With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.
Now that Sony and Marvel Studios have commenced their plan to integrate the newest iteration of Spider-Man into the onscreen world of the Avengers, hopeful fanboys might wonder if this is the first step to all of the Marvel properties coming “home” to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But fussy collectors should steel themselves for disappointment, Colossus-style: Despite some so-so domestic box-office numbers for the just-released X-Men Apocalypse, Fox will probably hold on tight to the X-Men for as long as possible. Despite the proficiency of the MCU, that’s not a bad thing. Fox’s Marvel splinter property has developed, almost by accident, into a parallel universe featuring that litany of mutant characters, plus side-attraction-turned-marquee-star Deadpool. They can never meet the Avengers, but they can keep mutating, recombining, and occasionally retconning on their own. The X-Men series is already one of the longest-running same-continuity franchises in modern film history.
The first Bryan Singer-directed X-Men came out in the year 2000, predating all three Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies, all three Christopher Nolan Batman movies, and the entire MCU. Over the nearly 16 years between the first X-Men and Apocalypse, no more than three years have passed without an X-Men-related movie hitting theaters, and the movies actually come out more frequently now than they did back when X-Men was (briefly) the only comics-movie game in town. Their survival isn’t just rights-based stubbornness; in some ways, the X-Men series is more interesting than its MCU counterpart. At very least, the series that began by downplaying a lot of Marvel Comics standbys (brightly colored costumes, cosmic craziness) has become perhaps the most authentically comic-book-style film franchise out there.
All of this began with a 104-minute, budget-slashed, schedule-accelerated project whose biggest stars were a middle-aged Shakespearean Star Trek captain and a supporting actress from the live-action Flintstones movie. It’s easy to forget what a pleasant surprise the original X-Men was back in the summer of 2000, and even those who remember might be inclined to write it off now as merely pretty good for the era that it brought to an end (that is, the era of Batman & Robin, Steel, and Spawn). But X-Men wears its budgetary restrictions and lack of studio confidence well; it can’t afford to emphasize spectacle over character. Using clawed and super-healing fan favorite Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and a de-aged power-absorbing Rogue (Anna Paquin) as dual entry points into the world of Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters and its related injustice-fighting organization the X-Men, it has the striking intimacy of the best superhero origin movies, with little time for belaboring those origins. Rogue, Wolverine, and Magneto (played as an older man by Ian McKellan) all get scenes that elucidate their characters and powers without going deep into tedious, repetitive mythmaking. Cyclops (James Marsden), Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Storm (Halle Berry), and Charles Xavier himself (Patrick Stewart) are already team members when the movie meets up with them.
Even without individual origins for many of those characters in the first film, the X-Men series in general traffics in more origins than any superhero series. But back in that first film, Singer establishes the economy of these scenes so clearly that the series rarely belabors them with repetition, even when it goes to the familiar prequel well with X-Men: First Class and circles back to discover younger versions of its characters in X-Men: Apocalypse. Because the characters’ powers are all genetic mutations, there’s no need to dwell on how they acquire their superhuman abilities. Instead, the movies, particularly the first film, focus on how those powers affect their relationship to the rest of humanity, making them a potent and malleable metaphor for any number of outsider statuses. After Rogue, who can’t maintain skin-to-skin contact with anyone without endangering their life, catches a glimpse of the metallic claws that pop out of Wolverine’s knuckles, she asks: “Does it hurt?” Jackman gives a perfectly understated reading of the script’s perfectly succinct response: “Every time.” That brief exchange does more work than the entirety of X-Men Origins: Wolverine; it’s also a more poignant bit of dialogue than appears in any number of well-regarded superhero movies.
