For much of the ’80s and ’90s, the X-Men were Marvel’s #1 franchise, propelled to greatness by top-flight creators like Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Louise Simonson, and Jim Lee. By 1997, one single X-Men title (Uncanny X-Men) had grown into a family of 8 books – Uncanny X-Men, X-Men, Wolverine, X-Force, X-Factor, Cable, Generation X, and Excalibur – and it’s no surprise that X-Men became one of Marvel’s first blockbuster movies, in 2001.
But times change. Claremont, the architect of the X-Men’s success and the man who developed many of the franchise’s greatest stories, has recently spoken about how the X-Men’s gradual decline has “nothing to do with comic sales [and] everything to do with the fact that the film rights are controlled by a rival corporation.”
But is he correct? And if so, what’s been going on?
Fall of the mutants
Declining quality through the ’90s, combined with a renewed editorial focus on Marvel’s Avengers franchise left the X-books creatively adrift for much of the last two decades, save for the occasional stand-out run (Grant Morrison’s New X-Men and Rick Remender’s Uncanny X-Force spring to mind). Meanwhile, the success of Marvel Studios led the company to focus on properties it could commercially exploit to the fullest degree. As Claremont said – repeating something that’s an open secret in the industry – the X-Men, licensed by Fox, did not fit that remit.
The rumor was that Fox, in addition to getting profits from the X-Men movies they made, also received a share of any X-Men merchandise that was produced. As a result, Marvel simply declined to make any. The almost total lack of tie-ins for the last few X-Men movies is notable compared to the slew that accompanies every MCU release. Comic book rumour site Bleeding Cool also reported on various incidents, such as Marvel replacing X-Men (and similarly Fox-licensed Fantastic Four characters) in archive artwork with characters Fox didn’t own.
Questioned directly on the subject of the X-Men’s declining visibility, Marvel’s Executive Editor Tom Brevoort gave a particularly candid answer on his Tumblr in 2014, stating that “If you had two things, and on one you earned 100% of the revenues from the efforts that you put into making it, and the other you earned a much smaller percentage for the same amount of time and effort, you’d be more likely to concentrate more heavily on the first, wouldn’t you?”
While it’s unfair to suggest, as some have done, that Marvel was deliberately producing bad X-Men comics (they could, after all, just have easily produced none – there’s currently no Fantastic Four comic on sale) it’s hard to deny some de-emphasis occurred. It was an open secret in the industry that the Inhumans were being repositioned as mutant surrogates, allowing Marvel to easily create new superheroes (Ms. Marvel, for instance) without making them mutants and tying their character rights into a deal that gave Fox studios access to them. As part of this corporate synergy, Marvel Studios was to produce an Inhumans movie, set for 2018 in the 2014 ‘Phase 3’ announcement.
But recently, the situation has changed. In 2015, Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige managed to change the way the movie division of Marvel reported, effectively separating the movie-making entity from the rest of the business, which produced the comics and TV shows and which for convenience’s sake we’ll call Marvel Comics from now on. Feige had previously been subordinate to Marvel Comics head Ike Perlmutter. Now the pair were competing.
With less need to appease corporate synergy, Feige quickly dropped the Inhumans movie from the slate even though the comics and Agents Of SHIELD TV show had been building visibility for the concept. As a reaction, Perlmutter – in need of corporate allies as he finds himself compared to Feige’s wildly successful movie business – appears to have begun thawing the relationship between Fox and Marvel Comics.
The X-Men, it seems, are no longer off the board in the corporate game of chess that surrounds them. So where does the franchise currently stand?
Marvel Comics’ attempt to build franchises around the Inhumans proved largely unsuccessful despite a protracted, multi-year push for the characters, so it’s unsurprising that Marvel is going back to the well on the X-Men. The next big X-Men event – Inhumans Vs. X-Men – seems designed to play off reader anxieties about the editorial conflict between the two franchises.
But while Marvel Comics are leaning into it, that doesn’t mean the conflict was totally imagined. IvX hasn’t even begun and Marvel has already started to announce the new X-Men titles that’ll follow – but it hasn’t yet announced any Inhuman ones. Code-named ‘ResurrXion’, the books won’t be on sale until 2017 but seemed designed to ride a wave of 90s nostalgia from the time when the X-Men franchise was at its peak.
