The future is uncertain for the X-Men, at least on the big screen. If estimates are to be believed, Dark Phoenix opened softer this weekend than any previous entry in the two-decade-old movie series, which began with X-Men in the summer of 2000 and may very well end here, depending on if that New Mutants film that wrapped production ages ago ever actually sees the light of day. Truthfully, this would probably be it for Fox’s take on the mutant super-team even if Dark Phoenix was a giant hit; the merger with Disney has officially ceded control of these characters back to Marvel, which will surely be eager to eventually work them into their jam-packed cinematic universe. But those low box-offices grosses still have the ring of a death knell. Are audiences just tired of X-Men movies?
Maybe what they’re tired of is this kind of X-Men movie. Though the quality of the series has fluctuated wildly over the years, it’s remained pretty consistent on a narrative level. Excepting the solo adventures of Wolverine and Deadpool, each film offers a variation on some familiar tropes: Xavier and Magneto will exchange loaded words, expressing their conflicting ideologies; one group of mutants will clash violently with another, often in a public place; the characters may make pit stops at the famed “Fox forest” or a quiet suburban street.
But it doesn’t have to be that way going forward. There are plenty of different directions Marvel could take the X-Men, and plenty of classic, iconic arcs just waiting to be adapted, once the air of disappointment around Dark Phoenix dissipates and the studio is ready to try its luck with a reboot. Below, we’ve singled out 14 such stories—yanked from the comic-book source material and presented in chronological order, from earliest to latest publication date—that could make for exciting new entries in an X-Men movie franchise. And though third time sometimes is the charm, we promise “The Dark Phoenix Saga” isn’t among them.
X-Men wasn’t always a bestseller. Facing sluggish sales, Marvel actually stopped publishing new issues for a few years in the early 1970s. When they re-launched the property in 1975, it was with a one-shot, Giant-Size X-Men #1, that introduced a new class of mutant heroes, including Storm, Nightcrawler, and Colossus, plus an obscure Hulk villain named Wolverine. It’s not a great comic, exactly, but the plot—which begins in media res, with Xavier traveling the world and recruiting new mutants for what turns out to be a mission to rescue the original team from the living island of Krakoa—could easily be reconfigured into an exciting kickoff for a rebooted movie series. In fact, the team-building aspect and clash of personalities recalls Guardians Of The Galaxy. If James Gunn isn’t too burnt out on squabbling superhero families after a third Guardians and his Suicide Squad sequel, he could be the perfect choice to usher the X-Men into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. [A.A. Dowd]
Rifling through back issues in search of source material, the X-Men movies have naturally turned to giant, multi-issue events like “The Dark Phoenix Saga” and “Days Of Future Past.” But many of the best X-Men stories are smaller affairs, built on the soap-operatic relationships between Xavier’s students and their less Earth-threatening fights with various mutant adversaries. The stakes don’t get much lower than those of “He’ll Never Make Me Cry,” a “downtime” issue from the beloved Chris Claremont run that’s become a fan favorite over the years. After dumping Kitty Pryde, Colossus heads out for a night of drinking with Wolverine and Nightcrawler. Turns out, though, that the Juggernaut’s knocking back cold ones at the same saloon, and when Colossus ends up trading blows with the classic villain, Wolverine insists he and Nightcrawler stay out of it—he sees the inevitable ass-kicking as karmic justice for the callous way their metal-skinned teammate treated Kitty. That’s all there is to the plot, which would have to be expanded to even reach 80 minutes, and contains little that would make for good blockbuster fodder. Still, it’s fun to imagine a non-blockbuster X-Men movie, and “He’ll Never Make Me Cry” would provide the perfect foundation for one, putting the personalities and interpersonal conflict of these mutant superheroes at center. If they can insert Wolverine into a Western, why not into a Richard Linklater hangout joint? [A.A. Dowd]
The X-Men movies have all been about people discovering or coming to terms with their powers. But what about a film telling the story of a mutant losing them? Logan proved audiences are ready for more sophisticated and meditative X-stories, and “Lifedeath” certainly fits the bill. There are a variety of elements to the tale, but the important one focuses on Storm, who deals with the loss of her weather-controlling powers while trapped in a primitive world with the mysterious mutant inventor Forge. It’s a tale of rediscovering your will to live after the thing that most defined you is taken away. It’s also, as advertised, a love story, though one complicated by the sting of betrayal. So far, the X-Men movies have basically wasted Ororo Munroe, one of the franchise’s most iconic characters. Adapting “Lifedeath” would be a good way to remedy that. [Alex McLevy]
A cinematic version of “Mutant Massacre” could rival Avengers: Endgame in terms of the sheer number of heroes onscreen, as it features not just the X-Men, but also X-Factor, the New Mutants, and Power Pack. Even Thor shows up, which might make for a neat way to tie the X-Men into the MCU. In the sprawling 1986 crossover, prejudice against mutants (a frequent X-Men movie theme) is at its peak, so the original members—Cyclops, Ice Man, Angel, Marvel Girl, and Beast—pose as mutant hunters X-Factor as a way to reach mutants faster. When the peaceful, subway-dwelling Morlocks are attacked by the murderous Marauders, all the X-factions try to defend them. The cute kid team Power Pack helps lighten the mood. But as a movie, “Mutant Massacre” could be a dark, Nolan-esque affair: The heroes fare poorly in some of their underground clashes with the Marauders, leading up to the ultimate showdown between Wolverine and Sabretooth. The battles are so brutal that they leave many X-Men in rough shape: Angel’s wings are severely damaged, Colossus is paralyzed, and Shadowcat is stuck in shadow form. A sequel would be inevitable. [Gwen Ihnat]
