X-Men Movies: The Most Enduring Superhero Franchise

The X-Men franchise has been around longer than any other superhero series, and there isn't a reboot in sight. We examine why.

If you throw a rock at just about any online comment section—be it for articles related to movies, politics, or sports—there’s a good chance you’ll run into tribal fan communities that are eager to steer the conversation toward the absurdly binary “Marvel vs. DC debate” (or: Disney productions vs. Warner Bros. ones).

It’s simplistic and juvenile, but it also ignores a whole third rail: the X-Men movie franchise. While technically part of the rich printed history of Marvel Comics, for almost two decades these mutant characters have stood apart from their literary contemporaries on the big screen—sometimes leading the way for the genre, and at other moments desperately trying to keep up with the competition.

Either way, the X-Men films were at the genesis of the modern superhero movie craze in the 21st century, and more than any other singular brand, they have proven the most enduring. Whereas other superhero movies reboot, revise, and sometimes just rescind their sequels, the X-Men superhero franchise has proved as durable as its biggest clawed star, and as adaptable to the changing of audiences’ tastes as its blue painted anti-heroine.

And as the X-Men movies continue to go to the beat of their own drum—and refuse to fold into the much more orderly and consistent “Marvel Cinematic Universe” that Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige has carefully curated—there are still no signs that this pace is slowing down. If you look at their most recent big screen mutation, Ryan Reynolds’ incorrigible Deadpool, the general audience vote of confidence is astounding. Indeed, despite being R-rated and easily the most perverse superhero movie ever released to a mass audience, the very un-Disney-like Deadpool grossed $135 million over its three-day weekend and $150 million in four days.

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That’s more money than the superhero franchise debuts of Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, Man of Steel, and any other kickoff not named The Avengers.

How have the X-Men movies been able to persist this long, and are they about to finally change the genre’s paradigm again?

The Anti-Superhero Movie

The first X-Men film came out during a period when the phrase “superhero movie” might as well have been a four-letter word in Hollywood.

While Richard Donner’s magical Superman: The Movie had truly caused audiences to believe a man could fly in 1978, and Tim Burton’s fevered Batman hellscape waltzed its way into box office history in 1989, the genre had been on a severe downward slope throughout the ‘90s. The Batman franchise hit troubled waters almost immediately in 1992 when Burton’s Batman Returns aggrieved parents groups across the country, and by 1997’s Batman & Robin, the character’s box office prospects seemed as dead as Bruce’s parents. Worse still, Joel Schumacher’s infamous Bat-Nipples, Bat-Visa, and bad Bat-Puns seemed to take any genre credibility that Donner and Burton introduced to the mainstream with it into an icy, permafrost grave.

During this period, Golden Age based (or inspired) superhero movies of various quality also attempted to make the leap to the big screen—Dick Tracy (1990), The Rocketeer (1991), The Shadow (1994), and The Phantom (1996)—and they were all massive bombs. It probably didn’t help that with the exception of The Rocketeer, they were also awful. Similarly, the less said about 1997’s Spawn and Steel, the better. The only successful superhero movie from this era, Blade (1998), hid its four-colored pulpy roots so thoroughly behind its horror and ‘90s action movie trappings that to this day, most people do not know Wesley Snipes was playing the first successful big screen Marvel superhero.

Thus when viewed in this context, it’s not surprising that Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) avoided just about everything that could be related to the era of George Clooney in a cape and ice skates, including colorful costumes, boisterous good guy bravado, and brightly animated superpowers. Indeed, it’s hard to glance at the black leather-clad X-Men that (for better or worse) remains a visual sticking point in the franchise, and not smile at the overt influences of The Matrix (which came out mere months before principal photography on X-Men began).

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Nevertheless, the first X-Men film remains one of the most important superhero movies ever released. For starters, it was unabashedly a superhero story, even if it looks relatively modest about the sort of comic book clichés that would come to define that genre in just a few years’ time. Additionally, it was the first superhero movie of the 21st century and laid the groundwork for all the Marvel movies that came in its wake.

X-Men treated its material with more respect and cinematic reverence than any filmmaker since Richard Donner in 1978. And to this day, it is hard to imagine another filmmaker besides Christopher Nolan who sought to find such deliberate real-world comparisons for what many studio executives still considered kids’ junk. Singer, an openly bisexual man, zeroed in on the material’s political subtext, apparently pitching the central conflict between Charles Xavier and Magneto as reminiscent of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X’s ideological contrasts.

