“I can’t stop thinking about the others out there, all those minds that I touched. I could feel them, their isolation, their hopes, their ambitions. I tell you we can start something incredible, Erik. We can help them.”
The X-Men film franchise is one of the most hopeful and naive stories we’ve seen from Hollywood this century, by turns a bugle and a blunder, equal parts bright-eyed and cynical. The above quote—which appears in 2011’s X-Men: First Class, the most stylish entry in the series—is uttered by James McAvoy’s Professor Charles Xavier, the idealistic leader of the group, to his longtime frenemesis Erik Lehnsherr, a.k.a. Magneto. It doubles as a mission statement for the movies it inspired and also a warning. An expansive franchise of this sort, what we’ve come to call a “universe”—a collection of related stories exploring a vast swath of characters and their convoluted mythologies—had really been attempted only once before, with Star Wars. And even that had an accidental kind of grandeur in the consciousness. After Return of the Jedi, the strategy lay dormant for more than a decade. In 1999, George Lucas returned, radically shifting the way fandom operates, becoming more like a vector that dictates how and which movies would be made. One year later, X-Men debuted, a mutated strand of intellectual property that lifted many of Lucas’s tactics while utilizing pre-existing material to lighten the burden of creation. It was quietly radical. The X-Men saga essentially concludes with this week’s release of Dark Phoenix, the second attempt at telling one of Marvel’s most beloved stories. What it leaves behind is a blueprint and a cautionary tale.
X-Men didn’t invent serialized storytelling, or franchise entertainment. There had been the Alien series and Indiana Jones; James Bond and Jack Ryan; Star Trek, Back to the Future, and Friday the 13th; the Man with No Name and the Terminator; Hope and Crosby, Norman Bates, and Rocky Balboa. But a team-oriented story, with epic scope, allegorical structure, and ever-renewable source material had not appeared before. Now, they dominate movies. The DCEU. Godzilla and his monster friends. Twilight. Jurassic Park. The Hunger Games. Despicable Me. Night at the Museum! The goal with these films is total vertically integrated entertainment, a night at the movies that might soon become a lifelong addiction. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Ocean’s Eleven all appeared one year after X-Men. And with them came the dawning of the age of the team-up—movies as mega-conferences, aperitifs for theme parks and streaming platforms, a jetstream of content traveling across generations.
Today, there is no movie industry without movies like X-Men, its 11 subsequent sequels and spinoffs, and all their mutant babies. There are no frenzied news alerts about presale records being shattered. No tearful fanboys bragging about seeing a movie 100 times. And there are certainly no “phases.” Bryan Singer’s film invented something that felt inevitable at the time and feels irrevocable now, a story that actualized the hopes of generations of comic book fans and elevated the expectations of studio executives—and their corporate parents—attempting to wring every last dollar from those fans. Before it hit screens, the X-Men’s legacy preceded it. Was Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s comic creation a metaphor for the othered cast out from society? Yes. Was it a rambunctious coming-of-age story? Yes. Was it a portrait of civil disobedience measured against violent struggle? Yes. But could it also be a cool action movie featuring a dude with retractable metal claws? Hell yes. The only thing it wasn’t was a sure thing.
It’s hard to overstate the impact that X-Men movies had on the landscape of studio-backed moviemaking. Comic books were not the lingua franca of big-ticket movie-going. They weren’t even a talking point. The first X-Men movie arrived 11 years removed from Tim Burton’s goth-arch Batman and 22 years after Richard Donner’s swashbuckling Superman. (Donner’s wife, Lauren Shuler Donner, is the longtime producer overseeing the X-Men franchise.) Before X-Men, there had been just five Marvel Comics adaptations ever, among them a pulpy and misbegotten Punisher movie starring Dolph Lundgren, Lucas’s confounding Howard the Duck, and 1998’s underrated but singular Blade. Comic books were junky nerd ephemera, relegated to dingy shops and Saturday-morning TV. This was their cultural identity:
I wouldn’t say that X-Men rehabilitated that image, exactly, but it certainly made it safe for Golden Globe winner Halle Berry, Oscar nominee Ian McKellen, and the director of the Oscar-winning The Usual Suspects to cash checks from the enterprise. In The New Yorker, David Denby called the first film “the most beautiful, strange, and exciting comic-book movie since the original Batman.” X-Men was flawed but oddly inspiring. It proved a generation right: these stories deserved to be on screen, to be mainstream. Their fans were emboldened overnight, spoiled with a told you so call to arms. The seeds of toxic fan culture were planted here. Within a matter of weeks, comic book movies became the emergent trend in genre filmmaking. The entire culture started to shift. Just six months after X-Men’s release, M. Night Shyamalan followed up The Sixth Sense with Unbreakable, a postmodern comic book origin story. Filming for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man began two months after that, during the second week of 2001. Daredevil, Hulk, and Batman Begins weren’t far behind. The rest, as they say, is days of future past.
