X Marks the Spot: How the X-Men Cinematic Universe has grown stronger than Marvel and DC

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Originally posted in November 2017.

For fans of superhero blockbusters across the world, the announcement that Disney was in talks to buy out 21st Century Fox’s film divisions was met with immediate intrigue - could the Marvel heroes currently owned by the other studio behemoth now find their way into Marvel’s intricately designed cinematic universe? Although this would be good news for the creatively moribund Fantastic Four franchise, which has repeatedly proven dead on arrival in its big screen incarnations, this would be awful news for X-Men. In the past few years, the franchise has managed to revive itself from a couple of critically embarrassing entries (2006’s X Men: The Last Stand and 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine) to venture further in to an artistically interesting direction focussed more on stand-alone, genre-tinged efforts that stray as far from the designated stylistic formula you’d expect from a superhero blockbuster in the MCU age.

As Marvel Studios reap all the attention for their supposed experiments in different genres, all the while sticking very close to the same narrative and stylistic formulas, and Warner Bros. DC efforts gain attention for their comparative failures to emulate this same universe building technique, Fox’s X-Men franchise has quietly become the most interesting superhero saga of them all. Recent efforts have embraced post-modernism, challenging R-rated material and taken the forms of genres that comfortably sit outside the expected superhero spectrum. The X-Men standalone films have taken the form of gross out comedy, revisionist westerns and judging from the case of 2018’s The New Mutants, will soon be embracing full blown horror too.

Deadpool and Logan, the other stand-alone films referenced above, have both been major commercial and critical successes - and yet X-Men seems to be destined to live in the shadow of the outputs from the other two studios, despite their repeated experimentation with the standard form of blockbuster superhero storytelling (even if, in the case of Deadpool, those stories remain overly familiar when taken at face value). It’s not that these films didn’t receive critical plaudits. The obstacle they have faced is the wider rivalry between the MCU and the DCEU, which effectively makes the existence of the X-Men franchise slip away in to the background of the debate, instead of setting an example the other studios should follow in order to show how interesting, creative and highly entertaining superhero movies can be made without adhering to a tried and tested formula.

It’s taken a while for the tables to turn this way. In 2008, when Marvel’s first “Phase One” film Iron Man became an unexpected success, with a post-credits tease for The Avengers setting out the blueprints for an entire multi connected universe, it was uncertain how the films were going to be mapped out. Marvel wasn’t a single studio entity until this decade, without the safety net of the Disney behemoth to fall back on. Over at Warner Bros., Christopher Nolan’s Michael Mann inspired The Dark Knight became the first superhero movie to pass the $1 billion mark at the box office, with a heightened critical and commercial reception that quickly led to talks of possible nominations come awards season. Where was the X-Men franchise in 2008? Sandwiched in-between the release of Brett Ratner’s widely disliked The Last Stand, and in the process of making a film which would receive even less critical acclaim - Wolverine’s stand-alone origin story, to be released the following spring.

The release of X-Men Origins: Wolverine proved to be a pivotal point for the franchise, a film that became a pop-culture laughing stock so quickly, no option was left other than to build the X-Men saga from the ground up once again - and most importantly, get filmmakers who would take direct note of everything that was specifically wrong with this film in order to start the process. Hugh Jackman may have spent a decade playing the character of Wolverine at this point, but no director shared an intuitive understanding of what makes the character work so well on the page, and translating that essence to the big screen.

Although a well-loved character, due to Bryan Singer’s original two instalments, it wasn’t until director Matthew Vaughn got Jackman to make a cameo in his own X-Men origin story, 2011’s First Class, that the character felt accurately represented. In a matter of mere seconds, admittedly presented as a joke at Wolverine’s general grouchiness, we get a portrayal of Wolverine’s acidic reluctance to be part of any mutant team - a core character trait that would become an integral element to Logan six years later. It still remains open for debate whether Logan is a non-canonical story, due to the fascinating meta-textual suggestion that previous X-Men movies and comic books, in which the character has starred, have existed purely as entertainment in the world that film inhabits.

The presentation of the character in that film wouldn’t be as effective were we not introduced to this more sardonic incarnation in First Class, that stands out on the margins of a considerably lighter film tonally. Matthew Vaughn’s film effectively rejuvenated the franchise to its former glories - while very subtly, momentarily, setting the stage for something more powerful in the years to come. DC should in particular take note, as Vaughn’s re-introduction of Wolverine is how you effectively re-introduce new incarnations of pre-established characters, without the need for clumsy exposition, or fumbled origin stories.

