The Rise and Fall of the X-Men Franchise From a Front Row Seat
I have always been an X-Men fan since 1987, when I first picked up a comic at my cousin's place in New York City. It always felt somehow different from the other comics in terms of the writing and the sense of atmosphere it created. It felt very much like a tight knit group, more like a family rather than a band of superheroes. It was a little, nerd niche that I went to. Then X-Men #1 came out in 1991 and, suddenly and somehow, X-men became mainstream instead of a corner in youth culture. A cartoon came out that every 90s kid watched (though I hated it), there were multiple cover variants worth hundreds of dollars of that issue, and the comics themselves began to branch out into other ‘X’ comics like X-Force, X-Factor, and so on.
The climax of its popularity hit when the movie X-Men came out in 2000. Hollywood always had an itch for superhero movies since 1989s Batman, but that franchise seemed to have run its course, and they had been trying to find a replacement for it ever since. There were some good ones like Blade, but nothing that seemed to have the financial punch that Batman did, until X-Men’s release.
They were mainstream, culturally relevant, and though they changed some things like the black leather suits, it was very successful and elevated the franchise. A large part of that success was viewing the story through the eyes of Wolverine, played by the then-newcomer Hugh Jackman, introducing another change in that comic book Wolverine was 5'3 while the actor was easily 6’0. This didn't bother me though, it was to be expected. To expect a movie to be exactly like the books it was based on was unrealistic.
Yet it was also the beginning of growing problems with each successive movie that I watched. By the time the third movie, Last Stand, rolled around and bombed, I felt it was a dead franchise that had gone the way of Batman and Robin.
As an X-fan, I wasn't happy about the failure. I had hoped that they would have learned their lesson after the first movie, yet they never did. The story never mattered, just the flash. X-Men Origins, Wolverine's later, first solo movie, confirmed that this formula had stopped working and that great characters were being squandered for a cash grab that was increasingly grabbing less cash.
When X-Men: First Class came out, I was more hopeful. Wolverine wasn't in it and it focused on the internal dynamics of the characters. For me, it felt like a real X-men movie. This was important because times had changed since the 2000s and people were no longer buying into superhero movies with no substance. First Class and Days of Future Past seemed to finally take this lesson to heart .
Unfortunately, X-Men: Apocalypse followed and that pretty much singled the end of the X-Men franchise for me. It was a return to the old formula, though this time Wolverine was replaced with Mystique, or rather Jennifer Lawrence. And though the third Wolverine solo film, Logan, was great and called by everyone a critical success, I don't consider it really part of the X-Men franchise because it wasn’t about the X-Men. Same with Deadpool.
That said, I reflected on the fall of the franchise in my eyes and it was due to several factors.
Product, Not Story
The first factor was the handling. The franchise was treated like a merchandising campaign instead of a storytelling platform. And how they portrayed the X-Men falls in line with that. The handsome lead hero whose a rebel with a heart of gold. The mentor who tries to make him better. The hesitant woman to be wooed, and the supporting characters who follow. This worked for the first two films because of Jackman's charisma and clear dedication to the character. He took the role seriously and openly displayed a clear appreciation of Wolverine that the other actors didn’t. But even during the second movie, that was starting to wear thin. By the third film, it was blatantly ridiculous.
Too late, Fox realized that the X-Men were not about a single person, but a family and how they interacted with each other and external threats around them. The focus on Wolverine, and later Mystique, caused this core aspect of the team to be ignored. By the time Fox saw it, competition had arisen and were not only already doing the correct formula, but doing it better.
You Could Do it in the 2000’s
The second factor was the era. During the 90s and 2000s, the superhero genre was still largely generic with little variety and concern for good story. So the forementioned tropes above could work then because everyone did it. We all ate that shit up though because it was the X-Men. The name alone had cred, until it didn't. By the time the main movies stopped, Batman and the MCU were reving up.
The new era’s emphasis on comic origins, along with people truly dedicated to those worlds, raised the bar for the genre. No longer were big battles and tragic origin stories going to be enough. First Class and Future Past seemed to learn this, but then reverted back to the old style. Plus, it failed to grow up with its audience, so it felt both dated and like it was trying too hard to regain its former glory and remind me of the past.
It refused to take risks and was burdened by the convoluted history that plagued the franchise. It may have been better off doing a total reboot, with a new and more character0centric story that movie fans now came to appreciate.
Where Is This Going?
As mentioned above, third was its convoluted timeline and lack of overall vision. Back in the 2000s, they were just making X-Men movies to make them. No one had a vision or a long term plan about where it was going, other than they wanted to do a sequel and get the payoff. They didn't worry about "does this make sense with the last movie" until First Class, and that was because Marvel had done it first. The new kid on the block treated comic movies like comic books and not merchandise. Therefore, the overall story was central.
X-Men wasn't just playing catch up, they were tripping over their own feet. In First Class this wasn't so much of a problem, but afterwards became that. I was only somewhat following along because I had seen the earlier movies, but younger people hadn't. Even then, there still was no larger plan about where the X-Men story was going.
The franchise tried to change this up with a younger cast, while still on the same timeline. Star Trek got around this by introducing a new timeline that made sense with the original, allowing them to co-exist. X-Men's use of the same timeline though just made me feel like it wasn't fresh anymore. You can only talk about prejudice for so long.
"The Batman franchise has more than established that a dead one can arise from the ashes as something new."
When Emo Was Cool
That leads to the fourth factor, atmosphere. The vibe of the X-Men universe is very dark, from the lighting to the costumes. This isn't entirely its fault as that was what was trending at the time. With the exception of the reborn Batman franchise, dark and emo was losing its appeal. The MCU had changed its tone to a lighter and more optimistic color, while still maintaining its storytelling gravitas. If it went dark, it wasn't to be cool. Then it diversified its storytelling style and fully utilized its many characters. With the exception of Wolverine, and later Xavier, Magneto, and Mystique, X-Men did not do this. That affected its atmosphere, making the movies more of a social commentary rather than a story.
New Kids on the Block
The final factor was competition. As I mentioned earlier, X-Men: First Class mostly came as a response to the revitalized Batman franchise and the rapidly exploding MCU. One would think that the MCU would be the one playing catch up, as both X-Men and Batman have been long standing media pillars. This was not the case however as Batman had successfully adapted to the times and the MCU was taking a drastically different take and taking bigger risks that we audience members appreciated.
The mainline X-Men franchise, however, could not keep up. It always felt to me like it was trying to keep up rather than being among peers. Deadpool and Logan worked because they had learned, applying all the lessons above and crafting excellent movies that not only stood out from the crowd, but further raised the bar for the genre.
The X-Men Are Dead, Long Live the X-Men
For whatever reason, the mainline 'X' movies aren't doing it. And with the Fox deal going through to return the X-Men to the MCU, the latest iteration of the Fox incarnation just feels too much like a last gasp of air, even if they try to push it like it’s not. And that's sad because of what the franchise was and had the potential to be. But good, because maybe under people who see it as a comic and not Hollywood merch, it can have it's own rebirth. The Batman franchise has more than established that a dead one can arise from the ashes as something new. Though it’s probably going to be some years off.
So for me, X-Men dropped off the radar when they tried to use the old magic. And comic movies were too far beyond that now for such an approach to appeal to me.
© 2019 Jamal Smith