Screen Time: Ode to Fox’s ‘X-Men’

Screen Time is a bi-weekly blog featuring TPN staff member’s takes on all things film and television.

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Screen Time: Ode to Fox’s ‘X-Men’

Front row, from left: Andrew Stehlin, Nicholas Hoult and Michael Fassbender in “Dark Phoenix.”

Front row, from left: Andrew Stehlin, Nicholas Hoult and Michael Fassbender in “Dark Phoenix.”

DISNEY/TNS

Front row, from left: Andrew Stehlin, Nicholas Hoult and Michael Fassbender in “Dark Phoenix.”

DISNEY/TNS

DISNEY/TNS

Front row, from left: Andrew Stehlin, Nicholas Hoult and Michael Fassbender in “Dark Phoenix.”

By Melanie Pantano & Thomas Wick, Staff Writers

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When most people think of superhero movies, they think of Marvel Studios. When most people think of Marvel Studios, they think of the Avengers — the superhero squad consisting of Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Hawkeye and Black Widow — and their string of box office-topping and family-friendly action films. Though this team mastered the art of the comic book-to-movie adaptation, they by no means invented the art itself. That honor goes to the X-Men, a team of mutants — a species of humans with extraordinary powers that stem from the X-gene — who work together to fight for peace between mutant-kind and humankind. The “X-Men” franchise, produced by 20th Century Fox and Marvel Studios, recently came to a conclusion with 2019’s “Dark Phoenix” — though rumors of a future reboot have been circulating since Disney acquired 20th Century Fox and all its properties, including their mutants. We decided to take a look at each era of Fox’s “X-Men” movies and see what went right, what went wrong and show why this franchise should be remembered for its contributions to the world of superhero movies.

Boastful beginnings: “X-Men” (2000) and “X2” (2003)

Because of the high quality films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we have taken superhero movies for granted. There was a time when superhero movies, particularly Marvel properties, were some of the worst films ever made. “Howard the Duck,” “Captain America” (1990), “The Punisher” and “The Fantastic Four” (1994) were all panned by critics and fans and adapted their material in misguided ways. It would take a few years, but when “X-Men” came out in the year 2000, it changed everything for superhero movies.

The filmmakers took the “X-Men” comic books and adapted the material in a way that was faithful to the original comics but different enough to suit the medium of cinema. The result was an action-packed blockbuster with great characters and top-notch performances from Patrick Stewart, Ian Mckellen and, of course, Hugh Jackman. “X-Men” did incredibly well at the box office, making roughly $300 million on a $75 million budget, and got a certified fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Three years later, a sequel came out titled “X2: X-Men United” and pushed the franchise forward by doing what a good sequel should do: upping the stakes, evolving the characters by forcing the heroes and villains to join forces and bringing forth new thought-provoking ideas about identity. The result was another financial and critical success: the movie made $407 million on a $110 million budget and got another certified fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. At this moment in time, the X-Men films seemed like they were going to become a franchise for the ages.

Fallen heroes: “X-Men: The Last Stand” (2006) and “X-Men Origins Wolverine” (2009)

With “X2” being one of the best superhero movies ever made in it’s time, people were looking forward to “X-Men: The Last Stand.” However, after seeing it, X-fans were ready to start a riot. While it is by no means as bad as something like “Catwoman,” “The Last Stand”’s failure lies primarily in being a bad sequel to the two previous X-Men films.

The film doesn’t know what to do with the massive amount of characters and thus ends up killing off so many with no impact. In fact, one of them even comes back at the end, raising the underlying problem of the film: what was the point of it all? The complex ideas behind whether or not mutants should have the ability to cure themselves: pointless. Magneto loses his power, but gets it back at the end. That being said, there are still some fun action scenes in this movie, especially those involving Magneto. Overall this is a major misstep in the franchise’s path towards MCU quality.

