Comics on Film: What's Going On With the X-Men?

Comics on Film: What's Going On With the X-Men?

Aug 19, 2016

As arguably the blockbuster franchise that catalyzed Hollywood's current love affair with comics-based cinema, the X-Men franchise at 20th Century Fox also has the distinction of being, well, the weirdest.

Unlike the current offerings from Marvel Studios which have by and large been very positively received, and even unlike the films of the DC Extended Universe which have been consistently polarizing, the X-Men film franchise has fluctuated from the god-awful to the absolutely stellar, without a whole lot of consistency. With nine movies having been released thus far from six different directors, it's a little surprising that Fox didn't, at some point, simply decide to reboot the series at the first sign of trouble, just as Sony did with Spider-Man in the lead up to that franchise's 2012 film.

Instead, we've been observing a rather outrageous and somewhat messy evolution of the entire series, which has changed substantially since we first saw Wolverine's middle adamantium claw slowly extend to the throat of a mutant-hater in a Canadian dive bar.

In the Beginning (2000-2009)

When director Bryan Singer first burst onto the scene with the original X-Men film, it was something of a revelation. While the story is arguably one of the least memorable parts of the movie overall, it didn't really matter too much. It was perfectly serviceable and certainly not "bad," but the thing that continually makes X-Men a resonant watching experience is the cast. Patrick Stewart's already immense "geek cred" due to his involvement with Star Trek: The Next Generation was enhanced exponentially by becoming what many fans believe to be the definitive embodiment of Professor Charles Xavier. A similarly revered and well-trained performer, Ian McKellen brought gravitas and scale to the entire proceeding in his portrayal as infamous X-Men nemesis Magneto. And, of course, Hugh Jackman became a superstar virtually overnight with his truthful, emotional, and memorable performance as the most popular X-Man of them all, Wolverine.

A sequel was a foregone conclusion, and Singer returned with his stellar cast in the even more highly-acclaimed X2: X-Men United. Unlike the first film, the story in this installment certainly was memorable, emphasizing the alienation felt by mutants who inhabit a world that hates and fears them. With a memorable narrative and a still awesome depiction of Wolverine's famous "berserker rage" inside the X-Mansion, X2 was the more acclaimed follow-up to a pair of very solid films that kicked off the age of the superhero movie in style. But then...something happened.

Lured to Warner Bros. by the promise of rekindling the world's most iconic superhero, 20th Century Fox still definitely wanted to pursue a third outing to follow the two very solid first X-Men films to keep the series' box office momentum going. After a scramble to find a new director, Fox eventually chose Brett Ratner of Rush Hour fame to bring the third film into focus. Screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn attempted to create a story that melded both the classic Dark Phoenix Saga focusing on the exponentially increasing power of Jean Grey and the much more recent "Gifted" arc by writer Joss Whedon and artist John Cassaday in the ongoing Astonishing X-Men comic book series. Unfortunately for all involved, X-Men: The Last Stand was a definite critical dud, depowering a sizable amount of the series' mutant characters and even killing classic team members.

Still, the third film was a monumental financial success, but left the series in a pretty significant amount of disarray from the perspective of the characters and the series' continuity. A new film featuring the full cast was discussed, but never materialized. The only place a new film could really go in the timeline was backward, and if 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine was any indication, even that wouldn't work out particularly well.

The New Now (2011-2016)

Without a particularly reasonable way to move forward, 20th Century Fox elected to remain in the past, but this time go back even further. Picking up on the name of a recent comic book series but without being called a "reboot" -- at least in the classic sense -- by the studio or the filmmakers, producer Bryan Singer and director Matthew Vaughn introduced a new, younger cast in June 2011's X-Men: First Class. When being watched, it's a little difficult to place the film if viewed in the context of its release. It was certainly more critically successful than the last couple of films that preceded it, but it was very strange because of how contradictory it was. Is it a clean reboot? Well, if it is, why is it referring back so much to the original 2000 film?

