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The Highs and Lows of the X-Men Movie Era

With the release of ‘Dark Phoenix’ (and the sale of 21st Century Fox to Disney), the end is nigh for a nearly 20-year-long superhero franchise that was defined by creative peaks and redundant valleys

20th Century Fox/Ringer illustration

While superheroes have been a blockbuster fixture for years now, we somehow still haven’t hit the downturn. The mind-boggling box office success of Avengers: Endgame—which could still surpass James Cameron’s Avatar to become the highest grossing film ever—hasn’t been treated like an aberration, but instead the natural endgame (sorry) of a cinematic-universe-obsessed era of filmmaking that began back in 2008 with Iron Man. Since then, Marvel and Disney have spent more than a decade building up the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an approach that has informed the way other franchises from DC Comics to the Godzilla-centric MonsterVerse have tried to build out their own worlds.

But lost amid all the MCU-related shuffling in Hollywood is the lucrative superhero franchise that preceded it: the X-Men. Since the first X-Men film (simply titled X-Men) made its debut in 2000, there have been 11 movies released—Dark Phoenix, out on Friday, will be the 12th. These films were successful before superhero movies were en vogue; they’ve catapulted then-anonymous actors into A-list movie stars; they’ve inspired spinoffs that have garnered legitimate Oscar buzz, or on the other hand total audience derision; they’ve survived reboots, prequels, quasi-prequel-reboots (I’ll explain), and ill-conceived narrative inconsistencies. Now, along with their parent production company, 21st Century Fox, the X-Men are joining the Disney family in a move that’s expected to wipe the current X-Men slate clean (sans Deadpool, who’s too profitable to kill), likely so that mutants can eventually be inserted into the next cinematic “phase” of the MCU.

It’s a strange time for the current X-Men to be put out to pasture. Dark Phoenix technically isn’t the last of Fox’s X-Men catalog either, assuming The New Mutants is ever released. (Reshoots are happening, and the film’s perpetually shifting release date is—for the time being—April 3.) But for a franchise that’s consistently released films since 2000—most of which, if not critically acclaimed, have made a great deal of money—the discourse around its impending death seems rather ambivalent. Not helping matters is the rollout for Dark Phoenix—a movie with little fanfare, as evinced by its early box office projections—and the fact this Jean Grey heel turn has already been adapted (quite poorly) for the big screen before.

Over the past 19 years, the greatness of the X-Men franchise has ebbed and flowed. Unfortunately, its conclusion may also be its nadir—X-Men Origins: Wolverine notwithstanding. But the X-Men’s recent struggles, perhaps elevated by how well the MCU has been doing by comparison, shouldn’t take away from the franchise’s enduring appeal. Like the mutants themselves, the best of the X-Men films were peculiar: They zigged while other franchises zagged, embraced different genres, and eschewed cinematic universe consistency in favor of ambitious and divergent storytelling. But perhaps most problematically, the highs and lows of the X-Men franchise, of which there are many, were often just variations of the same thing.

There’s nobody who came away a bigger winner from the original X-Men film than Hugh Jackman. An unknown actor at the time, Jackman wasn’t the studio’s nor director Bryan Singer’s top choice for the role. Russell Crowe, Dougray Scott, and Glenn Danzig all turned down the part, while Jackman was cast three weeks into shooting the film. Nineteen years later, it’s genuinely difficult to even consider what another actor might do with Wolverine. Jackman could make eight more musicals as successful as The Greatest Showman or Les Misérables, and he’ll always be more synonymous with those sideburns and adamantium claws. What Jackman provided to the role—a raw physicality competing with the character’s alienating disposition and unfailing pathos—made Wolverine a breakout star of the first film. It’s little wonder the 2003 sequel, X2, one of the franchise’s best installments, further centralized the character’s role in the story. And in turn, the X-Men franchise went the reverse-Marvel route: The original X-Men movies were already Avengers-lite films with all the mutants banding together against a common enemy, so only after those films did the spinoffs come.

