Given how fast our current news cycle moves, it is often difficult to remember a time when comic book movies thrived before the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, if we cast our minds to the early 2000s, we’ll encounter a period in which the superhero film genre was dominated by Blade, Spider-Man, and the X-Men. While Blade had three movies and Spider-Man has had multiple incarnations in film, the X-Men film franchise endured for nearly two decades. (And with the status of The New Mutants constantly changing, it is possible to one day claim that this franchise lasted longer than twenty years.)
However, while the X-Men films started off relatively well, their critical and commercial receptions quickly became a mixed bag. And with 2019’s Dark Phoenix being a commercial and critical failure, it appears that this franchise has gone out on a negative note. As a matter of fact, one of the many reasons pop culture fans supported Disney’s acquisition of Fox was the desire to see the X-Men in the MCU after the characters had been so mishandled in movies for so long. (Afterall, why care about an already powerful company gaining near monopoly status when one just wants to see Wolverine and Doctor Strange team up in a movie.)
With that said, this version of the X-Men in cinema may be over, but they have created an impact on the superhero genre and a unique legacy worthy of study. And to explore these elements, we have recruited some amazing scholars to share their thoughts on the legacy of the X-Men movies.
What does Fox’s X-Men bequeath to future mutants?
20th Century Fox has been producing films with mutant characters from the Marvel’s X-Men for 19 years. Over the course of these 12 films, a number of things have happened: primarily everyone else in the superhero-film-making industry saw how not to make a film. Of course, there were some diamonds among all the charcoals (Deadpool, Logan) but finally the Fox’s franchise is dead, with the last film ironically being Dark Phoenix.
The franchise, much like the Phoenix Force will rise once more from the ashes (The New Mutants will be released in 2020), but what is the most crucial thing we can learn from them?
I think the legacy of Fox’s multiple reiterations of the X-Men is that should mutants reappear on the silver screen, they should be moving on. Both times that the franchise was developed in ended up in the same way, with the same sides and the same roster of characters. But it didn’t have to be this way.
First Class and Guardians of the Galaxy are similar in establishing a new franchise from scratch. By taking comic characters from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, with teeming storylines they managed to successfully reconceive and brand two superhero teams. Because they bought something fresh and novel and making it immensely accessible to everyone, especially people who were not familiar with the hardcore comics canon of the characters featured in these films.
The films were not made to bring comic superheroes to the silver screen, but create movies with superheroes with a meaning and a solid story development. Both Guardians and First Class succeeded by bringing relatively unknown heroes to the modern pop culture audience and reinventing them.
Superhero characters number in the thousands. There are just as many interesting and riveting stories that have been building up over the years. The new X-Men, much like any new superheroes, do not have to be characters the audience knows. Yes, that makes them much more marketable and consumable.
But at the same time, clutching onto what has been successful once means that you are letting everything else slip out of your hand. My expectations about The New Mutants are based on the idea that using characters relatively few people are familiar with will push the film’s creators to move past a worn-out monomyth reiteration and deliver something that will make us see mutants – and even the superhero – in a new light.
Guardians of the Galaxy was a superhero film, but that didn’t hinder it from satirising the genre and some of its conventions. And this is why the audience liked the Guardians; not because they were superheroes.
So, if there is anything that might be suggested, if there is any form of legacy in the mutants that might come, it would be to not use the characters already known and established. Instead, there can be something new with fresh characters. What would be more appropriate for a new start?
University of Dundee
Thanks in part to the decreasing returns of Joel Schumacher’s awful Batman films, the superhero film died in the 1990s. However, through the work done to revise the genre though 20th Century Fox’s X-Men franchise, director Brian Singer and producers Lauren Shuler Donner and Ralph Winter laid the groundwork for the dominance of the superhero summer blockbuster over the following two decades. In addition to a grounded sci-fi world characteristic of the soon-to-follow Sony Spider-Man, Warner Bros. The Dark Knight, and the Marvel Studios properties, the first X-Men film provided production training for Kevin Feige (the future architect of the Marvel Cinematic Universe). All of this is pretty well known, but it’s important to remember the franchise as more than a kick-start for good things to come from other studios.
