X-Men is one of those franchises that I think we’re all surprised lasted as long as it did – from 2000 to 2019. That’s 19 years of following the same characters, culminating in their final outing: Dark Phoenix.
Needless to say, their final instalment didn’t go down well. Some say that it should have ended with Logan, others say that Dark Phoenix was doomed from the start, and some that they just want to see X-Men in the MCU.
To some degree I agree with all these sentiments, but I think it’s important to look back at the franchise and see why (and how) it ended up the way it did, and looking back at its impact from the post-Batman and Robin era of Superhero movies.
WHY SHOULD YOU CARE ABOUT X-MEN?
The 2000s was an interesting time for Superhero adaptation. Marvel sold off The Hulk to Universal, Spider-Man to Sony, and the Fantastic Four and X-Men to Fox.
Their universe was split, and the idea of a shared superhero universe (spanning across multiple platforms) was the stuff of legend.
This is where X-Men comes in. As the longest-running superhero universe its storytelling model was very much a product of its time.
Superhero movies strives to be grittier and more “realistic” and instead of the brightly coloured superhero suits of the 90s cartoons, we got black leather suits that were impossible to move around in.
Thematically, the series dealt with prejudice – mostly serving as an allegory for LGBT rights, and each instalment was mostly standalone.
This was the “Mania” method of film marketing and film instalments.
Popularised by the Batman movies of the 90s, each instalment would follow the same characters going up against a new threat.
There wasn’t an abundance of character growth exactly. It was more Batman fights the Joker, the one with Catwoman and the Penguin, that one with Jim Carey and Tommy Lee Jones, that one with Robin and stuff.
It wasn’t exactly a spherical storytelling model of world building and was the model for superhero instalments from the blockbuster era to – pre-Avengers era.
However, this was the formula the X-Men movies also fell into – especially with Apocalypse and now Dark Phoenix.
There was a threat and it was just another bad guy … another collection of mutants … another X-Men adventure.
It worked in the 2000s, but we’re moving beyond that for modern franchises.
THE X-MEN TIMELINE(S)?
When it comes to the MCU, the term “Phase” is thrown around a lot. They’re essentially chunks of movies which share a common theme, and positioning within a larger story.
Phase 1 – Forming the Avengers
Phase 2 – Expanding the Universe
Phase 3 – Epic Conclusion
This was the structure for their “Infinity Saga,” and follows a clear and concise timeline.
X-Men movies didn’t have this plan – which isn’t their fault entirely; they were just a product of their time. In fact, someone put a lot of work trying to untangle a convoluted mess of film continuity – it’s honestly pretty impressive.
There’s first an original trilogy, but then we have a Wolverine Origins movie and a Wolverine standalone set in Japan – both still keeping the timeline in check.
But then you have First Class and Days of Future Past which act as a soft retcon these characters and timeline. This splits the timeline, but ultimately ends up for the best as Wolverine is sent back to the future where Jean and Cyclops are alive, and everything’s great.
Until the gritty western Logan shows a now dystopian future where mutants no longer exist … despite their previous happy ending future?
Then Apocalypse was just another threat and then … the X-Men go into space in Dark Phoenix where there are now aliens (for the first time in their cinematic outings) and then Jean dies … in the past? But Jean’s alive at the end of Days of Future Past?
This doesn’t even factor in the Deadpool movies … where he even makes fun of their timeline issues.
Then there’s New Mutants and other TV series – critically acclaimed, but haven’t received much attention and are also difficult to place in the timeline especially as Dark Phoenix shows that the X-Men are beloved by everyone and have a direct line to the US President.
How are mutants persecuted in these series? How does Deadpool 2 make any sense with their story!!!
See, this is a problem, and it really hinders being able to enjoy the movies. It’s impossible to care about the characters when their timelines and history now make no sense.
It doesn’t help that nobody ages for decades.
Context is vital for a franchise to thrive. The audience needs to know about the who, what, and how of the events going on. Dark Phoenix does not do anything to serve as a definitive conclusion to the franchise.
There are people saying that X-Men should have ended with Logan and I’m inclined to agree with them. Even if it’s difficult to contextualise with the end of this series.
DARK PHOENIX: DOOMED FROM THE START
Storytelling structure is one thing, but it’s impossible to disentangle Dark Phoenix from Disney’s acquisition of Fox – I think that’s what really killed this movie … aside from the reshoots and pushed-back release dates.
The fact was, there was no incentive to care about what happens.
It was big news when Disney acquired 20th Century Fox. It gave them access to their Marvel line-up, which will undoubtedly be fitted into the MCU at some point.
As we look forward to a future where the X-Men can team up with Spider-Man, it makes it difficult to care about this movie as it will undoubtedly amount to nothing in the grand franchise scheme of things.
There’s the possibility of viewing it as a Marvel Cinematic Multiverse – which I believe has a huge amount of story potential and gives audiences an idea of where everything from the original Spider-Man trilogy to both series of Fantastic Four movies fits into this larger universe.
Context is going to be needed, and Dark Phoenix does nothing to add to anything.
X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE FUTURE
For the time being, the X-Men is in a weird limbo. It was announced that there are no plans to bring them into the MCU immediately, and audiences will need time to readjust to a post-Fox landscape.
There are still the TV series, like New Mutants being released in 2020, but without the broader context of a cinematic universe, I question whether it’s feasible to have a purely TV-based franchise from something as big as the X-Men.
That said, even for its visually-trackable ups and downs, I enjoyed the X-Men franchise. For the most part, they captured that outsider prejudice that helped their comic series resonate with so many readers.
Dark Phoenix may not have been their best movie, but it wasn’t a complete disaster either. It just felt bogged down by a lot of behind-the-scenes studio stuff.
As for their role in a greater Marvel universe, I’ve got mixed feelings. They are certainly a staple of the comics, and it will be cool to finally have get involved with characters like Doctor Strange or the Guardians of the Galaxy.
But my bigger concern is how they interact with the MCU. Even in the comics, I found it weird how they were discriminated against for their abilities … but somehow everyone’s cool with the Fantastic Four, Thor, Captain Marvel, Doctor Strange, and Captain America? (Not to mention having a character like Deadpool under the Disney banner.)
It’s going to be weird to see why some super-powered people are disliked and others beloved going forwards.
But as it stands, it’s the end of an era. We have seen the last of the 2000s style of storytelling wrap up as the longest superhero franchise comes to an end.
Fox’s X-Men: 2000 – 2019
But like the Phoenix itself, something, someday, will emerge from the ashes.