Wolverine has been subjected to three spinoff movies, which have been emblematic of the X-Men franchise’s strengths and pitfalls. The first attempt in 2009 was easily the most abominable: Origins, which sloppily handled a derivative Wolverine backstory along with the haphazard introduction of Ryan Reynolds’s Wade Wilson (a.k.a. Deadpool), which perplexingly made the guy with a penchant for witty dialogue literally have his mouth sewn shut. In the post-credits scenes of Deadpool 2, Deadpool goes back in time and guns down his former self, in case you were wondering how Reynolds felt about the initial portrayal. (Would now be a bad time to remind you Game of Thrones coshowrunner David Benioff, who’s about to create some Star Wars movies, cowrote the script?)

The second Wolverine solo attempt in 2013, The Wolverine, was a marked improvement, with director James Mangold’s adapting an acclaimed limited series comic and sending the character to Japan. The Wolverine did two things right: It let Wolverine fight hordes of Yakuza, proving that katana-on-adamantium-claw combat looks exceptionally cool; it also provided some genuine stakes by making Wolverine vulnerable—the suspension of his usual regenerative powers added actual suspense in lieu of the kind of CGI-aided mayhem that’s meaningless when you know the hero is essentially indestructible.

The character’s mortality was also the focus of Mangold’s second Wolverine-centric effort, 2017’s Logan, the franchise’s R-rated, Oscar-nominated high mark, which put Wolverine on the road with an ailing Charles Xavier and a young mutant (played by exciting newcomer Dafne Keen) with Wolverine-esque powers as they made a mad dash to the Canadian border. Logan is effectively a Western, and one with a political message heightened by the anti-immigration agenda put forth by President Donald Trump’s administration. It’s also a very transparent swan song for Jackman, who’d played the character for more than a decade. He was the movie star dutifully committed to a superhero franchise even before Robert Downey Jr. and the Chrises. Seeing Wolverine achieve something he never thought possible—death—at the end of Logan was cathartic for a character who had lost nearly everyone in his life, but it was also meaningful for Jackman, as the franchise’s longest tenured star was finally, mercifully granted closure.

However, while the X-Men’s obsession with all things Wolverine may have been a huge (and much deserved) boon for Jackman’s career, it hindered the franchise’s progress with regard to the rest of the ensemble. It’s one thing to be drawn by the magnetism of a budding movie star; it’s another to go all in on one character and resort to making all of the other characters into broad archetypes. For as much as the X-Men franchise has succeeded by using mutants as allegories for concepts like bigotry, anti-LGBTQ sentiment, and puberty, it’s also been a saga that may rue all the roads not taken. Three Wolverine films, two attempts to tackle the Dark Phoenix saga, and two Deadpool films constitute more than half of the X-Men slate. Worse yet, the franchise often handled its two biggest characters by walking them around in wheelchair-accessible circles, instead of giving them new avenues to explore.

Longtime friends Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen were terrific as Professor X and Magneto, respectively, and the franchise’s earliest entries smartly leaned into their battle of wits and ideologies. (Their dynamic has been frequently compared to that of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.) Yet the films repeated a familiar pattern where their hot-and-cold friendship often suffused any pretensions of real narrative stakes. Imagine if, in Game of Thrones, Jaime and Tyrion Lannister simply kept drinking wine and having the same conversations across several seasons, with little in the way of any character development. Now sub in chess for wine-drinking—Professor X and Magneto have big brains!—and you’ve got the X-Men franchise. The emotional blueprint of Magneto, and whether he would revert to his violent, anti-homo sapien tendencies, was a compelling thread of the franchise, but the movies’ overreliance on it exemplified the limits of a decade-plus of rehashing familiar themes.

