Is X-Men immune to the reboot cycle?

Feature Mark Harrison 22 May 2014 - 06:11

Every other superhero franchise has been started over and over, but the X-Men keep going. Mark looks at why...

NB: While this article delves into the earlier X-Men movies, it does not spoil X-Men: Days Of Future Past.

In the time since Bryan Singer’s X-Men revived the comic book movie in 2000, we have had two big screen versions of Clark Kent, two Peter Parkers, and three Bruce Banners. Yet Hugh Jackman has been Wolverine all the way through.

Rebooting a franchise has clearly become a more palatable way of remaking films, even though the difference in terminology is six of one and half a dozen of the other. This much seems to have been accepted pretty readily, albeit with no small amount of online grumbling from certain fans, and the cycle of reboots is steadily accelerating.

Both within and adjacent to this trend of blockbuster filmmaking is the proliferation of tentpole comic book movies, in which the seventh X-Men film, Days Of Future Past, may now only feel like one of many. Although there have been a couple of back-door reboots over the last 14 years, the series has been quite resilient to the reboot cycle.

Tempting as it is to blame all of Hollywood’s problems on hacks like Brett Ratner, he wasn’t the only problem with 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, the film that derailed the series set in motion by Singer. That film was evidently the victim of studio interference with the then-head-honchos at Fox too, but the whole thing was anti-climactic, and ultimately proved to be an exercise in running the series into a brick wall.

At that point in time, Fox planned to continue the series with the X-Men Origins strand, starting with a solo film for Wolverine and then continuing with a Magneto prequel. X-Men Origins: Wolverine promptly made The Last Stand look like a masterpiece, with its clichéd and incoherent plot and vapid characterisation, throwing that particular plan into doubt.

Marvel Studios hadn’t yet gotten to the heights of comic book movie continuity that looked so impressive by The Avengers and the end of their first phase, so it’s interesting that Fox’s next move stuck to their guns and parlayed Magneto, which would have seen Erik Lensherr surviving his internment in Auchswitz with the help of a young Charles Xavier, into a 1960s set prequel to the original franchise - X-Men: First Class.

First Class would have been the exit ramp, had Fox decided to reboot the series, but a Wolverine cameo anchors it to the previous films. On the other hand, the prequel angle gave them some leeway to refresh certain characters by casting James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence as younger versions of the characters previously played by Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen and Rebecca Romijn.

Matthew Vaughn’s film was widely praised as the best in the series since 2003’s X-Men 2, even if it did thoroughly trample over the continuity of the series. By this point, the series is playing fast and loose with continuity without actually rebooting, even though it seems to have been accepted that the first Wolverine spin-off straight up didn’t happen.

We’re not sure how you’d class The Wolverine, as a film that really ignores what went down in Origins and follows on from The Last Stand instead, but it almost looks like a reboot of Logan’s spin-off strand. In any case, it got a much better reception from critics and audiences and also dovetailed back into the larger continuity with a nod to Days Of Future Past in the end credits.

The new film pours the 1960s and “not so distant future” ensembles in together in one film, adapted from a story arc written by Chris Claremont back in 1981. It also seems like something of a curious and expensive gamble for Fox, who’ve seen the box office receipts decline for the mutant franchise since The Last Stand was released.

They got a slight bump up in the worldwide gross for The Wolverine, which grossed $414 million compared to First Class’ $354m and was the first film in the series to be released in 3D, but there’s a reason we’re broaching these numbers. Days Of Future Past is widely reported to have cost somewhere in the region of $225m and ranks amongst the most expensive movies ever made, even before press and advertising costs.

You can imagine cast salaries will have inflated that figure significantly, but that figure is before the cost of marketing is factored in. Given how the average budget of the previous six films amounts to around $137m, for an average return of $384m per movie, this one is going to have to gross close to a billion dollars in order to keep Fox happy.

I sincerely doubt that Days Of Future Past will flop, (it’s already on track for the biggest opening weekend of the series to date) but the relative notion of “underperforming” can be a killer these days. As I keep reminding you in articles like this, we’re looking at an unconscionable economy, in which a film can make close to a billion dollars and still declare a loss (look up the bizarre mechanics behind Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix’s box office returns for further information).

For instance, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is currently “underperforming”. Irrespective of being a considerable step-up in quality from the first reboot, the sequel looks set to make less than any of the four Spider-Man films previously released, throwing Sony's whole plan for a pocket Spidey-verse into doubt.

