While Marvel Studios gets pretty much all the credit for coining and popularizing the term Cinematic Universe, i.e. a series of film franchises that share a common fictional universe, it was the X-Men that paved the way for the groundbreaking success of the MCU almost a decade before it even happened.
Since the early 00s, we’ve seen three different live-action incarnations of Spider-Man, two of Batman, two of Superman, two of the Fantastic Four, three Punishers, two Daredevils and so on and so forth, across various different film franchises and television series. The superhero titles that haven’t been rebooted, remade or attached to a Cinematic Universe have faded into obscurity (Blade) or development hell (Hellboy, pun intended).
Yet the X-Men are still around, sixteen years and nine movies later. They’ve had their ups and downs, for sure, but they’ve endured, while still being a part of the same continuously growing story. It may be held together by a healthy dose of time travel shenanigans, but it is definitely the same universe that was first introduced to audiences all the way back in 2000.
The series certainly started out the way most typical blockbuster franchises tend to – there was the initial success, the sequel that was better in every way and the underwhelming third entry, a trajectory that is identical to the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy. The similarities don’t even end there.
If I told you the first part of an old superhero franchise was pretty good, but hasn’t aged well, particularly when it comes to special effects, while the second still holds up and is to this day one of the best superhero movies out there and then the third one is just a mess because it tried to do too many storylines at once, which franchise am I talking about – X-Men or Spider-Man?
Both are valid answers.
The key difference between the two is that before Cinematic Universes were a thing, Spider-Man movies would only have Spider-Man characters in them. Ditto for Batman, Superman and most of the other franchises at the time. Now, of course, characters with decades worth of comic book stories have a large supporting cast and a wide range of villains to choose from, but that extensive framework is still built around a single main character.
X-Men, however, was a team movie – and unlike the Fantastic Four, their main storytelling engine was tailored to a large, interchangeable roster of characters with various abilities.
Granted, most of the X-Men movies focus on Wolverine as a central character, but that doesn’t change the fact the X-Men license gives you access to hundreds of characters and numerous storytelling possibilities that other superhero titles simply did not have. It was a Cinematic Universe waiting to happen.
When Spider-Man 3 crashed and burned with critics and audiences, even though it made a lot of money, Sony went back to the drawing board and eventually rebooted the franchise completely. When X-Men: The Last Stand suffered a similar fate, the franchise shifted gears not to a clean slate, but towards spin-offs centered on popular characters – which is interesting, because it’s a basically a reverse of what Marvel did for their Cinematic Universe, which started out with a series of solo films that built towards a team movie.
X-Men Origins was originally a series of films that were going to explore the early days of characters like Wolverine and Magneto, while a separate movie about Deadpool was still stuck in development hell, and would remain so until very recently.
When X-Men Origins: Wolverine turned out to be a complete disaster, Deadpool got pushed even further back (due in no small part to the horrible reception to poor depiction of the character in that movie) and the plans for a solo Magneto movie were scrapped and repurposed into what would eventually become X-Men: First Class, the launchpad for a whole new trilogy centered around younger versions of Magneto, Charles Xavier and Mystique.
The thing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that it’s never really suffered any major setbacks. Sure, not all of its movies are beloved critical darlings of audience favourites, but you’d be hard pressed to find one that a majority of people didn’t at least kind of enjoy. At its very worst, the MCU has never dropped below lukewarm reception. Marvel’s been on a winning streak since Iron Man and it’s showing no signs of stopping anytime soon.
That kind of consistency is undeniably impressive, but as the great Rocky Balboa once said “It ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward.” The X-Men have taken more than their fair share of hits over their years. The Last Stand and Origins: Wolverine are both franchise killers in their own right, but to have them come out one after the other? That’s just brutal. Most franchises wouldn’t be able to recover from something like that – yet the X-Men did, and in a big way.
First Class and Days of Future Past now only reestablished the series as one of the leading superhero franchises, they did so without sweeping the past under the rug. The whole point of Days of Future Past is to tie the events, characters and casts of the two trilogies together, an idea that’s just as ambitious, if arguably not more so than what Marvel is doing with the Avengers movies and Captain America: Civil War.
Let’s be absolutely clear about something though – the franchise’s insistence on a single shared timeline makes its continuity from movie to movie very problematic. Origins: Wolverine in particular is such a sore spot continuity wise that after it came out was pretty much ignored until Days of Future Past‘s time travel plot effectively erased it. The only movie that really acknowledges it even existed was Deadpool, and that was just to make fun of how terrible it was.
That in itself is actually fairly reminiscent of superhero comic books themselves. You may find this hard to believe, but after several decades and hundreds, if not thousands of stories, superhero comics don’t always make a lot of sense or fit neatly with one another.
X-Men: Apocalypse is the ninth installment in the series, spin-offs included and it opened to mixed-to-negative reception very recently. Having seen it, I can say that I personally consider it one of the worst movies in the franchise and a huge misstep.
That being said, I still want to the see this series continue. Cries of “give the rights back to Marvel” after a big superhero movie is poorly received have become fairly common, to the point where a lot of people even mockingly said it about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but the X-Men is the one major comic book franchise that I actually don’t want to become a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
I’m thrilled that Spider-Man finally crossed over and would love to see the Fantastic Four do the same, but the X-Men can and, in my opinion, should stand their ground. They were a Cinematic Universe before cinematic universes were a thing and they’ve been through a lot of ups and downs over the years. As far I’m concerned, Apocalypse is just another bump in the road.
Yes, it’s disappointing that it didn’t live up to the series potential, but we’ve seen the X-Men recover from worse before. With Deadpool 2, Gambit, Wolverine 3 and a handful of other projects in the pipeline, I’m actually pretty excited for the future of the series.
Let’s hope it’s more First Class and Deadpool, and less Origins: Wolverine and Apocalypse.