By Joe Hemmerling. Disney’s recent 66 billion-dollar purchase of 21st Century Fox’s entertainment portfolio poses some provocative questions. Questions about the ramifications of consolidating so much intellectual property under one roof, about the future of the streaming media landscape, and, most importantly, about how long we have to wait for a movie where the X-Men fight the Avengers. (Look, 2017 was a tough year; don’t judge us, okay?) Despite some high-profile successes, Fox’s X-Men extended universe has struggled over the years and is often seen as a distant third to the twin giants of Disney’s MCU and Warner Brothers’ DCCU.
Yet to write the XCU off entirely would be a tremendous mistake. For all its shortcomings, the project occupies a place of importance in the development of superhero cinema, and has remained a consistent site of innovation within the genre. With this in mind, let’s take a moment to look back on the impact the franchise has had upon our contemporary entertainment landscape and take stock of the enduring lessons the industry should carry away from its various failures and successes.
Lesson 1: Respect the fans, but keep your wider audience in mind. Cultural commentators often credit Sam Raimi’s 2002 breakthrough Spider-Man with kick-starting our present age of superheroes on the silver screen. While the film’s record-breaking $114 million-dollar opening weekend may have awakened studios to the hidden earning potential of all those funnybooks, what people forget is that Raimi and company were treading in the footsteps the X-Men had laid down two years prior.
Unless you lived through the ‘90s, you might find it difficult to grasp just how invigorating X-Men was to comic fans. It had been eleven long years since Tim Burton’s revamp of Batman, and the intervening decade brought a series of high profile failures and missed opportunities with Blade as perhaps the only non-miserable contribution to the live-action superhero genre in that period. If half of the stories about Burton’s own abortive Superman Lives are to be believed, comic books were being adapted to the screen by people who not only didn’t understand the source material, but who actively hated it.
What set X-Men apart, then, was the fact that it felt like it was made by people who had actually read and enjoyed a comic book sometime in the previous ten years. A much higher-profile property than Marvel’s half-vampire vampire hunter, X-Men maintained the iconic elements of the characters the audience knew and loved. Patrick Stewart’s Charles Xavier was a wise and fatherly leader. Ian McKellen’s Magneto was a revolutionary forged in the crucible of the Holocaust and willing to do whatever it took to spare mutant-kind from a similar fate. James Marsden’s Cyclops was an unlikable prick, and so on. This sort of attention showed respect for the property’s built-in fanbase.
But while true believers’ needs were taken into account, the filmmakers also never lost sight of the wider world they needed to seduce in order to ensure a healthy box office. Much of what rankles contemporary fans about the film were necessary concessions to an audience ill-used to the conventions of superhero storytelling. That’s including the all-black fetish gear that replaced their colorful ‘90s uniforms. That’s also including the reduction of Rogue (Anna Paquin) to a low-powered ingenue in order to serve as an audience surrogate, and the focus on Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) over the rest of the team, in order to provide a clean narrative arc. (You’ll have to take my word for it, though, that Magneto’s machine that turned humans into mutants and then into puddles of water seemed just as stupid in the early Aughts as it does now.)
The thing to keep in mind about the XCU, because it’s the key to understanding how the franchise ended up where it is today, is that it was the first of its kind. In many ways, it served as, if not a template, then at least a harbinger of the next generation of superhero films that followed it. So, if you’re wondering why the XCU continuity is such a mess, it’s because no one at the outset was sure it would even get a sequel, let alone an endless extended universe. You’ll notice that all of the X-Men’s closest contemporaries — the Blade, Spider-Man, and Dark Knight trilogies, as well as failed one-offs like Daredevil, Catwoman, and the rest — have long since closed up shop. The XCU is the shark of superhero cinema, a primordial creation somehow survived to the present day, swimming against the tide of evolution while the whole world changed around it.
Lesson 2: Bad storytelling decisions have ramifications beyond a single film. Bryan Singer followed up his X-Men debut with X2: X-Men United, a movie that was, at the time, a high watermark in the genre. The series’ troubles began, however, when he ducked out of the final film in the planned trilogy to direct Superman Returns for Warner.