He also was prone to highlight the modern concerns of alienated, gay teenagers who felt condemned to live in shame and secrecy, an approach that appealed to the initially quite skeptical and openly gay Sir Ian McKellen (it also likely helped that Singer worked with McKellen on Apt Pupil).

More than just lip-service, those undertones are made explicit from the very first frame of X-Men, which begins with heavy rain causing the mud of a German concentration camp in occupied Poland to drown the beaten shoes of its Jewish prisoners while on their way to the gas chamber. The allusions to the 20th century’s most horrific genocide, and to the general hatreds minorities always face, are as timely in 2000 as they are in a 2016 election cycle where primary-winning politicians campaign on a promise to round up minorities.

X-Men also features a Joseph McCarthy-esque U.S. Senator played by Bruce Davidson who wishes to have all mutants register in a national database (just as some now want for Muslims). And even when removed from the politics, Singer treats his characters’ interaction with a naturalism that the franchise and even the genre as a whole would not see again, such as when Anna Paquin’s Rogue meets Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine in a Canadian bar, communicating more with eyes and performance than exposition-heavy dialogue and quips.

Of course, X-Men is quite exposition-heavy overall, rushing through its rather generic and almost TV-scaled plot in a swift 100 minutes. Again grounded for a post-Batman & Robin sentiment, the film’s pacing and budget were repeatedly forced to be economized. Characters like Beast and Nightcrawler, and set-pieces like the Danger Room, were cut, and the film was still shooting four months prior to its release after its post-production timetable got chopped in half.

Reportedly, Tom Rothman, the then-president of the 20th Century Fox Film Group, was always skeptical about the viability of a superhero franchise and in addition to denying Singer an increase of $5 million to the film’s budget, his studio moved the picture from a Christmas 2000 release date to June 2000 (it finally opened on July 14) to fill the hole that Steven Spielberg’s delayed Minority Report left.

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Honestly, the studio had little faith in the project during an era where there was no reason to have much of any kind of feeling for capes and cowls. So, it is really a surprise how good X-Men turned out to be. The film came out when superheroes were dead, and brought them to life at the box office with a shocking near-$300 million gross. X-Men proved that Marvel superheroes were actually very bankable.

The Top of the World

Upon the release of Bryan Singer’s X2 in 2003, pop culture critics were singing the praises of the franchise, stating that X-Men, alongside Spider-Man, were the “jewels” in Marvel’s crown. And for good reason, if X-Men opened the door to the box office potential of taking superheroes seriously, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) at Sony kicked it off its hinges and shattered the windows for good measure.

Spider-Man, which was already in pre-production when cameras rolled on X-Men, moved the goal posts an incredible distance as Raimi painted a bright, colorful, and unapologetically Silver Age-styled comic book movie. But more than any red and blue or green costumes, it was the Spider-Man box office that popped—the webbed superhero film became the first picture to gross over $100 million in a single weekend (remember when that was a big deal?!).

While little of Raimi’s aesthetic risked leaking into Bryan Singer’s colder, more intellectual tone, it certainly gave added benefit of the doubt to 20th Century Fox and Tom Rothman (who was now chairman and CEO at Fox). X2 enjoyed a budget of $110 million—which was still $30 million less than Sony’s first swing at Spidey—and Singer was allowed to craft a 134-minute science fiction epic. There was still no Danger Room, no Sentinels, nor much in the way of color given even the villains all wore black, but the film’s sterile sci-fi appearance certainly had a bigger scope and a great deal more confidence.

It, along with the following year’s Spider-Man 2, represented the pinnacle of the pre-Nolan and pre-MCU superhero movies. A trendsetter in its own right, X2 offered a more serious and “adult” alternative to Raimi’s gee-whiz goofiness, as well as what is still a staple of the X-Men genre when compared to anything else sporting the Marvel logo: a happy embrace of post-1980s comic book edginess.

Whereas there is still great trepidation to even let characters smoke in a Marvel Studios film, the X-Men franchise’s Logan was stoically introduced as a rugged Hugh Jackman (by way of Clint Eastwood) in 2000, chomping a cigar like a mean desperado that had little issue with curse words. In fact, most of the X-Men movies feature a bluntness to the dialogue you’re unlikely to hear anytime soon in an Avengers or Spider-Man movie. And in X2, the bar was raised with sequences of genuine spectacle, such as the Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) assault on the White House and the near assassination of a George W. Bush lookalike, or when the aforementioned Wolverine put down his cigars long enough to skewer countless U.S. soldiers who have been sent to round up mutant children at gunpoint.

