How Fox is building an X-Men movie universe

Feature Seb Patrick 12 Feb 2014 - 06:26

We take a look at the X-Men movie universe that Fox has built, what it has planned, and whether a Fantastic Four crossover is likely...

Spoiler note: we don't know what's happening in upcoming X-Men films, but we do talk about things that happen in the comics in this article.

We've already looked at Sony's fast-moving attempts to make a movie universe out of their Amazing Spider-Man franchise. But Spidey isn't the only 'Marvel Comics property owned by a studio that isn't Marvel Studios trying to set up a wide-ranging movie universe' game in town – there just so happens to be another one, in the hands of 20th Century Fox.

What's more, it's one that spins out of the longest-running superhero movie franchise there's ever been. It's almost surprising to think of it in such terms, but the X-Men films hold this title by quite a considerable margin. Even the Christopher Reeve Superman films, with their long and drawn-out 1980s death-rattle, still only clocked up nine years between their first and last instalments. Marvel's merry mutants were first brought to the big screen by Bryan Singer nearly 14 years ago, and show no signs of slowing their march.

Not that it was always this way. Back in 2006, the series seemed to have come to a natural endpoint with the lukewarm reception doled out to X-Men: The Last Stand – particularly given that so many of its characters had been killed off by the end (The Last Stand remains the most lucrative X-Men film to date at the box office). Three years later, the awkwardly-titled X-Men Origins: Wolverine was an attempt to kickstart the franchise with a set of character-centric spinoffs (a similar film based around Magneto entered development but was ultimately abandoned), but once again, a lacklustre film (despite a reasonable $300m-plus worldwide gross) left the series looking somewhat tired and played out.

It was a change in approach, with the magnificent X-Men: First Class in 2011, that would rescue the franchise – not only reigniting public interest in the characters, but also offering an entirely new set of storylines to be explored. With last year's The Wolverine proving to be the solo film its predecessor should have been, meanwhile, the series is in a particularly healthy state as we prepare for the release of Days Of Future Past later this year.

Marking the return of Singer to the franchise that he began back in 2000, Days Of Future Past is not only the latest chapter in the saga of the First Class gang, but also brings the 'original' gang of movie X-Men – at least, those who actually survived the end of The Last Stand – back into the fold as well. It's a canny move that re-emphasises that both strands are part of the same unified story (despite requiring the odd continuity fudge to really make them work) and even offers the possibility of merging mutants from both timelines into one group – although just how possible that turns out to be will of course depend on exactly what happens in Days Of Future Past.

In fact, for a film that's due out in just over three months, we know surprisingly little about the plot of Days Of Future Past – especially compared with how much we've seen in trailers for the likes of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Amazing Spider-Man 2. It's not an unreasonable assumption, however, that the 'present' timeline involving the original Stewart/McKellen gang will be the Sentinel-dominated, mutant-oppressing landscape that the characters of the 'past' (led by McAvoy/Fassbender) are trying to avoid.

It could therefore then follow that by the end of Days Of Future Past, the entirety (or at least a significant part) of the original X-Men movie timeline has been wiped out – and possibly replaced with something even worse, considering that the next film in the series has already been announced as the ominously-titled X-Men: Apocalypse. While Singer has stated that that film will "address historical mutant-cy, meaning the deep past, mutant origins and things like that" – something that makes sense given that Apocalypse, the villain from the Age Of Apocalypse comics storyline we can assume the film will be based on, is the first ever mutant in Marvel's historical timeline – he has also hinted that "something that happens in [Days] causes what's going to happen in [Apocalypse]".

In Age Of Apocalypse, an alternate timeline is created in which Xavier is killed as a young man, and Magneto is the leader of the X-Men (a plot possibility that will no doubt please the Fassbender fans out there). If the movie follows suit, then perhaps this alternate timeline is established as a result of history being changed at the end of Days Of Future Past – creating another horrific dystopia that itself needs to be erased. And if Fox really does intend to continue with the X-Men series as a long-term concern, then perhaps the ultimate aim of all this timeline-switching will be to create a new, streamlined ongoing continuity that can cherry-pick from assorted characters and actors without having to worry about where they fit alongside previous movie storylines. It's enough to make your head spin as much as in any 1980s Chris Claremont X-Men comic.

