In praise of the X-Men franchise's Weirdo Renaissance, which is probably over now
The X-Men franchise is the oldest ongoing superhero film series. How old? It ran out of gas before Marvel had a Cinematic Universe, before DC even tried to overextend itself. Actually, you could argue that 20th Century Fox’s X-Men series is the oldest continuous film franchise in Hollywood now. Since 2000, there’s been a new X film at least every three years, no decade-long drydocking like Star Wars or Toy Story, eight full Harry Potter films rising and falling as Hugh Jackman kept up his patient bicep regimen. And at the start of this decade, the X-Men franchise was, no question, in decline.
This is not the situation today. With the just-announced sale of 21st Century Fox to Disney, the X-Men franchise is now corporate sibling to the ongoing kabillion-dollar Avengers-verse. Even before the merger, Fox’s offbrand mutant series — a remnant of a distant time when Marvel Comics was money-desperate enough to sell film rights all around town — was in a state of expansion. If you include spinoffs, it was maybe healthier than ever, big box office, some Oscar talk. (There are three X-family movies planned for next year.)
And the money was still there even when the decade started, to be clear. X-Men: The Last Stand grossed $234 million in 2006, which still makes it the highest grossing mainline X film at the domestic box office. It’s terrible, not even the good kind of Brett Ratner junk, but it’s a by-default delight next to 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a movie so bad that every X-Men film of our ensuing decade has found a way to throw it under the bus. The film — known to history as Wolverine Origins because nobody can ever remember the real title – made just enough money to demand further films and not enough money to make the way forward clear.
It’s at this point that Bryan Singer, director of the original X-Men, returned from self-imposed Jack the Giant Slayering exile to produce a prequel. But I hesitate to attribute the ensuing renaissance to any one person, and I hesitate to call X-Men: First Class a prequel. Directed by Matthew Vaughn, First Class grabbed one central defining idea from the comics – Magneto and Professor X were friends! – and then cherrypicked only the least coherent ideas about what the first X-Men trilogy was. Mystique! Some teleporting guy! Errr, concentration camps? Brain stuff!
It felt out of step with the times. Circa summer 2011, the MCU was world-building toward Avengers, and a nation of Dark Knight heads yearned for Christopher Nolan’s final Batman statement. I didn’t know how much I loved First Class until the second time I watched it. Vaughn infuses the material with style and swagger. He caught Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy at pivotal moments, the former Shame-adjacent and freaky and sexy, the latter radiating hip-young-college-professor nerd-charisma. (Jennifer Lawrence was there, too, beginning her weird shadow career as the most important character and least-interested performer in the franchise.) And put Kevin Bacon next to Kurt Russell and Michelle Pfeiffer on the list of Actors Who Actually Look Like They’re Having Fun Playing Supervillains.
First Class grabbed onto a low-key visual concept bubbling through the first X-Men trilogy: The idea of rooting these movies in something profoundly American-historic, a super-duel on top of the Statue of Liberty, an assault on the Oval Office, Mystique as a phony Senator, Manchurian Candidate-ing pro-Mutant Rights propaganda through Congress. Vaughn’s movie staples the Cuban Missile Crisis into X-Men lore. Then Singer himself returned to direct Days of Future Past, a fever-dream hallucination of the ’70s. Track this if you can: Days of Future Past is about breaking John F. Kennedy’s assassin out of prison, because that assassin wasn’t actually guilty, because he was trying to save Kennedy, because Kennedy was a mutant. By the end of the film, that assassin has used his magneto powers to lift a stadium named for another assassinated Kennedy and crash it down around the 1973 White House. Witness the Kennedy era, come home to roost on Nixon’s lawn.
Days of Future Past gets talked about more for the clever way it throws the franchise’s own continuity to the wind, hand-waving all questions about “What really happened?” with a timeline reboot that suggests the future and the past are a mystery. But it deserves more credit for its hysterical American-mythological revisionism. By the time you get to the utterly chaotic Apocalypse, Singer seems less interested in the coherent acts of storytelling and character-building than in wordless sequences of comic book horror. Magneto destroying Auschwitz, Apocalypse sending the world’s nuclear arsenal skyward, the opening Ancient Astronauts of Egypt prologue, the four-minute Poland In Soviet Times melodrama that ends with a Nazi coin as a weapon of mass murder — and yes, also, Apocalypse dressed all his followers up like Roman Centurion club kids, like a whole totalitarian aesthetic made out of Bat Nipples.
