The X-Men franchise could potentially have rivaled the MCU if 20th Century Fox had followed Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class plans. There's a strong sense in which the Marvel Cinematic Universe wouldn't exist without the X-Men films. Marvel Comics only survived near-bankruptcy in the '90s by selling off the film rights to some of its most notable characters, including Spider-Man and, of course, the X-Men. What's more, many key figures in Marvel Studios cut their teeth on the X-Men films, including even Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige.
And yet, since 2008's Iron Man, the MCU has outclassed Fox's X-Men franchise. The key difference has essentially been that Marvel Studios played the long game, building a shared cinematic universe where each film leads on to the next, culminating in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. In contrast, Fox has largely seemed to be reactive, tossing countless ideas up into the air to see how they fall, rarely showing any sense of overarching narrative direction. The X-Men films' famous continuity problems are really a manifestation of this core issue.
But it's now becoming clear that one man, at least, did have a plan - Matthew Vaughn, writer and director of X-Men: First Class and story writer of X-Men: Days of Future Past. Unfortunately, Fox chose to take a different approach, and it was a big mistake.
Matthew Vaughn's First Class Plan Was Very Different to Fox's
Vaughn has been relatively reticent about his X-Men plans, only recently beginning to open up in any particular detail about them. So far, though, it appears that he'd planned a series of four films:
- X-Men: First Class
- A mysterious second film focused on the assassination of John F. Kennedy
- X-Men: Days of Future Past
- A final, fourth movie that retold the Dark Phoenix Saga
X-Men: First Class was a huge success, and back in 2011, Vaughn indicated that he wanted to continue the franchise by exploring the assassination of JFK. "I thought it would be fun to open with the Kennedy Assassination," he explained to Hitfix, "and we reveal that the magic bullet was controlled by Magneto. That would explain the physics of it, and we see that he’s pissed off because Kennedy took all the credit for saving the world and mutants weren’t even mentioned."
Clearly, this film would have been set in 1963, just a year after the events of X-Men: First Class, and it would have presumably continued the story of Magneto's Brotherhood of Mutants. Vaughn wanted to add two new characters to the X-Men team roster; a recast Wolverine, who he imagined played by someone like Tom Hardy, and another unnamed character who was designed to match Magneto. "As Professor X is in a wheelchair, Magneto needs to have a nemesis he can fight with," Vaughn explained to MovieWeb. "Someone that will be his equal." It's likely this would actually have been Jean Grey.
Vaughn imagined the stories gradually building in scale, with X-Men: Days of Future Past as the third chapter in his series, rebooting the timeline ahead of a new version of the Dark Phoenix Saga. In his view, audiences needed time to bond with Jean Grey as a character ahead of her fall. "It’s arguably the biggest story in X-Men," he told Polygon. Unfortunately, Fox execs were impressed by Vaughn's draft of X-Men: Days of Future Past, and decided to jump straight to that. Discouraged, Vaughn moved on, although he seems to have been pleased with how director Bryan Singer and writer Simon Kinberg treated his story.
Days of Future Past Would Have Been Better Under Vaughn's Plan
Vaughn has stressed that Fox largely kept to his original script for X-Men: Days of Future Past, albeit switching around a couple of secondary characters - notably substituting Quicksilver in the place of Juggernaut, who he had imagined being involved in breaking Magneto out of prison. And yet, for all the script would have been mostly the same, it's hard not to see Vaughn's original plan as a better one. The key is in terms of pacing, with a gradual increase in the stakes; the impending conflict between man and mutant would have been neatly signposted in the second film, and there would have been a clear narrative throughline, with Magneto involved in the Kennedy assassination and imprisoned for it in the third installment. This also would have subtly rewritten Mystique's role, in that she'd essentially have become more of a Magneto loyalist, continuing his mission of assassinating high-profile political threats.
Most interestingly, X-Men: Days of Future Past would have involved interactions between two different incarnations of the X-Men. Xavier and Magneto, more firmly established as respective leaders of the X-Men and the Brotherhood, would be faced with the horrific reality of the world their conflict would create. It's possible the two Wolverines would come mind-to-mind, in a similar scene to the one in which James McAvoy's Charles Xavier met his future self, played by Patrick Stewart.
The Wolverine Franchise Could Have Been Reinvigorated
Recasting Wolverine would have been controversial, of course, not least because this is a mutant who isn't really supposed to age at all due to his healing factor. And yet, Vaughn's way of doing it is probably the best. Fox would have introduced their new Wolverine before Hugh Jackman had bowed out, in much the same way Patrick Stewart was willing to reprise the role a couple of times after X-Men: First Class. A meeting between the two Wolverines in X-Men: Days of Future Past would have felt like the passing of the torch, from one iteration to the next.
The truth is that Fox's actual approach, which remained utterly dependent on Jackman, brought the Wolverine franchise to an end. Logan is Jackman's swan song, and frankly, it's hard to imagine how Fox could have recast at this point without it feeling like an insult to the character. Yet again, Fox had taken a short-term approach rather than planned ahead, and it had cost them; in this case, of course, they've been spared further problems by virtue of the Disney purchase, which means a full reboot of the X-Men franchise is in the works.
Dark Phoenix Would Have Been A Very Different Film
Finally, Vaughn's plans would have resulted in a very different version of X-Men: Dark Phoenix. It sounds as though he planned to build up to this story over the course of three films, probably introducing a new version of Jean Grey in his second film, and featuring her in a significant secondary role in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Indeed, it's possible the early manifestation of Jean's Phoenix powers could have been a side-effect of the time travel; perhaps she'd have psychically probed the mind of the time traveling Wolverine, and learned her fate.
Viewers would certainly have developed a far stronger rapport with the new Jean Grey, meaning her fall from grace would have had a great deal more emotional power. Meanwhile, it's interesting to note that Vaughn potentially sets up a far more comic-book-accurate version of the story, with both a younger Wolverine and presumably another version of Cyclops in the team. Given the increasing scale of Vaughn's overarching narrative, X-Men: Dark Phoenix would probably have gone into the full cosmic scale of the legendary "Dark Phoenix Saga."
The reality is that Matthew Vaughn's X-Men plan would have taken the franchise in a very different direction - and a far more preferable one. It's true that there were risks. It's entirely possible viewers wouldn't have taken to a recast Wolverine, for example, particularly given that character isn't supposed to age. And yet, there'd have been an undeniable sense of momentum, with the stakes continually increasing; character arcs would have been far more organic, with Xavier and Magneto developing in logical and consistent ways, while Jean Grey's Dark Phoenix turn would have carried a greater impact. Fox had their own visionary, but they chose to ignore him, opting for the short-term win instead.
- X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019) release date: Jun 07, 2019