Fox's X-Men franchise isn't as highly-regarded as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it's better overall than many fans will admit. Dark Phoenix is essentially the swansong of the long-running series, but with the mutants soon to join the MCU thanks to Disney's purchase of Fox, it's worth noting what a debt the MCU owes to the X-Men. After all, it was the mutants who paved the way for the MCU and the modern day superhero movie golden age.
After the 1990s were dominated by Batman, in 2000, Marvel finally got into the blockbuster movie game with Bryan Singer's X-Men, which introduced the concept of mutants to moviegoers and made a star out of Hugh Jackman, who would go on to play Wolverine for 17 years. Singer's 2003 sequel, X2: X-Men United, is still heralded as one of the best superhero movies ever. After that, however, the quality of the X-Men franchise took a nosedive; fans still argue which worse - Brett Ratner's X-Men: The Last Stand or Gavin Hood's X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
Thankfully, Matthew Vaughn's 2011 reboot X-Men: First Class recast the mutants with younger actors and re-energized the franchise, while James Mangold resuscitated the spinoffs with The Wolverine. Singer returned to helm the crowdpleaser X-Men: Days of Future Past, which utilized both the original and rebooted X-Men casts, but Singer stumbled with his underwhelming follow-up X-Men: Apocalypse. Now, the saga closes out with Simon Kinberg's Dark Phoenix and, with fans looking forward to the mutants taking their place in the MCU, the final Fox X-Men film feels like a lame duck.
Unlike the MCU, which boasts a string of billion-dollar blockbusters, X-Men has a strange legacy wherein its failures tend to overshadow its successes. But whenever an X-Men movie does hit the mark, it's usually spectacular: along with X2 and Days of Future Past, the spinoffs Deadpool, Deadpool 2, and Logan were not only blockbusters but they broke new ground as R-rated superhero movies. Looking back on the last two decades of X-Men films, here's how they paved the way for the MCU, the mistakes they made and learned from along the way, and how the mutant franchise changed the superhero movie genre for the better:
The Original X-Men Trilogy Pioneered MCU Storytelling
It was the X-Men franchise that brought the Marvel formula to the movies. Jean Grey's death in X2: X-Men United launched years of frenzied fan speculation about whether the next film would adapt The Dark Phoenix Saga. Post-credits scenes are an MCU staple, but X-Men: The Last Stand did it first when they teased that Professor X could come back from the dead and that Magneto's powers would return. Logan suddenly meeting a resurrected Xavier and Magneto in The Wolverine's post-credits scene set up Days of Future Past. These moments fueled excitement for the next installments of the X-Men franchise, just as the MCU would later tease Thanos in their buildup to Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. Marvel President Kevin Feige got his start as an associate producer on X-Men, and the lessons he learned benefited the MCU. The era of Stan Lee cameos also began in X-Men.
One of the keys to Marvel Studios' success is they place emphasis on the flaws and inner turmoil of their characters, which makes Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, and even Thanos relatable and loveable. But X-Men led the way in that regard; the mutants are troubled souls alienated from society because of the 'curse' of their powers. In fact, X-Men boasts one of the most pivotal scenes in superhero movie history: when Rogue and Logan first meet as he drives his truck through the Canadian winter. After warning him about what happens when she touches people, Rogue asked Logan if it hurts when his claws pop out and he replied, "Every time". This instantly communicated to the audience that having superpowers is sometimes tragic and that being "special" can also lead to pain, loss, and isolation.
Fox's X-Men Movies Have A Clear And Focused Theme To Explore
The X-Men movies have consistently communicated its central theme that mutants are a persecuted race hated and feared by humans. Charles Xavier's dream is that humans and mutants can co-exist, while Magneto feels mutants should assert their dominance over the world and homo sapiens. That core conflict, which has evolved through different permutations, has sustained the entire saga but it also allowed the audience to ask themselves who they would stand with and what their values are.
However, X-Men movies range from asking the biggest questions about the genocide of the entire mutant race, to deeply personal stories like trying to save Jean Grey from her darkest impulses being manifested by the Phoenix Force or an older Logan trying to do one last good thing for his gravely ill mentor Professor X and his 'daughter' Laura before he dies. All throughout the saga, mutants have been mistreated, enslaved, and weaponized as the X-Men movies hold up a mirror to abuses inflicted upon people in the real world. The X-Men still play into the superhero genre's tropes of costumes, superpowers, and saving the world from villains, but beneath the action-packed conflicts are persistent themes, difficult questions, and no easy answers, which makes X-Men movies a cut above other superhero flicks.
X-Men Went Places Other Franchises Wouldn't
Today, fans thrill to see the Avengers assemble but the X-Men brought the very concept of the superhero team to movies. Before X-Men, superhero movies were about a lone caped crusader defending one particular city and only Christopher Reeve's Superman was truly a global superhero. X-Men changed all of that with its very first scene depicting young Erik Lensherr's trauma in World War II Auschwitz. The movies' scope continued to grow, taking the X-Men to San Francisco in The Last Stand, before the X-Men movies started playing with alternate history: Logan, who was born in the 19th century, fought in both World Wars and Vietnam before taking on ninjas in Japan in the first two Wolverine spinoffs. X-Men: First Class depicted the Cuban Missile Crisis, Days of Future Past went from Russia and China in the future to the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, and by X-Men: Apocalypse, the story jumped from Poland to Egypt while nuclear missiles hovered over the entire world.
