The X-Men occupy a precarious position in the comic book franchise war between Fox, Marvel Studios, and DC/WB. While the live-action comic book blockbuster owes a debt to 2000’s X-Men, the sequels, prequels, and spinoffs have been of varying quality that now Fox has fallen far behind its more recent rivals. Fox holds the rights to one of most complex and popular Marvel comics mythologies, but its only with two of the most recent adaptations that we see the true potential to be tapped.
The X-Men comics don’t just involve crazy genetic mutation powers, they use time-travel, alien races, god-level cosmic entities, giant robots, and that’s the stuff that’s easy to explain. For the longest time, the movies were content to just depict mutants as an outsider political subtext. The series peaked with the sequel, and after that began a quick descent with weak writing and poor characterization. There were brief times after where Fox redeemed itself, and Days of Future Past and The Wolverine gave us something these characters desperately needed: emotion. Bryan Singer’s approach to the X-Men was always sort of cold, and it made many of the characters seem flat.
New innovations to the film genre aside, audiences need a way to empathize with what’s happening on screen. That’s the difference between Erik Lensherr hating humanity for their deep seated prejudice due to his experience with the Holocaust, and Oscar Issac’s Apocalypse who wants to rule the world for disparate & generic reasons. The Marvel Studios films can skate by due to the charm of their lead protagonists. Deadpool is a good example of how Fox can do what Marvel does: give us a character with a strong personality trying to do something, generic plot be damned. However, its not just that Wade Wilson is likable in the film but that he has a personal interest in resolving its conflict. It’s not about saving the world or protecting mutant kind, its about reconnecting with his girlfriend that he loves. It’s simple, its relatible, and his chemistry with Morena Baccarin’s Vanessa makes it feel authentic. We can watch superheroes save the city/the world a thousand times (and I think we have) but it becomes challenging to be as enamored with watching it the 1001th time versus the first. After awhile, its business as usual and the hero is just doing his job instead of having personal stakes in the story.
Logan is about Wolverine facing his mortality and being a reluctant hero, Legion is about David Haller coming to terms with his mutant powers and how they’ve affected his sanity. The key to both is that these are internal challenges as well as external, thus David and Logan emote, feel, and curse as they try to solve their problems.
Emotionally speaking, both of them are a far cry from the first X-Men film. It helps that both give their casts enough material to flesh out their characters, as well as keeping their respective plots fairly straightforward. Logan involves Wolverine, Xavier and X-23 escaping an anti-mutant army, and Legion involves David fighting a similar threat along with the Demon with Yellow Eyes. In fairness, X-Men isn’t a very complex movie but I’ve never cared for the machine that can turn humans into mutants (or imploding sacks of water).
There also could be something to be said for strong creators adapting the source material, at the start of X-Men on Bryan Singer was seen as a genius for his handling of the characters. In hindsight, that now feels like it’sbased as much on the script as anything else. While he can juggle an ensemble cast decently, Singer needs a strong story to translate to the screen. Tim Miller (Deadpool), James Mangold (The Wolverine, Logan), and Noah Hayley (Legion) have their own individual talents that I believe help them surpass Singer. Passion for their projects can’t be understated as well, as each of them had a personal interest in the X-Men from the get-go.
All of that circles back to what we should want from these characters going forward, which is better results. Despite being a team of distinct personalities and backgrounds, most of the X-Men on screen feel superfluous to the story or nonessential. Focusing on a single lead would be one solution, but that doesn’t stand out from most of the other live action comic films. While The Avengers and Justice League make an event out of multiple heroes teaming up, that’s the default for the X-Men. Make them stand out by nailing down what each of them is about and what they’re trying to accomplish.
It’s baffling how Fox Studios has fallen into and out of trouble in adapting these characters for close to 20 years now, and yet we still haven’t seen an ideal X-Men movie. Some are good, sure, but I don’t know if they’ve landed on a formula for the team that works yet. Wolverine is on hiatus for live action, Deadpool and Legion will continue for a few more years hopefully at the same quality, but if Fox is going to keep tunneling deeper into the mythos they need a better grasp of what they’re doing.