Apocalypse feels like Bryan Singer’s final statement on this franchise (to say nothing of other recent headlines about the filmmaker). All involved with next year’s Dark Phoenix have a clear angle on its perceived faults. Screenwriter Simon Kinberg told my colleague, international X-Men expert Tim Stack, that “it became about global destruction and visual effects over emotion and character.” True, but. The Marvel and DC films can only ever approach this kind of material obliquely, re-enacting symbolic notions of 9/11 urban calamity, putting forth superheroes as the cause and solution to all life’s problems. The sheer slipstream goofiness of the prequelized X-films let them get away with so much more. Pause with wonder to remember Magneto’s Apocalypse-refracted semi-destruction of New York City. This is the movie’s own re-enactment of the literal NYC destruction of Avengers and the figurative NYC destroyed throughout Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel – and it is, like, a visual-cutaway E-plot, treated with less plot importance than Psylocke’s fourth frontflip.
These mainline X-films carried water for Fox’s concept of their mutant IP, reforming a decade-old franchise around very trendy post-Avengers ideas of a linked universe. The real marvel of this period, though, was how simultaneously willing Fox was to toss out any ideas of continuity. It helped, initially, that “continuity” in the X-films could just be The Presence of Hugh Jackman, and that Jackman himself can radiate a few distinct modes of superheroism. In the superteam films, he’s a gruff charmer, his general confusion about the larger mythology still after all these years suggesting a shoeless John McClane wandering into the throne room of the Death Star. But in two movies made in collaboration with director James Mangold, Jackman was something much, much more.
Some people don’t like 2013’s The Wolverine. Everyone loves this year’s Logan. Both movies proceed from a similar throat-clearing plot foundation – all Wolverine’s friends are dead, dying, or long gone. From there they carry the character far away from any recognizable superheroic scenario, into new locations and settings, into a realm that I can only firmly describe as What Movies Used To Be. In The Wolverine, Logan’s a piece of human wreckage living out in the country. He goes to Japan the way Nicolas Cage goes to Nevada in Leaving Las Vegas: He’s got nowhere left, and he kinda wants to die. In Logan, Wolverine’s a piece of human wreckage driving Uber through a depressed America. He goes on a road trip the way Clive Owen goes on a road trip in Children of Men: He’s got nothing left except a promise to a dying friend.
Both films draw from major comic book story arcs, and both films do an impressive job of translating the best elements while putting their own stamp on the material. Logan has been simultaneously credited for its profound ultraviolence and its Patrick-Stewart-talking-about-Shane sensitivity. I’m not sure those two tonalities mesh the way the movie wants them too, but no other blockbuster deep-franchise movie besides Fury Road has even tried to needle those threads. I love The Wolverine more just because it’s a little more romantic and a little less encumbered with Ending Gravitas (and there’s no Wolverine clone, either). You have to credit Jackman for being so willing to make a marvelous melancholy mess of his most blockbuster-y character, and credit Mangold for caring about superhero stuff as little as Peter Jackson used to care about magic.
Credit Fox, too. It feels like, a couple years ago, someone at the studio looked at the 10-film plans of Marvel and DC, threw up their hands like the emoticon man, and said, “Screw it, let’s just do Deadpool.” The Ryan Reynolds in-universe spoof was an afterthought – greenlit only after leaked test footage, allowed only the most proudly runty X-characters – and it looks now like the most transformative super-film since Avengers, maybe even since The Dark Knight.
Its R-rated success launched the most obvious Deadpool effect, opening the door to Logan‘s bloodstabs and a new R-rated Predator and Tom Hardy’s maybe-brain-eating Venom and whatever Quentin Tarantino wants to do with Star Trek. But its real virtue is larger, albeit more abstract. Anytime a filmmaker wants to sell a studio – or a studio wants to sell an audience – on material that’s even a little less Age of Ultrony in its fealty to stylistic continuity, they can point to Deadpool as a handy signifier. Patrick Stewart or James McAvoy? Who cares? Is this material a little (whispers) transgressive? Didn’t the highest-grossing X-Men movie ever feature an endearingly throwaway scene about strap-on sex play?