Moving on from the original trilogy, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” seeks to answer one of the biggest questions of the entire X-Men Series, “Who is Wolverine?” Recall, “X-Men” introduces Logan only remembering glimpses of his past, and “X2” traces those memories to their inception point at the Weapon X testing facility. In “Origins,” not only do we get to know Logan, but we also delve into his relationship with Sabertooth, whose only other screen time is in “X-Men,” but noticeably plays a huge role in cartoons and comics alongside Magneto. There is also high anticipation for the introduction of fan-favorite characters — Gambit and Deadpool.

What we got instead was a two-hour character summary disguised in explosions, muscles and cliches. It’s as if the studio just wanted to check off the boxes to an action flick rather than jump into character study that the title “origin story” would warrant.

The plot sprawled far too wide by introducing too many characters and not developing them at all. Gambit, the lovable “Ragin’ Cajun,” appears as a gambling, fedora-wearing, staff-twirling hipster that can jump really high. In the most egregious misinterpretation of the century that physically and metaphorically decapitates the Deadpool character, everything that is likable about him is taken away or toyed with to the point of non-recognition.

There is hardly any character development actually given to Wolverine and Sabertooth. Rather than show how they gained their worldviews, they hardly change over the course of the film which presents only conflict and no growth. We get to know Wolverine, but only on a surface level.

New beginnings: “X-Men: First Class” (2011) and “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (2014)

“First Class” marked a new direction for the “X-men” franchise as it was set before the previous “X-Men” films with a brand new cast. But thanks to some stylistic choices by the film’s director Matthew Vaughn and career-defining performances from James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawerence, “First Class” managed to bring the “X-Men” franchise back to the level of quality of the first films and is arguably even better than “X-Men” and “X2.”

“Days of Future Past” is one of the most promising “X-Men” films because it rights almost all the wrongs created by the atrocity that is “The Last Stand” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” One of the biggest faults of the X-Men films has always been it’s timeline, or lack thereof. There is practically no continuity in these films and that has been largely due to these films being helmed by so many different directors, writers, actors and producers. On top of being an awesome film with high stakes, great performances and the much-loved Quicksilver, “Days of Future Past” fixed a lot of the continuity of the past films. After this, “X-Men” was back on top.

R-Ratings R Amazing: “Deadpool” (2016) and “Logan” (2017)

In the summer of 2014, test footage of a “Deadpool” movie was leaked to the public. The early project was helmed by Tim Miller, who would go on to direct the feature-length “Deadpool” film. The footage starred Ryan Reynolds once again as the “merc with a mouth.” Tim Miller’s direction was a far more faithful portrayal of the snarky, loud mouthed, anti-hero that comic book fans know and love — a far-cry from the one with a rotten cantaloupe for a head. That footage was made in 2011,but  the studio never green-lit the film due to Reynolds’ previous flop, “Green Lantern,” and concerns about the R-rating. After fans and even Ryan Reynolds begged and petitioned for the film to get made, the studio finally gave in, took a risk, and green-lit the R-rated “Deadpool.”

“Deadpool” was a huge hit, both at the box office and with critics, grossing an astounding $783.1 million on a mere $58 million budget — making it the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time — and recieved a certified fresh rating of 84% on Rotten Tomatoes. Fans were pleased by Ryan Reynolds’ performance, the hilarious writing and overall energy of the film as well as the clever meta-humor — which even went so far as to mock the mistakes of past “X-Men” films such as the unfaithful portrayal of Deadpool in “Origins.” Fox made a sequel last year and it also performed well, raking in $785 million on a doubled budget of $110 million. It also pleased fans and critics, once again getting a fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, even if it wasn’t quite as impactful as the first installment.

After “Deadpool” proved that R-rated comic book movies could make money, Fox decided to make the final Hugh Jackman Wolverine film, simply titled “Logan,” R-rated. This worked in the film’s favor and allowed the director, James Mangold, to create an emotional send-off to the character with no PG-13-rating restrictions. “Logan” was something the franchise had never seen before: a dark, gritty and somewhat realistic story completely separate from the “X-Men” timeline. It was so good it managed to nab an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, something no “X-Men” film had done before. “Logan” was when the franchise peaked and if this were the final installment, I would’ve been satisfied.