But a single series of films, let's face it, is not the same thing as a 'movie universe' – even if we include any more Wolverine spinoffs that Hugh Jackman may or may not feel like making. So if Fox is really going to compete with the multi-character, multi-narrative likes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Sony's 'Spideyverse' (has that caught on yet? No? There's still time…), it needs to throw a few more linked but essentially standalone films into the mix.

The most obvious candidate for a spinoff film is, of course, Ryan Reynolds' Deadpool – indeed, the introduction of the character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine was a deliberate attempt at setting up another solo star. Unfortunately, making Marvel's popular 'merc with a mouth' a mute assassin didn't really strike a chord with viewers, which might explain why it's taken so long to get it off the ground. Fox is still pressing on with attempts to make the character work – and although producer Lauren Shuler Donner has stated that the Origins version will be ignored, and the character instead rebooted (so that he can, you know, talk and stuff), Reynolds is still attached. The last we heard the movie was being positioned as a lower budget project, seeking an R rating.

A more intriguing potential entry to the X-Men movieverse comes in the shape of the X-Force film that's presently in early development. Kick-Ass 2's Jeff Wadlow has been tapped to write the (at present director-less) film, which will focus on the X-Men's special ops team – essentially, a more militaristic and morally ambiguous (yet still firmly Xavier-associated) gang of mutants who don't mind getting their hands dirty. Almost certainly a more gritty and violent prospect than the other X-films, it could be an intriguing new direction for a major superhero film franchise to go in – although the box-office performance of Watchmen might turn studios off the idea of another expensive R-rated superhero flick.

It’s also been suggested on more than one occasion that Fox could ultimately look to build a wider superhero movie universe with not just the X-Men, but the Fantastic Four as well. Back in 2012, comics writer Mark Millar was brought in by the studio as a creative consultant, and as his role was said to cover both the X-Men and Fantastic Four series, the assumption that they might be connected somehow was hardly much of a leap. Millar himself made somewhat contradictory statements at the time – stating that the characters wouldn’t cross over, at least not straight away, but reiterating that they would be part of a shared universe – but has been rather quieter on the matter since, especially after Bryan Singer declared that he had little to no creative involvement in Days Of Future Past.

Indeed, it’s not entirely clear whether Millar is still on Fox’s payroll at all, although the studio has recently optioned his creator-owned series Starlight. But another writer might hold the key to the links between the two – Simon Kinberg, scriptwriter on Days Of Future Past, has also done work on the upcoming Josh Trank-directed Fantastic Four, and coincidentally (or not) is also currently the tapped writer for Starlight. Not that we’re suggesting the latter would in any way cross over with the previous two (it’s not a Marvel property, for one thing), but the continued link with Millar, and Fox’s apparent faith in Kinberg, is of interest if they are looking to build a crossover.

As to Fantastic Four itself, we have even fewer clues about its story content than we do about future X-Men films – and around here we have to tread carefully concerning what we say about even the most vaguely purported of details – but it’s fair to say that if they do combine into one shared movie universe, Fantastic Four and the X-Men would make interesting if unlikely bedfellows, with little shared comics history or indeed much in common thematically. In character terms there’s one direct link between the two – Reed and Susan Richards’ son Franklin is a hugely powerful mutant – but that would seem to be a difficult one to set up convincingly so early in a new franchise.

What seems more likely is that we might see hints of the existence of mutants somewhere in the background of Fantastic Four when it does eventualy roll around – but a surprise end-credits cameo in the manner of Samuel L. Jackson’s original Iron Man appearance is probably a step too far. Should the Fantastic Four films become a success at the second time of asking, however, then perhaps we might see two successful franchises merge into one. Whether this grows out of natural storytelling progression or is just done for the sake of it, however, will probably be the key to whether or not it works…

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