The Danger of the Disappearing X-Men

As I watched the "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." premiere this morning, Hulu was dead set on getting me pumped up about "Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes." After spending all of the last holiday season trying to get me to buy SUVs and diamond rings, this was the first time it felt like Hulu really knew me. I love Marvel, and -- seriously -- the only way to get me to play video games is to cram it full of Marvel characters. I also love collecting action figures; I did celebrate my new position as Assistant Editor here at CBR by purchasing Valkyrie and Ant-Man action figures and the X-Men LEGO set. How could I not be pumped about this?

If you traveled back in time twenty years ago and told ten year-old me that one day, characters from "Infinity Watch" would have more merchandise than Wolverine, I would have laughed in your face. I would also probably call a teacher over, because you're a time-traveling adult human harassing a fifth grader on a playground. But the time-traveler would be right. Thanks to Marvel Studios' "Guardians of the Galaxy," Drax and Gamora have way more backpacks, t-shirts, toys, and -- yes -- "Disney Infinity" figurines than Wolverine, Gambit, Storm and the rest of the X-Men.

That's not all, either. The main cover for the special magazine celebrating Marvel's 75th anniversary features no X-Men or Fantastic Four characters. They instead got their own variant covers -- which isn't a bad consolation. It's still disheartening to see the cover of a magazine celebrating 75 years of Marvel Comics make room for three Guardians members and leave no room for Wolverine or the Thing.

The cover does feature Black Bolt, though, a nod to the fact that the Inhumans have taken a big step into the spotlight over the past year thanks to "Infinity" and "Inhuman." Marvel introduced the concept of sleeper Inhumans -- normal humans who, thanks to an outbreak of mystical mist, become transformed into super-powered beings. Seemingly ordinary individuals suddenly gaining remarkable abilities that set them apart from the rest of the population is kinda mutants' whole thing.

There might be no better example of the current synergy between Marvel Comics and Marvel's movies than the Avengers NOW! promo artwork. Soon-to-be leading men Ant-Man and Doctor Strange are there. New ensemble players Winter Soldier, Falcon and Scarlet Witch are there, as is Deathlok -- fresh off heavy exposure in "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." Add Angela, a few Inhumans, and Iron Man, the character that has nearly replaced Spider-Man as the company's mascot, and you have the Avengers of now and NOW! No Spider-Man, Wolverine, Thing, Storm, Rogue, Havok or any of the non-Marvel Studios owned characters that have served on Earth's Mightiest over the past five years. The Avengers NOW! artwork, along with the characters selected for the first few waves of "Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes," make it clear: the Fox-controlled Marvel characters are not a priority.

I hear a lot of fans discussing this fact like it's a conspiracy -- and they're wrong. The definition of the word "conspiracy" includes two key words -- "secret" and "evil" -- that are most definitely not in play here. First, this isn't a secret. I just listed highly visible examples of the X-Men and Fantastic Four being traded out for Rocket Raccoon. It's obvious, and it has been for a while.

Second, this is not evil -- it's business. And while "business" and "evil" are not mutually exclusive words, I don't think that's the case here. To me, the evil part of conspiracy's definition implies a cruel lack of logic or sound reasoning. The problem I have with the way the X-Men and Fantastic Four have been sidelined is that it makes a lot of sense and is justified. Disney owns Marvel. Disney wants to make money. Marvel wants to make money. From what I understand, any time Fox's Marvel characters are used anywhere outside of the comics, Fox gets paid. They will make more money off of a Groot "Disney Infinity" figure than a Wolverine one. It's obvious why Disney would prioritize the characters they own, it makes sense, and I don't blame them for doing so. It makes total sense in my head even if it breaks my heart just a little.

That's not to say that I'm unhappy right now. The X-Men are why I read comics. The X-Men are my favorite anything ever, and I still get a half dozen phenomenal X-Men comics every month. Old characters like Storm and Magneto are kicking ass more than they have in years. Brian Michael Bendis has created new characters -- like Eva Bell and Goldballs -- that are fresh and exciting. This is not a bad time to be a fan of the X-Men comics at all. Even with all the comic book related incidents I cited above, I don't think I would notice the X-Men getting shortchanged if I just had the comics to go by. There are a lot of X-Men comics right now, and a lot of them are fantastic.

The problem is that the comics are not enough. I became a fan in the early '90s, and even back then the comics themselves weren't enough. I only discovered the X-Men because of the Fox cartoon. That cartoon and the deluge of merchandise available -- I had so many X-Men pogs -- coupled with comics that I adored made me a lifelong fan.

