“Who’s that?” asked my girlfriend’s 14-year-old son in our screening of Dark Phoenix, referring to a randomly levitating Michael Fassbender. (He is Magneto, Master of Magnetism and leader of the Brotherhood of Mutants, but you wouldn’t know that from the movie, which insists on just calling him “Eric” and never once providing exposition about his powers.)
He is not a sheltered kid when it comes to the big tentpole films of summer and Christmas, but he mentioned, after a trailer for Dark Phoenix played before one of the umpteen Marvel movies I’ve taken him to see, that he didn’t know anything about one of the biggest superhero series ever. For sheer curiosity and because I had a ton of rewards points at my theater, I took him along to see the last installment in the series—at least the last in this continuity—that truly kicked off the superhero film phenomenon. (He thought it was fine, but justifiably needed help identifying characters, none of whom just use their damn names from the comics.)
It’s a good thing we saw it while we could: It was pulled from many theaters within just a month due to lackluster performance. With Avengers: Endgame and Dark Phoenix debuting this year as the end of their respective narratives and the inside baseball news of Disney simply buying the parent company that owns the film rights to the X-Men, it’s worth it to consider why these movies trudged haltingly along for as long as they did and why, even as we are unlikely to see this cast or this continuity continue, we unquestionably are going to see some kind of reboot or revival.
The proliferation of superhero films over the past 20 years has diminished the importance of the X-Men movies in a way. It’s wrong to say 2000’s X-Men was the first comic book movie of the current era: 1998’s Blade was. It’s wrong to say it was the first to be unapologetically faithful to its source material: The movie scoffed at the “yellow spandex” of the comics, wrapping its characters in black leather, while 2002’s Spider-Man happily featured its eponymous wall-crawler tangling with the Green Goblin in costumes that fully evoked their four-color roots.
If the first movie has anything going for it in the grand history of this mega-genre, it’s that it cast giants like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen and has a plot recognizably based on comics in a digestible format. If you weren’t immersed up to your telepathy-proof helmet in the lore of the comics but had an understanding of the X-Men story, the movie did great work getting you up to speed and invested quickly, with no jarring changes to series lore because grown men were afraid to say words like “mutants” or “Cerebro.”
It also made the wise decision to focus the narrative on one character—Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, the bad boy of the team and the perfect audience surrogate. Handing the duty of perspective character to the X-Men’s consummate loner made the introduction to the weird world of Professor Charles Xavier and his team of extracurricular vigilantes seem natural.
X-Men was okay, and didn’t make any missteps in its plot or casting, but X2: X-Men United (2003) was, and I think still is, the strongest entry in the series, and was for a while a tight contender for strongest superhero movie of all time alongside Spider-Man 2, which came out the next year and unquestionably demonstrated that Marvel superheroes could compete with the likes of Superman and Batman at the box office.
X2 expanded the scope of the story, introduced a larger cast of characters, and came jam-packed with even more good action scenes. It kept Wolverine centered as the protagonist, introduced more nuance into the bad guys, and is responsible for some truly iconic moments, including the insane teleporting gunfight featuring Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) and the yet-to-be-topped scene where McKellen’s Magneto springs himself from his plastic prison.
It was after this point that Bryan Singer—and rest assured, we will get to him—left to work on the utterly forgettable Superman Returns, leaving the franchise he’d built in the hands of Brett Ratner for X-Men: The Last Stand. That latter film is where the franchise finally stumbled, and never recovered.
After the legendarily bad Wolverine standalone film X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009, the series pivoted to the inexplicably well-regarded X-Men: First Class, a movie which is very bad and yet which continues to set the aesthetic and continuity template for all the rest of these movies. First Class, which is a very bad movie that for some reason lots of reviewers really liked, shot the timeline backward to the 1960s and completely rebooted almost everything about the story in ways that to this day make no sense in the context of the original films, two of which were pretty okay.
For some reason, First Class is consistently mentioned as one of the good films in the series, I assume due to either the MTV Movie Awards-grade makeup and costuming effects or the killing of the only black character in loving, CGI-assisted slow motion.
At the same time the X-Men movies were faltering, Marvel Studios’ lineup of Avenger’s films were raking in cash and acclaim, and the moviegoers who knew about the origins of the characters began to question just exactly why Hugh Jackman couldn’t be on screen trading one-liners with Robert Downey Jr. I don’t know if it’s true whether there’s some kind of implicit Marvel bias in audience members, but it isn’t the reason one of the biggest superhero teams in comics started losing at the box office to the previously ignored Avengers. It happened in part because the X-Men franchise spiraled out of anything resembling control, yet never stopped just making more movies. X-Men Origins: Wolverine was a canon-hostile movie that squandered every interesting idea it had. A second Wolverine solo film would also fail to make an impression.
Billed as a return to form, X-Men: Days of Future Past brought Singer back to the director’s chair and cast Jackman as Wolverine in more than a mere cameo role, and it is also not a good movie, and one that somehow both raises a middle finger to the people who worked on the franchise after Singer left it and manages to be really confusing as it rips continuity to shreds once more. (It seems like Wolverine’s time travel tinkering prevents the doomsday of the future and returned us to the original cast, including Stewart and Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey for goodness sake, but then we abandon those castings completely in the mainline films.) The series defiantly kept Singer behind the camera as director and producer on the films as sexual assault allegations mounted against him—he did finally bow out for Dark Phoenix.
Dark Phoenix doesn’t act as much of a send-off to its characters, doesn’t neatly tie up any long-running plot points or do much to act as a statement on anything. It insists it is part of the same storied lineage as the X films that gave us the Stewart/McKellen rivalry or the dry charisma of Jackman’s Wolverine, but it says virtually nothing about any of the central ideas the X-Men stand for. We absolutely are going to see more of them now that Disney has swallowed the franchise whole—there is no way they won’t somehow be funneled carefully into the Marvel Cinematic Universe via some ridiculously ornate cameo in which Doctor Strange accidentally opens a portal to the X Mansion or Professor X asks T’Challa for political asylum in Wakanda.
This will necessarily mean throwing out what’s come before, or blithely retconning it. The very first scene in the very first movie is one of the best ones in all of superhero films to date, a thing I don’t say lightly in regard to anything that invokes the Holocaust: A terrified child ripped from his family reaches out and wrenches apart a metal fence through the power of will alone in the moment before he’s knocked unconscious. It’s him, a teenaged me thought in awed disbelief, because movies just didn’t do that with superheroes. It’s a trick filmmakers forgot about until we were introduced to Killmonger in almost the exact same way.
As Marvel scoops its intellectual property back into its toy chest, will their filmmakers match that artistry in service to these characters, who more than any others in comics represent the marginalized and disenfranchised? I’m really worried they won’t.