A Brief History Of The X-Men on Screen

Marvel Studios’ shared cinematic universe has completely redefined the superhero genre.  Right now, every other studio with a comic book franchise is playing catch-up.  But between Warner Brothers (Justice League), Sony (Spider-Man) and Fox (X-Men; Fantastic Four), I’d say Fox is definitely coming in second.  Unlike the perpetually confused Sony, Fox isn’t forcing a shared universe where it doesn’t fit (Fantastic Four will be set in a separate universe than the X-Men [although honestly, I bet they could have made it work by making FF a 1960’s period piece]), and the X-Men universe alone is enough to keep making superhero movies indefinitely.


Days of Future, Meet the Days of Past

In fact, it’s appropriate that the franchise that jump-started the big superhero boom of the early 2000’s would be the one to find its footing again in the midst of the current superhero boom—without ever having to even reboot itself, no less!  Now that’s something that can’t be said about any other superhero series that has lasted this long.  X-Men is the longest-running current superhero franchise, having been around for a full fourteen years—that’s a lifetime or more for some of its youngest fans.

Hugh Jackman has played Wolverine in more feature films than any one actor has ever played a single superhero on the silver screen—seven times in seven movies.

It all started at the turn of the century.  In the late 90’s, the superhero genre was considered by most to be more or less dead in the water.  Despite minor films like Blade (whose contributions to the genre should nevertheless not be ignored), the last major superhero film had been 1997’s Batman and Robin, which fell far short of Batman Forever’s box office success a mere three years prior.  Moreover, most fans considered it to be one of the worst movies ever made[1], and it was widely seen as the death knell of the superhero genre.  But then, a mere three years later, X-Men changed everything.  Director Bryan Singer, who at the time was most well-known for the cult classic The Usual Suspects, came in as a comic book outsider and changed the landscape of pop-culture forever.  X-Men totally redefined what a superhero movie could be, paving the way for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and the advent of Marvel Studios itself, which has taken the entire genre into the future.

XMen_History2X-Men was the first in a new era of auteur-driven superhero movies, opening the gates for “serious” filmmakers with unique visions to play in the world of four-colour heroes.  For the first time in years, the genre began to reflect the depth of source material, translating the social commentary that had been common in comic books for years onto the silver screen.  Ever since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had created the X-Men, they had always meant to represent disenfranchised and marginalized groups in society.  As a filmmaker who was openly bisexual, Bryan Singer knew what that felt like, and was able to bring that unique perspective to the X-Men.  Singer then cast Sir Ian McKellen, an openly gay actor and advocate for LGBT rights, as Magneto, the Malcolm X to Professor Charles Xavier’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  McKellen brought both the gravitas of a classically trained Shakespearean actor and the experience of being an outsider to the role, lending Erik Lehnsherr a real-world air of credibility that had seldom been afforded to a comic book character on-screen.  When the character was introduced in a Nazi concentration camp, audiences knew they were in for something different.

X-Men was a superhero movie with a deeper meaning.  The story drew parallels from various real-world events from throughout the 20th century, from the Holocaust to the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950’s, to the civil rights movement, and finally to the present-day movement for LGBT rights.  In addition, the story had a newfound emotional resonance that had long been lacking in the genre.  Wolverine and Rogue were real characters in a way that Batman and Robin were not.



But as the explosion of the genre it revitalized reached its zenith, the ­X-Men series also became emblematic of the weakening of that genre in 2006, when Fox was unable to work out a deal with Bryan Singer to remain on board to direct the third X-Men film.  Instead, he left the franchise to make Superman Returns for Warner Brothers, a plodding bore of a movie that almost helped to kill the superhero genre a second time.  Unable to secure a suitable replacement for Singer, Fox eventually hired journeyman director Brett Ratner to make X-Men:  The Last Stand[2].  While it was a financial success, it was also considered a creative disappointment, and the next installment was a cinematic turd—the less said about that movie the better (as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t exist—and I’m far from alone.  It’s essentially been completely ignored by the franchise as well).  But then, in 2011, in the midst of the current superhero renaissance, Bryan Singer returned.  He co-wrote and produced X-Men:  First Class, which may be the best X-Men movie to date.  That was followed by last year’s The Wolverine, which was based on the classic Chris Claremont/Frank Miller comic book run, and made up for Logan’s previous abysmal solo entry.  And now, Singer has finally returned to the director’s chair with X-Men:  Days of Future Past – another classic Claremont story that was basically The Terminator before The Terminator was even a panicked fever-dream in James Cameron’s head on the set of Piranha II:  The Spawning.

XMen_History4Now, Fox has become Marvel Studios’ biggest competitor—the only other studio to have two separate superhero team licenses, with X-Men being uniquely suited for expanding on the already expansive universe they’ve already spent the last fourteen years building.  This, in turn, has led to a bit of competitive one-upmanship between Bryan Singer and Joss Whedon, the godfather of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and director of the Avengers films.  Both filmmakers are using the character of Quicksilver, a super-speedster, in their movies.  Because Quicksilver is a mutant, 20th Century Fox owns the rights to his character as such.  But he’s also been a member of the Avengers, meaning that Marvel Studios is also able to use him, as long as they don’t mention his parentage (Magneto is Quicksilver’s father) or that he is a mutant.  Needless to say, Fox can’t mention Quicksilver’s affiliation with The Avengers, who don’t exist in the cinematic X-Men universe.

Supposedly, Quicksilver’s appearance in Days of Future Past originally amounted to little more than a cameo, but when Whedon announced that he and his sister, the Scarlet Witch, would be joining the team in Avengers:  Age of Ultron, Singer beefed up Quicksilver’s role in his own movie—presumably a thumbing of his nose at Marvel.  Then, earlier this year, Joss Whedon threw down the gauntlet by getting his version of Quicksilver on movie screens first, in a tease for Age of Ultron that played halfway through the credits for Captain America:  The Winter Soldier.  Well, I’m happy to report that Bryan Singer has picked up that gauntlet and ran with it, giving us one of the most entertaining comic book characters I’ve seen in a long time.  Of course, we the fans are the ones who benefit from this healthy competition—now if only another studio also had the rights to Spider-Man!  Hey, hasn’t he been a member of the Fantastic Four and The Avengers?  Get on that, Marvel lawyers!



Until then, X-Men:  Days of Future Past opens up a new world of possibilities for future films, and there’s even a teaser at the end for X-Men:  Apocalypse.  We also have the Channing Tatum-starring Gambit movie to look forward to as well.  While I really wish that Marvel could get the rights back to Spider-Man, I’m quite happy to see where the X-Men franchise goes from here into the future.

[1] I used to count myself among them, but in the years since I have come to reevaluate the movie and appreciate its charms.

[2] The Last Stand isn’t really all that bad, although it does suffer from the lack of a clear vision and a muddled mish-mash of too much plot.  Also gone is the sense of subtlety from the previous two films.  Nevertheless, it’s inoffensive enough to be enjoyable.