While “superhero movies for adults” would be taken to a much more ambitious cinematic level years later when Christopher Nolan released the game-changing The Dark Knight, X2 got farther down that path than any superhero movie before it.

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The Reboots That Forgot to Hit Reset

Thus it is somewhat quizzical that the sequel to X2 was such a regression, representing the downside of not having a guiding hand. Whereas Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men movies were major breakthroughs for the genre, 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand (directed by Brett Ratner at the last minute after Singer and Fox had a messy split) is the kind of hollow studio product from that era that caused Marvel Studios’ hegemonic quality control to eventually become so appealing. There might not be any attempts to swing at the fences like X2 or the Batman Begins homerun delivered by Christopher Nolan a few years later, but there also wouldn’t be movies like The Last Stand or X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) either.

The poor reception of these films represented a kind of franchise crossroads. Fox had considered The Last Stand to be the final curtain for the X-Men proper franchise (a huge ensemble’s contracts had expired) and audience interest was seeming to wane on the concept of Wolverine spin-offs. It would have been the perfect time to jump on the “reboot” bandwagon that was pulling into the station.

Yep, the superhero movie craze entered a new era by 2009—one populated by “gritty” reboots. In 2005, Christopher Nolan changed the landscape of superheroes and franchise moviemaking overall with Batman Begins. And afterward, 2008’s The Dark Knight marked a high point that the genre has never again reached. But that hasn’t stopped a hell of a lot of films from trying, including Eon Productions’ James Bond reboot Casino Royale (2006) and its subsequent post-Bush/War on Terror film, Skyfall (2012). Spider-Man was also rebooted to less success as a gritty, grounded adventurer in The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), and Superman’s Batman-esque reboot at WB, Man of Steel (2013), was so dark that of course they just had to throw Batman into the 2016 sequel too.

But during this period, the X-Men movies both followed the trends and disobeyed them. Rather than reboot, a Rothman-free Fox opted instead to do a prequel so distantly set in the past (by about 50 years) that there’d be near carte blanche to start from scratch. Also, the studio would simply make another Wolverine movie while ignoring everything about the one that came before it. Recasting be damned.

This is probably maddening to continuity purists on the internet who take comfort in how the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier fit snugly into the events of Ant-Man. But quite honestly, who cares? Suddenly, the X-Men movies were offering variety and individuality, as opposed to the conformity seen everywhere else. It also is when a movie like Deadpool started to become possible.

Arguably, X-Men: First Class (2011) is the best film the franchise has ever achieved and it is neither cognizant of the events in the first Wolverine movie (which was also a prequel), nor is it even mildly concerned with copying the “darkness” so persistent in the post-The Dark Knight zeitgeist. Director Matthew Vaughn instead fetishized the staples of 1960s Bondmania, making something closer to smirking Sean Connery than dour Daniel Craig. His young Magneto (Michael Fassbender) wore Connery’s famed three-piece gray suit from Goldfinger and hunted Nazis while helping prevent the Cuban Missile Crisis from going nuclear, and James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier was a smooth-talking academic who had a penchant for chasing co-ed skirts like he was in a Mad Men episode.

The result was something that also felt closer to the go-go tone of the X-Men comics—they were finally allowed to wear colorful costumes!—as well as a picture that is a bit of an odd duck in the franchise. With none of the major characters from the original trilogy besides Xavier and Magneto (who are unrecognizable as young men), and the bad taste left by The Last Stand, First Class underperformed at the box office. But it also set the slate for a new era of X-Men movies where superpowers, costumes, and even high-tech science fiction elements were par for the course—be it Kevin Bacon’s Blofeld-esque submarine in First Class or Chris Claremont’s deadly Sentinel terminators appearing in the later X-Men: Days of Future Past.

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Indeed, while Vaughn’s jovial tone was sadly a one-off, his eye for looking beyond black leather and Hugh Jackman reinvigorated the franchise with the castings of Fassbender, McAvoy, and a then-unknown Jennifer Lawrence.

A Shared Universe

Yet even if X-Men: First Class is the best period piece superhero movie to date (sorry, Cap), its underperformance could have spelled an actual reboot, especially since the wheels changed again and the industry shifted from Nolan’s grounded style being fashionable to chasing the shared universe of Marvel Studios.