Two decades and $6 billion at the global box office later, the X-Men franchise, under Fox’s aegis, closes with its most derided installment yet. Dark Phoenix is a serious misfire, betraying the series’ unique hybrid of stylized issues drama, zippy buddy movie, and green-screened fan service in favor of a dour, baleful adaptation of Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s epochal 1980 saga. Dark Phoenix, which was written and helmed by Fox’s faithful producer-overseer Simon Kinberg in his directorial debut, has received terrible reviews. It’s an oddly bland sendoff to such a significant pop culture artifact. With Disney’s $71 billion acquisition of Fox earlier this year, it has become all but certain that the X-Men (and the Fantastic Four and Deadpool and Silver Surfer and Kang the Conqueror, etc.) will be integrated into the MCU. It’s a curious moment for convergence. A team-up for Team Team-up.
Avengers: Endgame is likely just days away from becoming the all-time global box office champion, the pinnacle of Marvel’s rise to dominance. It was not so long ago when X-Men felt like the indomitable machine. But Fox’s films failed to spin off enough characters and were routinely careless with prismatic details like timelines, origins, and general coherence. Singer has become a radioactive figure in Hollywood, taken down by accounts of sexual misconduct and assault. First Class’s gifted director, Matthew Vaughn, largely credited with saving the X-Men in 2011, abandoned the franchise to create his own series, Kingsman, which will see its third film released next year. The movies in the X-Men series are a grab bag, toggling from delightful to disastrous almost at random. Across two decades, there was never a streamlined plan for the movies—they came when somebody could wrangle the creative participants and the corporate forces. They operated from an inside-out strategy—starting with that fabled team and breaking down into component parts like Wolverine, who had three movies of his own, including 2017’s Logan, a contender for the best comic book film ever made. Though X-Men movies are always financially successful, they have been weakened over the past few years, unable to adapt to the template set by a stronger, more balanced team.
The MCU has worked to individuate its characters in their own films before bringing them together for grand team-ups. It’s been fascinating to watch Marvel absorb virtually every lesson from the X-Men era and reverse-engineer it. The prospect of a Black Panther or Captain Marvel was inconceivable in 2000. In 20 years, Fox couldn’t even get a Gambit movie off the ground, and that Cajun card-thrower has long held the kind of fan-favorite distinction once thought essential to a spinoff. The biggest X-Men movies that Fox made starred Deadpool, an ancillary figure in the comics with a self-referential, fourth-wall-busting style. He’s a side player. But these single-serving stories with sequential possibilities are the vanguard, far more in vogue than something as turgid and self-serious as Dark Phoenix.
Like the Dark Phoenix, X-Men movies have to die, victims of a mega-collison that they helped propagate in the first place. The planet-devourer has been consumed by an even greater Galactus, leaving stray IP entrails in its wake. It’s impossible to know how these films will be remembered. Revisiting them, I was surprised by how I was able to appreciate what is considered to be dreck (X-Men: The Last Stand) and how bored I was by some of the classics (X2: X-Men United). Innovations become conventions and overworked failures become unsung underdogs. The X-Men helped bring that in, too. Along with the onslaught of franchise management came a kind of narrative quality control. Individual Marvel movies can withstand middling reviews and modest reception because of their flawless, pitiless design. They simply do not fail, not so much too big but too broad. Something like Captain Marvel has been designed to fit so cleanly into the MCU’s superstructure that skipping it is not optional to those who consider themselves real fans. It’s become commonplace to compare the storytelling strategies employed by Marvel, Star Wars, et al. to the tendencies pervasive in TV—cliffhangers, teases, and unresolved conflicts powering these plots forevermore. But TV shows end. Difficult as it may be to believe, the MCU will fall one day, too. All kings do. In its place, another franchise, maybe. If we remember X-Men, it’ll be for what it started—something incredible—and for what it finished.