Two core titles – X-Men Blue and X-Men Gold – hark back to the early 90s, when Uncanny X-Men and X-Men each featured their own team of X-Men nicknamed the blue and gold teams. Cable, one of the 90s’ most enigmatic X-Men (and due to appear in the Deadpool sequel movie) is getting his own book again. Generation X marks the first ever return of a title that ran from 1994 to 2001. This, alongside three new titles: Weapon X, Iceman, and Jean Grey – and perhaps more to follow.
Line relaunches of this kind aren’t unusual in comics, of course, and it’s not like it hasn’t been done with the X-Men before, but this apparent attempt to entice the franchise’s historical audience does at least imply that the long-running Inhumans storylines that turned off current readers are coming to an end, and the X-Men will retake the spotlight they’ve been forced to share ever since.
Marvel’s relationship with Fox was reportedly so bad in the past that staffers didn’t even get to see the X-Men movies ahead of release. It also seems notable that Stan Lee didn’t make his customary guest cameo in any of X-Men First Class, X-Men: Days Of Future Past, or Fantastic 4 (2015), then returned in 2016 for both Deadpool and X-Men: Apocalypse. It might be too neat a theory (especially because Lee isn’t a Marvel Comics employee anymore) but that could be a very visible clue that Fox and Marvel Comics are no longer on the outs.
It’s worth noting that while Perlmutter needs allies, it’s not entirely outside of Fox’s interests to buddy up to Marvel Comics either. The X-Men movie franchise has been chugging along for a few years, with Deadpool a stand-out hit, but X-Men: Apocalypse underperformed and its biggest names – McAvoy, Fassbender and Lawrence – are likely out of contract following movie three in the current run. At worst they won’t come back, at best, they’re going to be very expensive.
Meanwhile numerous projected spin-offs have failed to materialise over the years, Hugh Jackman is about to say farewell to Wolverine in next year’s Logan, and director Bryan Singer is reportedly moving on to other projects. Compared to the unstoppable force that is Marvel Studios’ films, Fox isn’t doing half as well as it should be given the stable of characters it commands.
Indeed, Fox has just mooted a soft reboot of the increasingly-convoluted franchise, and it’s possible that they’ll turn to Marvel Comics staffers to help them get it right. The Marvel creative committee famously had input on Marvel Studios’ earliest hits, so perhaps Fox wants access to those minds as they attempt to retool the X-Men franchise into something that more closely resembling the Marvel Cinematic Universe – or at least the comics that once proved so successful.
Another early sign that Fox and Marvel Comics were getting friendly again came in mid-late 2015, when it emerged that Marvel’s long-time refusal to engage Fox in discussion over X-Men TV shows had been reversed. Marvel TV was helping to develop both Legion and Hellfire for the small screen.
Although Hellfire was dropped, the project has been replaced on the slate by an untitled mutant-based project from Burn Notice creator Matt Nix, who has been working with the head of Marvel Television (which, remember, is under Perlmutter’s half of the operation rather than Feige’s).
Legion, meanwhile, is ready to air in February 2017 as the first ever live-action TV show based on the X-Men since 1996’s Generation X TV movie (at least, given that 2001-2004’s Mutant X was rendered legally distinct from the X-Men by a series of lawsuits…).
With so many characters to exploit and so many concepts worth developing, if Legion does well – and for that matter, if it doesn’t – we’re sure Fox and Marvel will be developing plenty of X-Men concepts for the screen in the coming years. Again, it’s a mutually beneficial relationship: Fox can’t do it without Marvel Comics’ say-so, while Marvel Comics and their TV properties are being poorly treated by Feige’s Marvel Studios, who show no great enthusiasm in proving that #itsallconnected. If Fox and Marvel make TV together, the X-Men will have more visibility and thus more value.
There are yet more signs that the X-Men licensing machine is finally coming back to life. Hasbro recently released the first dedicated X-Men wave in its Marvel Legends figure line since 2007. Panini, which publishes the UK reprints of the X-Men comics, is reportedly being granted the rights to produce more X-Men-related collections. Funko Pop vinyls of X-Men characters were rare before 2016, but are now increasing in number.
For fans of the X-Men, this can only be a good sign. It’s always a shame when corporate politics impact the things we love, and as an X-Men fan of over 20 years the pickings have seemed particularly slim in recent years.
Admittedly, in an ideal world the X-Men would be buddying up on screen with the Avengers in much the same way Sony-owned Spider-Man is – but if that’s not to be, then I think most of us would much rather see an X-Men franchise that’s creatively and commercially healthy rather than the stub of one we’ve been living with of late. For a series that’s about owning the things that make us different and learning to live together peacefully, it can be no bad thing to get that message in front of more people.