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'Gambit,' X-Men, and the future(s) of superhero cinema

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X Men
Marvel

X-Men: Days of Future Past wasn’t just a success. It was a resurrection, or maybe an exorcism. In the decade after X2, Fox had produced four movies about Marvel’s mutants. Two of the movies were terrible but popular; two of the movies were very good but financially disappointing. None of the latter X films had produced anything like The Dark Knight or The Avengers or even The Amazing Spider-Man—movies that defined the zeitgeist, movies that made mega-blockbuster money. Before 2014, no X-Men movie had ever broken the $500 million mark. This doesn’t seem like it should matter, but boy does it matter.

So Days of Future Past became one of those fascinating movies that feels like it is secretly about its own creation. Fox wanted to reboot the X-Men franchise back to its glory days, to change its sad past into a brighter future. So Professor X sent Wolverine back to the ’70s to erase The Last Stand from existence. It worked. Future Past grossed almost $750 million globally: Not quite Avengers money, but enough to trump Captain America 2. The movie was a wild and rollicking mess of subplots and glorified cameos, but it was also colorful and jampacked. It made a serious argument for James McAvoy as a leading man, and it could lay claim to the buzziest action scene of the summer. (Quicksilver!)

All the X-Men movies are messy—and so fun to talk about!—but Future Past also reflected a new, sober-minded approach to franchise-building. Fox wants their own Marvel, because everyone wants their own Marvel. So Future Past was simultaneously a series finale and a pilot episode: “Look how fun these X-Men movies are! Don’t you want to see more of them?”

We will. On Tuesday, Fox made a quiet announcement that will go down in history, for better or worse: The Channing Tatum-fronted Gambit will open in October 2016. Gambit will be the third X-Men film of 2016: Ryan Reynolds’ long-in-the-works Deadpool will supposedly arrive next February, while Bryan Singer has already cast Oscar Isaac as the Big Bad in next May’s X-Men: Apocalypse.

There are asterisks, but it’s essentially unprecedented to release three movies from one franchise in a single year. Both Matrix sequels hit theaters in 2003, before slinking away into oblivion. Studios have been trending towards aggressive annual release schedules—Twilight and The Hunger Games and Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth films—and horror franchises have never been shy about racing sequels into theaters as soon as possible.

After a phase of twice-yearly releases, Marvel Studios was building up to its first threepeat year in 2017 with Guardians of the Galaxy 2Thor 3, and Black Panther 1. Did Fox just steal their thunder out of spite—kind of like when Bryan Singer decided that, if Avengers was going to have Quicksilver, then he wanted Quicksilver, too?

I guess it’s important to note that X-Men isn’t necessarily a “franchise” the way that Hunger Games is a franchise. Every Hunger Games movie is about Katniss Everdeen. But Deadpool and Apocalypse and Gambit (probably) aren’t going to tell one ongoing story, and it’s entirely possible that the only overlap will be cameos by Tatum and Reynolds in Apocalypse.

Still, this feels like a revolutionary moment for the era of mega-franchises, and for the whole superhero-movie phenomenon. In the last half-decade, Fox has averaged around 16 major feature film productions per year; the company has about 20 scheduled for 2015. Let’s assume they split the difference and release 18 feature films in 2015. That means one-sixth of the creative output of one of the world’s largest movie studios will be set in the same fictional universe, based on intellectual property derived from the same Marvel comic book. Throw in the fact that a third Wolverine solo film is scheduled for March 2017, and that’s four X-Men movies in thirteen months.

Who saw this coming? Lauren Shuler Donner, that’s who. Four years ago, the longtime X producer claimed that there were a host of different X-films in development—specifically, a Deadpool movie and direct sequels to First Class and The Last Stand. At the time, her ambitions seemed unlikely. Then Avengers happened, and suddenly Fox wanted its own superteam megafranchise with spinoff potential.

That’s the cynical read on 2016’s mutant pileup: Fox has a golden goose, and now it’s trying to strangle out as many golden eggs as possible. It’s worth remembering that all this has happened before: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine were craven spinoff factories, built out of the spare parts of a dozen failed franchise launches. (Juno as Shadowcat! Tim Riggins as Gambit!) There’s a big question underlying our whole era of bold superhero-movie announcements: When does this gravy train hit the final stop? When do people get bored of superheroes? If you’re the type to assume the answer is “soon,” then “Three X-Men Movies In One Year” looks a lot like a tipping point.

The less cynical read: 2016 is the year that the whole idea of the movie franchise evolves into an exciting new direction. Deadpool is a genuine passion project for everyone involved: Director Tim Miller, writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, and even/especially Reynolds, who appears to be game to do whatever Green Lantern wasn’t. Deadpool is, by all accounts, a different kind of X-movie—maybe not the R-rated action comedy we were promised, but certainly not the bloated hero spectacle we’ve grown accustomed to.

X-Men: Apocalypse looks like another Future Past megamovie, but early word is that it brings the tale of the First Class X-Men to some kind of close—a final reckoning for Fassbender’s Magneto and McAvoy’s Professor X, a way for Jennifer Lawrence to say farewell to the part of her career where she was contractually obligated to wear blue body paint. Gambit isn’t necessarily anything just yet—the script’s still being written—but it’s impossible not to find Tatum’s enthusiasm for the character endearing.

Tatum’s participation in Gambit feels quietly historic, too. Here’s a movie star cusping on megastardom. He has a franchise half built on his charm (21 Jump Street), he’s filming movies with Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers, he’s making another movie based on that time he was a male stripper—and the cinematographer on that movie is Film Demi-God Steven Soderbergh.

