Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse, and getting things right (and wrong) with established comic book CUs

Having watched both of the latest entries into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and X-Men Cinematic Universe (herein referred to as the MCU and XCU to save my aching digits), my thoughts about the two films have very much aligned in terms of my feelings towards comic book cinema and CUs as a whole. Not in terms of my reaction to both films, mind: I thoroughly enjoyed Captain America: Civil War and had an overwhelmingly mixed-to-negative response to X-Men: Apocalypse. But whilst the former proved the far superior film to the latter, both films arrived at their respective finished products through differing approaches to the same problem - how do you keep a well-established and ever-expanding CU fresh?

The first point to consider is character, and in particular the main character. In the build-up to Civil War, many simply assumed that the film would be more akin to "Avengers 2.5" with its large cast of both new and returning characters, leading to questions as to why the film was carrying the Captain America branding at all. In truth, Civil War is a Captain America film before anything else for the simple reason that Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is undoubtedly the main character.

From the opening moments onwards, this is his story. Civil War is about Rogers' journey from where the film picks events up after both Age Of Ultron and The Winter Soldier before it. It's primarily about his relationships with other characters, most prominently Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan). Rogers' refusal to comply with the Sokovia Accords, which would impose UN control upon the Avengers, is a key part of the narrative, but it's his unfaltering commitment to Barnes that drives the plot and much of the emotional core of the film.

Looking at Apocalypse, it's hard to know whose story director Bryan Singer is telling. The title would suggest En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) himself, and yet the character and his motives are so hazily laid out that calling his progression through the film a story feels generous. His initial set-up provides intrigue, but from there he simply fails to resonate as anything more than a stock antagonist with seemingly unlimited power until this becomes inconvenient to the plot.

Other candidates for primary character include both Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), but looking at both at the start and the end of the film reveals that little has actually happened to either of them on their journey from one point to the other. Lehnsherr's arc starts at a point that makes little sense based on what we know of the character, unfolding a weak narative based around loss that ultimately goes nowhere and leaves the character little to do beyond the opening act. Xavier meanwhile is exactly the same at the end as he was at the start, minus his hair of course.

Something which is becoming increasingly prevalent in comic book movies is the ever-expanding roster of heroes and villains making up the cast, a factor which is common to both Civil War and Apocalypse, although the former once again proves far more successful than the latter. Civil War's handling of its supersized superhero count is effortless: the well-established characters are wisely allowed to continue doing what they do best, allowing directors Anthony and Joe Russo to pleasingly introduce and re-introduce newer faces.

Perhaps most pleasing of all is the way the directors handle those characters who sit somewhere in the middle. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) may only make an extended cameo appearance, but what we see of him is well written and builds on his origin story debut of last year, integrating and embedding the character further into the MCU roster without ever trying to do too much in a film that already has plenty going on. Arguably most successful of all is the introduction of Spider-Man (a perfectly cast Tom Holland) into the MCU. Civil War wisely eschews what The Amazing Spider-Man franchise did with the superhero, as well as being different enough to Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy to feel fresh. It's a snappy and efficient introduction to a character who's already had two films devoted to iterations of his origin story, and really doesn't need a third.

In contrast, Apocalypse struggles to handle its whopping roster of mutants from very early on. The more established members of the current X-Men trilogy that began with First Class, such as Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), feel severely underwritten, and Lawrence's performance here essentially feels like a half-hearted retread of her Hunger Games character Katniss Everdeen.

The first hour sees director Bryan Singer hurry between so many different plot threads it's a struggle to invest in any of them. Many characters from the original X-Men trilogy are reintroduced, but none are given enough development. Two of Apocalypse's Four Horsemen - Angel (Ben Hardy) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn) - never get beyond one dimension, and Storm (Alexandra Shipp) doesn't fare a great deal better. As such, whilst the performances from the new cast members are generally fine, on the whole they pale in comparison to those seen in the original films. This, coupled with the vague motives of Apocalypse, leads to a final act where it's simply very hard to care about anything that happens.

That's not the case in Civil War, which does a superb job in getting you to care about pretty much everyone involved. As I said before, the bond between Rogers and Barnes is at the core, but this is a film littered with relationships. There is of course the fraught professional and personal relationship between Rogers and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), arguably the most important here after that of Rogers and Barnes, particularly during the closing act. But the Russo Brothers build satisfying and authentic relationships from remarkably little in places you might not expect. The interaction between Vision (Paul Bettany) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) is set up wonderfully, as is the humorous friction between Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Barnes, to cite just two examples.

It's a key part of a larger reason for Civil War's success: the humanity within everything on screen. Much of the plot centres around the human impact of the Avengers' actions, offering a different perspective on the outcome of Age Of Ultron. Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) is in many ways the polar opposite of Ultron, in that he is arguably the most human antagonist the MCU has given us yet.

Apocalypse goes in the opposite direction, providing perhaps the most unsympathetic perspective of the XCU we've seen in any film of the franchise. The closing battle in particular offers little more than wanton destruction with no consideration of the countless anonymous people dying off camera as we watch the mutant showdown. Man Of Steel was condemned for doing this three years ago, and it's an equally justified criticism here.

It's also endemic to another overarching problem with Apocalypse: it offers nothing new. This ninth installment of the franchise drags the XCU back to the unhallowed low points of The Last Stand and Origins: Wolverine in both its ideas and execution. Compared to Days Of Future Past, where Singer was deservedly praised for his innovation and imagination in tying together the original and prequel narratives within the franchise, here the director honestly feels bored with both his own film and the XCU in general.

As the thirteenth film in the MCU, however, Civil War feels as though it consistently attempts to do something different within the franchise, and far more often than not succeeds. Of course, this isn't a complete reinvention or departure from what we have come to expect from the MCU, but it's also most certainly not a retread of any of the previous films in the franchise. Perhaps most importantly of all, it feels by the end as if an undeniable shift has happened within the MCU, forcing the franchise to continue trying new things as it progresses along the seemingly infinite path ahead. In contrast, all whoever ends up directing the sequel to Apocalypse has to look forward to is picking up the pieces Singer has left behind and somehow trying to restore the franchise back to its former glory.

Captain America: Civil War

X-Men: Apocalypse

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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