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Monday, March 6, 2017

Filmland - Future of the X-Men Series

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Something odd is happening with the X-Men franchise recently.  Ever since X2: X-Men United the X-Men franchise has been defined by obligation more than anything else.  Sure, there have been good films amid that set-up like First Class or well-liked films like Days of Future Past, but none of these movies seem to exist out of genuine excitement and push for the material from anyone at the studio level.  That’s all sort of changed now with a triple barrel punch from Deadpool, Logan, and Legion, a trilogy of X-Men adaptations that are easily the most creator-driven projects we’ve seen since First Class. 

If there is a sense of obligation to these adaptations it’s hiding itself very well and, as one might suspect, audiences are strongly responding to the newfound sense of enthusiasm and vigor.  Deadpool and Logan have become near instant beloved classics and pop culture staples in stark contrast to the underperforming and mostly forgotten X-Men: Apocalypse.  With the success of these projects and the main X-Men films stalling at the box office and losing their primary director it raises the question: what’s next for the X-Men?

To understand where the X-Men are going we need to look at where they’ve been.  Now, me personally, I don’t like the first 2 X-Men films, I didn’t like them when I was the target age and watching them back now I still don’t really care for them.  However, I know a lot of people really love them, and I at least get why and it’s not just because there are a handful of well done moments sprinkled over the two films. 

The first 2 X-Men films are the ones where the people making these movies from studio to actor genuinely want to be there.  Even if the movies’ aren’t great, there’s an undeniable earnest passion for making the movie that’s admittedly endearing and helps paper over some of the film’s more significant failings in the action and creativity department.  2004, however, was the year that passion abruptly left the X-Men films and wouldn’t come back till First Class.

See, back in 1996 Marvel went bankrupt and to get out of bankruptcy they agreed to lease several of their biggest properties to movie studios for adaptation.  This made Marvel a good deal of cash and got them out of debt, but it also made them greedy for more revenue options, ideally ones they didn’t need to split with major studios. 

So, in 2001, after the success of X-Men, Marvel decided to produce a TV show called Mutant X without any interaction from Fox.  The show was a decent hit, which only served to enrage Fox who took Marvel to court over breach of contract.  Fox won the suit, arguing that Marvel had leased them not just the X-Men characters but the very concept of mutants and the X-branding in any form, and subsequently canceled Mutant X. 

That slight has festered for years and drove a big, angry wedge between Fox and Marvel that completely rewrote the situation with Fox’s superhero films.  Suddenly these movies stopped being about bringing beloved characters to life and started being about spite, specifically Fox wanting to spite Marvel by not letting the various character rights revert back to them. 

That’s why the X-Men films have never really recovered from X3 and why Fox decided to make the terrible 2015 Fantastic Four movie.  However, recently both the lack of passion in this series and the Marvel/Fox feud have started to diminish. 

Firstly, you’ve got films like Logan and Deadpool that are 100% passion projects.  It’s easy to forget this now that Deadpool’s made millions of dollars and is a huge cultural success but initially Fox didn’t want to make that movie.  It actually took Ryan Reynolds leaking the film’s test footage to generate enough internet goodwill for Fox to actually green light Deadpool- that is passion. 

The same seems to revolve around Logan, in that there’s no way the film would’ve been allowed as much freedom as it had if Hugh Jackman wasn’t making it his final go-round as Wolverine.  Aside from being informed by creator passion, both films are united in the fact they were cheap and dirty R-rated movies released in the year’s first quarter to major returns.  Compare that with the way X-Men: Apocalypse severely underperformed at the box office and has been basically swept clean from our collective minds and it’s pretty clear who the true standard bearers of the X-Men are now. 

On the studio side of the equation we have Legion, an X-Men TV show.  Understand, after the 2004 debacle Marvel became incredibly incredulous towards X-Men TV adaptations, which sucks for Fox because their contract actually cuts both ways: Marvel can’t make an X-Men show without them but Fox also can’t make an X-Men show without Marvel’s signoff.  

For years, the bad blood between these two kept Fox’s yearning for a live-action X-Men series impossible but now it’s clear the back channels have thawed as Marvel’s given the Fox the go-ahead on at least 3 X-Men shows (though 1 of them fell through in production.) 

So what does all this add up to for the X-Men?  Well firstly I doubt it’ll have much impact on X-Men: Supernova, the space-based, '90s set, Dark Phoenix movie they’re doing for the sequel to X-Men: Apocalypse.  That movie’s more or less already in motion, they’ve already got Sophie Turner locked down for it and went through the trouble of setting up all these new actors as the Claremont era X-Men, there’s no reason to slam on the breaks with it yet. 

More likely that flick is going to end up as kind of a litmus test for the main series going forward and whether or not the X-Men can prove themselves worth what they cost.  I mean, Fox is already making so much money from the low cost, high return homerun formula of Logan and Deadpool that the only reason to keep making X-Men movies is to maintain the rights from Marvel and there’s really no reason to go on like that anymore. 

Actually, there’s even less reason than you might think for Fox to keep making main series X-Men films if people’s nostalgia isn’t able to fill up the box office meter like it used to.  This gets into some minor spoilers for Logan but one of the core elements of that film is setting up a group of genetically engineered child mutants that are basically spliced together clones of various X-Men. 

In fact, the entire meta-plot of the movie is about trying to smuggle a collection of copyright-infringing X-Men clones out from under the noses of a villainous mega-corporation.  That’s a pretty on the nose metaphor but I don’t think it’s accidental.  Given that X-23 has become an instant cultural icon I could completely believe Fox would be down to create a new series of “X-Men” films revolving around her and her fellow X-Men clones in the Logan timeline.  Fox wouldn’t even really need Marvel for the project as, aside from X-23, they don’t need any characters from the comics. 

Now I’m not totally sure that will happen but what I definitely think we’ll see is a lot less of a push to create any kind of an X-Men shared universe.  Simply put, making a shared universe of films and TV shows is a monster of an undertaking and can easily go to pieces before anything even happens, see Universal’s classic monster-verse for an example of that.  What’s more, it’s undeniable at this point that the 3 genuinely good entries in the X-Men franchise all work partially because they lack any kind of continuity or genre similarity. 

First Class was an entirely unique work of Golden Age spy fiction, Deadpool might as well have been in its own continuity, and Logan actually was in its own little world, the same thing with Legion.  There’s basically no reason for the powers that be to try and craft some kind of larger story or universe through Deadpool 2, X-Force, New Mutants, X-Men: Supernova, Wolverine 4 and whatever other solo films they decide they can make with an R-rating and a low budget.

So, where are the X-Men going?  Smaller, cheaper, harsher, less connected, and probably better if we’re being honest.  We’ll still get our latest bungling of the Dark Phoenix saga in X-Men: Supernova and I wouldn’t be surprised if New Mutants and X-Force end up a mistake but we’ll also probably get plenty more good movies out of this, more than before at least.  

The X-Men franchise has always been full up of unique and compelling characters who maybe can’t hold down a blockbuster but would be a perfect fit for a February release on a tighter budget, especially if Fox manages to maintain the same level of passion they’ve had in their latest iterations. 

Honestly, given how much of the current popular X-Men slate relies on altered timelines and parallel continuities, I wouldn’t be surprised if Fox just ended up making nice with Marvel and letting them handle the main crop of films ala Sony and Spider-Man.  Ultimately I predict we’re going to be seeing a lot more Logans and Legions and a lot fewer Apocalypses and Days of Future Past. 

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