Despite floundering with the Fantastic Four and Daredevil, Fox has in many ways flourished with Marvel's X-Men, the franchise that ushered in the modern age of superhero cinema.
The series has powered on for nine films spread out over nearly 17 years, raking in a combined $4.3 billion worldwide, a track record that would please virtually any studio. That box office total doesn't tell the entire story, however, as the franchise has weathered its share of ups and downs; for every "X-Men" or "Deadpool," there's an "X-Men: The Last Stand" or an "X-Men Origins: Wolverine."
But now, almost a year after "Deadpool" kicked off its record-breaking theatrical run, Fox's X-Men are at a creative and commercial crossroads, not entirely due to the unlikely success of the R-rated action comedy, which earned $783 million and its share of critical acclaim. To be sure, Ryan Reynolds' Merc With a Mouth will play a major role in the studio's big-screen plans -- the "Deadpool" sequel is expected to introduce both Cable and Domino and lay the foundation for an X-Force movie -- but the future of the franchise isn't off-color humor and fourth wall-breaking antics.
No, its path lies in breaking free of the traditional superhero trappings, and exploring the boundaries of the world the X-Men inhabit. It's one defined by more than philosophical differences between Professor X and Magneto and the threat of extermination or persecution; it's a rich setting populated by interesting characters -- and not merely those who live in the X-Mansion.
At last, Fox has begun to realize that.
For evidence, we need look not only to plans for a "Deadpool" sequel but also the arrival in March of "Logan," Hugh Jackman's ninth -- and purportedly final -- appearance as Wolverine, a character who, in many ways, has defined the X-Men franchise since its launch in 2000. But even as that chapter comes to a close, another opens, this time on television, with the premiere on Wednesday of FX's "Legion," a reality- and genre-bending drama built around a relatively minor X-Men character. It's a perhaps-unexpected turn for the franchise that will be followed, possibly as soon as next fall, by another (still-untitled) TV series that appears more interested in the setting of Marvel's mutant universe than the costumed characters who dot its landscape.
They're encouraging signs of growth in a stagnating franchise that had started to eat its own tail, with a series of prequels that, although initially well-received, sputtered to an end with 2016's "X-Men: Apocalypse." In the process, the films tread already-traveled territory, borrowing not just from the comic book source material but also from their cinematic predecessors, reintroducing familiar heroes while, in "Days of Future Past," making amends for the sins of 2006's "The Last Stand." Although that clever do-over pleased fans, to say nothing of director Bryan Singer, by resurrecting some long-dead characters, it did nothing to push the boundaries of the X-Men universe.
But within the span of little more than year, from the February 2016 release of "Deadpool" to the debut next month of "Logan," that universe has taken a dramatic step forward, a move bolstered by surprising developments on television -- even as the primary X-Men series looks to toe the line, with plans for a purported "soft reboot" that may very well attempt a reinterpretation of the "Phoenix Saga" storyline that was bungled more than a decade ago in "The Last Stand."
Much has already been written about "Deadpool," which, after years of laboring in development hell, burst into theaters, shattering records as easily as its protagonist breaks the fourth wall. The highest-grossing R-rated film of all time, it's also the most successful entry in Fox's X-Men franchise (even if it's not technically part of the rights package). Those are both noteworthy accomplishments, with "Deadpool" arguably blazing a trail for more mature -- or rather "mature" -- superhero fare.
However, its impact on the X-Men series goes beyond MPAA ratings and box-office receipts. "Deadpool" was irreverent, poking fun at superhero movies and the X-Men franchise, which, brief moments of levity aside, takes itself very seriously. It's not "Man of Steel"- or "Batman v Superman"-level dour, mind you, but it's undeniably somber. After all, the entire premise is that they're outcasts sworn to protect a world that hates and fears them.
The Merc With a Mouth delighted in shooting holes in the X-Men's priggish facade, repeatedly mocking their sense of morality, their "Neverland Mansion," confusing multiple timelines and, um, Wolverine's "nice pair of smooth criminals down under." It's all fair game, especially that last one, considering Wade Wilson's inauspicious debut in "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." The film also crafted a believable, heartwarming love story -- Fox was only partly joking in its marketing of "Deadpool" as such -- something the rest of the franchise so far has been unable to accomplish.
Although fans long expected -- even hoped -- the third Wolverine film would draw inspiration from the Marvel Comics storyline "Old Man Logan," it's now clear they share only superficial elements: They both center on an aging Logan, and, from the looks of the movie's marketing, involve long, dusty road trips. But that's fine, as an adaptation of the 2008-2009 comic book arc would've been difficult, if not impossible, with its sprawling cast -- Fox doesn't control the rights to most of the characters -- and emphasis on spectacle over character or story.
If we take away anything from the marketing for "Logan," and interviews with Jackman and director James Mangold, it's that this film is, first and foremost, about Wolverine. That may seem like an obvious statement, but in a franchise (and a subgenre) in which so many of the pieces and players are interchangeable, it's hard to imagine this story being told with any other character. Magneto? Mystique? No, it has to be Logan.
This is the end of Wolverine's bumpy, and occasionally groan-inducing, 17-year arc, but also Jackman's farewell to the character (that is, unless the feverishly discussed team-up with Deadpool somehow materializes). And it looks and feels like no other X-Men, or superhero, movie before it. Judging from trailers and TV spots, set to the sounds of Johnny Cash's cover of "Hurt" and Fuschia Kate Sumner's rendition of "Amazing Grace," "Logan" is stripped down and raw. It eschews the slickness of the rest of the franchise, the steely blues and grays giving way to sun-bleached landscapes and rusted-out structures. Its heroes are aging, ailing; they bleed.