Even now, the genre still seems to be about reverse engineering The Avengers’ success, be it with villains (Suicide Squad and Sony’s aborted Sinister Six) or just throwing more superheroes into any old sequel (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice). Yet, since the X-Men franchise has lived long enough to see Batman and Spider-Man both be rebooted twice, the heavy lifting was already done for them by 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, which combined the three-film mythology of the original 2000s X-Men movies with the period piece zaniness of First Class.

The result was two firmly established franchises that are somehow one in the same crossing paths in a time travel narrative that worked surprisingly smoothly. Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, sent on a mission from Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, goes back to the 1970s to team up with James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as those same characters. It also was a chance for Bryan Singer to return as director.

And whereas the official X2 sequel, The Last Stand, enjoyed a studio-friendly running time of 100 minutes, Singer’s Future Past follow-up ran 132 minutes, which was more than enough time to erase X-Men: The Last Stand from continuity while simultaneously crafting the biggest, most special effects laden X-Men movie ever.

While I personally preferred Vaughn’s lighter touch, Singer’s returned earnestness came with a scale that intentionally matches Marvel. There might not be floating cities or hellicarriers, but there are no moments from superhero movies in the last four years as tense as when Magneto takes control of the Sentinels and drops a stadium around the White House like he’s in the third act of a John Byrne comic.

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And if Days of Future Past attempted to directly compete with Marvel Studios—complete with having its own Quicksilver and army of robotic villains one year prior to Avengers: Age of Ultron—then this summer’s upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse looks even more influenced by Marvel Studios’ iconography with Oscar Isaac’s titular villain and Olivia Munn’s Psylocke appearing to be ripped straight from the panels of 1990s Jim Lee artwork. Even the heroes are finally allowed to have color again in a Singer movie, at least judging by this leaked image of Sophie Turner’s young Jean Grey.

A Genre Leader Again?

Perhaps the most remarkable moment for the X-Men franchise is that after 16 years, it has not only avoided a reboot, but it has somehow become a potential genre leader again. While Days of Future Past outgrossed Captain America in 2014, it didn’t come close to Avengers’ $1 billion totals. It also seems unlikely that Apocalypsewill hit the billion dollar mark. But with a bit of luck, Deadpool might have just paved the way for Fox’s X-Men movies to flourish for years without trying to compete with the Marvel Studios model.

Opening higher than Days of Future Past (or for that matter Guardians and Ant-Man), Deadpool is a runaway success for the studio that finally gambled on a major R-rated superhero movie. And even if its legs prove less impressive than any of those movies, it has already more than doubled its production budget of $58 million in the U.S. box office alone.

Unlike other studios that pretend their superhero movies are different genres (be they fantasy movies or “spy thrillers”), Deadpool is actually unique as a perverse, odd contrast to the Bryan Singer X-Men movies. While Vaughn had a tonal departure that was less financially successful, Ryan Reynolds and Tim Miller’s Deadpool is a box office Cinderella story that mercilessly mocks the X-Men movies and the superhero genre as a whole. And it works.

Rather than trying to connect everything, Deadpool offers a glimpse of what could happen if studios reduced their box office demands with smaller budgets, and thus bigger profits, while letting talent carve their own unique path. If they can keep the budget to $100 million or less, why not make a Wolverine 3 that is R-rated and actually feels like a Clint Eastwood actioner? It would have made The Wolverine (2013) a lot better without silver, robotic samurais showing up in the third act to merely balloon the budget and devalue the entertainment.

Deadpool just hinted at a time traveling gunslinger named Cable. While they’re at it, why not add in Olivia Munn’s already popular Psylocke (Cable is a time traveler, after all) and make an X-Force flick that is a subversive alternative to good clean X-Men (and Avengers) fun?

Singer is all but certain to be exiting the franchise again after X-Men: Apocalypse, which appears to be a swan song for his original era and the “First Class Trilogy” that began in 2011. Jennifer Lawrence is already halfway out the door. But with a new cast of the original heroes being introduced as teenagers in Apocalypse, and time travel becoming a regular occurrence, there is little reason that the X-Men films cannot chart their own path again, ignoring what Marvel Studios and Warner Bros. are doing and offering a true third way.

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No matter what, these mutants are about to multiply at movie theaters, extensively. Maybe that’s the real new dawn for the genre?