From the start, X-Men was centered on a theme more than any other superhero film franchise. Opening with young Erik Lenhnsherr (Magneto) discovering his mutant powers as he enters a concentration camp, the series would consistently deal with issues of the outsider – or in a more theoretically specific term, the Other. Like the comic series, the cast and characters were more often than not white, male, and heterosexual (but its blue characters, like Mystique, Nightcrawler, and the Beast, did explore more interesting aspects of Otherness). Nevertheless, X-Men 2 improved on the first film with its treatment of prejudice and government sanctioned discrimination. Although Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine certainly was muscular, the films featured the superhero as something “other” than a muscular representative of a conservative law and order state. Furthermore, X-Men 2 clearly made mutanthood into a flexible metaphor with a clear reference to sexuality in the question from the parents of Bobby Drake (Iceman): “Have you ever tried not being a mutant?”
When Brian Singer temporarily left for Superman: Returns, the franchise stumbled and that led to an alternative approach with a young Professor Xavier and Eric Lenhnsherr played by other actors in X-Men: First Class (a film politically interesting but overstuffed and too obvious). Regardless, these younger versions would interact with their older versions in the time-travel plot of X-Men: Days of Future Past, and the film would use a somewhat hard(er) sci-fi treatment of time travel to deepen the thematic possibilities of Otherness. Creating a different timeline that fixes an immediate problem but merely forestalls the long-term consequences of prejudice, this plot device provides an explanation for what would become the most interesting parts of the X-Men franchise: inconsistencies / variations within a multiverse. While the two major follow-ups were some of the worst films (recycling characters and superhero tropes), the best X-Men productions were “other” subsequent productions outside of the new canon of Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix (seemingly enabled by the multiverse model of Days of Future Past): Deadpool, Logan, and Legion.
Unlike the Marvel Cinematic Universe that has used every expansion to service big event cross-overs, these projects are non-canonical tangents that require some knowledge of the “original” but effectively stand on their own. Departing notably from the first appearance of Wade Wilson in Wolverine: Origins, Deadpool became a potty-mouthed spoof of all Ryan Reynolds’ past superhero roles; more importantly, Deadpool’s “other” sexuality, domestic life, and third-wall-breaking tendencies also introduced sophisticated commentary on superhero and cultural conventions. But since Logan dealt with more firmly established characters, the last appearance of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine and Patrick Stewart as Professor Xavier is more significant. Bringing the superhero story to an end in a way that works outside Eco’s oneiric climate for superheroes, this film follows old heroes who have lost their power and are making their ways toward their ignoble deaths. With its metatextual dialogue with Shane, the film deconstructs the myth of the American superhero described by Jewett and Lawrence: the justification of angry masculinity and the value of violent heroism. In terms of Other-ness, the story of Logan caring for an enfeebled Professor Xavier and leaving the world to a traumatized, genetically engineered daughter portrays a culture unable to deal with its own radical divisions between Self and Other.
However, the best of the three is the FX series Legion: the story of Professor’s Xavier’s illegitimate son set in a X-Men universe that is not really the universe of the blockbuster films. Helmed by Noah Hawley, Legion seems like a superhero series created by the contrary sensibilities of David Lynch and Wes Anderson. With the power to alter the fabric of his reality, David Haller’s uncertain grip on reality controls the course of the series itself. Keeping the audience unaware of whether story content is “real” in any conventional sense, Legion builds a multiverse model that simultaneously entertains heroism, anti-heroism, and the abject experience of any type of “heroism.” In short, it portrays the Other in ways analogous to Lacan or Zizek who identify the individual and cultural Self as a fiction and reality as something known only through our symptoms. Developed in a self-conscious and meta-critical age, the lasting legacy of Fox’s X-Men is that the future of superheroes and extended universe franchises is best when found on the fringes of narrative itself.
