FAREWELL TO THE X-MEN

LOOKING BACK AT THE FIRST AND BEST SUPERHERO UNIVERSE

FILM FEATURE
By Jake Watt
8th June 2019

With the Disney/20th Century Fox merger completed, the Marvel Cinematic Universe now has the chance to incorporate popular ‘X-Men’ characters such as Wolverine, Storm, Rogue and more into its movies for the first time. Kevin Feige has said that the current plan for the next five or so years of Marvel movies does not currently include 'X-Men' characters, but plans are underway.

‘Dark Phoenix’ will be the last time the characters appear on the big screen without Disney’s involvement from the beginning. While it’s not confirmed yet, Disney is expected to recast all of the X-Men superhero roles when the time finally comes to introduce them into the MCU. ‘Dark Phoenix’ was repeatedly referred to as an ending to the current ‘X-Men’ film franchise, with Josh Boone’s ‘The New Mutants’ (an unlucky pre-merger film that would further slow Disney’s reboot plans) stuck in a limbo of constantly shifting release dates.

With Marvel Studios and DC/Warner Bros. controlling the superhero market by virtue of sheer output (Marvel currently turns out three or four films per year), fickle fans forget that these weren't the first companies to launch a comic book cinematic universe. Marvel and DC benefited greatly from what the ‘X-Men’ movies got right. When it premiered in 2000, ‘X-Men’ set the standard for ‘Spider-Man’, ‘Iron Man’, and every other modern superhero movie to follow.

The X-Men Cinematic Universe (XMCU, for brevity) showcased dynamic, distinct characters and took ambitious swings that pushed comic book movies further. The ‘X-Men’ movies are more insightful and inclusive, and still say more about the genre as a whole than any other superhero property. Not every film in the XMCU is perfect, but neither is every film in the MCU or DCU - you can't create something unique without weathering a few mistakes along the way.

A bit of history…

In the mid-90s, Marvel Entertainment Group found itself on the brink of financial ruin. The media juggernaut had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after losing money through the declining sales of their comic book and trading card properties. As a last resort, they agreed to sell the exclusive movie rights of their 'X-Men' characters to 20th Century Fox in 1994. After numerous drafts, Bryan Singer was hired to direct the first film, released in 2000, and its sequel ‘X2’ (2003), with Brett Ratner filling-in to direct ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’ (2006).

After each film earned higher box office grosses than its predecessor, several spin-off films were released, including three ‘Wolverine’ films from 2009 to 2017 and two ‘Deadpool’ films in 2016 and 2018. Three ‘X-Men’ prequels were also released from 2011 to 2016. ‘X-Men’, ‘X2’, ‘X-Men: First Class’, ‘The Wolverine’, ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’, ‘Deadpool’, ‘Logan’ and ‘Deadpool 2’ were all met with positive reviews from critics, and ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’ and ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’ received mixed reviews while ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’ received more negative reviews.

With eleven films released, the 'X-Men' film series is the seventh highest-grossing film series, having grossed over $US5.7 billion worldwide.

So, how did these films set a benchmark that even Marvel Studios and DC/Warner Bros. have struggled to reach?

They did it first
Prior to 2000, the face of the comic book movie was primarily DC. Fans had familiarised themselves with Richard Donner’s ‘Superman’ and Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’, but a big ensemble cast of heroes still felt lightyears away. Although other comic book adaptions had crept their way into the mainstream with films like ‘Blade’ and ‘Spawn’, superheroes were still considered too unrealistic to break ground in a major way. What director Bryan Singer would do with ‘X-Men’ permanently changed that outlook, grounding his cast in a real-world setting that didn't feel too distant from our own. It was the start of bigger productions branching out from Singer’s success, including Sam Raimi's ‘Spider-Man’ trilogy as well as Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dark Knight’ films.