Just introducing parasitic insectoid aliens would bring something new to the X-Men movies. But “Broodfall” is also the best story involving the extraterrestrial menace. The Brood are plenty disturbing—picture a variant of the Alien Xenomorph, but with the ability to implant eggs in hosts that eventually transform them into a Brood themselves—and “Broodfall” sees them attempting to conquer earth, with only the X-Men standing in the way. Chris Claremont adds an interesting subplot about religious faith in the form of a preacher who openly sermonizes his support for mutants—a nice switch from the series’ ongoing “humans always see us as a threat” standard-bearer. Combine that with the invasion plot, and you’ve got a recipe for thoughtful horror that could properly shake up the franchise. There’s also the unforgettable image of Wolverine’s healing factor trying to fight off the parasitic infection—an element that could bring some body horror to the superhero genre, like Venom but, uh, better. [Alex McLevy]
One of the X-Men’s richest and most enduring sources of danger came from this story, which introduced the Marvel universe to the country of Genosha. A seemingly happy, wealthy, and prosperous nation, Genosha has a secret that the X-Men soon discover: It’s a land of persecution for mutants, enslaved and exploited by a government who sees them only as a source of cheap labor. X-Men has always been most potent when dealing with parallels to the real world; just as early issues pushed a civil-rights metaphor, Genosha was originally created to mirror South Africa’s apartheid state. But today’s world has all too many apt points of comparison—and with the right adaptation, the ugly political intrigue of “A Green And Pleasant Land” would make for a harsh and nervy X-Men film. [Alex McLevy]
The power of New Mutant Magik (Colossus’ little sister, Illyana) has always promised trouble; she teleports in and out of the mysterious Limbo realm, controlling monstrous demons to fight her foes. In the Inferno saga, that danger finally comes to a head, as two Limbo demons decide to hijack Magik’s gateway to Earth as a way to take over the planet themselves. Complicating matters is the re-emergence of Scott’s wife/Jean clone Madelyne Pryor as the Goblin Queen, which offers further Phoenix force-fueled dramatics. The demons and goblins of Limbo taking over New York City practically cries out for an imaginative, boundary-breaking animated movie along the lines of Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, especially since the Avengers, Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Power Pack, and Spider-Man himself all show up to help the X-Men fight off the underworld on Earth. But Inferno provides lots of opportunities for humor as well, as everyday New Yorkers scarcely notice the difference between their city and the demon-fueled metropolis it becomes. [Gwen Ihnat]
The X-Men movies haven’t always known what to do with Magneto, with each installment choosing a spot for him between “sympathetic villain” and “begrudging hero” to suit whatever its particular storyline. Both Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender have often been wasted, but that could be avoided with an adaptation of Chris Claremont and Jim Lee’s Crossroads storyline, which is a character study for the master of magnetism. Set in the dinosaur-packed Savage Land—a nice, outlandish change of scenery—the story focuses on a depressed Magneto as he prepares for a battle against a new villain whose magnetic powers are diminishing his own and also endangering the planet. In the power-mad Zaladane, Magneto sees a very obvious reflection of himself, forcing him to reckon with his history as a supervillain and how the nearly world-destroying damage caused by his inability to let go of his anger toward mankind. Magneto gets loads of meaty narration detailing how much he hates himself, but there’s also a prominent appearance from longtime X-Men member Rogue, who is touched by his clear desire to be a better person. The X-Men themselves are completely absent, but “Crossroads” could make for a lower-stakes solo showcase for the iconic villain, in the vein of Logan. [Sam Barsanti]
One of X-Men: Apocalypse’s biggest crimes was utterly wasting the imaginative potential of the Astral Plane, the ethereal realm which can only be reached by psionic or magical abilities, where those with the capability can project themselves to communicate with others or even do battle. “The Muir Island Saga” could fix that, thanks to its villain, the sadistic Shadow King, Amahl Farouk (currently seen on the small screen in FX’s Legion). Here, the X-Men are dispatched to the island to investigate, only to discover the denizens are being used as pawns by the mind-controlling nemesis—and our heroes are soon captured as well, leaving Professor X to seek out his original students to join him in a rescue operation, à la Krakatoa above. Not only is there plenty of opportunity for massive splash-page spectacle—the mutant-vs.-mutant confrontation could finally give the X-Men movies their version of Captain America: Civil War’s airport fight sequence—but the climactic battle between Xavier and Farouk takes place on the Astral Plane, providing a blank check for inventiveness. It’d be a nice change of pace to have an X-Men movie with some truly uncanny imagery. [Alex McLevy]