It would take seven years after the release of X-Men Origins: Wolverine for the film’s other big mistake (in the eye of super fans, at least) to be corrected - and that is the characterisation of Deadpool. A bratty, fourth wall breaking anti hero known for his irreverent, un-PC quips, Deadpool was introduced to cinema-goers in 2009 with his mouth sealed shut, a creative decision that seems practically nonsensical in retrospect, albeit one of the few ways to make the character palpable in a a generic, family friendly superhero blockbuster. When Tim Miller’s Deadpool adaptation was released in 2016, the baggage carried from failed earlier attempts to integrate the character in to the cinematic franchise was turned in to a positive. If it wasn’t for the franchise’s earlier failures, the meta-commentary on the aborted earlier attempts at cinematic world building wouldn’t have been as successful.

Deadpool is a sharply divisive film for many; for some, it’s crass meta-textuality is mere window dressing covering up a recognisable origin story, while for others, the nihilistic glee of its violent, profane sensibility helps it stand as a stylistically unique film in a crowded playing field of caped crusader blockbusters. What should be undeniable is that the film is a creative risk that paid off enormously- and yet the idea of making films with similarly risky content is still a deterrent to both Marvel Studios and DC. Warner Bros. boldest decision, giving a recognisable auteur like Zack Snyder free creative reign over their tentpole superhero efforts, was met with critical disdain following Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, leading them to practically reshoot entire swathes of Suicide Squad in order to divert from the overwhelmingly “twisted” tone he’d set for the cinematic universe.

This was a badly thought out idea which led to an end product that somehow managed to receive an even sharper negative response due to their very obvious interference. DC are constantly producing films that seem risky due to their badly judged content, yet every single moment is overwhelmingly micro-managed. The one film that has escaped this fate so far is Wonder Woman, and that was largely because director Patty Jenkins stuck to the well-worn storytelling template popularised by Marvel, free of the tyranny of a studio too busy fretting over Suicide Squad reshoots to enforce their vision upon her film.

Over at the mouse house, Marvel’s second billion dollar grossing film, 2013’s Iron Man 3, was recognisably the product of director Shane Black. But despite critical acclaim and mass commercial appeal, the fan outcry after liberties he took with the villainess character of The Mandarin, played by Ben Kingsley, led Marvel to backtrack and not rely on auteur directors for their future efforts. Despite the credits for different directors on each project, everything on screen appears to be coming from the workmanlike creative palette of super producer Kevin Feige and nobody else. Despite being heralded as masters of risk taking, Marvel’s films all share the same anonymous style- even Joss Whedon’s Age of Ultron, a sequel to one of the highest grossing films of all time, was very noticeably taken out of his hands and transformed in to something uncharacteristic to his filmmaking approach.

Fox’s decision to follow Deadpool with another R-rated effort initially seemed like commercial opportunism similar to that of the other two studios - but Logan is a completely different beast to anything it had produced before, and one that works all the better because it factors in the many misguided previous attempts to portray the character previously. This is fed in to the narrative of James Mangold’s film as an important piece of context; upon finding X-Men comics amidst the stash of belongings of the young mutant he is reluctantly helping journey across country, he waxes lyrical about the difference between the stories inspired by him and the downbeat reality of his existence. This is another case of the franchise turning flaws in to a strength- in this story, the previous X-Men films become non canonical, existing only to show the disparate difference between Wolverine’s own existence, and that of the fantastical stories written about him.

2018's The New Mutants

This post modernism not only makes the franchise’s weaker efforts feel vital in retrospect, but is perfectly integrated in to a brooding revisionist western that just happens to star a superhero (as opposed to being a superhero movie)- a risky move that effectively paid off to critical and commercial success. The X-Men movies have now freed themselves from a stale formula and are willing to innovate and expand their universe across a series of different timelines that don’t feel compelled to intersect and create a tedious “cinematic universe”. In a world where superhero franchise offerings largely feel like feature length advertisements for the next instalment, this approach is refreshing to say the least.

The next move for the X-Men franchise is The New Mutants, an archetypal horror movie that seems a more commercially safe proposition than the two aforementioned efforts- albeit one that still feels like an alien concept when brought in to the world of superheroes. The X-Men movies are increasingly showing that creative ambition needn’t stand in the way of delivering audiences what they want from a superhero movie. And although Marvel are still rulers of the box office, their formula is getting increasingly stale- and looking over to the innovation of the new batch of X-Men movies might be the perfect next step for them to take.


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