On the first ‘X-Men’ film, executive producer Lauren Shuler Donner made a young Kevin Feige an associate producer, due to his knowledge of the Marvel Universe. Impressing CEO Avi Arad, he was hired to work as his second-in-command at Marvel Studios that same year. Feige was named president of production for Marvel Studios in March 2007 and is now widely considered the architect of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The films dealt with real issues and asked hard questions
Mutants are typically born looking and behaving just like normal humans, and it isn't until puberty that their powers develop. The series often deals with teenagers coming to terms with the fact that they are not only different, but they now have to deal with discrimination on a daily basis. Regular humans are afraid of mutants, which leads to fear and hatred. Most mutants are good people, and they can't help that they were born different, so society should just learn to accept them for who they are.

The opening scene in ‘X-Men’ shows a young Jewish boy, Erik Lensherr, being led into a Nazi concentration camp when his magnetic powers begin to develop. This is further explored in ‘X-Men: First Class’ when it's revealed that Sebastian Shaw was posing as a Nazi scientist in the camp and tortured Erik until he learned to use his powers correctly. This experience caused Erik to lose faith in humanity, fuelling his turn to villainy. As Magneto, his pain causes him to see himself as the saviour of the downtrodden mutants, which justifies having to do bad things, up to and including murder.

Singer's auteur approach turned the ‘X-Men’ movies into personal, heartfelt visions. It's not that MCU and DCU movies aren't about anything (although the MCU quickly switched the focus from Nazis to HYDRA and the DCU changed ‘Wonder Woman’s' origin from World II to the Great War). But the concerns of the ‘X-Men’ movies shift as the real world evolves. The mutants of ‘X-Men’ are society's outcasts, serving as representatives of everything from the LGBT community and awkward teens, to AIDS sufferers and Jewish people suffering under anti-Semitism. ‘X2’ had a scene where Iceman came out to his parents, mirroring a scenario many gay kids have lived through. ‘Days Of Future Past’ took a look at the attitude of the law towards minorities in America and became an allegory about the consequences of an increasingly right-wing police state. ‘Logan’ took that even further with jabs at Trump and America’s xenophobic attitude towards Mexico.

Diversity and representation
Comic book films have largely been the domain of white guys. When ‘Black Panther’ was released in 2018, it was the 18th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the first movie where the main character wasn't a white guy. When ‘Captain Marvel’ was released in 2019, it was the 21st movie in the MCU and the first to have a female superhero lead (until Patty Jenkin’s ‘Wonder Woman’, Marvel believed that female film characters wouldn’t sell enough toys). We continue to wait on ‘Shang-Chi’, a film starring an Asian superhero. Marvel still refuses to cast queer actors (or use queer characters) because it might impact their box office in China, a country with anti-gay media censorship laws. This continues to be quite worrying considering how influential these films are in 2019.

This has never been the case for the ‘X-Men’. The first film was told through the eyes of Anna Paquin's Rogue, and half the team is female (the most powerful half, I might add). ‘X2’ not only had an Asian female supervillain, but it positioned Halle Berry's Storm in a prominent role, upgrading her to the team leader in ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’. ‘The Wolverine’ took place in Japan and featured almost an entirely Asian cast, aside from Hugh Jackman. When the series received a soft reboot with a younger cast, Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique became a central character in ‘First Class’, ‘Days of Future Past’ and ‘Apocalypse’. Aside from its multiracial casting, the ‘X-Men’ series has never shied away from employing queer actors like Ian McKellen as Magneto, Alan Cumming as Nightcrawler, and Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde. ‘Deadpool 2’ even featured a queer character played by a queer actor (Brianna Hildebrand’s Negasonic Teenage Warhead) in a queer relationship, the first time that a same-sex relationship had ever appeared in a superhero film.