I guess you could cynically point out that Tatum could use another drop-in-the-bucket franchise. It must be annoying to star in White House Down—a totally decent action movie wherein Tatum delivered a solid, golden-age-Bruce-Willis-esque performance—and watch that movie fail because Gerard Butler got there first. And it must be annoying to star in a legitimately wacko original film from a pair of out-there filmmakers, then watch Jupiter Ascending get pushed into the February dumping ground.

So why not join up with a popular franchise as a popular character? (Haters gonna hate; Gambit is awesome.) Why not spend the next couple of Julys going to Comic-Con, walking onstage at Hall H while thousands cheer your name, becoming a trending topic every time you get your picture taken holding a deck of playing cards?

But let’s give Gambit the benefit of the doubt. The only true solo spinoff that X-Men has produced so far is The Wolverine. (X-Men Origins: Wolverine was a backdoor X-Men movie starring the worst superteam ever; hello, Will.i.Am!) And The Wolverine was radically different from any other superhero movie: a complete story unto itself, with a distinct setting and a worthwhile supporting cast. A movie where nobody ever once said “X-Men.” It really did feel like a groovy little comic book miniseries—whereas most superhero movies lately feel like fattened multi-issue crossovers.

Is that what Fox is building to? Are Deadpool and Gambit true standalone movies, with their own distinct styles? (Phrased another way: Would Fox ever hire Edgar Wright?) Or is this just a cash-grab, a craven attempt by Fox to try and beat Marvel Studios at its own game?

The X-Men mythology is rife with dark timelines and horrifying alternate realities. Let’s assume there are two distinct futures for the superhero genre. This is all pure conjecture… for now.

The Dark Sentinel Dystopian Apocalyptic Future

2016 is the year of superhero critical mass. Three X-Men movies, two superhero-vs-superhero megamovies, two “evil superteam” anti-superhero movies, and whatever Doctor Strange will be: It’s just too much for a superpower-saturated market. At least one of those films is a Green Lantern-level flop; several others underperform.

The studios respond with a release date scramble. Some studios quietly cut off future expansion plans (goodbye, Aquaman! Farewell, female Spider-Man Character Spinoff!) while other studios ramp up production of further spinoffs in what amounts to a globo-corporate kamikaze run (they didn’t like Deadpool, but by gum they’ll love X-Force!) Hat in hand, Fox and Sony hand X-Men and Spider-Man back to Marvel Studios; sensing the apocalypse, Marvel doubles down on the Vs. model, producing a wave of team-up mashes (Spider-Man & Black PantherCaptain Marvel vs. Fantastic Four). Meanwhile, the runaway success of Now You See Me: The Second Act leads Time Magazine to ask: “Are Magicians the New Superheroes?”

Warner Bros. begins lengthy negotiations with Christian Bale to return as Batman in The Dark Knight Returns—negotiations which are stymied by Bale’s repeated assertion that he wants, quote, “some of that Downey Jr. money,” end quote. Actors flee their respective declining franchises once their contracts are up; by 2023’s Avengers Forever, the “Avengers” are Josh Hutcherson as the Black Knight, Elle Fanning as Sersi, one of those dudes from The 100 as Wonder Man, and Jeremy Renner as “Uncle Hawkeye.” Future historians mark the final moment of the early ’00s superhero-movie boom as 2028’s Avengers X Justice League: Days of Past Future, which becomes infamous for a “final showdown” scene featuring a three-way arm-wrestle between Henry Cavill as Superman, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, and Liam Hemsworth as the replacement Thor.

The Bright Happy Jean-Grey-Is-Still-Alive Future

 2016 is the year the superhero movie finally grows up. The R-rated Deadpool creates a new market for adult-themed superhero films; after the film’s success, Suicide Squad‘s David Ayer hastily films new scenes where Will Smith says “f—” and Tom Hardy tears off a human head with his bare hands. Emboldened by the new vogue for “maturity,” Hugh Jackman demands rewrites on Wolverine 3, transforming the film into a neo-noir environmentalist detective story, sort of like Chinatown with claws.

On the lighter side, Oscar Isaac’s Apocalypse is acclaimed as the greatest onscreen supervillain since The Dark Knight. Gambit is praised for cutting down on digital effects—something that director Gareth Evans (The Raid) insisted on before signing onto the project. Just one month later, Doctor Strange is praised for its digital effects, eschewing typical action scenes in favor of surreal detours into mystical dimensions. (Benedict Cumberbatch explains to Jimmy Fallon that the film’s aesthetic was influenced by Hieronymus Bosch; #Hieronymus is the number one trending topic on Twitter for an astonishing 90 minutes.)

The back half of the decade sees the a new flowering of experimental superhero films. Kathryn Bigelow’s Silver Sable reimagines the mercenary as a Blackwater-esque war profiteer; Guillermo Del Toro’s Metamorpho is credited with a new boom in chemistry postgraduate degrees; Terrence Malick’s Silver Surfer is widely praised as “confounding.”

At the 2023 Academy Awards, Jeremy Renner wins Best Actor for the role of “Hawkeye” and Emma Stone wins Best Actress for the role of “Hawkeye” in Wes Anderson’s Hawkeye. Accepting the Academy Award for Best Original Song, David Byrne dedicates the folk-synth theme “Hawk’s Eye (Arrow In My Heart)” to his father. (Anderson wins Best Director, but Hawkeye loses Best Picture to Lena Dunham’s Black Canary.)

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