20th Century Fox’s X-Men franchise recently turned 17. After all this time, the film franchise is still going strong with consistently strong box office receipts. Even with the Disney merger, Fox plans to release a new film, X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX, next year. While this all looks promising for the franchise, X-MEN is more at risk than ever. This is because Fox has failed to have proper X-Men character development.
X-MEN: APOCALYPSE focused more time on big Hollywood extravaganza than developing members of the team. This has been a consistent problem in the film series. X-MEN has some of the best and most beloved characters in all of comics. Fox needs to learn how to properly utilize these characters to make their X-Men films great again.
X-MEN Character Retrospective
Looking back at the original X-MEN in 2000; at this time, a film of this nature had not come out. Nobody had ever made a film about a team of superheroes. Instead of focusing on the whole team, the filmmakers decided they needed to establish a central character to introduce into the pre-established world of mutants. They decided that Wolverine would be a perfect pick because of his popularity in the comics.
So, Wolverine became the focal point in this conflict between Professor X’s X-Men and Magneto’s Brotherhood. In retrospect, this decision was a smart one. It made Wolverine and Hugh Jackman become a household name, and it helped establish the X-Men through the eyes of our protagonist.
However, this decision resulted in many of the central X-MEN team members being sidelined most crucially Storm, Jean Grey, and Cyclops. In the next two movies, directors Bryan Singer and Brett Ratner had a great opportunity to develop these characters further; but, instead, they continued to focus on Wolverine.
Now in this first trilogy of films, it is unfair to say that Wolverine was the only great character. Characters like Nightcrawler, Rogue, and Stryker left their mark on the franchise. Furthermore, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen portray Professor X and Magneto fantastically; but there is no arguing that this trilogy is mainly Wolverine’s story.
Every film, including the LAST STAND which partially focuses on the DARK PHOENIX SAGA, has Wolverine driving the action. So once these three films were finished, the studios thought that they might as well ditch the rest of the X-Men and just make films about Wolverine. The result was the much reviled X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE.
New Trilogy, Same Wolverine
After the critical failure of X-MEN ORIGINS, director Matthew Vaughn tried his hand at rebooting the X-MEN franchise. His film X-MEN: FIRST CLASS focuses on the origin of the X-Men with Charles Xavier (who would become Professor X) and Erik Lensherr (who would become Magneto). This film does a fantastic job of developing these two characters and their ideals. FIRST CLASS introduced a breath of fresh air for X-MEN with a new exciting team that Vaughn could develop over several movies.
Then Bryan Singer took over for Vaughn for the sequel, X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. The film beautifully bridged the previous trilogy with this new iteration of the X-MEN. However, Singer once again brought in Wolverine to steal the show from every other important mutant. This stalled the growth of other important characters in this new series such as Beast, Havok, or even great new characters like Quicksilver. The movie still hinges on Wolverine, Professor X, Magneto, and now Mystique who is here played by Jennifer Lawrence.
Starting in this film, it seems that Singer began building Mystique to be the new central character taking over from Wolverine. This decision was and continues to be a huge mistake for multiple reasons.
Firstly, Mystique was never a central X-MEN protagonist and, in fact, she was a villain. Secondly, and most importantly, Jennifer Lawrence’s performance as Mystique is nowhere near rivaling Hugh Jackman’s iconic Wolverine. So, while X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is a great film it failed to develop the characters first that Vaughn introduced in FIRST CLASS; as we see this would create problems for the future of the franchise.
Bryan Singer decided to bring back classic characters like Cyclops, Nightcrawler, Storm, Jean Grey, and Angel for X-MEN: APOCALYPSE. Fans rejoiced. Finally, Bryan Singer would create the X-Men everybody loved from the comics. Not quite.
Instead of focusing on one central character, the film has no focus. At times Mystique seems like the main character, but on other occasions, the film focuses once again on Professor X and Magneto’s relationship. The actual focus of this film should have been on the new X-Men. Instead, Cyclops, Storm, and Jean Grey are once again sidelined in an X-Men movie; and then Singer rubs salt in the wound by having Wolverine show up for a pointless cameo. Come on!
It does not help that APOCALYPSE has an entirely unoriginal plotline where a super-villain (spoilers) wants to take over the world. That is not to say that good films cannot have villains with cliched goals. In fact, both AVENGERS movies have villains trying to take over/destroy the world; but the AVENGERS know that the focus should be on the characters, not the spectacle (even though the spectacle is also cool). APOCALYPSE seems to think that cool special effects are enough to make people want to see superhero movies.
The redeeming quality of APOCALYPSE is Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy’s performances as Magneto and Professor X respectively. This is because Vaughn developed these characters so well in FIRST CLASS that we still care for them two movies later. We lose the other characters in the action, and the audience doesn’t feel a thing for any of them.
THE FUTURE LOOKS…DARK
X-MEN: APOCALYPSE received mixed reviews, but it made enough money to justify a sequel. This year the franchise announced the next film in its series, X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX. Some would argue this was a smart move as THE DARK PHOENIX SAGA is one of, if not the, most beloved stories in all of X-Men. I, however, think this is a terribly foolish decision.
I am afraid that the filmmakers at Fox have not learned their lessons from APOCALYPSE. See AGE OF APOCALYPSE, and DARK PHOENIX SAGA from the comics have a lot of similarities. Both are incredibly large-scaled, world threatening storylines starring well-established X-MEN characters.
The problem is that this iteration of X-MEN has failed to establish well-developed characters besides Professor X and Magneto. The characters that should be the central figures in DARK PHOENIX are Jean Grey, Cyclops, and the new team of X-Men. These were the characters that Singer failed to focus on in APOCALYPSE.
If DARK PHOENIX is to succeed, they must rapidly develop these characters so that we care for them. We cannot have another X-Men film held up by Professor X and Magneto since that did not work the last time. The franchise cannot bring in Wolverine to give the film extra adrenaline; of course, there is another solution…
Revamp The Franchise
It seems like Fox is committed to making DARK PHOENIX but I think the better move is to make a few films starring a new version of the X-Men. We were promised that APOCALYPSE would begin a new era of the X-Men. It did not do this. Now that X-MEN has finished its second trilogy, I think that they should start a new, smaller-scale franchise starring this new class of X-Men.
Like the original trilogy, these films could focus on the X-Men as a team. Cyclops could lead the team consisting of Jean Grey, Nightcrawler, Storm, and any other characters that they want to focus on. My request is that they keep the team to no more than six characters.
This franchise has had difficulty balancing too many characters. James McAvoy’s Professor X could return, but as a mentor figure like, he is in the comics. The villain of the first film should be somebody like Mister Sinister. He is a great villain for the X-Men, but he does not require the characters to be pre-established or fight powerful entities.
If Fox made two great films concentrating on this new X-Men team and sufficiently developed them, then they could make DARK PHOENIX. Right now, it feels like they are rushing in head first into a storyline that does not seem like a natural next-step for the franchise. I hope with all my heart that X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX is a fantastic comic book movie, but right now it has the odds going against it.