Superior casting
The cast of ‘X-Men’ has largely been based on acting talent, while Marvel Studios and DC/Warner Bros. cast has been selected based on their star potential. When it came time for a soft reboot of the series, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence had been making names for themselves as great actors in smaller projects when they were cast. The older crew, like Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, were primarily stage actors. No one can argue that Robert Downey Jr, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Shannon, Amy Adams, Laurence Fishburne, or David Thewlis are bad at what they do, but they do share a lot of the screen with Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Pine, Paul Rudd, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Jason Mamoa, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill and Zack Levi. The ‘X-Men’ ensemble was comparatively strong across the board.

In the MCU, every Avenger is ready with a quip or pop culture reference to end a scene. After a while, conversations in the biggest Marvel team-ups begin to sound like Robert Downey Jr talking to himself. By contrast, Christian Bale’s performance was so definitive in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dark Knight’ trilogy that Ben Affleck came off as a gravelly-voiced imitator and Henry Cavill turned in a surprisingly dour, clench-jawed Superman.

Each character in the ‘X-Men’ universe had a distinct personality and role. The actors owned their parts. Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender didn’t speak like Hugh Jackman, and Magneto was a different kind of villain to Apocalypse. Cyclops sounded nothing like Deadpool, and he can't be confused with Nightcrawler. Each character had a strong individual voice.

The TV spin-offs were superb
If you watch TV, you would have noticed the dozens of comic book programs that have sprung up over the last few years (coinciding with the launch of ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ on ABC and ‘Arrow’ on CW), the overall quality of which could generously be described as “iffy”. Fox only had two TV spin-offs for the XMCU: ‘Legion’ and ‘The Gifted’. Both were cancelled in 2019 as part of the Disney/Fox merger and upcoming ‘X-Men’ reboot, but they were superb tie-ins to the film series.

‘The Gifted’, from ‘Burn Notice’ creator Matt Nix, starred Stephen Moyer and Amy Acker as ordinary parents who take their family on the run after they discover their children's mutant abilities. They soon meet up with the Mutant Underground, a group who took over protecting mutants after the disappearance of the X-Men. Essentially the ‘Heroes’ formula distilled to its purest form, the highlight was the casting: Blair Redford as Thunderbird, Jamie Chung as Blink and particularly Emma Dumont as Polaris, the daughter of Magneto.

‘Legion’, created for FX by Noah Hawley, was based on the character David Haller, the son of Charles Xavier. A mutant diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age, he discovers that a) he has vast psychokinetic powers and b) his mind was infected by Xavier’s old enemy, the parasitic mutant Amahl Farouk/Shadow King. Hawley was inspired by Michel Gondry’s ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’, the films of David Lynch and Terrence Malick, and Bryan Fuller’s TV series, ‘Hannibal’. The cast was a superlative assortment of good-looking, odd-looking people turning in career-best work, like Dan Stevens, Aubrey Plaza and Rachel Keller.

They experimented with formula
The X-Men universe departed from a nice-guy approach to its superheroes with edgier, R-rated outings. ‘Deadpool’ reinvigorated Ryan Reynolds’ superhero career (clinically dead with ‘Green Lantern’) as he swore, lopped off heads and delivered pop culture jokes in fourth wall-breaking fashion. Meanwhile, James Mangold’s ‘Wolverine’ (which had an R-rated home release) and Western-inspired ‘Logan’ finally delivered the brutal depiction of Wolverine fans had always craved, sending the character out on a high note with just the right touch of violence and maturity expected from one of Marvel’s most popular characters. Mangold even re-released ‘Logan’ in black-and-white on Blu-ray.
The mutants of ‘X-Men’ are society's outcasts, serving as representatives of everything from the LGBT community and awkward teens, to AIDS sufferers and Jewish people subjugated by institutional anti-Semitism.

The massive success of ‘Deadpool’ proved there was room for satire and parody in superhero movies. By breaking the fourth wall, Wade Wilson expanded the ‘X-Men’ into the real world and allowed the franchise to admit it can be a little wacky and self-serious. In ‘Logan’, Wolverine made fun of people for reading comic books and lionising heroes like him. It worked as a gag, but it also reinforced the movie's themes about heroism, rehabilitation, and legacy.