Like most of the big crossover events that tied together the various X-books in the ’90s (and emptied a lot of wallets, forcing casual readers to buy, say, Excalibur to get the full story), The Phalanx Covenant isn’t generally regarded as a classic. But its basic premise, involving a hive species of techno-organic imposters, could provide the foundation for a new kind of X-Men movie, a paranoid sci-fi thriller in tights. The storyline’s one stroke of genius is pushing the actual X-Men to the margins, and in fact beginning with the whole team already defeated and replaced; the first issue of the crossover is a miniature masterclass in dread, as ex-X-Man Banshee returns to the mansion to discover that something’s not quite right with his old teammates. He ends up leading a B-squad cavalry in search of vulnerable teenage mutants, and just as Marvel used The Phalanx Covenant to launch a new X-title (Generation X), Marvel Studios could use it to introduce its own teenage super-team to the MCU. An adaptation of this storyline would also provide the opportunity for some truly incredible, unsettling special effects: If the Brood are the X-Men universe’s knockoff of the Xenomorph, the Phalanx are like a cyberpunk riff on John Carpenter’s shape-shifting Thing. [A.A. Dowd]
Maybe the largest crossover event in X-Men history kicked off with one of those What If? hypotheticals that Marvel so dearly loves: What would happen if Charles Xavier died years before he could form his famous super-team, leaving his dream in the hands of his then-best-friend Magneto, and the world in the grip of planetary conqueror En Sabah Nur? Given that it ate up half a year’s worth of Marvel’s entire mutant line back in 1995, Age Of Apocalypse might be the rare superhero epic worthy of the full trilogy treatment, tracking how Apocalypse transformed the world into a mutant-supremacist dystopia, and how Magneto and his team of X-Men fought to oppose him—and maybe, with the help of lone time traveler Bishop, even change the world back to what it once was. There’s all sorts of bloody fun to be pulled out of this sprawling story, from seeing familiar characters twisted into their darkest selves—suffice it to say that AoA Hank McCoy is not someone you want to meet in a darkened laboratory—to the ability to leave restraint at the door for once, and let the mutant population lethally unload on each other without worrying about keeping characters around for the next big blockbuster. [William Hughes]
Grant Morrison’s three-year run on X-Men—or New X-Men, as he retitled the book—was the strongest take on Marvel’s flagship mutant super-team since the Chris Claremont heyday. Almost every arc is a keeper, from the big Magneto story (featuring a truly shocking plot twist) to a student mutiny that engulfs Xavier’s academy (see below). But it might be Morrison’s first few issues that cry out loudest for the big-screen treatment. Much of E For Extinction revolves around the revival of the Sentinels, and the robots’ genocidal destruction of a mutant sanctuary state would make for a suitably apocalyptic set piece. The big draw, though, is the introduction of a very scary new villain: Cassandra Nova, a parasitic psychic entity that Xavier battled in the womb and which eventually took the form of his malevolent twin, set on destroying everything he holds near and dear. A genuine psychological threat, Cassandra is Xavier by way of Hannibal Lecter—and in her grotesque perversion of his ideals, a suitable substitution for Magneto, a heavy the X-Men movies could stand to retire for a while. [A.A. Dowd]
X-Men has always been a story about generational conflict, as homo sapiens reacts in terror to homo superior’s sudden rise. Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely turned that restless energy inward with Riot At Xavier’s, as students at the Institute—enraged at the death of a local mutant celebrity, and no longer willing to sit quietly for Charles Xavier’s speeches and pacifistic ideals—seize the school in a violent display of mutant-on-mutant ire. With its steadily escalating tension, claustrophobic setting, and high-minded clash of ideals, the story could produce something nastily intimate in the hands of the right director, pitting Xavier against star student Quentin Quire—a massively powerful telepath with all of Magneto’s attitude, marinated in the frustration of growing up hearing about dream that never seems to come true. Mix it with the ratcheting intensity of a single-building action thriller like Dredd or The Raid—not to mention a few carefully chosen X-Men and loyal students to take the rioters down—and you’ve got a formula for a very explosive small-scale take on the sort of action-heavy philosophizing this franchise does best. [William Hughes]
The basic setup of Brian Michael Bendis and Olivier Coipel’s House Of M is simple: Magneto wins, mankind’s hatred for mutants is fully exposed, and mutant-kind finally gets the rights and respect that it was always denied. After a generation, mutants are the dominant species on the planet and Magneto is the beloved ruler of his own nation. Unfortunately, the catch is that all of this happened because the Scarlet Witch manipulated reality, but it’s fun to see how everyone in the larger Marvel universe’s status has changed in a world where mutants are on top. Carol Danvers—dubbed Captain Marvel for the first time—is given a pass because she has powers, while Spider-Man is a celebrity who pretends to be a mutant because it’s easier than telling the truth. In the end, it all falls apart when some characters reject the new status quo and regain their original memories. As a movie, House Of M could even be a way to tie the mutants in with the MCU, establishing that these characters come from an alternate universe and integrating them with the other heroes. The iconic final line—“No more mutants”—could even be used as a meta-justification for the eradication of Fox’s X-Men universe. [Sam Barsanti]