When “X” Doesn’t Mark the Spot: The Challenges of Presenting X-Men Outside of an Integrated MCU
A spoiler-free look at the struggles of Fox’s franchise
I come not to praise the Fox X-Men movie franchise but to bury it.
I wouldn’t define myself as a hater, though I would have to admit that I’ve had a problematic relationship with the series since its inception. I’ve loved numerous moments and individual performances even as my enjoyment of the movies, on the whole, has waxed and waned. But I also have to acknowledge that the Fox Marvel movies — including the recently premiered Dark Phoenix — have labored under limitations that have prevented them from being everything they could have been. And so their most unforgivable sin — of not being the MCU — is nothing they could ever hope to rectify or overcome.
You’d think that the longer-tenure of the Fox Marvel universe would be an asset, however, that’s not usually how things work where innovation is concerned. So while Fox may have been free to make hay (and money) for roughly a decade before the advent of Marvel Studios, the introduction of Iron Man changed the game dramatically in a way that they couldn’t counter.
It’s ultimately not about budget or effects. In the former category, the X-Men franchise did quite well and that gave its creative team plenty of money to spend — a fact reflected by what was often a stellar cast including literally dozens of critically acclaimed actors. And while the effects in the original X-Men trilogy don’t stand up to MCU movies, that’s understandable and inevitable given the rapid improvements in CGI over that same time period; on that count, you can only really compare the effects of the First Class-era movies to contemporary Marvel Studios films.
No, in the end, the Fox Marvel universe stopped being relevant as soon as the MCU showed what an integrated comics-inspired movie universe could look like. Because from that instant going forward, everyone inside and outside of that creative team had to know that the handwriting was on the wall. Don’t get me wrong — Fox still had access to a ton of mutants as well as many characters attached to the beleaguered Fantastic Four franchise. But what they didn’t have was the luxury of time — because now they were in an arms race they couldn’t possibly win. Fox may have held licenses to some of Marvel’s most prominent characters, but Marvel Studios had the comics company’s entire back catalog — as well as the will to gamble on lesser-known properties, something they could do given that they were essentially playing with house money.
For my part, I’d rank Logan as my favorite movie in the now-completed series, followed by Days of Future Past. Other people might mix in the original film, X2: X-Men United, or even X-Men: First Class in there, and I’d not blame them for doing so. (And Deadpool is just a phenomenon in his own right.)
So what do the three movies that most people put at the bottom — Last Stand, Apocalypse, and the horribly panned Dark Phoenix — have in common? They’re the stories with the most undelivered upside to them — the stories that suffered the most from the external size restrictions that circumstances placed on the X-Men’s cinematic universe. They were corn stalks growing in teacups.
I should note here that Dark Phoenix was actually much better than the reviews I’d read would have suggested; its 22% freshness score on Rotten Tomatoes — the lowest of any X-Men movie — is simply rubbish, one of the reasons why I think it behooves us all to think for ourselves and not take the opinions of others at face value. However, I do share one of the core concerns of many reviewers — pacing and scale.
The rise and fall of En-Sabah-Nur (a.k.a. Apocalypse) and the entirety of the Phoenix Saga should each warrant trilogies of their own — or at least could have been multi-movie arcs stretched over a longer and more multi-faceted series. A character with the potential to be the Fox franchise’s Thanos, Apocalypse was introduced and dispatched from the X-Men universe in just over two hours of film — less than that, if we exclusively consider his screen time. And while Sophie Turner had marginally more time to develop Jean Grey over two movies, it was wholly insufficient to elicit the emotional attachment that her story of corruption and redemption requires of viewers. What largely makes the Dark Phoenix arc so poignant in the comics is that it comes on the heels of her saving the universe from the mad Shi’ar emperor D’Ken — an epic that takes the team from the Earth to the stars and back again. And while Last Stand completely (and unceremoniously) pushes aside the classic romance of Marvel Girl and Cyclops to focus on Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, Dark Phoenix doesn’t really offer much to the (literally) star-crossed lovers either — offering them far too little visibility to warrant investment in their relationship.
The shame of it is that these stories — which we likely won’t see adapted again for a generation — are ripe for a MCU-type treatment. In many ways, Apocalypse and the Phoenix are both the Thanos-level threat that the X-Men universe deserved; he could/should have been the menace they’d spend years preparing for whereas she’d end up being the real omega-level threat that they never expected.
Ironically, with more time and a little more latitude, the Fox Marvel universe could have rivaled Disney’s MCU in terms of its scope and complexity. Disney has the Kree and Fox could have leveraged the Shi’ar. Disney has its Captain Marvel whereas Fox had the Silver Surfer. Disney has the Guardians of the Galaxy, and Fox could have leveraged the Starjammers — a band of misfit alien freedom fighters and wannabe space pirates led by a human captain who had been kidnapped from his homeworld. (Sound familiar?) Imagine if, instead of a Guardians movie introducing us to the existence of the Infinity Gems, we’d been treated to a Starjammers movie introducing the Shi’ar race and their connection to the Phoenix Force? It’s also notable that the Shi’ar Imperial Guard — one of the most powerful teams in the Marvel Comics library — would have made a great foil for the Starjammers before eventually confronting what would be a hopelessly overmatched X-Men team in the climax of the saga. (Think Thanos’s Black Order only with some more internal politics and moral ambiguity.) So the pieces were always there to create an expansive and interconnected movie franchise using the properties they had licensed.
You can argue that the market couldn’t have handled an expansion in the Fox offering — superhero fare already having saturated cinema in the last 10 years — and that would be a reasonable assertion. If so, then that just confirms that the die was cast the moment that Marvel Studios released its first feature — the first shot in a war that Fox couldn’t win. Because many of the stories that fans would want to see adapted from Fox’s portfolio can only be done justice through a slow build-up — time that the franchise was never going to have.
Prior missed opportunities notwithstanding, I think the best way that the franchise could have ended would have been in making the Phoenix Saga a two-part movie — ideally with a cliffhanger. I can think of one particular scene that could have served as a gut punch for audiences if placed at the end of Part 1 — evoking a similar emotional response to the ending of Infinity War. And while I did actually very much enjoy some of the significant deviations from the source material in the comics, I could picture the expanded run-time accommodating the introduction of one or more of the absent plot threads mentioned above. But given that I’ve heard it rumored that late reshoots actually reduced the scope of the movie’s final set piece — to avoid potential conflicts with another Disney property — the chances of Fox’s merry mutants getting that kind of send-off were likely slim to none.
Would I suggest you go see Dark Phoenix? If you’ve enjoyed the First Class-era movies and if you’re a completionist, then you’ll likely want to see this one. In particular, I liked several of the scenes in the final moments of the picture that help to bookend the full series going back to 2000 — so worthy of a watch from that perspective. But if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool comics fan who won’t be satisfied by anything other than an ideal treatment of this classic story, then you’re going to walk away disappointed — as you’ve presumably been disappointed by several other installments in the franchise. And given that the potential to fall short of expectations — the distance of the fall — is greatest for this most iconic of X-Men stories (and perhaps all Marvel Comics stories), your disappointment might likewise be greater here.
However you’ve viewed Fox’s stewardship of these characters, I think this final film in the core series is an earnest attempt to bring this MCU-adjacent pocket universe to a close. And whatever rises from its ashes, we can only hope it’s delivered without some of the handicaps that sometimes kept the original run from meeting or exceeding fan expectations. It’s hard to say how long that process will take, but you can be sure that the X-Men’s own phoenix-like return will be as anxiously anticipated as it is inevitable.
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