The Rise and Fall of Fox’s X-Men Franchise

With Dark Phoenix right around the corner, it gives us a chance to look at one of the most iconic yet divisive comic book film franchises of all time. The X-Men are a Marvel Comics hero group of mutated people who are discriminated against in society. They often battle head to head with the Brotherhood of Mutants. The story is an allegory for the Civil Rights Movement and is based around two movement leaders. The first is Professor Charles Xavier, a telepathic teacher with a pension for peace among all people. Xavier is the Martin Luther King of the story. He gives speeches and tries to unite people by showing that mutants are caring individuals with hopes and dreams just like everyone else. He runs a school for the mutant children and young adults in need of family and guidance while dealing with their powers and seclusion. Erik Lehnsherr, often known as Max Eisenhardt in the comics, is a forceful and fearless leader known as Magneto. His power deals with magnetism manipulation. He is the story’s Malcolm X. He and Xavier wish for the same goal, but he aims to command respect and equality from non-mutants by any means necessary. Obviously, the story takes both characters far beyond the model of which they are based. Professor Xavier’s X-Men become full fledged superheroes with costumes and Magneto’s Brotherhood refocuses from taking equality to taking everything and being the dominant race of human.

The film’s franchise began back in 2000 with the film X-Men. The film introduced what would become a legendary X-Men cast in Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in the two leadership roles. The film’s main character, however, was neither Professor X nor Magneto. It was Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. The film would garner a large amount of love and support and was the first comic book movie of the modern era to truly prove that superhero films can work on a profitable level. The franchise had to kick their game up a notch with its sequel X2: X-Men United. The film brought back the well-received cast including Halle Berry and James Marsden as Storm and Cyclops. The sequel added Alan Cumming as Nightcrawler in a one time performance that really elevated the movie as more than just a rehash of the first. It also added character depth to the film’s younger characters in a love triangle story with Iceman, Kitty Pryde and Rogue. There was also some character betrayals with Pyro switching teams and siding with Magneto. X-Men has always been a soap opera of sorts and this film played into that in the most positive way possible. Another of the film’s strengths is the mutants that have a unique and abnormal look. Aside from Nightcrawler, characters like Mystique and Kelsey Grammer’s Beast filled the world with diversity and varying levels of mutation.

X-Men: The Last Stand was the franchise’s third film and is often lauded as the one that poisoned the series. The plot was convoluted and built to a grand battle between hundreds of mutants. It shoehorned the Juggernaut into the brotherhood alongside the plot of the government developing a mutant cure that would be used against the characters by force. On the flipside, Angel was introduced and Jamke Janssen’s Jean Grey becomes the Dark Phoenix in a love triangle with Wolverine and Cyclops. Needless to say there is a lot going on. The film is not very well written and suffers from trying to tick every box in the comic’s arsenal. X-Men: The Last Stand halted the franchise for a few years as a result.

A bit later, Fox decided to highlight the one thing that everyone continuously loved in all three of the films, Wolverine. The studio went forward with X-Men Origins: Wolverine. A prequel based around Hugh Jackman’s character and his brother Sabretooth, recast as Liev Schreiber. The duo worked well and had a few decent performances surrounding them with Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool and Taylor Kitsch as Gambit. Despite somewhat solid performances, the film’s script was poor. The design of certain characters, namely a laser-eyed and scissor-handed Deadpool with no mouth, was pretty bad. It gave some interesting background to Wolverine’s character and gave birth to some great fight scenes, but ultimately it fell short of revitalizing the franchise.

Initially beginning as another X-Men Origins based on Magneto, Fox decided to reboot the original film with an all new and younger cast. X-Men: First Class started a newer and just as respected ensemble of characters with Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy taking on the lead roles of Magneto and Professor X. The story centered around the first class of X-Men in the 60’s, before the two were at odds and created their own teams. Part of this team is Xavier’s non-biological sister Mystique, played by Jennifer Lawrence. The team also included Nicholas Hoult as a young Beast and Havok, the older brother of cyclops. Darwin, Angel Salvatore and Banshee rounded out the team as they took on Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw. The film brought along many characters like Emma Frost, Azazel and Rose Byrne’s Moira MacTaggert. Moira would go on to be a franchise regular in the new series. The movie was well received and a nice story to set up the characters that would eventually become their iconic comic book versions. We see the origin of Magneto’s famous helmet and the reason Xavier is paralyzed. The film even included a short cameo of Hugh Jackman.

Fresh off of the film’s success, Fox figured why not give a Wolverine centric story one more go. James Mangold was tapped to create The Wolverine. Yet another solo venture for Jackman as he travels to Japan on invitation from a man he saved during the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The story keeps it a bit more grounded than the previous X-Men films. There are some sword fights and some interesting mental trials for the guy. The film takes place after the events of X-Men: The Last Stand and has Wolverine struggling with nightmares of killing his love, Jean Grey. He is dealing with some complications in his healing factor and finishes off a duel with a giant robotic samurai. The film is pretty solid and showed the possibility of taking a darker tone with these films. The film did not quite fix the failed third installment, but it continued the positive legacy of Jackman’s Wolverine.