The flaws of X-Men: The Last Stand are like grains of sand: limitless in number and best to keep out of contact with your eyes, but many of them stem from the fact that everyone involved thought they were closing the book on the X-Men. As a result, Brett Ratner (taking over for Singer) decided to just burn everything to the ground. By the movie’s end, Cyclops and Jean Grey were dead, Professor X had been disintegrated, Rogue, Mystique, and Magneto had been de-powered, and the audience listened to a real human being say the words “I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!” in a cringey nod to a viral video that reveals exactly how little anyone involved in this movie gave a shit. Ratner had effectively salted the earth. Though the the door was left open for sequels, the audience had no interest in what was left of the X-Men after TLS, and Fox was busy spinning off its two most popular characters, Wolverine and Magneto, into their own series.
The studio opted to focus on prequels instead of forging ahead through the hash Ratner had left them, and so X-Men Origins: Wolverine was born. Less toxic than TLS, Origins was still conspicuous in its blandness. Rather than focus on a single Wolverine origin story and telling it well, they made the bolder choice to tell every Wolverine origin story badly. In the process, they threw out major world-building plotpoints with complete disregard for how they would interact with previous or subsequent entries into the franchise. Some notably bad choices include Wolverine rescuing the teenage X-Men (including Cyclops and Emma Frost) from a secret government facility, a freakishly computer-de-aged Charles Xavier moseying about on his own two legs, and the introduction of Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), “the merc with a mouth,” as a mindless amalgamation of unrelated mutant powers and — notably — no mouth.
A year before Origins compounded the failures of the X-Men franchise, Marvel Studios had initiated the first phase of its revamped universe. The rollout had its share of bumps (The Incredible Hulk), but, it was clear they had a plan and were building towards something big. In stark contrast, Fox was flying by the seat of its pants with what had once been Marvel Comics’ hottest property. The one-two punch of Last Stand and Origins was something the XCU never managed to fully recover from, although it did lead to one of their most daring creative choices.
Lesson 3: Superheroes are more satisfying when they collide with the real world. With its future in ruins and its past hopelessly muddled, Fox decided to start over. Sort of.
Using scraps from the spiked Magneto solo joint, X-Men: First Class charted a new course for the franchise. Technically a “soft-reboot,” the film left audiences unclear whether it was supposed to be a prequel or its own saga, and the recycling of original series elements next to things that flew directly in the face of previously established events only exacerbated the continuity problems plaguing the franchise. Nevertheless, Fox hit on a potentially game-changing idea.
Even with Marvel’s Phase I in full swing, 2011 was shaping up to be the year that superheroes underperformed at the box office, and many critics and journalists speculated that the spandex bubble was bursting. Looking back on the “class of 2011,” it’s a sea of origin stories — besides First Class, there was Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, Green Lantern, and Green Hornet — with Captain America emerging as the stand-out thanks to its period setting. Yet while Cap’s was the more competent film, First Class was unquestionably more ambitious. The World War II backdrop of Captain America felt hermetically sealed (cryogenically frozen?), a self-contained prologue to the “real” story in our present day, but First Class promised a deeper engagement with the past. With Magneto re-envisioned as a vengeful Nazi hunter, the Hellfire Club’s libertine veneer tied to the hedonism of the sexual revolution, and the film’s climactic moments taking place during the Cuban Missile Crisis, it centered its narrative in a world that was more recognizably ours.
Like the comics they are based upon, superhero movies tend to feel cut off from the real world. First Class, for all its flaws, seemed to promise a different kind of superhuman saga, one in which the audience got to witness the reciprocal ways that history and mutantkind shaped each other. Unfortunately, that promise was never fully realized. The temporal setting became less important with each passing film, reduced wholly to window-dressing and cliched musical cues in 2016’s Apocalypse. But not all was lost.
Lesson 4: Give talented people the freedom to tell stories the way they want to tell them. Thus far, we’ve spoken of the XCU’s successes largely in qualified terms, but it’s worth pointing out that in the past two years, Fox has put out some of the best and most groundbreaking entries into the superhero genre.