As a result of these narrative retreads—and with little to explore after The Last Stand—the X-Men franchise opted for a soft reboot with the 2011 prequel, X-Men: First Class. The film allowed James McAvoy (as Charles Xavier) and Michael Fassbender (Magneto) to assume the iconic roles at the height of America’s Cold War tensions with Russia during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. But while First Class has some breathtaking set pieces, and McAvoy and Fassbender deliver terrific performances, the narrative stasis of the Charles-Magneto friendship remained. Unveiling the origins of an epic bromance isn’t the kind of compromise fans looking for new material might’ve hoped for. First Class also unveiled Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, a casting with implications that became more and more fascinating as Lawrence’s stardom grew. A mutant who’s often relegated to secondary status, Mystique was quickly elevated and treated with unfounded gravitas, simply because an Oscar winner was hiding under all that blue makeup.

But First Class laid the groundwork for what, at least on paper, seemed inconceivable: a combination of the franchise’s past and future into a feature film with the broad, complicated scope of an Avengers movie. 2014’s Days of Future Past balanced the core cast of the original movies (Jackman, Stewart, McKellen, Halle Berry as Storm, Anna Paquin as Rogue) with the newcomers (Fassbender, McAvoy, Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult as Beast) in a convoluted time-travel plot to [deep breath] prevent the assassination of Richard Nixon, which would eventually incite a robot-induced apocalypse from Scientist Peter Dinklage. Fittingly, Jackman is the film’s anchor as the mutant sent back in time to prevent all of this from happening, and he handles a weighty, occasionally clunky script with ease. Everything about Days of Future Past—even its silly name!—sounds awful in theory, yet it works tremendously well if you don’t think about the plot specifics too hard.

But Days of Future Past was so effective as a prequel, sequel, and quasi-reboot—resetting the X-Men timeline and basically making it so that X-Men: The Last Stand never existed, which we all happily consented to—that it rendered any future plans in the franchise underwhelming. Beyond that, the timeline grew to be way too confusing. The film’s direct sequel, 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse, takes place in 1983, a full 10 years after Days of Future Past—and more than 20 years after First Class—and none of the characters looked like they’ve aged a day in two decades. Complicating matters even further, Dark Phoenix—where everyone still doesn’t look a day older—is set in 1992. To some degree, the DGAF attitude of the X-Men brain trust as it pertains to their timeline is admirable. But the (possibly lazy) approach embodies the worst aspects of a franchise that’s continued to spin its wheels, with little regard to narrative consistency, when it might be time to consider hitting the brakes.

While Dark Phoenix writer-director Simon Kinberg has insisted the film was always intended to be the “natural culmination” of this current X-Men saga, the Disney acquisition seems to have accelerated that process. No sooner are the X-Men reaching an anticlimactic end than fans are considering how they can be integrated into the next stage of the MCU. Indeed, an MCU with mutants doesn’t seem merely conceptual; for a company looking to dominate all your entertainment needs, it is, like Thanos, inevitable. Given Marvel’s recent track record, there’s nothing that suggests it won’t be able to successfully plug the X-Men into the MCU. Blasphemous as it may seem, at some point, someone other than Jackman is going to play Wolverine; they might even do a decent job at it. Marvel could yet crack the code of the Dark Phoenix saga, an acclaimed comics story line that will always be alluring as material for a big-screen adaptation.

Now the current iteration of the X-Men will end after nearly two decades of cinematic continuity. Even if it sometimes hit embarrassing low points, that run is an achievement in and of itself. For all the plaudits the MCU’s received, it’s been at it for only 11 years—and it’s also had its fair share of failures, lest we forget Edward Norton’s stand-alone Hulk, or Thor: The Dark World.

You know what you get with an MCU movie: quippy one-liners; cohesive, CGI-aided action; likable heroes; and a post-credits scene or two teasing what’s next in the Marvel pipeline. Auteur-driven projects like Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther have shown what the MCU formula looks like under the best conditions, but this company-mandated approach has prevented most of the films from attaining real greatness. On the other hand, the X-Men movies didn’t always work, often running their best elements into the ground. But as offshoot projects like Logan and the fourth-wall-breaking Deadpool demonstrated, that creative leeway yielded moments that represent high points for the genre. Through good and bad, the X-Men franchise was key to the evolution of the superhero films: a shining example of what could be achieved on the big screen, and a cautionary tale of the pitfalls that come with building a cinematic universe.