I would argue that kids rarely get into super heroes because of the comics. As true as that was for me in 1992, that's definitely the case for today's generation. Just using my nephews -- ages 13 and 9 -- as an example, they both love everything Marvel, yet do not care about the X-Men. These are kids that grew up with me as an uncle, the uncle who started showing them "Night of the Sentinels" before they could talk. They found my "X-Men: Evolution" DVDs and spent most of 2006 with them on a constant loop. But, since the start of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Marvel's stretch of next-level-awesome movies -- and great cartoons like "Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes" -- they've shifted allegiances. These kids like Iron Man more than Wolverine, another fact that would boggle ten year-old me's mind.

Being a huge X-Men fan means that I spend a lot of time reading about alternate universes and time travel, so of course my brain keeps asking "what if...?" "What if the X-Men movie rights were never sold to Fox?" They were only sold to Fox because of the property's massive popularity for most of the 1990s. In order for them to not be sold first, that means they would have had to have been less popular -- which might mean no early '90s cartoon, which means I might have never discovered them. The reason Marvel either held onto all the Avengers' characters rights or had them revert back to Marvel ownership was because none of those characters had a successful 1990s. If the X-Men weren't around to sell a ton of comics, what would have happened to Marvel when the bubble burst in the late '90s? And without Fox's X-Men films, would the comic book movie landscape look the same at all? Yeah, "Blade" proved that comic films can be serious affairs, but "X-Men" proved it on a massive, blockbuster, mass appeal scale -- a scale similar to the one enjoyed by modern Marvel Studios films. Without the X-Men's '90s ubiquity and early '00s big screen success, would Marvel Comics -- let alone Marvel Studios -- be where they are now?

The alternate realities I've cooked up in my head mean either the total erasure of Marvel Studios' output or my X-Men fandom, so our reality is obviously the preferable one. This is how things had to shake out. I'm only partially saddened by this because of the merchandise reasons. I really want to ice slide around as Iceman in "Disney Infinity." But really, I'm mostly sad about this because of what the X-Men's decline in popularity means for the next few generations of comic book fans.

The X-Men are incredibly important to me. Without the X-Men's central minority metaphor, their depiction of the struggle against prejudice, and their message of inclusivity, I do not know that I would have been able to accept my homosexuality. The X-Men instilled in me at a very young age that hating people solely because they are different is a villainous thing to do, and they taught me to accept who I am. The X-Men were my friends when I had none, when everyone in middle school hurled pejoratives at me that were way worse than "mutie." They provided a safe haven for me, and the undercurrent of their adventures subtly told me that I was perfect the way I was born. The X-Men provided this for me, and they provided it for a lot of kids, teenagers and adults. The X-Men are incredibly important, period.

I love the Avengers, but the Avengers do not have that deeper meaning going for them.

The Avengers represent the best of the best of the Marvel Universe. They are the high profile, high status heroes; they're the opposite of the X-Men. That doesn't mean the Avengers aren't inspirational. Individually, there's a lot for kids to be inspired by. Captain America stands up to bullies, Iron Man struggles with hubris, the Hulk confronts his inner anger -- but none of them face hatred and adversity simply because of who they are and how they were born. Even if that struggle might be present in some of the team's members, it does not hold the Avengers together in the way it does the X-Men.

The only way I can see the Avengers coming close to matching the X-Men's social importance is if the team -- specifically the big screen team -- takes a page from the X-Men's inclusivity handbook. In the context of the fictional universe, being an Avenger means way more than being an X-Man because the latter team acts in secret and is despised, and the former acts in public and is adored. By filling the roster with women, people of racially diverse backgrounds, and members of the LGBT community, those new Avengers get the biggest spotlight in the MU placed on them. Now that the MCU is as big as it is, the same definitely applies for our world too. During the "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" press tour, Anthony Mackie spoke constantly about how important it was for him to be a black super hero -- and how important it was for him to see black kids be Falcon for Halloween. The Avengers mean something greater when they use their massive, far-reaching prominence to champion representation. Kids need to see that not only can they be a super hero, but the kid across the classroom that looks different or dresses different or talks different can be one too.

What Marvel and Disney are doing right now is fun, and -- in the case of their films -- downright magical. I know why the X-Men can't play along, and I don't know how this could have been averted. I can't think of a solution. I'm an X-Men guy, and I believe their core concept is an important one -- one that benefits everyone. I've grown into a diehard Marvel fan, and I love living in a world dominated by their incredible stable of characters -- I just can't help but be wary of a future where the X-Men, and indirectly the values they teach, are treated as less than.

Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts Matt & Brett Love Comics, writes for the sketch comedy podcast Left Handed Radio, and makes videos for the Upright Citizens Brigade as a member of UCB1. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).

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