With all of the attention paid to the development of the Marvel cinematic universe, it’s worth addressing the other Marvel cinematic universe: the one run by 20th Century-Fox.
Yes, I’m talking about the X-Men franchise. But Fox is set to relaunch its Fantastic Four franchise in 2014, and word is that it may be set in the same universe as the X-Men franchise.
Even without the Fantastic Four, the idea that the X-Men films constitute a second Marvel cinematic universe isn’t as absurd as it might at first sound.
The X-Men franchise already stands at five films, and will increase to six with this summer’s The Wolverine. That’s how many films comprised the Marvel cinematic universe through last year’s The Avengers.
That’s no small feat. It’s on par with the classic Superman series, which had six films (counting Supergirl and Superman Returns). It’s more than the 1989-1997 Batman series, which had four films. Even if Man of Steel will definitively be set, as speculated, in the same universe as Nolan’s Batman films, the fledgling DC cinematic universe would stand at four films. In terms of sheer size, the X-Men franchise dwarfs any other that’s still running — except the Marvel cinematic universe.
And of course, in terms of longevity, the X-Men franchise had the Marvel cinematic universe beat. It began with 2000′s X-Men, which is widely seen as setting the groundwork for the super-hero movie renaissance that’s still continuing. The Marvel cinematic universe was a product of this renaissance, but the success of the X-Men franchise helped make that possible. And it’s still going.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Marvel movie licenses have reportedly reverted to Marvel Studios. Daredevil’s back at Marvel. So too is the Punisher (after films in 2004 and 2008). The rights to Ghost Rider (who got films in 2007 and 2012) also reverted to Marvel. All of them could show up in the Marvel cinematic universe, the same way the Hulk did after the rights to that character reverted following the 2003′s Hulk. (I’m assuming the rights to Man-Thing have also reverted, following the 2005 direct-to-video film, but I wouldn’t expect him to show up in the Marvel cinematic universe anytime soon.)
So what film rights haven’t reverted to Marvel? Spider-Man, obviously. After three films directed by Sam Raimi, Sony rebooted the series in 2012, and a second installment of the rebooted series is scheduled for 2014. The Men in Black franchise — based on comics originally published by Aircel Comics, before being acquired by Malibu Comics, and then by Marvel — got a third installment in 2012, but those characters were never a part of the Marvel Universe. And other than that?
As far as I can tell, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four are it. And at seven films (as of this summer), they really have no competition.
Of course, the X-Men can’t compare to the entire Marvel Universe — minus Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four.
Except… the X-Men kind of can compete, while retaining its own unique spin. The X-Men is organized around the concept of mutants, which is very different from the super-heroes of the Marvel cinematic universe. And there’s a universe worth of mutants to draw upon. There’s certainly enough to create multiple series united by a shared continuity, the same way Marvel has. If Marvel can make movies focused around the Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, Fox isn’t lacking for protagonists.
This is very much how Fox and Lauren Shuler Donner, who’s produced the X-Men franchise, seem to be looking at the future of the X-Men franchise. They’ve seen the tremendous success of the Marvel cinematic universe, and they’re keen to build their own, exploiting the large roster of mutant characters.
To this end, Mark Millar has reported that he’s consulting on Fox’s overall universe — although reports are that Bryan Singer, who’s directed the first two X-Men films and is returning for X-Men: Days of Future Past, hasn’t had much contact with Millar. So it’s not clear precisely what’s happening, behind the scenes.
Still, Shuler Donner has proposed a crossover between Fox’s franchise and the Marvel cinematic universe. It would be a way for the Marvel cinematic universe to be able to use the X-Men, although Marvel doesn’t seem to need the X-Men — a phrase that would have seemed shocking six years ago. But while such a crossover likely won’t happen, it’s suggestive of Fox’s intentions — and its desire to have its own universe seen as something on par with Marvel’s own.
This summer, The Wolverine debuts. Next summer is X-Men: Days of Future Past. If rumors are to be believed, Professor X will have a cameo in The Wolverine, thus helping to set up Days of Future Past and Fox’s shared universe. The Fantastic Four reboot is scheduled for March 2015. If that film is really set in the same universe, this would make one film per year. With two to three years a common gap between installments, there’s no reason a Wolverine sequel can’t be set for 2016, another X-Men film for 2017, the Fantastic Four sequel for 2018, etc.