Terrence Wandtke, PhD
Professor of Literature and Media, Judson University
Author, The Comics Scare Returns: The Contemporary Resurgence of Horror Comics
Editor, The RIT Comics Monograph Series
I remember vividly when the first X-Men film came out in the early 2000s. Even though it was unsurprisingly centered around Wolverine, I admit that it was Jean Grey that made the biggest impression on me. She was markedly different from the women I’d seen in superhero films up until then because she was smart, strong, and not in need of rescue. Overall, the X-Men franchise fared better than other superhero films with their (often imperfect) portrayals of women. Most notably, Jean Grey moved the plot forward in significant ways in that first movie such as the time when she located Magneto with the use of Cerebro.
One can only imagine the disappointment I felt when I saw the Dark Phoenix movie which marks the end of this long and cherished superhero franchise. I was excited when the trailer came out. The movie franchise started with the female superheroes as the supporting characters and the last movie would be centered around one. But I was let down by its faux feminism, stereotypical portrayal of feminine emotions, as well as its demeaning portrayal of female friendship. In general, we didn’t see much focus on superhero friendships amongst women in the X-Men franchise despite there being plenty of opportunities to do so in their multiple films over the last twenty years. I was disappointed that the one woman of colour who regularly graced the films (Storm) always remained a tokenized character right down to the end. While much of the film felt rushed and mediocre, it was that final moment between Jean and Raven (Mystique) that did it for me. For just a few seconds I was hopeful that we would see some meaningful connection that could come from two women who both faced trauma, societal rejection, and who visibly struggled with their darker emotions. Instead Raven was killed – or more aptly fridged – because it was her unnecessary death that moved the plot forward to its climax.
I kept thinking throughout the film that Anna Boden could have done this film much more justice if she wrote the script. She’s already developed a formidable one centered on a traumatized woman who is transformed by her contact with a powerful force of energy and is aided by her girlfriend in several crucial moments. Considering the dismal sales Dark Phoenix has raked in compared to Captain Marvel’s $1 billion profit, it’s safe to say that Marvel needs Boden and more women writers / producers than they probably care to admit.
Alas, I’m hoping that my disappointment is not for long. While the Fox X-Men franchise is set to retire, its characters won’t. I was heartened to learn of the recent rumors of Nathalie Emanuel being eyed for the role of Storm, who may make a crossover to the Black Panther films. Finally, Storm may get the portrayal that she deserves. In the meantime, I’ll remember the many good films that the X-Men franchise produced over the years, and perhaps forget their last one.
PhD Candidate in Communication and Culture
I will always remember the X-universe for their remarkable willingness to experiment with narrative. The first X-Men launched a genre that demonstrated that superheroes could be intellectually and politically robust, and deserve serious films from serious filmmakers. Idiosyncratic and genre-bending films like Days of Future Past and Logan only cemented this legacy. The surreal nature of shows like Legion or the meta-antics of Deadpool further marked the X-universe a site of narrative and genre diversity, contrasting with the relative homogeneity of the MCU (and the general incompetence of the DCEU). Personally, I am not looking forward to them joining the MCU at all — I feel that that the political valence of the characters will be toned down for the sake of profitability (see Hidden Figures for a window into the watered down fate of these characters). Still, they will be forever enshrined for discussing marginalization in a way that also pushed the boundaries of narrativization. In many ways, this is the greatest manifestation of the potential in comic (or comix) adaptions — working on margins and defying conventions and pushing those same boundaries outward. Even though they recentered the mainstream, and have now been consumed by it, I will forever be grateful to the Marvel’s Merry Band of Mutants for being willing to take risks.
However, moving forward, I hope future filmmakers realize that the Phoenix Saga is unadapatble. The Mutant Massacre on the other hand…
Jorge Santos, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Multiethnic Literature
College of the Holy Cross