Ever since the proliferation of the superhero genre, sequel-making and universe-building have overtaken movie studios. As rights are sold and potential franchises rise and fall, from the dust, three central pillars have emerged as the tentpoles of the superhero movement: Disney’s Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor), Warner Bros. DC Extended Universe (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman) and Fox’s X-Men (Wolverine, Deadpool, Magneto- they also technically have the Fantastic Four, but no one likes them). There could also still be a case made for Sony, who have the rights to Spider-Man, but they have signed a deal with Marvel, and Spider-Man is now essentially part of the MCU.
It has been widely assumed for years that the MCU was the best that superhero films had to offer. Marvel stuck to a strong formula, building up their heroes in individual films before releasing team features. They utilized strong wit, relatable characters and easy-to-digest narratives to build their brand and it has worked, delivering billions of dollars in sales and strong critical response.
Meanwhile, the DCEU is still trying to get itself together. Attempting to differentiate itself from its Marvel cousin, their films are darker, more intense and full of characters right from the get-go. Unfortunately, audience and critical response has been more tepid. By trying to appeal to so many people while being different, the films are a mess of half-ideas, rushed plotlines and shallow characters. They feel more like board room projections, broken down into audience demographics, rather than singular visions made by committed storytellers, especially in comparison to Christopher Nolan’s preceding Dark Knight trilogy.
And in the background, Fox’s X-Men, one of the first franchises to start the superhero extravaganza, has lingered. Never the biggest in terms of box office, the critical and commercial response has ranged from great (X2: X-Men United (2003)) to terrible (X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)). And yet in the past few years, the landscape has started to change, and it’s worth proposing a new thought: Are the X-Men now the best superhero franchise out there?
Diehard MCU fans would likely guffaw at such a notion, but something is starting to seep into the MCU that wasn’t there before: blandness. While the quality of the films has not deteriorated, innovation has not been present either. “Doctor Strange” was far too similar to “Iron Man.” “Captain America: Civil War” was equally similar to being an Avengers film, which are also growing more and more alike. And the lack of stakes is starting to decrease the interest in the characters. Marvel is never going to kill Tony Stark or Steve Rogers. So putting them in more and more dangerous adventures is not really keeping us emotionally involved. It’s becoming more and more a case of been-there, done-that, and it’s starting to seem that while Marvel continues to excel at making decent movies, they are just making the same movie over and over again.
Meanwhile, Fox’s X-Men have been changing the formula towards what the DCEU was presumably trying to do: darker and edgier. But where the DCEU failed by trying to appeal to the same demographics, the X-Men have decided to ignore the “traditional” superhero audience. Here, they may have discovered something very interesting; while other studios continue to view the superhero audience as kids and parents, the kids who grew up watching the original “X-Men” (2000) and “Spider-Man” (2002) have actually grown up. They have stayed fans of superherodom, but being in their twenties and thirties, their palettes have evolved and mature films with mature themes are no longer a detractor for them. As one of those kids, I have witnessed the effects myself.
What started with “X-Men: First Class” in 2011, which featured spy drama and Nazi hunting continued with “The Wolverine” in 2013, which was set in a non-Western locale and bared the weight of the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki. And 2014’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past” delivered a thoroughly satisfying sci-fi rumination on genocide and transformational hope. But what really blew up the formula was last year’s “Deadpool.” Here was a hard R-rated flick complete with cursing, violence and sexuality. And not only did critics love it, audiences made it the highest grossing R-rated movie of all-time. This was definitive proof that superhero movies did not need to be “fun-for-the-whole-family” type of affairs; they could be badass, violent, mature films as well.
Sure, “X-Men: Apocalypse” was a bit of a disappointment following such a run of success, but a fall every now and then is inevitable. Just this year, the X-Men have dialed up the ante even more, delivering another massive, mature success with “Logan”, a film that carries more visceral emotion than any superhero film ever made. It is violent, it is dour, and yet it is a beautiful story harkening back to the Western, a true innovation for the genre.
And appearing alongside “Logan” is the equally surprising TV series “Legion.” The first TV show based on the X-Men since the various animated series back in the 1990s and early 2000s, “Legion” is confusing, disturbing and wonderfully strange. The viewer has no real idea of what is real, what is fake, who is a friend or enemy, even what is happening at any given moment. There’s never been a TV show like it. It seems to belong more in the real of student surrealist exploration and yet here it is, presented on basic cable, with millions of dollars backing it and a second season already confirmed. Marvel’s TV series, “Agents of S.H.E.L.D.”, on the other hand is a far inferior, kind of bland experience.
And down the pipeline, the X-Men are looking at a second Deadpool film, an X-Force film, another live-action TV show and a rumored X-Men film with the younger cast featuring Dark Phoenix, a bizarre, cataclysmic character given poor treatment in “X-Men 3.” With confirmation that future X-Men projects will stray away from the Xavier-Magneto relationship and with castmembers Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and presumably Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender calling it quits, the X-Men are literally transforming in front of our eyes. It is very exciting to see the franchise adapt towards something new, something interesting, something beyond just the standard “family-adventure” type of affair.
So have the X-Men become the preeminent superhero franchise today? That is up for debate. The MCU continues to be the biggest box office draw, and the DCEU may somehow pull themselves up and deliver on the promise of the Justice League (I’m not holding my breath on that one though).
But when it comes to the MCU versus X-Men, you really have to ask yourself; is it better to settle for standard fare that hits just enough of the right notes or is the occasional risk that sometimes falters, but really tries to be more than its genre, more deserving of your love?