The series even harnessed the wisecracking sincerity of Joss Whedon first, albeit treating him in the manner he had become accustomed at the time: hiring him for an uncredited rewrite and not using much of his material. Whedon has downplayed his involvement in the movie, claiming that only one of his lines (“Do you know what happens when a toad is struck by lightning?”) made it to the final film, and was mishandled by its reading. But if Wolverine’s assessments of mutant-finding device Cerebro (“This certainly is a big, round room”) and Cyclops (“You’re a dick,” he offers as proof that it’s really him, and not shapeshifter Mystique) aren’t Whedon-penned, the movie got someone to do a pretty decent imitation. The X-Men aren’t as quippy as the Avengers, but an understated wit would stay with the series for most (though not all) of its installments.
Singer was afforded more time and money to work on X2, at the time of its release heralded as perhaps the best superhero sequel of all time. Since then, Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier have turned the second-movie quality bump into almost a ritual, and while those films don’t diminish the cool confidence of X2, the movie itself actually suffers, however slightly, in comparison to its smaller-scale predecessor. There are great character moments throughout X2, much better action sequences, and a renewed focus on some of the series’ most valuable subtext, particularly in a scene where young Xavier student Iceman comes out to his parents (“Have you tried not being a mutant?”). Yet the movie whooshes through those characters, subplots, and action sequences with such fleetness that some of the first film’s intimacy gets left behind. X2 turns, inevitably, into a blockbuster, and a very good one.
The first X-Men is so truncated that X2 feels comparably epic. But while the series’ running times have inched upward—Apocalypse runs nearly two and a half hours—the X-Men movies don’t always feel like they’re afforded the same leeway as other major superhero titles in terms of budget or length. Even Singer’s all-star Days Of Future Past, which functions as both a follow-up for the prequelized X-Men: First Class characters and a curtain call for the original cast, isn’t all that lengthy by superhero-epic standards. It’s possible that by now, the filmmakers have simply internalized the limitations upon which the series was founded. Many entries in, these movies were still making liberal use of the “Fox Forest”—the nondescript Canadian woods that seem to find their way into a number of penny-pinched Fox genre fare, no matter how ill-fitting (see also Elektra, or Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem, among others).
But this is not so different from the MCU, which has its own repetitive mise-en-scene (flying/falling airships, for example) and house style to which even its stronger filmmakers must submit. X-Men came to its house style less organically, fusing Bryan Singer’s sensibility with Fox accounting concerns. Both parts qualify as limitations; Fox is a soulless corporate entity and Singer’s non-superhero filmography isn’t especially great. But his superhero movies tend to be more fully felt than many of his other endeavors, most obviously through his sensitivity to a superhero’s outsider status. Most superheroes these days are allowed certain levels of personal struggle, but while the Avengers begin as a government initiative (and become world-famous pretty much as soon as they assemble), the X-Men have to fight for the mildest forms of legitimacy, often hiding their existence outright (is their school even accredited?).
That sensitivity to non-nihilistic superhero alienation—and limitations!—is Singer’s greatest strength, and explains his facility with character introductions. But he can deliver the comic-book goods as well. Singer has actually become something of an underrated action director over the course of the series. His two biggest X-Men movies contain some of the best comic-book action sequences in film: Nightcrawler’s brainwashed attack on the White House and Wolverine’s X-Mansion defense in X2; the portal-jumping opening of X-Men: Days Of Future Past; Quicksilver’s slow-mo sequences in both Past and Apocalypse. Outside of the big set pieces, Singer’s flashiest shots are more subdued than full-on cinematic splash panels, but manage to etch his version of X-Men iconography, which inexplicably has a reputation for drabness. The look of these movies starts out semi-grounded, but gets progressively stranger and more colorful by the time it reaches the red and purple hues of Apocalypse. (The number of blue-skinned characters in the series also reaches a peak in the newest film, even if Jennifer Lawrence clearly and understandably asked that Mystique be allowed to spend ample time Lawrence-shaped and non-naked.) He also knows how to shoot quieter scenes—see the way the telepathic communication between Xavier and Magneto in Apocalypse plays like a face-to-face conversation without any fancy tricks beyond some neat framing. Singer is more than par for this type of movie; he’s just not quite a distinctive mainstream stylist in the vein of Sam Raimi or Christopher Nolan.