The films actually felt like films
The Marvel Studios policy is to treat the MCU like a TV show, with studio head Kevin Feige as showrunner and an army of interchangeable directors hired on the proviso that they click with the house style. It's an efficient method for churning out blockbuster movies, but something is undoubtedly getting lost in the process. The directorial appointments of former TV men Joss Whedon, the Russo brothers and Alan Taylor, as well as the firing of the stylistically distinct Edgar Wright from ‘Ant-Man’, indicates that the MCU is taking the TV approach to heart. Visually, the MCU resembles television, too: the action is shot capably, but there is no unique artistic stamp to be found.

In the MCU, films feel like mere stepping stones to the next Marvel extravaganza. Sometimes one movie will have to pause its own plot for a scene that's only included in order to set up events in a future “episode” of the story. ‘Iron Man 2’ includes scenes where Tony Stark meets with Nick Fury, and it's clear that they were only included so they could bring up the Avengers Initiative, just to set up the future movie. In ‘Avengers: Age Of Ultron’, Thor has a completely superfluous subplot involving visions of Asgard's destruction, setting up ‘Thor: Ragnarok’. Pausing the action like this makes the movie feel like it's just a commercial for other movies.

The de facto leader of the ‘X-Men’ world since its inception has undeniably been Bryan Singer. Brought on board in 1996, he played a key part in preparing the script for the first film, focusing his attentions towards Wolverine as he's recruited by Professor Xavier. Although Singer put together an eclectic cast for the first film, Matthew Vaughn went young with ‘First Class’, relaunching the series with fresh faces and a sleek new look. On the opposite side, James Mangold and Tim Miller brought a new edge to the fold, showing off a grizzled Wolverine and a wisecracking Wade Wilson in ‘Logan’, ‘Deadpool’ and ‘Deadpool 2’, respectively. The directors continually shook things up, something which cannot be said about the MCU (the DCU has dabbled, with mixed results).

Singer, Vaughn, Mangold, Miller, Leitch and even Brett Ratner are cinematic directors first and foremost.

A higher standard of villain
In the ‘X-Men’ movies, as much attention was paid to the bad guy as was paid to the heroes. Characters like William Stryker in ‘X2’, Sebastian Shaw in ‘First Class’ and Bolivar Trask in ‘Days of Future Past’ were all villains with very “real world” motivations: militarists, eugenics advocates and fascists. The focus has always been on the ideological battle between Professor X's team and his former allies, the damaged Magneto and Mystique. These weren’t just two-dimensional bad guys, they were sympathetic monsters with captivating backstories whose ultimate goals weren’t too dissimilar from that of the heroes.

The films weren’t held back by continuity or a linear timeline
At the launch of the first ‘X-Men’ film, continuity was a vague concern. Not only did Fox not know if the first film would be a success, they didn't know how a full-blown franchise would function. Unfortunately, the studio's lack of preparation meant a string of continuity errors as the franchise moved forward. But the ‘X-Men’ universe’s largest flaw is arguably its greatest strength. While having a tight continuity between movies has its benefits, it can also be very constricting. This is especially true as the franchise gets older and older, as we are saw with Marvel and DC/Warner Bros. and the visibly tiring cast members like Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans and Ben Affleck. The lack of concern for continuity in the X-Men world allows the films to operate under a certain degree of freedom.

In reality, audiences aren't going to care if one film matches up perfectly with a previous entry that came out years earlier. When ‘Days of Future Past’ was released in 2014, Professor X was included despite being killed almost a decade earlier in ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’. ‘Deadpool’ doesn't fit at all with the critically panned ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’, which actually helped it become one of the series' best entries. Looser continuity allows writers to use whatever characters make for the best individual movie, as opposed to making sure that Toad’s appearance in ‘First Class’ doesn't conflict with his earlier appearance in ‘X-Men’. ‘Logan’ takes place in a dystopian 2029 where mutants are almost extinct, and it’s one of the best comic book films ever. Without a need to keep the logic of the franchise flowing, each movie can act on its own, which also means certain characters can potentially be recast further down the line without concern for how it will be perceived.