I don’t even like Deadpool very much, and I’m yet I’m more glad every day that it happened. Especially today, when I have to ponder: Would Disney have made Deadpool? I’m not wondering whether they’ll make more Deadpool. A sequel’s already coming up next year, and even if it disappoints, the rails are set for another film or two. And Disney does have a corporate history of shell-company R ratings: Its Touchstone subsidiary produced Pretty Woman, Con Air, and Rushmore, and if there is a center of that particular Venn diagram it’s probably Deadpool.
But if Disney owned the X-Men a few years ago, would they have ever made Deadpool? An R-rated offshoot of a storied superhero franchise, with sexual activity going a little bit beyond what Malaysia didn’t like about Beauty and the Beast? Doubt it. Doubt Logan, too. Doubt even The Wolverine, which was just PG-13 but was such a running melancholy bummer (Logan’s bear friend gets killed!) that even savvy Feige-types would’ve helplessly zhuzhed up, like maybe Logan calls up his old pal Channing Tatum’s Gambit when he’s on the run.
People are excited about this Disney purchase because they want to see the X-Men and the Avengers together, and also because someone somewhere still has the dream of a good Fantastic Four movie. Elevator Pitch In Everyone’s Head: the teams fight, Phase Four Complete; the teams unite, Phase Five Complete! (Next-level elevator pitch: Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man meet because Doctor Doom uses the Time Gem to forge an alliance with two Magnetos and all three Strykers.)
Never judge a cinematic universe before its Big Bang, but all this continuity strikes me as enervating, a way to cut off what was just making the X-Men series so different. Just this year, Fox allowed trendy cabler FX to hand Fargo weirdo Noah Hawley the C-level-iest X-Men character. The result was Legion, the first non-animated superhero show to aim for the wild psychedelia of ’70s comic books. Presumably, Disney won’t suddenly mandate that FX stop producing glorious Ryan Murphy vulgarity, but would it so freely offer up the Marvel logo? Hell, even Fox’s vanilla-flavored The Gifted is aiming for something weirder with its angle on superheroism, a refugee-era anti-government parable that feels rooted in something much deeper and stranger than Oh Yeah That Sokovia Thing Happened.
Next year will bring Josh Boone’s The New Mutants, the trailer for which looks like a vaguely J-horror-ish teen panic thriller. Again, don’t want to say that Disney has never done anything like this, because 37 years ago they made The Watcher in the Woods, which would already feel like a time-tossed Ryan Murphy joint even minus the presence of Bette Davis. But the studio’s genre permutations are light, and trend more towards a very PG-13 idea of “maturity” than toward the genuine strangeness that permeates the X-Men‘s Weirdossance.
Next year’s Dark Phoenix is already deep in its own process, promises to adapt one of the great cosmic tales of Marvel Comics history. The MCU itself has been trending through its cosmic phase, offering just this year far-out space planets living and trash-heaped. It’s possible that Disney will seek to incorporate the two – pause to imagine poor Marvel Earth assaulted by Jean Grey and Thanos in the same calendar year – and it’s possible that Disney is just running out the clock to see if the X-Men superteam is back in a post-Wolverine Origins valley, a prime time for a 2020 reboot with Dafne Keen as She-Wolverine alongside Mahershala Ali’s Professor X.
Currently up in the air: That James Franco Multiple Man movie. A lot of people scratched their heads when it was reported the Disaster Artist auteur and Spring Break Forever-er was in talks to star in an X-spinoff, because even the good stuff Franco does is weird and Multiple Man is at best the 17th most interesting X-Men character. But dammit! I want to scream, This is the goddamn point! At a time when Warner Bros was ginning up its demi-god icons and Marvel was filtering even weirdoes like Ant-Man and Dr. Strange through its mandatory Origin Engine – loves his daughter, has a good heart – Fox was letting its own superhero franchise run wild. Stuff your fancy heroes, I prefer the mutations.