The Marvel Cinematic Universe is defined by not having the X-Men - and would likely not been as successful if Kevin Feige had mutants to play with from the start. The Disney purchase of Fox sees the X-Men movie rights return to Marvel, although Professor X and co. are unlikely to appear until 2021 at the earliest, by which point the MCU will be 13 years old and 26-movies strong.
Quite how the MCU will integrate the X-Men is currently unclear; barring a full-on timeline reset, there are many aspects of the merry mutants that don't quite fit in the world that's built up around The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy (and, soon, The Eternals). To some, it may seem like it would have been easier for mutants to have always been there in the background.
However, had Marvel Studios owned the rights to the X-Men and related characters from the very start, then the Avengers-led MCU wouldn't even exist as we now know it. The story of the biggest franchise of all-time isn't one of carefully procured brand management but against-the-odds opportunism - something the X-Men could have completely messed up. Today, we're going to look at what could have been.
Before we begin, though, it's worth clarifying that there is a somewhat self-perpetuating aspect to any argument here: Marvel Studios exists in its current state in no small part due to the success of the early Fox X-Men movies (they ignited the modern genre and gave Kevin Feige his industry break), so it's impossible for them not to exist and Marvel to still. For this thought experiment, however, we're not going to try and envision a cohesive alternate reality where this could happen, and rather look at the impact of the mutants being in the roster without explanation.
- This Page: Why The MCU Worked Without The X-Men
- Page 2: The X-Men Would Have Hurt The Avengers
- Page 3: The X-Men Weren't Right For Early Marvel Studios
The MCU Only Exists Because Marvel Didn't Have Their Key Characters
Marvel Studios as it's known only really exists due to its lack of key characters. In the 1990s, then-called Marvel Films was in the licensing business - they would package character rights to be sold off to other production studios who would take home the box office receipts, with Marvel profiting from the licensing cost and ancillary revenue streams like merchandising. Most famous are Spider-Man at Sony and the X-Men at Fox. Not only were these Marvel's most well-known characters, they proved to be the most successful licenses; in the early 2000s, both led to major film trilogies that highlighted the potential of superhero movies without the words "Super" or "Bat" as a prefix.
This motivated Marvel to rethink its strategy. Instead of selling off rights, they would start producing their own movies. Unfortunately, those initial licenses posed a problem; most Marvel characters with strong brand recognition were tied up in other studios. Marvel was stuck with their own B-list. The originally-announced MCU line-up included Captain America, Doctor Strange and Ant-Man, with Iron Man, Hulk and Black Widow worked into their mix when the rights reverted back from their respective studios; big names now, but in the mid-2000s each a hard sell to a mainstream audience.
However, this ultimately helped out fledgling Marvel. Without a guaranteed blockbuster audience, the company had to put all efforts into making strong movies and selling the characters from the ground up. Phase 1 of the MCU may feel somewhat quaint in the shadow of where it's gone, but each of those films was made with no handout and thus had to work on their own terms. The lack of any A-list sells led to more outside-the-box actor and director picks - Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark, Kenneth Branagh directing Thor - and the shared universe model became an essential build for interest: promising the lesser-known Avengers was neither here-nor-there, but promising these new characters together was a major hook.
Now, The Avengers are the biggest names in superheroes - their latest movie made more than Justice League's entire run in less than a week - but that only came from Marvel Studios having nothing else to work with. Spider-Man joined up in 2016, but there it was Sony using a Marvel connection to bolster a dying franchise, and while X-Men is more hit-and-miss, its arrival will likewise be viewed as a positive for the mutants as much as a get for the MCU.
- Captain Marvel (2019) release date: Mar 08, 2019
- The Avengers 4 / Avengers: Endgame (2019) release date: Apr 26, 2019
- Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) release date: Jul 02, 2019