The X-Men movies also broke out of its own genre and began experimenting with R-rated material. Thanks to Ryan Reynolds' irreverent vision, the Deadpool movies became fourth-wall-breaking, raunchy comedies that still contained action, heart, and romance. James Mangold's Logan was Oscar-nominated and inspired by classic Westerns like Shane, giving Hugh Jackman's Wolverine a poignant ending. Only in X-Men can fans thrill to see eleven-year-old Laura Kinney (Dafne Keen) violently hack and slash her enemies with her claws.
As for the mainline X-Men films, X-Men: First Class was a groovy 1960s international Cold War thriller that predated Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Days of Future Past melded a Terminator-inspired post-apocalyptic time travel/sci-fi film with a 1970s period piece, and X-Men: Apocalypse attempted to bring the sensibilities of X-Men: The Animated Series to live-action. Even Dark Phoenix is a risk; an outright copy of X-Men: The Last Stand that aims to have more depth and dimension. Not to mention the brilliant Quicksilver superspeed sequences in Days of Future Past and X-Men: Apocalypse outshine everything Avengers: Age of Ultron did with the same character. In spite of their flaws, the X-Men movies deserve kudos for their willingness to boldly take chances instead of always sticking to convention and playing it safe.
X-Men's Timeline Isn't That Bad (And They Worked To Fix It)
It's certainly no secret that the X-Men movie timeline is a bewildering mess, but it can be generally understood if it's broken up into its two main components: the original trilogy timeline and the post-First Class reboot timeline. Yes, the bizarre choice to set each X-Men film after First Class a decade later makes the ages of the X-Men like James McAvoy's Professor X, Michael Fassbender's Magneto, and Jennifer Lawerence's Mystique absurd. But the timeline still flows, more or less, factoring in the existence of alternate timelines like Logan's future and the inexplicable redundancies like how X-Men Origins: Wolverine introduced Emma Frost, which was then retconned when Emma Frost was played by January Jones in X-Men: First Class. X-Men's creative control passed from Bryan Singer to Simon Kinberg, among others, and it has never been as consistent or detail-oriented as the MCU's, but even Marvel Studios has made staggering timeline errors like Spider-Man: Homecoming claiming to be set '8 years' after The Avengers.
To X-Men's credit, the First Class reboot was still successful and Days of Future Past was an ingenious reset that wiped X-Men: The Last Stand out of continuity. What's more, First Class' recasting addressed the advancing age of the original cast and breathed new life into the franchise; McAvoy and Fassbender successfully replaced Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan as Xavier and Magneto while the franchise scored Jennifer Lawrence to play Mystique before she became one of Hollywood's biggest stars. The success X-Men had in recasting their characters is the blueprint for what the MCU will need to do when they inevitably have to recast Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor, not to mention recasting the X-Men for the third time when they debut in the MCU.
X-Men's Big Problem Was Inconsistency
With the dominance and popularity of the MCU, the X-Men have struggled to compete in the marketplace that they helped usher in. Even though the X-Men franchise began in 2000, there have only been 12 Fox-produced X-Men movies (New Mutants will someday make it 13), which is a little over half of the MCU's output in just one decade. Fox may have made fewer X-Men movies but Marvel Studios maintains a high level of quality that consistently rewards fans' expectations whereas the X-Men movies are more of a crapshoot where it seems like the bad films outnumber the good ones. X-Men: Apocalypse even infamously contained an in-joke that "the third film is always the worst" that ended up as a meta-commentary on itself.
The X-Men franchise has stumbled several times and struggled to return to form, despite the uniformly strong acting chops of the cast. It seems like every time the franchise hit upon a strong direction, a bad film, bizarre creative decision, or a corporate turnover sets the whole enterprise backward, even though the Deadpool films and Logan were hits. Meanwhile, one unfortunate level of consistency X-Men has maintained is overlooking its eclectic characters to focus on Wolverine, Professor X, and Magneto, the three oldest Caucasian characters, as its perpetual leads. In addition, after Jennifer Lawrence became a superstar, Mystique's importance was increased so that Days of Future Past and X-Men: Apocalypse were both about her "coming home" to the X-Men. Meanwhile, other popular characters like Storm, Nightcrawler, Jubilee, and Psylocke have been grossly underutilized - this is something Marvel Studios will hopefully remedy.
Yet, despite the ways the franchise has come up short, X-Men can proudly boast its status as one of the most provocative and innovative superhero movie sagas that helped inspire the MCU's success - and it's better overall than its detractors will admit. Dark Phoenix may mark the end of this incarnation of the X-Men but the mutants will one day rise again in the MCU. The new crop of X-Men will then have to overcome the shadow of Fox's X-Men and the unforgettable stories, characters, and moments they left behind.
- X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019) release date: Jun 07, 2019
- New Mutants (2020) release date: Apr 03, 2020