Neither is Matthew Vaughn, who became a sort of Singer surrogate just long enough to direct X-Men: First Class and help concoct the story for Days Of Future Past. In between several other comics adaptations that entertain as they flirt with moral repugnance (thanks, Mark Millar!), Vaughn happened to make the best X-Men movie without resorting to any Millar-style faux-edginess. He entered the series because of the worst entry: When Singer chose Superman Returns over Fox’s schedule for X-Men: The Last Stand, the studio went ahead without him. First it hired Vaughn and then, when he also balked at the same ruthless schedule, replaced him with the affable Brett Ratner. As a result, the X-Men franchise went ahead with two consecutive non-Singer X-Men team movies, with Ratner’s work later leading, indirectly, to Vaughn’s rehiring.
The way these two films riff on Singer’s established style is both fascinating and, in The Last Stand’s case, infuriating. At first glance, The Last Stand matches the two movies with which it’s supposed to form a trilogy. All of the main actors are there; the requisite new characters like Angel (Ben Foster) receive evocative quick-hit introductions; the effects and action sequences are competent, sometimes even good. Maybe it’s those aesthetic approximations (which could be the name of Brett Ratner’s biography) that spared this abysmal third movie from maximum vitriol. Bafflingly, it got marginally better reviews than the much more inventive Apocalypse.
Whatever trickery Ratner employed, his version of the X-Men is subtly yet vastly worse than any others so far. The running time retracts back to first-movie level even as the cast and subplots swell, turning the movie into one extended, stupid fudge: characters traverse the country in a matter of hours; day turns to night suddenly, sans sunset; Cyclops goes missing and no one seems to notice, his unceremonious death left weirdly ambiguous for half of the movie. Amidst all of this, Ratner is ostensibly addressing the Dark Phoenix saga that Singer set up at the end of X2, which he treats with the same Vancouver-shoot lack of pizzazz as everything else in the movie more complicated than characters chasing or punching each other. A story about a mutant cure—which could have taken cues from a number of strong sources, including a Whedon-penned comics run—is squandered with clumsy dialogue, rushed execution, and a cowardly insistence on returning things to the status quo by movie’s end. Some of this is the fault of the mishmashed screenplay, but Ratner’s stock in trade is failing to bring anything to his given material, and letting stupid stuff slide. The best X-Men movies work with and around their limitations; Ratner just holds those limitations in a lazy embrace.
As a result, his film never looks fully off-model, but he coarsens everything just enough (“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” goes an actual line of dialogue in a 2006 movie) to turn The Last Stand into a shell of its predecessors. Similarly and far more delightfully, Vaughn lends X-Men: First Class enough style to qualify it as one of the best and snappiest Marvel-based movies, MCU included. All three young-X-Men pictures use their period settings as excuses for flashy costumes and hairstyles, but Vaughn has particular fun with the superficial ’60s trappings of his movie, employing split-screen training sequences, brighter superhero costumes, and the dapper menace of Michael Fassbender as young Magneto, whose Nazi-hunting sequences are among the greatest of the series.
The ’60s material in First Class reinforces the first film’s positioning of Magneto and Xavier as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, respectively, downplaying the coming-out narratives favored in X2, and sometimes handling the racial metaphors clumsily (especially for a movie where one major black character, the adapting mutant Darwin, gets killed off too suddenly). But while they get more like comic books and less metaphorically potent as they go on, the makeshift trilogy of First Class, Days Of Future Past, and Apocalypse all have fun, and provoke some thought, integrating the X-Men world into comic-book versions of real events. A scene like the one in Apocalypse where Fassbender’s Magneto, infused with the titular villain’s power boost, expresses his pain and anger by laying waste to Auschwitz, certainly flirts with bad taste. But it follows the Holocaust thread from the earlier films, and pushes at the intriguing idea that the superpowered might decide to right the wrongs of the world by reshaping it entirely (and conveys that idea more effectively, it should be said, than the Apocalypse character himself).
