As things stand now, there are three Superhero Cinematic Universes. Disney and Marvel Studios have theirs, with all of its mystical phases (The MCU); Warner Bros. and DC have theirs, with its ever expanding and contracting slate of movies (The DCEU); and Fox has the X-Men/Fantastic Four Marvel movie rights that grant them access to tons and tons of characters from those properties. There used to be a fourth, back when Spider-Man lived alone on Sony Island, but now- thanks to a special arrangement- he’s essentially been assimilated into the MCU.
Yes, Sony threw up the white flag, in a move that many fans wish Fox would copy and just “give” the X-Men and the Fantastic Four film rights back to Marvel. But…WHY? Why would anyone want that? I’ve stated before that there are good reasons for the X-Men to stay segregated from the MCU, since Marvel already has so much going on which means your favorite mutants would get the shaft, but today I’m going to double down and explain why Fox’s Cinematic Universe could actually end up being the most exciting out of all of them.
For today’s purposes, let’s just refer to Fox’s Marvel world as The XCU (X-Men Cinematic Universe) since I don’t think they’re going to be touching the Fantastic Four again anytime soon.
The “Big Two” Are Flawed…
When it comes to comic book universes, most people tend to think of it as a two-horse race between Marvel Studios and DC Entertainment. For better or worse, those are the two big games in town, and they each have access to the most iconic superheroes in the world. Yet both have major drawbacks.
Let’s start with Marvel (Yes, I’m starting with Marvel!):
Marvel Studios, for all of its successes and all of the great work they’ve done cultivating the modern day superhero movie boom as we know it, has a growing image problem. Their films, of which there have been 14 so far, are starting to reveal that the studio lacks any guts. There’s an almost corporate, sterile quality to the films that make them feel a little too “safe” and a little too focus-grouped. The heroes are rarely in any real danger, the quips take the sting off of the tension, the villains are mainly softball, and there’s not much for a hardcore fan over the age of 18 to really sink their teeth into once they’ve left their local multiplex.
None of this is to say that their movies won’t continue to do really well at the box office, and that we won’t be analyzing Phase 29 here on LRM in thirty years. But what I’m saying is that, for hardcore fans who grew up on this stuff and want to see their favorite characters do truly exciting things and break new storytelling ground, they’re likely to grow tired of Marvel’s family-friendly/risk-free/corporate approach.
It reminds of me of what happened with Nintendo. When the Nintendo Entertainment System came out in 1985, it created a huge wave of gamers. Many of them were kids and, for a while, it would be all they knew. With each phase, i.e. new Nintendo console, the gaming community grew and grew. Then, at some point, they hit a wall. The kids who grew up on Nintendo eventually hit their late teens and early twenties, and Nintendo was still playing it safe with kid-friendly titles, while Sony and Microsoft started introducing consoles and games that were geared for older gamers.
Nintendo stuck to its guns and, to this day, they’re still out there making games and consoles their way, and you can debate how well that’s going for them.
I think of Marvel Studios as the Nintendo of Superhero Cinematic Universes, and I just know that- at some point- people are going to want a Playstation or an X-Box.
Which brings us to the DCEU…
Over at Warner Bros., someone had the insightful idea to make films that were a little more grown up; a little more challenging; and a lot more risquÃ©. The problem is that their execution has left much to be desired. While Christopher Nolan showed the world that DC characters can be used to tell fascinating tales that transcend the comic book genre, once his run ended and Warner Bros. decided to build a Cinematic Universe in the post-Nolan vein, the results have been undeniably shoddy.
None of their films have scored with critics, and they’ve all divided fans. Their sense of quality control leaves a lot to be desired, and it may be a long time before get to see if they get this thing back on the rails. The “new regime,” headed by Geoff Johns, won’t release its first movie until 2018. That’s how long we’ll have to wait to see a film that had its entire production cycle take place under the new guard. Until then, we’re just going to have to wait and see what becomes of the DCEU. If the Comic-Con trailer for Justice League was any indication, they seem to want to convey a sort of Avengers-lite vibe now. We shall see.
The DCEU, as it currently stands, is kind of the Jaguar game console, and it looks like it wants to end up as the Sega Genesis.
Enter The XCU…
With this year’s Deadpool, Fox did something rather magnificent. They released an R-rated movie about a relatively obscure character, made for a third of your typical superhero movie budget, that didn’t directly tie into any major franchises, that ended up making a killing at the box office, with critics, and with fans!