Days Of Future Past not only has to follow that film and the better-received Captain America: The Winter Soldier in the space of around two months, but it’s also sandwiched in between Godzilla, which enjoyed the year’s biggest opening weekend last week, and Maleficent, which will compete for the family audience from next Friday.

There’s been a whiff of how big this is for the studio in the film’s eclectic brand of saturation marketing. It might not be the way they’d like people to be talking about the movie, but for the last few movies now, the marketing team has come in for some flack online for poorly-edited posters and choppy trailers, and Days Of Future Past has stepped that up proportionately.

February’s issue of Empire had 25 collectable covers featuring characters from the film, which actually only highlighted what then seemed to be a worrying over-balance of mutants in the film. There’s even a joke to that end circulating on Twitter - what does X-Men: Days Of Future Past have in common with a tweet? 140 characters.

Then there was the utterly incongruous end credits clip that was tacked onto The Amazing Spider-Man 2 as part of the agreement that freed Marc Webb from his contractual entanglements at Fox Searchlight. Many viewers will have also seen a trailer before the main feature anyway and the placement of the clip is both abrupt and sort of unconscionable as an empty teaser of a connection between the two comic book worlds.

And how could we forget the product placement deals, with Mountain Dew and Carl Jr’s. The Carl Jr’s ones proved particularly terrible, with the inference that Mystique wasn’t man enough for a man-sized burger and the depiction of Quicksilver (a character who’s Jewish in the comics) chomping a decidedly non-kosher bacon butty.

More bizarrely, the studio decided to brand a Virgin Train, which is probably a lot less effective than just putting ads on buses. Get ready for the PR justification for this, because choo choo, here comes the bullshit train…

Virgin’s partnerships and regions manager Adrian Varma said: "For us, it’s all about our relationship with speed and we feel that this latest instalment in the X-Men franchise ties in perfectly with Virgin Trains’ relationship with travel.” Fine, but is anyone else thinking that Virgin might have got more out of this than Fox?

Of course, this is no reflection on the quality of the film - it has good reviews in its favour and there’s more than one reason why we doubt Bryan Singer or any of the creatives signed off on some of these ads, but they’re hardly representative of the sheer personality involved in the film.

Perhaps it’s naïve to think that you can market a film just by sending Hugh Jackman, Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy go on a late night chat show, (see their enjoyable performance on The Graham Norton Show the other week) send Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen out on their now legendary bromantic adventures, or have Jennifer Lawrence do absolutely anything within range of a camera or microphone. But in comparison to the wider bombardment, the cast actually seems to be the marketing campaign’s most underused asset.

To get back on topic though, what might happen if the saturation marketing proves in effective and the film does underperform? Let’s not forget that by the time the next two X-movies after this one have been released, the remake cycle will also have regurgitated Batman and the Fantastic Four.

Will a reboot start to look more attractive, or are Hugh Jackman’s rippling muscles and hairy face too synonymous with the de facto lead character for them to make a fresh start within the requisite timeframe to keep the rights to make X-Men movies in the first place?

It’s kind of understandable that some want Marvel Studios to get the rights back, and that’s understandable - they’re at the top of their game right now. But Marvel also seem busy enough with their Avengers universe, to say nothing of their TV spin-offs and plans for The Defenders on Netflix.

Ironically, the movie market is such that X-Men’s longevity is actually its unique selling point. It’s the longest running comic book franchise on the big screen by a long way, and despite a couple of retcons and continuity snafus along the way, it hasn’t been rebooted.

The main reason why we predict that will continue to be the case is that the series has, like the inverse of other long-running series like James Bond or Doctor Who, proven that it can refresh its approach without shedding that enviable cast.

They’ve gathered a hugely marketable ensemble over the years, and they look set to continue in their ambitious casting choices with the recent announcement that Channing Tatum will play Gambit in an upcoming X-Men movie. Even though there have been misfires along the way, Fox understandably seems content to subtly mutate the series as it goes on, rather than throw the baby out with the bath water.

Despite that huge ensemble cast and a recognisable brand that has outlived every other superhero franchise going, Days Of Future Past has its work cut out for it in a busy summer movie season. It’s coming into a market where the idea of “new-ness” has been distorted by the cycle of reboots, which can last a decade at its longest (Spider-Man in 2002 to The Amazing Spider-Man 2 in 2012) and around five years at its shortest (Hulk in 2003 to The Incredible Hulk in 2008).

But the plot mechanics of the latest X-Men adventure seem oddly apropos to reinforcing it against the trend from here on out. The original X-Men movie kick-started the wave that eventually led to this dystopian tentpole production line, and by travelling into the past, they might just reinforce the franchise’s future.

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