him “home” as well.
            I’ll leave it up to the viewer to discover whether Dory in fact finds her parents, but this is not really the point. In an amazing coincidence (or perhaps not), Finding Dory is in theaters at the same time as You Before Me, the infamous pro-euthanasia rag masquerading as a romance movie. Dory presents an alternative lesson. Yes, those who are disabled can present difficulties and require methods of learning and living often foreign to the rest of society, but their soul is the same. Even more so, they wear on the outside the evidence of original sin that all of us possess. They deserve not just the love and dignity shown to all people, but the “preferential option” that Christ commands.
            Finding Dory is a delightful treat: fun and adorable if a little predictable. Nearly every parent will cry at some people, but I suspect a few quite a bit more than others. If you see this at the theater, pray for them. If you are friends, hug them.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on June 29th, 2016.


So I Married a Demonologist

Earl and Lorrain Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga)
“So I Married a Demonologist”
A Review of The Conjuring 2 by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, R
USCCB Rating, A-III
Reel Rating, Three Reels            

            Unfortunately, there has never been a truly great exorcist movie. The Conjuring 2 makes a worthy effort, is better than most, but still falls short, though in ways different from its predecessor. As a representation of deliverance ministry, it makes some intriguing observations and does nothing to threaten the faith. Yet, it also surrenders with complete abandon to common misunderstandings of the subject to serve its narrative, similar to the angel-man Clarence in It’s A Wonderful Life. Only this time, it’s a demon in a nun costume.
            Six years after their encounter with the Perron family, spiritual detectives Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) have crossed the Atlantic to examine a series of paranormal events in a working class London flat, home to Peggy Hodgeson and her four children. Lorraine is hesitant at first after a series of terrifying visions that she interprets as omens of death for her husband, but eventually agrees to visit “only to observe and report.” “We have to help if we can,” her husband smiles. Unlike the previous case, which was fairly obvious, director James Wan focuses on the details of the investigation. Can the Warrens proved there are demonic forces at work? This process includes skeptics, like Anita Gregory (Franka Potente), who manages to film one of the teenagers faking a poltergeist. This is unusual for a story in this genre but wonderfully fitting. Real exorcists are trained in this mindset and should be “the last one to believe the case is possession.” While the audience is always aware of the truth, it takes the Warrens much longer. Yet as the film reaches its climax, a huge twist in the narrative is reveled which on the surfaces seems ridiculous but still has me thinking about it days later.
            Surprisingly, the best aspect of The Conjuring 2 is not its special effects or the intelligent directing but a strong affirmation of the spiritual power of sacramental marriage. It is rare to see a film depict romance between a man and woman who are already married, nearly unheard of for a horror movie. Midway through the film, Lorraine speaks to Janet, the afflicted teenage girl at the center of the activity. She is scared, shy, and feels desperately alone. “No one believes me,” she says. “No one believed me either when I saw things,” Lorraine tells her. “Then I found someone who did.” “What did you do then,” she asks. Lorraine smiles. “I married him.” The Warrens are able withstand such tremendous evil because their strength comes from a covenant relationship that puts God at the center of their lives. This is the opposite of the Hodgeson family, whose father recently left them for his mistress. It is even implied the reason Janet and her sister got involved in the occult was due to his absence
            While their marriage is the Warrens’ greatest strength, it is also the reason, oddly enough, there are virtually no lay demonologists. In fact, apart for the Warrens, I cannot think of a single other example. The reason is that families especially are prone to attack. Lorraine’s love for Ed makes him as easy target for manipulation. In addition, laymen cannot legitimately perform exorcisms or even blessings, although this is constantly portrayed in both films.
The primary benefit of The Conjuring 2, even if far overdramatized with plenty of theological holes, is that it demonstrates the reality of evil. In a world that is surrounded by tremendous cruelly, man needs art that strengthens faith. Yet The Conjuring 2, and every other exorcist movie, goes only partway. It shows the evil but not the redemption. Yes, the demon is expelled and God is credited with the win, but the demon is graphically depicted with special effects, sound design, and constant manifestations while God seems silent. It would do well for such a film to allow Heavenly glory to be depicted in even more splendor.
As a work of cinematic entertainment, The Conjuring rises slightly above the rest, confident in its skill but hesitant to reach for anything extraordinary. Without giving too much, the force afflicting the Hodgesons is just a ghost nor a demon but possibly…both? I don’t know; it’s pretty strange. Yet even something that leads the viewer from apathy to pondering is a good thing, and anything that will keep away men from the occult and encourage good marriages is a really good thing.