This isn’t the intricate, sometimes insular MCU, where a few real-world touchstones like World War II and the surveillance state serve as jumping-off points for chronicles of S.H.I.E.L.D., Hydra, Stark Industries, and so on. The later X-Men movies in particular play more like a preposterous but irresistible secret history of the 20th century, rolling the Cuban Missile Crisis, the JFK assassination, Vietnam, and the Cold War into a decade-hopping narrative that merrily ignores traditional ravages of aging on its characters. (Nicholas Hoult looks fresh-faced for a fortysomething in Apocalypse; non-mutant Rose Byrne looks even better for fiftysomething in the same film.) It’s the kind of oversight-free detail that drives a certain type of moviegoer or comics fan crazy, especially after the MCU has trained them to expect well-managed continuity. But it lends the just-concluded prequel sorta-trilogy a slightly surreal, time-skipped beauty. What’s more fun to watch: meticulously maintained continuity, or Jennifer Lawrence rocking different glam hairstyles before she turns blue and kicks ass? These X-Men turn up in period garb, and reappear a decade later to grapple with the same-yet-different iterations of global turmoil. They’re both of their times and weirdly transcendent of them in a way that accurately reflects a comic-book sensibility.
That’s never more evident than in Days Of Future Past, which connects the six main “team” X-Men movies by a classic comic-book gambit: using time travel to engage in a massive retcon. After the events of that film, Singer or any other filmmakers are essentially free to pick and choose what, if anything, from previous X-Men movies “really” happened—and to re-introduce some of those familiar characters with younger faces. This leaves Past’s follow-up Apocalypse sharing some ground with The Last Stand, in that both movies are ostensibly third parts that try to wrap up stories from previous films while creating plenty of new opportunities for future X-Men movies.
If Apocalypse doesn’t manage its ensemble or story as adroitly as its immediate predecessors, at least Singer maintains that knack for enticing new beginnings; The Last Stand overpowered the sense of doors opening with the sounds of multiple doors slammed hastily shut or lit aflame. After that quick act of arson, the path forward for the X-Men seemed likely to be a series of smaller-scale spin-offs. The general idea seemed to involve producing more focused movies that could revisit characters outside of an ensemble context. But despite leading with the ultra-popular Wolverine, that plan stalled out, and is only now beginning to look viable again. This was in part because X-Men Origins: Wolverine rewarded fans who had waited three years for another X-Men movie with perhaps the shoddiest-looking of the bunch. Even the long-established Wolverine claw effects somehow look much worse.
The first Wolverine movie is superior to The Last Stand because it doesn’t actively screw anything up except itself; its suckiness is more or less self-contained. It also has some enjoyably silly patches, like Wolverine getting into a boxing ring against the Blob, showcasing Jackman’s facility with taking a comic-book punch. It’s the kind of junk that comics fans used to grudgingly tolerate on the regular—the kind of movie, like Daredevil or Batman Forever, that’s just enjoyable enough in its cheesiness to almost pass for halfway decent in the right context, like hastily prepared rest-stop fast food halfway through a long drive. This makes it all the more surprising that the second Wolverine solo movie, James Mangold’s The Wolverine, is pretty strong, and exactly the kind of smaller-scale story that the X-Men universe should be telling in between its big team adventures. As has become a series trademark, the film tinkers with history in inventive ways, placing Wolverine in Japan around the time of the atom-bomb drop, then picking up with him after the events of The Last Stand, and bringing the grizzled loner to Japan. Its limitations seem self-imposed; even the movie’s use of the ever-present Fox Forest becomes downright evocative. The Wolverine maintains plenty of connections with the rest of the franchise, but mostly seems concerned with staging a dark, reflective action movie starring Jackman’s indestructible mutant.