Here’s a handy little graph I made for a feature I wrote on Deadpool back in February:
Fox’s Deadpool topped them all. It was insane, and it was exciting. That film blew the doors off superhero films as we knew them, by injecting the movie with unpredictable, mature thrills, and for having the balls to be brash and bold in an age of cookie-cutter corporate theme park attractions. Now let’s look ahead at the studio’s next XCU film: Logan.
Logan has all the makings of a fantastic film. The trailer that debuted a few months ago got everyone talking, and the movie itself looks like nothing we’ve seen before in the comic book genre. It’s gritty, it’s dark, it’s very character-driven, and it looks like a downright refreshing cinematic experience; Refreshing in much the same way as Deadpool was.
Then there’s the prevailing thought that Fox has seen how people have taken to Deadpool, how excited they are about Logan, and they’re now taking a step back to reassess their future. While the other studios are busy clogging the pipeline with years and years worth of movies in their Phases and slates, Fox is looking at their XCU and trying to figure out how to keep the current excitement going. It’s why they’re not rushing the Gambit movie, they’re letting Josh Boone create a new corner of the universe with his New Mutants movie, and they’re going to treat the next proper X-Men film as a soft reboot that takes the franchise in a new direction (sans Bryan Singer).
It’s because of Fox’s desire, willingness, and ability to break new ground that I think they could end up being that adult alternative to Marvel Studios. They can be the Xbox/Playstation to Marvel’s Nintendo.
Credit Where Credit Is Due…The XCU Has Come A Long Way
While it’s easy for fans to sit back and crap on Fox’s X-Men franchise on their smartphones and laptops, they’re absolutely overlooking one simple fact:
Fox Has Quietly Rebooted Itself, And Kept Itself Relevant, Several Times Over The Course of Almost Two Decades!
People who compare the XCU to the current MCU and DCEU products don’t seem to understand that Fox’s world began long before this superhero boom. Way back in 2000, they started things off with Singer’s X-Men. That was during a time when Hollywood wasn’t quite ready to fully embrace the comic book genre. The prevailing industry logic at the time was that comic book films had to be loosely translated from the books, keeping only their guts, and turning them into more general action-adventure films. Hollywood had learned from the colorful, cartoon excess of Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin in 1997, and knew it had to scale things down.
But where things were in 2000, and where they are now, are very different. We now have characters like Vision flying around in Marvel Studios movies, and Superman battling Doomsday in the DCEU movies. It is now perfectly okay, expected, and acceptable for superhero films to appear as if they were ripped directly from the pages of the books they’re based on. Mainstream audiences have shown they’re ready for that sort of thing.
So, between X-Men (2000) and X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), Fox has had to demonstrate a willingness to adapt and evolve without resorting to copying what their peers were doing. With X-Men: First Class, they began to pivot after critical misfires like X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Then with X-Men: Days of Future Past, they showed they were willing to go toe-to-toe with their own Avengers-style superhero epic, and with Deadpool they showed they could actually get ahead of current trends and- perhaps- show the future of the genre. With Logan, they look like they’re going to continue to change the very perception of what a “comic book movie” even is.
Can They Get A Grip On Their Quality Control?
That, my friends, is the big question. You probably noticed that, earlier on, I totally glossed over the fact that Apocalypse came out after Deadpool and before Logan. I did that because X-Men: Apocalypse was seen as a big step backward after the stunning success and ingenuity of Deadpool only three months prior. It was also seen as a somewhat unimpressive follow-up to Days of Future Past, which had created such positive buzz for the XCU back in 2014.
That’s why the question becomes whether or not Fox can see what worked with Deadpool, and what will seemingly be working for Logan, and then create a series of films that are of equal quality. No more dips; No more steps backward; Just more of the awesomeness that should become the studio’s hallmark with these Marvel properties.
By dumping Singer (who I happen to like), rethinking the direction of the proper X-Men movies, and taking their time developing movies like Gambit, Deadpool 2, and X-Force, they seem to be communicating that they’re listening to fans and undergoing their latest evolution.
If- and only IF– Fox is able to get a grip on the overall quality of their Marvel output, I think they can be the single most exciting source for comic book movies out of all of them; And the mere fact that they’ve shown they can make movies like Deadpool, to me, means they already are.
As usual, I’ll be around if you’d like to keep this conversation going in the Comments below.
Thanks for reading!