The turning point began with 2016’s Deadpool. It’s clear in hindsight that Deadpool was exactly what the genre needed, a thumb to the eye of the anodyne perfection of the studios’ meticulously constructed entertainment complexes. But it was a tough sell for Fox, leery of the film’s much-needed R-rating, as well as its star’s rapidly dwindling stock following WB’s disastrous Green Lantern. On the latter score, they needn’t have worried. Watching Reynolds slip into his character (in earnest this time) gives the viewer that tingly sensation that comes from seeing a familiar actor assuming the role he was born to play. He juggles Deadpool’s mania, rage, and vulnerability effortlessly, without ever easing off Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s mile-a-minute banter. The entire film rests on his shoulders and he carries it with aplomb.
With Deadpool as proof there was a purely adult market for superhero movies, Fox approved an R-rating for Hugh Jackman’s final turn in the role of Wolverine. It was a move met with mixed reactions; if ever there were a Marvel hero who demanded a more adult MPAA rating, it was the dude who’s primary superpowers are “enduring an inhuman amount of punishment” and “cutting people with knives that shoot out of his hands.” On the other hand, the studio’s choice to double-down on director James Mangold for the final film seemed questionable at best. While his follow-up to Origins was more of a good-faith effort to tell the character’s story, The Wolverine was still a boring mess.
Yet Logan was easily the best entry in the entire filmic X-canon. Borrowing the feel of Mark Millar and Steve Niven’s Old Man Logan story-arc but abandoning most of the plot specifics, Mangold and Jackman created a dark, elegiac send-off for a character to whom the latter had dedicated nearly twenty years of his life. This time there were no grotesquely CGIed bullet train sequences or showdowns atop nuclear stacks. The violence was simple, elegant, and brutal. There were no existential threats to humankind to be reckoned with. Only a hero brought low by the world and approaching the end of his days, trying to protect the people he loves and to reckon with an unexpected responsibility he had no direct hand in creating. With no further movies to consider and no obligations to create a mere stepping stone for the rest of the franchise, Mangold and Jackman made a Western, a post-apocalyptic road movie, and an elegy. They made a work of art.
I’d be remiss if I did not also include in this analysis a discussion of Legion, the XCU’s first foray into television. In a move that recalls DC’s handing over of the reigns to Swamp Thing to Alan Moore in the ‘80s, Fox entrusted this relatively obscure character to television auteur Noah Hawley, the man behind FX’s brilliant Fargo adaptation. Hawley trades punch-em-up heroics for creeping dread and paranoia, and mines his main character’s mental instability to create brilliant narrative sleights of hand and beautiful, convention-breaking sequences. It’s more mind-bending than Dr. Strange and more exciting and compelling television than any of the Marvel/Netflix collabs. Legion isn’t just the best thing that Fox’s XCU has produced, its first season was one of the finest superhero stories in any medium.
The common denominator in all these successes is the degree of creative freedom Fox gave to each creator to tell the stories they wanted to tell in the way they wanted to tell them. Each was given his own corner of the sandbox to play in and was left to build there undisturbed. Marvel tentpole films like Captain America: Civil War are a testament to the wonders that can be achieved through patience, planning, and centralized coordination. Deadpool, Logan, and Legion are evidence of what’s possible when the suits take their hands off the wheel and let their talent run wild.
The future of the XCU is uncertain. There’s a slate of films on the docket for the next two years, including sequels to X-Men and Deadpool, as well an intriguing New Mutants adaptation that feels very much in the exploratory vein of Legion. It’s inconceivable that Marvel won’t eventually want to bring the mutant family into the fold of their larger cinematic universe, and that’s likely going to entail a hard reset at some point.
If I were a betting man, I’d say that they’ll wipe the slate on the main X-Men series, but leave Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool as is (the meta-aware jokes about corporate acquisition should write themselves). What I sincerely hope, however, is that the X-universe can continue to serve as a sort of laboratory space for Marvel to try out new ideas and new approaches, where creative people can be given the slack to experiment, to fail spectacularly, and, occasionally, to create art.