Ending on a low note: “X-Men: Apocalypse” (2016) and “Dark Phoenix” (2019)

Both “Apocalypse” and “Dark Phoenix” are working off much-loved X-Men storylines. Starting with “Apocalypse” the story was popularized by the cherished 1990s animated “X-Men” series. Long-time fans had a lot to look forward to as Magneto recedes deeper into his morphed ideology and the ancient super-mutant Apocalypse seeks to create the legendary Four Horsemen and destroy the entire world. As with “First Class” and “Days of Future Past,” “Apocalypse” was a period piece set in the ’80s. High hopes surrounded the film coming off the success created by “Days of Future Past.”

The film has a lot going for it, as some well-known characters were reintroduced such as Jubilee (“X-Men” TV series,1992-1997) and Archangel (“The Last Stand”). However, as sound as the ideas were for this film, it lacked in execution. In what felt like a slow build-up, the film focused mostly on the assembly of the Four Horsemen. The height of the film is a final battle where the X-Men must defeat the Four Horsemen and Apocalypse. This has excitement written all over it but plummets because it hinges on the overused scapegoat, where Jean Grey unleashes her sealed off power “Phoenix” — a power that, while previously discussed, is never fully explained. She essentially acts as a deus ex machina and saves the entire world in a few minutes, ruining the stakes that were built up for the previous two hours. 

“Dark Phoenix” had to wrap up the entire franchise but also revisit a story line beaten to death by Fox. “Last Stand” was bad enough — this is “Last Stand” five years on meth and it’s worse in every way. We don’t know what is going on with any characters, nor do we even care. It’s just the same old Jean Grey storyline, but this time with no ethical dilemmas, no spicy Wolverine romance and lots of aliens. It was a ridiculous take on the storyline, absent of nuance and really any meaning.

“Dark Phoenix” plummeted in the box office due to weak advertising and overall low hype. The film may have also suffered because it had to go through multiple reworkings after the release of “Captain Marvel” due to striking similarities between the two. Though the film featured the same cast that boosted the franchise up to new levels, even their acting could not save the terrible script. In emotionally driven scenes, the cast does their best to portray the characters they built over the years, but it becomes ever so clear that poor writing is to blame. Sadly this film is hollow and dull, ending the 20-year-old franchise on a sour note.

Days of Future Franchise: Disney & the X-Men

A new Disney-controlled era is upon us which raises a lot of questions for “X-Men” fans. “Dark Phoenix” was a disappointing send-off for the franchise, yet it provided a decent amount of closure. Disney has not announced any plans for any new independent “X-Men” films. In time these may appear. However, what can be expected is the integration of more mutants in the post-Avengers timeline. With “Endgame” neatly wrapping up the original story arc, new characters are needed to fill the shoes of characters retired in the film.

The leftovers from Fox still prevail. “The New Mutantsis a project that seems to be locked in post-production limbo. Although the trailer was initially released in 2017, the film is not slated to hit theaters until 2020. Hopefully what they’re working on has enough viability to propagate into future Disney-helmed projects. As far as the long talked about “Gambit” feature driven by Channing Tatum, it seems as though the project has been shelved.

Still, little is known regarding the future of the franchise. Disney may very well reboot the entire “X-Men” series if it sees fit. However, what we have been seeing with the greater MCU is a homogeneity between all of the films, which can become rather boring. The magic of “X-Men” is that it remained tonally different from the rest of the superhero films and actually delivered. DC has attempted to follow a MCU formula and failed, but “X-Men” truly stuck to its guns. It may be said that a film styled like “Logan” or “Deadpool” never has and never will come out of Disney. However, let’s not give up hope. Disney has said that it is planning on another R-rated feature for Deadpool. “Logan” also introduced the possibility of a multiverse, so the future may be bright for the X-Men after all.

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