Fox’s ‘X-Men’ Films Were Never Given a Chance to be Great

When Fox first announced that production had finally begun on X-Men back in 1999, comics fandom was thrilled – and relieved. It was still a full 8 years before Iron Man would break ground. Granted we’d just had Blade a year or so before, but for what the general population thought of as a superhero film, everyone was still desperately trying to forget that Batman & Robin and Fantastic Four had been the last big tentpoles.

Finally getting to getting to see a live-action adaptation of one of the most popular superhero teams of all time on the big screen, what wasn’t there to look forward to?

X-Men

Then it came out, and it was the kind of unremarkable popcorn fluff that was superficially enjoyable while watching. However, by the time you got to work the next day and someone asks you what you thought about it the words, “it was great,” starts to form in your mind. But then you catch yourself and ask – was it really?

Then one film led to another, with each installment things went from bad to worse. The disconnect between what was on screen and the source material was itself a recurring problem, as was the desperate acrobatics to convert every story into a wolverine-focused theme ride. On the fifth outing, they went to an all-new writing team and turned out the installment that remains the best full-team X-Men film to date. Unfortunately immediately after that the studio suits dumped the writers that had turned out a critically acclaimed film and fell over themselves to run right back off the rails with The Wolverine.

Where Fox continues to stay far behind in Marvel’s better entries’ dust stems from two challenges that they seem to be unaware that they even have.

The first is that they seem nearly incapable of creating characters that really resonate with an audience. James Gunn managed to hook an audience into feeling when a tree died (a tree which few people had ever heard of before first watching Guardians of the Galaxy). Some of the casting people are undeniably fond of (Hugh Jackman’s aforementioned Wolverine being one example), but the connection has been more with the actor than inherently with the character. They’ve changed around actors who portray characters more often than Bryan Fuller leaves television series. So with negligible connection to actors, and characters who aren’t given material that we can emotionally connect to, there’s not a lot of really engagement happening with the story arc as a whole.

This is a serious problem when the next installment in the franchise is slated to be Dark Phoenix. The Phoenix saga is arguably one of the most famous and formative story arcs of the X-Men universe. However the impact of that story is in no small part because readers of the comics had an attachment to the characters and their fates. It’s not unlike the fatal flaw in Batman v. Superman – when Superman died, there was negligible emotional impact. One of the two most iconic characters in all of comics.

He dies – and the audience barely flickered an eyelid. When prospective audiences watched the Dark Phoenix trailer and see the hint of the path that Jean Grey does down, the film franchise hasn’t earned any emotional capital to leverage. Cut to the Avengers: Endgame trailer and you have Iron Man talking to a broken helmet, and there’s the feeling of having been on a longtime voyage with him, and his potential loss is something that at least to an extent be connected with.

This doesn’t mean that it’s all a Marvel love-fest, because there’s plenty of extremely poor installments on that side of the fence which also failed for lack of establishing empathy (Iron Man 2 and 3 fall squarely on the “who cares” pile). The Fantastic Four films all suffered from the same malady, so it wasn’t unique.

However when Logan came around- the scriptwriting finally touched on chords that could engage – aging, mortality, seeing a parental-figure losing their mind to dementia. As a result, the critical and audience response to Logan was the highest Rotten Tomato score for an X-Men franchise entry to date. It would be nice if Fox had noticed that as with First Class, they had gone to a fresh set of writers. Dark Phoenix is back to Simon Kinberg (who had previously penned Apocalypse and Days of Future Past), so there’s little hope that the script might connect.

The second issue is what I’ve long termed the “Aunt Martha” problem (no relation to either the mothers of Batman or Superman). Appealing to the comics loyalists is great, and it’s a wider base than it once was, however it’s still a niche market.

What made Wonder Woman, Black Panther, or Guardians of the Galaxy the runaway Box Office successes that they were was that you could take any “Aunt Martha” to see the film and they would have a likely chance of enjoying it because they didn’t need deep or expansive background knowledge to be able to understand it. If you happen to be a hardcore fan that would likely win most Trivial Pursuit games that included a comics trivia category, then you will get more out of the film, but coming in with zero foreknowledge isn’t a deal-breaker. Marketing campaigns are similarly to credit and to blame – if you objectively watch trailers for various superhero films, you can tell which ones are tailored to appeal to the wider public.

Few were the people who went to see Dark Knight Rises, Rise of the Silver Surfer, or X-Men: Apocalypse who weren’t already comics readers. However going back to the earlier point, if you know that your audience is primarily people who are highly familiar with the source material, then you need to at least be able to deliver on their expectations. For no reason other than wanting to have Jackman on the screen as much as possible Days of Future Past was turned from a Kitty Pryde story to yet another Wolverine story.

There’s no reason for Marvel’s Avengers lineup to have been be able to beat the competition so badly; Fox (as well as DC and Sony) both have characters within their IP license inventory which are entirely able to match the level of depth and gravitas, but they’ve been unable and it would seem unwilling to get scriptwriters and directors who can create films and stories that a wide audience base can not only want to go see, but also to care about. Fox has the Hellfire Club characters – and the best they could write for was the way that they could write Emma Frost was posing in a bra and slip?

Fox’s misguided mishandling of the X-Men properties isn’t in the license, but in the execution. There’s no saving Dark Phoenix at this point, and while the reaction to New Mutants was of excitement, they couldn’t help but drag it back into production hell from which the odds drop month by month that it’ll ever see the light of day. Hopefully, they’ll find another winning combination, they’ll not immediately change the writers room, but let it grow and see what they can put on the map.

Fox’s Dark Phoenix is set to hit theaters on June 7th, 2019.

About Bill Watters

Games programmer by day, geek culture and fandom writer by night. You'll find me writing most often about tv and movies with a healthy side dose of the goings-on around the convention and fandom scene.

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