If that weren't enough to distinguish "Logan" from the traditional X-Men films, its near-future setting provides a sense of distance -- "mutants, they're gone now" -- and allows it to transcend, if not necessarily ignore, nearly two decades of continuity. The introduction of in-world X-Men comic books, depicting fictionalized accounts of the heroes' exploits, takes that even further. "Not only is it different in terms of timeline and tone," Jackman recently explained, somewhat cryptically, "it’s a slightly different universe. It’s actually a different paradigm and that will become clear.”
With Marvel Studios and Warner Bros./DC Entertainment working obsessively to forge connections between the films in their cinematic universe -- and, in the case of Marvel, the links between movies and television -- Fox's X-Men is actually loosening those ties.
That approach is even more apparent with "Legion," the new FX drama centering David Haller, an unbelievably powerful mutant with dissociative identity disorder who in Marvel Comics mythology is the son of Professor Xavier. Here, however, the character's three-decade comic book history -- and all of its adherent benefits and baggage -- is set aside, and the focus placed on an incredibly human story.
“I wasn’t necessarily interested in taking any of the story runs from the comics, and saying, ‘Issues #4-#8 are our first season, and issues #9-#12 are our second season,'” showrunner Noah Hawley, who created FX's "Fargo," recently told CBR. “It was more saying, what is the particular makeup of this character, and the themes and challenges that he faces, and how can I fit that into a story that I want to tell, that plays into my strengths? The character himself sort of led me to the story, which led me to the style.”
"Legion," then, exists untethered from the rest of the X-Men franchise. "With ‘Legion,’ we’re our own universe," emphasized longtime X-Men producer Lauren Shuler Donner. "It gives Noah the freedom to do what he wants to do. Because we play with so many different timelines, and we rebooted and not really rebooted and all that, we felt like, OK, we’re going to throw it out there and hope the fans accept it. [...] We’re making it separate. We’re our own world. We’re in a different world.”
It's a bold, and certainly unexpected, approach for the franchise's first entry into live-action television in more than two decades. (Let's not discuss that "Generation X" live-action TV movie.) Both visually and tonally, "Legion" is a different world, one saturated with color, where questions nag about what's real and what's not, and dance numbers are as likely as fight scenes.
Yet, for all of that, "Legion" remains true to the X-Men's core concept, telling a story about outsiders.
Untitled X-Men TV Series
Fox announced development of "Hellfire," inspired by the X-Men's longtime comic book foes the Hellfire Club, in late 2015, only to abandon those plans 10 months later -- and we're undoubtedly better off for that. Now, instead of a 1960s-set espionage thriller, the network and Marvel Television have partnered to produce what's characterized as a "family drama" that sounds a lot like "Midnight Special," except with mutant-hunting robots.
Created by Matt Nix ("Burn Notice"), the pilot bears all of the hallmarks of a classic X-Men story -- two ordinary parents must flee from the government after discovering their children possess mutant powers -- without the costumes or slavish ties to the larger franchise. Unlike "Legion," however, Donner assured that in this series, "You feel like you’re here in the ‘X-Men’ world."
“[T]here are mutants, mutants are hated, and there are Sentinels," she explained, "though very different from what we’ve seen before."
It's different, in part, because Nix is exploring the traditional themes of the X-Men through what he calls "a more intimate story." “The movies and the comics have generally started with the X-Men and encountered the world outside from the perspective of the X-Men,” he said. “This show flips that on its head, in the sense that it doesn’t exclusively take place inside the world of people who are already X-Men and know that world. [...] I’d say it also explores issues surrounding mutants and what that experience is in a way that’s hard to do in a two-hour movie because [a movie] needs to move very quickly and needs to get to big action. So we can explore some of the more intimate aspects of that over time.”
Although the show's family will throw in with an underground network of mutants, whose members may be familiar to Marvel Comics readers, the emphasis here isn't on the crime-fighting X-Men or (thankfully) their anachronistically attired foes, but instead ordinary people caught up in circumstances beyond their control.
X-Men: The New Mutants
"Legion" and "Logan" arrive, and the untitled television series takes shape, just as the Fox franchise aims to expand its theatrical footprint with the spinoff "The New Mutants." which, like the core X-Men films, will lean on the comic book source material. However, the 1984 Marvel Comics arc "The Demon Bear Saga" is by no means a traditional superhero tale.
While the purported "soft reboot" "X-Men: Supernova" appears determined to revisit "The Dark Phoenix Saga," "X-Men: The New Mutants" will, by all indications, reinterpret that comic's definitive storyline. Created by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz, who introduced Legion a handful of issues later, "The Demon Bear Saga" marked a shift in tone (and a dramatic leap forward) for the title, which centered on the young students of Xavier's School For Gifted Youngsters.
Although the arc bears some of the markings of traditional superhero fare -- costumes, extraordinary abilities, etc. -- it's a psychological thriller, but veers frequently into supernatural horror, as young Danielle Moonstar finally confronts her (literal, it turns out) demon, and loses. It's then up to her classmates to overcome their own fears and insecurities, and come together as a team to save her life.
It's the kind of tale that the primary X-Men film franchise, with its enormous budgets and focus on global threats, alternate timelines and cosmic calamities, can't tell. Like "Legion," "Logan" and, we're told, the untitled TV series, it's a personal story that unfolds within the enormous, and undeniably fascinating, universe of the X-Men, if perhaps only at its fringes. But it's there that boundaries can be tested, and even crossed, and the potential for growth fully realized.
"Legion" kicks off its eight-episode first season tonight at 10 ET/PT on FX. "Logan" arrives in theaters March 3. "X-Men: The New Mutants" and "X-Men: Supernova" (working title) are expected to begin filming in May in Montreal.