Bryan Singer, who kicked off the X-Men movie franchise (and, in turn, was a driving force behind the 21st century superhero movie resurgence), is now set to usher mutants onto the small screen, following a recent report that he will direct the pilot of a new X-Men-related TV show. Rather than being centered on the core team that audiences are familiar with, the series will follow a family that goes on the run after it’s revealed that the children are mutants. While that show is still some way off, there’s less than a week to go before FX debuts another X-Men spinoff show, Legion, starring Dan Stevens as a mutant whose powers have been misdiagnosed as schizophrenia.
The move back to TV is one that’s long overdue, especially given the success of other Marvel shows like Agents of SHIELD and Netflix’s Defenders universe, and the breadth of the characters and settings the X-Men license offers. But this is more than just a smart business decision; the X-Men coming back to television is a chance to finally realize the property in live-action in a way that does it justice.
Debuting back in 2000, the X-Men film series was a big trendsetter for the blockbuster movie landscape we know today. Sleek, special effects-oriented, sincere comic book adaptations outside of large, ultra-bankable icons like Batman and Superman just weren’t viewed as viable at the time, and X-Men helped to shatter this notion. However, the X-Men movie franchise has arguably never really managed to capture the true spirit and ethos of the team, since their action-oriented storytelling has always been at odds with the more character-driven focus of the X-Men’s source material.
Across the original X-Men trilogy and the more recent prequel trilogy, only a handful of characters were written and depicted memorably, with most getting one-liners and maybe a big moment with their powers before returning to the background. Many of the iconic moments are between some combination of the same half-dozen characters, with sub-plots getting the bare minimum of attention as everything is set up for the big battles in each instalment.
The X-Men are fun to choreograph action with, sure, but they’re not really about the action; they’re about the drama. The team are composed of a group of students and teachers living in a boarding school for mutants in a society that rejects them because of their mutations, and their stories are strongest when they reflect that. Across their comic history, they’ve been seen as analogies for the LGBT community, the civil rights movement, and just about any other socio-political movement one can think of. They’re a set of characters that have been used to examine and discuss tough issues in everyday society, and have become a flagship group for the oppressed or otherwise ill-disposed.
X-Men stories are strongest when they display multiple viewpoints at once, looking at the different ways the characters are disagreeing and coming together as well as how they respond to conflict. The comics regularly look at ideas like reversal of the mutant gene and remaining good in the face of relentless persecution, and take the time to parse them out often over several issues and arcs. A two hour-long movie with a massive budget and a studio mandate for big action sequences doesn’t have the time for such intricacies – a TV series, however, does.
Readers of a certain age will remember growing up on X-Men: The Animated Series in the 1990s and X-Men: Evolution in the early 2000s. Both fun and action-packed, these shows had engrossing storylines that made ample use of every member of the roster. There were dominant personalities like the ever-present Wolverine and Professor Xavier, but characters like Jubilee, Gambit, Spyke and Shadowcat were each given their own proper backstory with thought-out motivations to their presence and role in Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Children.
Those series delved into the subculture of mutants, looking at the tribalism of the underground Morlocks and the enticement of joining Magneto’s great mutant uprising. Watching each episode built out an entire world filled with complexity and increasingly less easy answers. One felt sympathy for all sides, which made it all the climactic when everything came to blows. They had lots of big costumed action, but it was the moments in between that mattered – the quiet jokes lazing around the mansion or three of the team managing to pass as normal people on a shopping trip. The parts that acknowledged the people behind the mutant powers.
It’s those situations that have allowed X-Men to endure the way they have, because they fortify the struggle each member of the team faces. These aren’t the Avengers, who are brought together through a common want to protect the Earth – the X-Men are brought together because they have a common need to feel accepted in a world that’s rejected them. A TV series lets writers explore that with a wide scope, taking genuine interest in each and every character, letting everyone have their ongoing thread. Iceman’s coming out in X2 need not be a single scene that tries to accomplish everything at once; it can be a theme set across several seasons that revisits his relationship with his family as he and they get older.
Though this new TV series may not feature the core team of X-Men (since Fox is still saving them for the big screen), there’s a chance to portray mutant drama with subtlety and sincerity… and Singer has said that there will be familiar faces in the show. The success of The CW’s Arrowverse has shown that a comic book show can be entertaining, adult-orientated and sincere without fear of losing its audience, while the MCU’s popularity has meant that people are more receptive than ever to goofy-looking costumes and far out ideas if they’re presented confidently enough.
Legion will debut on FX on February 8th, 2017, at 10pm.