That’s exactly half the pace at which the Marvel cinematic universe, which has set a pace for itself of two films per year, is scheduled to grow. But it’s a key threshold, at which viewers can expect a new installment every single year.
Now, there’s no denying that the X-Men franchise has had some missteps. 2006′s X-Men: The Last Stand, the conclusion of the original trilogy, isn’t fondly remembered (although I personally think it’s under-appreciated). 2009′s X-Men Origins: Wolverine is pretty bad. Per film, the franchise hasn’t performed at the box office nearly as well as those of the Marvel cinematic universe.
The franchise has also set films at different points on its timeline, which make it a little more confusing, compared to the Marvel cinematic universe. True, Captain America: The First Avenger is almost entirely a flashback to World War II. But X-Men Origins: Wolverine takes place mostly in the late 1970s, X-Men: First Class takes place mostly in 1962, and next year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past is said to be set mostly in the early 1970s, although it involves interaction with an unspecified future. The Marvel cinematic universe is a little easier to make sense of as a unit.
Fox’s prospective cinematic universe also faces some limitations. Because its characters are licensed from Marvel, retaining those characters is conditional, often upon using them in new films. For example, it’s been reported that, should Fox not move forward with the Fantastic Four, it would lose those rights. And if Marvel Studios wants to spin off characters from its cinematic universe into television or other projects, it doesn’t have to consult any contracts.
But if there’s one thing Fox’s films need, it’s star power and a sense of sexiness. The two elements that sold Iron Man, more than any other, were Robert Downey, Jr. and the image of Iron Man gunning people down to the song “Iron Man.” Whether it’s Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, or director Joss Whedon, the Marvel cinematic universe has shown it isn’t afraid to sign big names, and it’s excelled on style. The original X-Men series had Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, and director Bryan Singer — but most of these have been out of rotation, although they’re coming back for X-Men: Days of Future Past.
Obviously, Fox doesn’t intend to relinquish the X-Men or the Fantastic Four anytime soon. So it’s nice to think that we might get a coherent, shared universe out of the bargain.
We already have two films from Marvel Studios every year, plus one from Fox. And both have room for expansion. The X-Men, Wolverine, and the Fantastic Four are clearly Fox’s biggest box-office stars. But it’s got two teams of X-Men: the present-day one (post-The Last Stand) and the “early years” one from First Class. And there’s no reason Fox can’t create other X-Men teams. In fact, a movie starring young mutants in the present day was in development before it morphed into First Class. In lieu of Guardians of the Galaxy, Fox could have X-Factor. In lieu of Ant-Man, Fox could have Deadpool — which has been in development for years, first at New Line (during the Blade trilogy) and then at Fox. While X-Men Origins: Wolverine was in development, so too was X-Men Origins: Magneto — before it got rolled into First Class. Fox also has the Silver Surfer — who was planned for a spin-off, after Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, before the studio decided on a Fantastic Four reboot instead. The Marvel cinematic universe might have the Chitauri, but Fox reportedly has the original Skrulls — and their interstellar rivals the Kree.
Sure, Marvel’s cinematic universe has Thanos, but Fox has Galactus.
Imagine a scenario. The Wolverine does acceptably well, playing up its Japanese themes and rinsing the public’s palate of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Then X-Men: Days of Future Past does better, and with the return of Bryan Singer and a lot of the original cast, it’s heralded as a new beginning for the franchise. Then 2015′s Fantastic Four reboot is indeed set in the same universe. In the next phase of films, we could get The Silver Surfer, which could introduce the character but focus on telling a Silver Surfer-focused story, featuring Alicia Masters – only to reveal Galactus in the after-credits sequence…
Will this actually happen? I’m not claiming any inside knowledge. Fox definitely needs to get its house in order, if it’s to revitalize its franchise and position it in the public’s mind as a shared universe that can rival Marvel’s own. But the potential is there.