Anghus Houvouras on how Fox can fix the X-Men: Cinematic Universe…
Fox has been cultivating the X-Men cinematic universe for nearly two decades. It’s been that long since fans were first treated to Marvel’s most magnanimous mutants on the big screen. The first X-Men movie wasn’t perfect, but it was a solid first entry into what would become a wildly disjointed franchise that struggled to find its place in an era of endless comic book adaptations. That seems strange when you remember that X-Men kind of kicked off the comic book movie trend of the 21st century. And yet, even with an eight year head start, Fox has been unable to capitalize. The X-Men franchise still lacks a clear and concise direction.
That has changed somewhat in the last year after Deadpool was released and donkey punched expectations. With much fanfare and little faith from Fox, the movie became a massive hit on a modest budget proving what Ryan Reynolds had been saying for years: give the fans what they want and they will show up.
And yet, the X-Men movies themselves, the supposed anchor to solo films like Deadpool and Logan are struggling. 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse was a mediocre slog that took the franchise nowhere new. The film made 200 million dollars less than Days of Future Past, a high mark for the franchise (before Deadpool).
This week sees the release of Logan, the third Wolverine solo movie and by most accounts the best. This R-Rated, more dramatic attempt at a Wolverine movie will test audience’s interest in more adult oriented storytelling in their superhero movies. I’m guessing it’s not going to be a monster hit the size of Deadpool, but it should double down on the idea that fans are aching for something different, something nuanced & unique: something the anchor X-Men movies haven’t been in ages.
“But wait Anghus, you cynical movie hating asshat!” they’ll say. “What about X-Men: First Class?”
X-Men: First Class was kind of terrible (read more about that here).
Let’s be honest here: There’s only two good X-Men movies: X2: X-Men United & X-Men: Days of Future Past. The original X-Men is pretty good. While X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men: Apocalypse are epic eyesores bereft of originality and entertainment value. The Wolverine solo films are also a mixed bag, most of which is filled with warm garbage. X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a laughable mess and The Wolverine is a mildly entertaining lark that is too fearful of abandoning its comic book roots to tell a real story. You get two acts of interesting characters and setups only for the film to devolve into giant robot samurai and evil snake ladies.
So even if we’re being kind, the X-Men franchise has been a 50% watchable and 50% uninspired crap. Fox has already stumbled into a successful formula, they just have to be smart enough to pump the brakes and start re-building how they structure their franchise. Deadpool was huge. Logan looks to be a hit. You’ve got Channing Tatum lined up for a Gambit movie. So here’s what you do.
Temporarily mothball the large ensemble X-Men movies.
Right now Fox looks to have two hit solo X-Men character movies. Why not start putting more solo character movies into production and build up your X-Men roster before making another ensemble team movie? If Marvel has taught us anything, it’s the value of building your characters independently of one another before teaming them up to take on your potential world conquering villains. Deadpool proved that you don’t need to have a character in an ensemble movie before launching him into his own film.
Take your time, Fox. Get Deadpool 2 out, get that long gestating Gambit movie into production. Get a couple of more awesome X-Men their own solo movies or work some great characters into supporting roles like Cable with Deadpool 2. Stop ruining great character arcs by shoehorning them into ensemble movies killing the potential of the story. For example: the Angel/Archangel story arc that was painfully wedged into X-Men: Apocalypse with the gentleness of a nuclear powered jack hammer. The transformation of Warren Worthington III could have been the foundation for an entire movie, if placed in the hands of a filmmaker who could realize the potential of the story. Instead we get a truncated version of the story crammed into a movie with far too many characters and not nearly enough characterization.
Let’s get some more movies set in the X-Men universe without the massive ensembles. Give the audience a chance to get to the core of a character. Give us that Magneto movie we all wanted and add Quicksilver into the mix. Get X-Force off the ground and keep the core cast small. How about a Cyclops movie that actually does justice to the character? Does anyone really care about the next X-Men movie? Does the Dark Phoenix saga excite anyone? Was Sophie Turner’s portrayal of Jean Gray so absorbing that we’re all excited to see the next chapter of her compelling story? She was 11 minutes of a two-hour plus movie. Nope. It’s just another story on a list that needs to be checked off, which is exactly how it was portrayed in The Last Stand, and we know how that turned out.
The key to an interesting and entertaining X-Men cinematic universe is starting small. Movies that focus on the characters, THEN bringing them together for a big ensemble movie with a villain that matters. Marvel spent years setting up the concept of the Avengers, building up excitement with fans, and THEN unleashed the movie to standing ovations from fans and critics alike. Marvel has spent years setting up Thanos as a major villain BEFORE introducing him properly in Infinity War. Not The X-Men. Apocalypse gets one movie and barely a backstop and people are supposed to care.
If Fox wasn’t so hellbent on burning through the best X-Men stories, they could have themselves the foundation for some truly great movies. I’ve written about the problem with making every comic book movie based on an event comic, and that mindset absolutely encapsulates the issues with X-Men ensemble movies: there’s too much going on over too little a span of time. The Days of Future Past comic book arc had enough story and characterization for a trilogy of films. Instead, we get the cliff notes version in movie form.
There’s no reason Fox couldn’t make the tweaks needed to transform the X-Men Cinematic Universe from something average to something amazing. All it would take is an ounce of restraint and shifting the creative focus to the individual characters, not these densely packed ensemble monstrosities with too many characters and sacrificing the depth of the story. Give these stories time. Let them breathe. Smaller stories, fewer characters. Then, when the time is right, bring these characters together for a big team up movie.
Then, audiences might be excited for another X-Men movie.