Ever since the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve been absolutely fascinated by any and all attempts for studios to create and navigate an expanded universe. Whether it’s based on superheroes or the supernatural, we’ve seen more Goofuses than Galants. Whatever your opinion of the Marvel movies, you have to at least admit that it worked out fantastically for Disney. They figured out a formula and it was a success.
Meanwhile, Amazing Spider-Man 2 got rewritten into oblivion, failed, and Sony buried their expansion plans until Venom became a surprise hit. Warner Bros. and DC rushed into their own shared cinematic universe with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League, stumbled, recovered, and now seem confused about their future. The Wizarding World took a perfectly fine and self-contained spinoff, then gave it a sequel that went overboard in needless Harry Potter prequel reveals. Then Universal Dark Universe…was…yeah, that didn’t really even happen.
But Fox’s X-Men? That movie franchise came before all those others and it’s possibly the most bizarre and interesting as a whole. Even with everything surrounding the Justice League “Snyder Cut.” It’s a superhero series with 20 years, 13 movies, and no more future now that Disney owns what is now known as 20th Century Studios.
The legacy of the X-Men movie franchise is a wild ride. There were two beloved movies to kick things off with a third that, at best, can be considered awkward. They attempted a prequel based on their most popular character with X-Men Origins: Wolverine (which backfired) but they got their footing thanks to a different prequel based on the team itself. With a somewhat forgettable Wolverine sequel in the can, they then did the closest thing the X-Men series had to an Avengers-style crossover event movie.
After that, we finally got the Deadpool spinoff movie that Fox was so reluctant to do, yet not only made them huge bank, but made them realize they could branch out. We got another main X-Men movie, a super-violent Wolverine finale, a Deadpool sequel, and production of two more movies that were muddily mixed with Disney’s purchase of Fox.
Throughout all of that, the movies weren’t totally coherent as a single narrative. Even if you ignore the general meta-ness of the Deadpool movies, the X-Men Cinematic Universe kept trying to apply Band-Aids when their continuity could never even hope for an open-casket funeral.
Dark Phoenix and New Mutants were filmed around the same time. The intent was for New Mutants to come out first, but it’s long become infamous for being the Duke Nukem Forever of mutant movies, getting pushed back repeatedly for a variety of reasons. That left Dark Phoenix as the “finale” for the X-Men Cinematic Universe.
But Dark Phoenix brought the franchise out with a whimper. Much of it had to do with Simon Kinberg trying to tell the same story that he did in X-Men: The Last Stand and not doing much better, if at all. Despite featuring big Hollywood names, almost everyone involved seemed to have checked out and Mystique’s death was telegraphed from the very first trailer.
The movie did scrap its downer ending of Xavier surveying the empty wreckage of his school for something more optimistic and fitting for a finale. Fitting enough, at least. Xavier left the school in Beast’s hands (or was kicked out) and went on to have a peaceful chess game with Magneto. All the while, we could see the Phoenix in the day sky with Jean doing a monologue.
As if referencing the X-Men’s new cinematic future underneath the Disney banner, Jean left us with, “This is not the end of me or the X-Men. This is a new beginning.” There would be no post-credits scene.
It felt defeated and accepting that it was the end of the line, but also felt flat. It was an ending, but it was an ending that felt anything but fresh.
Now, New Mutants was supposed to be the beginning of a trilogy, but watching it as the final X-Men film…it felt like the cusp of something more.
Despite being a new property, New Mutants immediately ties into the greater X-Men Cinematic Universe. An older version of Sunspot was featured briefly in X-Men: Days of Future Past and Illyana Rasputin – while not mentioned – is Colossus’ sister. Now, after all the delays and the realization that Disney was still going to release this baby in theaters during the pandemic, there was an outside chance that they could have made this some kind of introduction to mutants in the MCU via clever editing and reshoots.
Except they didn’t do that.
Direct allusions to Charles Xavier and the X-Men show up about a third into the movie. This was definitely part of Fox’s reality. But it also seemed like it was latching onto the various properties. We already had a connection to X-Men’s big “event” movie and that family connection, but the unseen greater evil of New Mutants is something we’ve seen not only in other X-movies, but in the very different X-movie properties, including the ones that haven’t been fully confirmed as canon to each other.
A funny thing about New Mutants is that despite being based on a specific X-Men offshoot team from the comics, the basic plot is more reminiscent of the comic series Avengers Academy. We’re supposed to think that all these youngsters are ultimately training to be X-Men with potential to be great heroes. Instead, the big twist is that they aren’t being prepared for Charles Xavier’s school. Instead, they’re being prepared as dangerous supervillains with a future as minions for the Essex Corporation.
That’s Essex as in Nathaniel Essex. As in Mr. Sinister.
After 20 years, the overdressed mutant mastermind is the most prominent villain not to show up in any of these movies. Rumors claim that we were supposed to get John Hamm to play him in at least a teaser, but there are conflicting reports on that. It’s also been said that he was going to be a major player in the Gambit movie that never got off the ground.
Even though Sinister is nowhere to be found in the film, his fingerprints are all over the X-Men Cinematic Universe of the past several years. X-Men: Apocalypse had a post-credits scene showing the cleanup of a Weapon X site where Wolverine went on a rampage. One man takes a few vials of blood and puts them in a briefcase with “ESSEX CORP.” inscribed on it.
The only Wolverine-related movie to follow that was Logan, which sometimes suggested that it possibly wasn’t in the same reality as the other X-Men movies. Outside of the first movie’s climax being referenced and a deleted scene shout out to Sabretooth, the X-Men were depicted as more fiction than fact when it came to their colorful flashiness. It was still a world of fantastic elements, like cloning, cyborgs, and kids with special powers.
In this dystopia, we saw a group of biologically-engineered mutant children being trained as weapons in some shady facility. New Mutants connected the dots. With her own version of telepathy, Dani Moonstar had flashes of moments from Logan – straight-up reused footage, even – that made it very apparent that the place that created X-23 was none other than part of the Essex Corporation. Or that the place that would one day create X-23. The timeline situation is iffy as is.
Essex also had his finger in the delicious pie that is Deadpool 2. The movie’s plot revolves around Deadpool’s attempt to save the soul of Russel Collins, AKA Firefist. They didn’t make a big deal out of the place’s name, but Russel was brought up in the Essex House for Mutant Rehabilitation. Once again, another corrupt place that tried to experiment on and control young mutants with the Essex seal of approval. In the end, that place was destroyed and all of the students were brought to the X-Mansion.
New Mutants ends with the five protagonists free from imprisonment, with an uncertain future ahead of them. It’s a better ending than Dark Phoenix, in my opinion. It’s an ending that suggests that this disjointed mutant reality filled with retcon after retcon after retcon was actually building towards something truly climactic.
Mainline X-Men. Deadpool and X-Force. The New Mutants. The dystopian future of Logan. Four very different pieces that could have potentially come together in one adventure with the sinister smile of an ominous supervillain opposing them. X-Men: Endgame, essentially. A major finale is off on the horizon, never to be fully realized, but one where all the aspects of the Fox X-Men collective could have saved the future for a third time.
Who knows? Maybe we’ll get it in comic form one day.