The next logical move for Fox was to combine this newer rebooted X-Men with their leading man from the originals in X-Men: Days of the Future Past. Looking back at the success of the previous film’s darker tone, this movie was bleak but beautiful. Essentially, the original team from the first few films returned in an apocalyptic future where the events of those films led to a world-ending battle that destroyed most of humanity. Wolverine was transported to the 70’s to convince a stubborn Professor X and an angry Magneto to slow their actions and unite. This was their way of bringing the beloved cast of the past in with the highly acclaimed cast of the newer films together. The amount of moving pieces in this film should lead to a disaster, but the film is great. It properly inserts every character while keeping the stakes high. No one feels like they received the short end of the stick in development and the story is funneled through their most likeable character, Wolverine. The film is used as a reset button for the failures of X-Men: The Last Stand as Wolverine’s changes affect his future. They also build good stories for more films in the 80’s with the newer cast. I highly recommend this film, and the later released Rogue Cut is even better. If nothing else, watch it for the introduction of Quicksilver played by Evan Peters. He’s great.

On the heels of one of their biggest successes, they went for one of the comic’s highest profile villains. Oscar Isaac signed on to play the titular role in X-Men: Apocalypse. The film follows the trend of decade skipping. X-Men: First Class followed our team in the 60’s, X-Men: Days of the Future Past was mostly set in the 70’s and this one was an 80’s flick. There has been an awakening of an ancient egyptian being with power unheard of. He was the first mutant. A prophecy states he will return with four horsemen and bring destruction upon us. The horsemen end up being a young Storm, Magneto, Angel and Psylocke. The team battles this new threat while setting free other mutants captured, including a post X-Men Origins timeline Wolverine. His memories are restored with the help of Sophie Turner and Tye Sheridan’s Jean Grey and Cyclops. The film’s main story, however, concludes in an impressive final fight mixing the heroes and villains banding together to end Apocalypse’s reign. Something about the film was a bit off; it definitely was a solid film that I enjoyed, but it wasn’t quite great. The amount of pins weren’t juggled as well as they were in the last X-Men film. It is still an enjoyable movie with a pretty unique performance from Oscar Isaac.

Not even a year later, Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart returned to work with James Mangold on one last Wolverine standalone. Logan takes place in the future and tells the story of Wolverine as a weathered and beaten man. His healing factor doesn’t work the way it used to. He drives limos for a living and begrudgingly takes care of an old and demented Professor X, with the help of Stephen Merchant’s Caliban. The film doubles down on the grounded nature of The Wolverine and I’d say it triples down on the dark tone of X-Men: Days of the Future Past. It is both critically and objectively the best film of the entire X-Men franchise. Not only that, but it is the final on-screen performance of both Jackman’s Wolverine and Stewart’s Professor X. All natural born mutants are dead with the exception of a few. All of Logan’s friends and family are long gone. The film focuses on a new group of mutants created in a lab. One of which is created using Wolverine’s DNA. Her name is Laura and she is essentially Logan’s daughter. When the company that misplaced the kids is after them, Wolverine is the one reluctantly standing in their way. It is a great film and despite people wanting him back, Jackman has clarified that he thinks it is the perfect film to retire the role.

This June marks the release of Dark Phoenix, Fox’s last X-Men film surrounding the Charles and Erik saga. The younger cast is returning, in the 90’s this time, in an attempt to take another swing at the Dark Phoenix storyline used in X-Men: The Last Stand. Presumably, it will not be another disaster as it won’t be a sub-plot to the cure story. Sophie Turner (Game of Thrones) returns as Jean Grey, losing control of something within her that Charles has suppressed in a seemingly questionable manner. Her inner power mixed with some Phoenix Force space goo will no doubt lead her down a dark and dangerous path. Tye Sheridan (Ready Player One) also returns as Cyclops, Jean’s love interest. There looks to be space missions, more Quicksilver shenanigans and a battle between Erik and Charles over what to do with Jean. The trailers honestly looks pretty average in comparison to previous X-Men films, but I am hopeful for a strong conclusion.

See the latest trailer here:

While Dark Phoenix will be the last of the main series, the final X-Men related release from Fox will be The New Mutants. An X-Men based horror film about mutants in captivity being experimented on. It looks less than satisfying, but I’d love to be wrong. In any case, the Fox and Disney merger will lead to an eventual X-Men film in the capable hands of Marvel Studios.

What is your favorite X-Men movie? How will the X-Men fit into the MCU?

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