This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on June 22nd, 2016

A Small Film

Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) and his minions
“A Small Film”
A Review of X-Men: Apocalypse by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13
USCCB Rating, A-III
Reel Rating, Two Reels            

            The latest venture in the X-Men franchise tempted fate with the subtitle Apocalypse and lost. While the stakes are incredibly high the film itself is terribly underwhelming. It’s not the worst in the series – that dishonor goes to X-Men Origins: Wolverine – but certainly near the bottom of the barrel. It has many problems, including an overreliance on mutant superpowers and special effects rather than story and characters, which in an amusing way is a nostalgic throwback to the days before Christopher Nolan and the MCU. After sixteen years and seven superhero movies in 2016 alone (not to mention television and Netflix), the genre is finally experiencing burnout.
            The year is 1983, which means the first generation of X-Men (Magneto, Professor X, Beast) is middle aged while the second generation (Nightcrawler, Jean Gray, Cyclops) are just coming onto the scene in their late teens. This younger crowd of new mutants is the closest yet in tone and appearance to the classic 90s television show that made the X-Men a household name. The Professor’s school has been running smoothly for a decade after mutants were first revealed to the world in Days of Future Past. Now there is a new enemy that threatens not only the human world but the X-Men as well. In Egypt, an ancient mutant named Apocalypse has gathered four accomplices, including Magneto, with the goal of completely destroying the Earth and remaking it as a personal paradise. It’s not a creative scheme but lacks nothing in ambition.
            The first thing that makes Apocalypse exceptionally worse than its predecessors is the title villain, made all the sadder by an uninspired performance by Oscar Isaac, perhaps the first bad role of his illustrious career. His origins involve a sloppy mix of Dan Brown and Erich von Däniken conspiracy theories. As the first mutant in existence, he led the ancient Egyptians as a god. “I've been called many things over many lifetimes,” he tells Storm. “Ra, Krishna, Yahweh. I was there to spark and fan the flame of man's awakening, to spin the wheel of civilization.” It is even suggested that St. John drew inspiration from Apocalypse’s followers in creating the Four Horsemen. While these connections seem silly, the implication are quite serious. It suggests that all religion is really just a misunderstanding.
            Beyond his past, Apocalypse’s personality is insufferably boring. His motivations are unclear beyond simple megalomania. His powers are never well defined and acts without emotion, almost like a machine rather than a creature. What made villains like Magneto and Mystique so compelling was their humanity. Their evil actions were driven by deep pain and prejudice. While they had amazing abilities, they were still people. This struggle for mutant acceptance in a non-mutant world is the heart of the X-Men franchise. Professor X wants to live in peace and use their abilities to protect humanity. Magneto sees man as the enemy that must be stopped, by violence if necessary. It’s an effective motif but far overused by this point.
            The only silver lining in an otherwise droll narrative is the hip personalities of the 80s teen mutants. Sporting Atari shirts and neon yellow sunglasses, they are a welcomed oasis from Apocalypse’s grey attitude and color scheme. My personal favorite is Quicksilver (Evan Peters) who once again steals the show through fast paced cinematography underlined by groovy beats. Yet even these characters are overshadowed by the constant focus on superpowers and 3D special effects. The climactic scene lasts about twenty minutes too long and mostly involves a display of Jean Grey’s telekinetic prowess rather than moral justice. No one is impressed anymore by the amount of CGI; instead, it is how the imagery is used to enhance the story which makes a film compelling. That’s how Ex Machina could win an Oscar for Visual Effects despite a budget of only $15 million.
            Apocalypse was doomed from the beginning by the silly premise that this could be “the end.” Every man, woman, and mutant who has ever read a comic book knows that can’t happen, so why even pretend? Even Days of Future Past operated on a similar premise, but it had the advantage of superior writing and story structure. It is not enough to make a film hoping for fan devotion alone. It is the relationships among the characters that make all the difference. The only way for the genre to move forward is smaller films that focus on good stories – indie superhero flicks. Now that would be something.

This article appeared in Catholic World Report on May 31st, 2016.