Strangely, it was that first, far lousier Wolverine movie portended the series’ biggest, most surprising, and least continuity-essential success. The first 20 minutes of X-Men Origins: Wolverine includes a sequence placing Wolverine on a team of mercenaries, including Ryan Reynolds in a supporting part as the irreverent Wade Wilson, also known as Deadpool. Naturally, the perfectly cast handsome wiseass Reynolds returns in the climax of the movie as a disfigured mute with a composite of superpowers and terribly un-special effects. Yet against all odds, Reynolds kept pushing on his beloved Deadpool spinoff (something he was reportedly lobbying for even before the first Wolverine movie), and against even more odds, the movie became a massive hit when it was released in early 2016, handily besting the domestic box office totals of any X-Men movies.
This might be a shock to anyone who had previously noted the series’ dependence on Jackman. While filmmakers seemed to assume for years that the X-Men need Wolverine for maximum commercial viability, it turns out that silly ol’ Deadpool doesn’t particularly need the X-Men at all (appropriate for his neither-here-nor-there hero/villain status). His movie is a scuzzier and less serious production, but its use of its corporate siblings—importing metal man Colossus and adapting obscure mutant Negasonic Teenage Warhead as his eye-rolling ward—lends it crucial connections to, and irreverence for, its cinematic cousins. Deadpool is hit-and-miss, and somewhat less clever than it thinks it is, but it accurately captures a certain type of goony comic-book humor to compensate for its garish, low-rent sensibility.
Both The Wolverine and Deadpool break further from both their established cinematic universe and general comics-based templates than most superhero pictures. There’s absolutely no need to see either movie to better understand what happens in, say, X-Men: Apocalypse. And while they both play in a geeky comics world, they also depend on old-fashioned star power. Deadpool not only fits Reynolds’ persona; the actor personally shepherded the character’s unlikely ascent to stardom. Jackman, currently shooting a final Wolverine picture before giving his body a break from feigning indestructibility, performed a crucial act of streamlining and humanizing the Wolverine character that mirrors the films’ process of streamlining the comics in general. Many of the other characterizations follow this lead. Lawrence has turned Mystique from a side-shifting mercenary into a relatable, conflicted figure of the mutant revolution. McAvoy has found both the charisma and hard-headedness of Professor X without turning fully patrician or authoritarian. Fassbender’s simmering anguish makes Magneto’s oscillation between good and evil emotionally believable rather than redundant.
Some comics fans chafe at the suggestion that their beloved source material should be significantly altered in any medium, especially by a non-Marvel studio like Fox. But the X-Men comics are an insane tangle of soap opera, cosmic nonsense, and mutant census-taking. As it turns out, the limitations imposed on them are practically necessary. Wolverine as depicted in many comics would have to be played by either a miniaturized Clint Eastwood or a buffed-up Danny DeVito. In the movies, he’s played by tall, handsome Jackman, who nonetheless distills the important aspects of the character into something that works on screen, even or especially if you’ve never read an X-Men comic.
Although Jackman will return to his signature role one more time, the third Wolverine movie is currently the only X-Men sequel with definitive shooting plans and a release date. Once again, plenty of spinoffs and side projects are in the works: Gambit with Channing Tatum, versions of New Mutants and X-Force, and the inevitable Deadpool sequel. There have been rumblings of a potential ’90s-set X-Men team movie (the new Cyclops, Jean, and Storm, among others, are signed on for more, and none of these core characters have been explored to their fullest potential), and Apocalypse has the requisite post-credits teaser about the next potential villain. But nothing is yet set.
Whatever happens, there will probably be some bad releases in there; even the experienced Singer had some problems taming the unwieldy Apocalypse, and never forget that frequent screenwriter and general X-guru Simon Kinberg had a hand in The Last Stand. True to their diffuse cast of misfits, the X-Men series doesn’t seem to operate with the kind of master plan that depends on a clear, TV-like story progression and heavy quality control. They’re more erratic, with the potential for workmanlike comics action, raw personal emotions, crazy invention, or odd little genre riffs, sometimes all within the same movie. In other words: a universe of exceeded limitations unto themselves.
1. X-Men: First Class (2011)
2. X-Men (2000)
3. X2 (2003)
4. X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014)
5. X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
6. The Wolverine (2013)
7. Deadpool (2016)
8. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
9. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)