Starting with ‘First Class’, the films saw veteran actors like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen showing support for younger talents, including James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence. Gradually, Jean Grey, Cyclops and Nightcrawler were reintroduced into the series, and the mutants once again trended younger with stars like Sophie Turner and Tye Sheridan taking on parts.

Basically, the ‘X-Men’ franchise was willing to embrace new actors, which allowed the series to opens itself up to a host of untapped material which proved to be fruitful.

Starting with ‘X-Men: First Class’, the X-Men movies started jumping around the timeline. That movie took place in the early 60s, but it wasn't until the sequel that things got interesting. ‘Days of Future Past’ mainly took place in the early 70s, but there were also scenes set in a dystopian future where Sentinels have taken over the world. It's never stated what year exactly these scenes are set in, but it's far enough in the future where Wolverine has started to go grey. Later, ‘Logan’ would take a trip to a different future, completely unlike the one shown in ‘Days of Future Past.’

By freeing themselves from a linear timeline, the 'X-Men' movies opened up many more storytelling possibilities, especially since ‘Days of Future Past’ introduced the concept of multiple possible futures. This allowed writers to put characters in settings that just wouldn't be possible in the stories set during present day.

Death had meaning and real stakes were involved
In ‘The Last Stand’, the first long-lasting effects of the 'X-Men' universe were felt when Jean Grey was resurrected as the Dark Phoenix, calling Scott Summers to Alkali Lake and killing him. Summers’ death, along with the subsequent incineration of Professor X, would later prompt Wolverine to fatally stab Grey, which would inevitably haunt him throughout the events of ‘The Wolverine’. Although the characters were later retconned so that they could briefly appear in the diverging timeline created in ‘Days of Future Past’, they still made an impact on the motivations of the superhero group leading up to that point. Likewise, the permanent deaths of characters like Banshee, Havoc and Darwin have been equally resonating. Of course, nothing compares to the gut-punch felt at the end of ‘Logan’ when Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman made their final bows.

Meanwhile, in Marvel, both Nick Fury and Loki had fake death scenes in ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ and ‘Thor: The Dark World’, while Agent Coulson was immediately resurrected in ‘Agents of S.H.I.EL.D.’ Superman bounced back from the grave in ‘Justice League’ after his overwrought death in ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’. Even Christopher Nolan is guilty of a fake-out death in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’.

Since ‘The Avengers’, the ending of most Marvel and DC films seem to revolve around an epic-scale fight, raging as the immortal heroes attempt to save a city, ocean, country and/or planet from destruction. ‘Age Of Ultron’ didn't bother to pretend like the third act is anything different than before, with anonymous grey robots hurling themselves lackadaisically at the protagonists until the villain was finally dispatched by a brand new character.

The ‘X-Men’ movies preferred to retain some form of intimacy and drama in their grand finales. ‘X-Men’ and ‘X2’ both made statements about sacrifice in their climaxes, ‘First Class’ ended with a tale of brotherhood gone sour, ‘Days Of Future Past’ closed Wolverine's personal journey with the character seemingly settled in a world where he can be at peace, then ‘Logan’ slammed the door shut on it. No matter how great the Marvel or DC/Warner Bros. movies have been, only a handful have ended in a satisfyingly way, both dramatically and in terms of execution. Laser beams in the sky, mass destruction and CGI overload have dominated, where a bit more heart and practicality would have sufficed.

‘X-Men: Dark Phoenix’, the final film in 20th Century Fox’s ground-breaking film series (unless Disney decides to release ‘The New Mutants’), is now in cinemas nationally.

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