Perhaps even more confusing was the 2013 arrival of director James Mangold's The Wolverine, the second solo outing featuring Hugh Jackman's feral, clawed mutant. A significant element of Logan's character in his new film explores his psychological trauma caused by his killing of Jean Grey, which occurred at the end of X-Men: The Last Stand. So, does that mean that the Wolverine films and the new X-Men films don't take place in the same world? What the hell was going on? This is where something of a master stroke comes into play. With the return of director Bryan Singer and the cast announcement for the next film featuring both established casts of X-Men, the next film would have something of a stated mission in "righting" the proverbial ship.

2014's X-Men: Days of Future Past is, arguably, the best film in the series since 2003's X2. In addition to having a memorable story and some really wonderful performances by Jackman, Stewart, McKellen, James McAvoy, and Michael Fassbender, the movie also sought to reboot the franchise without actually rebooting it. Comics fans are very familiar with a plot device known as the "retcon," a portmanteau of the words "retroactive" and "continuity." By employing the retcon and changing the stream of events in the film series while having an active thread between the past (with the First Class cast) and the future (with the original cast), Days of Future Past simplified the timeline of the entire series, opening up new possibilities for both casts going forward, all while undoing the idiotic depowerings or killings of other characters from previous films in the process. Though a well-known trope from the comics, it had virtually never been tried before to any significant degree in comics characters' film depictions.

Throwing something of a pipebomb into the mix as well was 2016's Deadpool directed by Tim Miller, and starring Ryan Reynolds. After a long slog through development hell and still technically a part of the X-Men film series, the R-rated zaniness of Wade Wilson was a massive hit with audiences, with enough of a self-referential stab at humor that it doesn't necessarily seem beholden to series continuity, even though it's a part of it. Then came this past May's X-Men: Apocalypse, a new film featuring the First Class cast and some younger actors assuming some of the original films' important roles. While it was certainly entertaining, it felt more iterative than high-impact, and weirdly enough seems to leave more questions hanging for future outings in the franchise.

The Future (2017-Beyond)

Some of those questions largely center on the cast. Next year, director James Mangold returns with Hugh Jackman for the third solo Wolverine film, which unconfirmed rumors seem to imply will be based on the "Old Man Logan" comic book story written by Mark Millar with art by Steve McNiven. That film is bringing along Patrick Stewart as Professor X, and both Jackman and Stewart have stated in no uncertain terms that these will be their final outings as Wolverine and Professor X, respectively.

Although Days of Future Past seemed to open up a whole new set of possibilities for both established casts - especially considering that Jackman cameoed as Weapon X in X-Men: Apocalypse - it seems like it would be extraordinarily difficult to feature a new X-Men film featuring all the members of the original cast except for Jackman and Stewart. Also potentially strange is DOFP and Apocalypse screenwriter Simon Kinberg stating that a new primary film set in the 90's has the potential to revisit an adaptation of The Dark Phoenix Saga, even though The Last Stand already partially adapted that story in 2006.

The only really sure thing in the series is a sequel to Deadpool, which will reunite all of the first film's cast for a new, wacky R-rated adventure featuring Wade Wilson. We're also supposed to be getting a solo film featuring 90's X-Men staple Gambit starring Channing Tatum, but that film has already been delayed outside 2016. Oddly enough, the X-Men series seems to be in a strange state of disparate disarray, especially if its most bankable and notable performers (outside of Ryan Reynolds) are leaving their characters behind.

As stated in our Apocalypse review, you shouldn't count the X-Men out just yet. Deadpool on its own proved that the series still has some tricks up its sleeve, but the longer this strange kind of haphazardness goes on, the stranger this series will continue to become until it's ultimately rebooted.

What do you want from the future of modern comics-based cinema's oldest franchise? Sound off in the comments below!

Chris Clow is a gamer, a comic book expert and former retailer, as well as a freelance contributor to The Huffington Post and, as well as host of the Comics on Consoles podcast. You can find his weekly piece Comics on Film right here at Check out his blog, and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.

Categories: Features, Geek
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