The X-Men franchise has never been one to set the box office alight in the way that, say, The Avengers does, with 2014’s Days Of Future Past’s box office topping out at $748 million world wide. Granted, X-Men kickstarted the current cinematic superhero revolution to much acclaim but after the initial two entries in the franchise, public and critical reception began to dwindle, as did box office returns.
X-Men: First Class proved to be the creative shot in the arm that the franchise needed and with Days Of Future Past hitting the highest box office results yet, it was expected that Apocalypse would catapult the series nearer to the billion-dollar club.
But it didn’t. In fact, X-Men: Apocalypse’s take is just north of $500 million, and well down on Days Of Future Past. Following the success of Deadpool earlier this year (which did cross the $700 million mark), Fox would have been hoping for more.
So where does that leave the X-Men series? There are plans for more direct films following X-Men: Apocalypse, but what direction can the series take now? A few thoughts…
Charles, old friend – it’s time to move on
One frequent criticism aimed at X-Men: Apocalypse was how it felt like more of the same. At this point does anyone feel like the franchise has come that far from X-Men in 2000? We’ve been following these characters for 16 years and at this point it can be rather fairly argued that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has seen further development of it’s world and characters in half that time.
We’ve had over a decade and a half of Charles Xavier, Magneto, and their ongoing feud as to how best exist in a world that hates and fears them. They fight then make up in nearly every outing. And what happened at the end of Apocalypse? You guessed it.
Sure, these two characters are intrinsically linked to the X-Men and the franchise is essentially founded on their opposing principles, but there comes a time to get off of the shoulders of giants and begin walking your own path. The X-Men have a near endless array of villains to battle and have had a multitude of leaders throughout their history. Removing these two characters for the foreseeable future will allow other dynamics to develop and free the franchise of its apparent inability to move forward and develop.
Cyclops, Storm, and Wolverine, amongst others have all led the team at various points in their many decades of publication. Cyclops in particular has become a militant leader in recent comics, presenting the mutant youth with a Che Guevara-like revolutionary figure to gravitate towards. That is arguably now more interesting than two characters who are seem to revert to a tried and tested relationship at the end of every film.
Saying goodbye to James McAvoy and Fassbender may seem like a risk but it might just open the gates for fresh storytelling.
Focus on the youth
What studio executive would resist going with a younger cast?
With that in mind, let’s bring youth to the forefront of the universe again. Apocalypse crackled whenever the newer mutants were on screen and the actors seemed to relish the chance to portray these legendary characters on screen. The younger mutants are struggling with adolescence, superhuman abilities and occasionally looking vastly different from their homo sapien counterparts – solid foundations for riveting storytelling.
The ’90s X-Men animated series smartly brought Jubilee to the forefront. She acted as the eyes and ears of the audience, a seemingly normal teenager thrown into the insane and treacherous world of mutants, racial prejudice and giant flaming space birds. If we don’t have an anchor to these fantastical stories, these fantastical CGI heavy movies tend to feel hollow and pointless – a trap that Apocalypse fell into at times.
Being a teenager sucks. A teenager that can shoot fire from their mouth and has horns for ears? That’s hell. The youngsters are relatable, unpredictable and have room to grow. Think of a John Hughes style coming of age picture with super powers and racial politics thrown in.
There’s no greater a time to focus on this than now.
Keep it Earth bound before rushing into space
Before departing the franchise in 2005, Bryan Singer planted the seeds for the Phoenix storyline. Arguably the most famous X-Men arc of all time, the Phoenix is a galactic being of pure energy whose purpose is to destroy obsolete parts of the universe. It inhabits the body of Jean Grey, giving her near limitless power. Eventually she ends up wiping out a portion of the galaxy forcing the X-Men to venture out into the depths of space to battle the imperial guard of another planet, for her freedom.
That’s the Cliff Notes version. It is far more outlandish and complex than that in the comics.
Bryan Singer seems determined to complete this story on his own terms after Brett Ratner fumbled it in X-Men: The Last Stand. Heck, when referring to Return Of The Jedi after leaving the cinema in Apocalypse, Jean Grey mentions that the third in a trilogy is always the worst — it’s hard to see that as anything but a childish dig at the bastardisation of The Phoenix Saga in X3.
Now The Phoenix Saga is tremendous and regularly ranks as one of the greatest comic storylines of all time. It’s operatic, emotional, and offers the kind of spectacle international audiences crave on the silver screen. However, this works in the comics because we love the characters and have decades of prior history with them. We understand their complex relationships and fear for them when they are forced to battle for the life of one of their founding members on the moon. Out of their depth and off world, it just doesn’t make sense for them to win – and they don’t.
We’ve spent minutes with these characters in X-Men: Apocalypse. Sophie Turner has only just taken on the reigns of Jean Grey and we haven’t even begun to spend time getting to know her, let alone follow her developing relationships with her fellow X-Men. In fact, her development in Apocalypse is one of my major gripes with the plot, seemingly shoehorning the Phoenix Force into the film so Singer can address it in a couple of years’ time (if indeed it’s still him at the helm). We don’t know Jean yet, so why should the casual moviegoer care or understand the imagery?
At this point in the rebooted narrative, the general populace has only been aware of the mutants’ existence for a decade at this point. We need to spend more time with these young mutants and follow their developing relationships and adventures before we can remotely care about Sansa Stark flying off into space and devouring galaxies. Let’s deal with issues far closer to home and more personal before we jet our X-Men back off into the far reaches of space.
Treat The Phoenix Saga how Marvel Studios is treating the Infinity Stones and Thanos— a slow burn over multiple movies and years, allowing characters to ripen and the audience’s relationships with these characters to deepen. Earn the right to go bombastic and then execute. Follow the Marvel method of giving us five to eight years of solid, earthbound storytelling featuring the merry mutants and the countless problems closer to home. Then take them to the stars and tear ’em apart.
Ditch the period setting
X-Men: First Class and Days Of Future Past utilized the time periods they were set in particularly well. The ’60s and ’70s proved to be fertile breeding ground for stories revealing mutant-kind to the rest of the world. The clandestine nature of the cold war perfectly synced with the notion of mutants trying to hide in plain sight in First Class and likewise, the revelatory nature of the Nixon Presidency complimented the unveiling of mutants to the wider world in Days Of Future Past.
Mullets and jackets aside, there was no reason for X-Men: Apocalypse to take place in the ’80s other than the sake of chronology and keeping the current crop of A-listers. Continuity has never been the franchise’s strong point and I feel that audiences are yearning to see the team back in the modern day again. What seemed like a masterstroke in 2011 is now beginning to hold the franchise back. Seeing the X-Men alive and well in the future at the end of Days Of Future Past robbed the period setting films of their suspense and danger – we know these characters inevitably end up alive and well.
The retooling of First Class got the franchise back up off the ground, but it’s time to bring the X-Men kicking and screaming back into the modern day. 2016 is a pretty messed up place and their greatest challenge awaits them here, in the present.
Protecting a world that hates and fears them
The X-Men were created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to act as real world allegories to the burgeoning civil rights movement. Whereas Spider-Man represented the loner, the X-Men championed the notion of looking different, yet trying to fit in to a world that at best doesn’t understand them and at worst, wants them dead.
Unfortunately, western culture is still plagued by racial prejudice, fear of the unknown and notions that challenge us. It’s why Donald Trump is the Republican presidential candidate, threatening to build a wall. It’s why police are on the front pages accused of racial profiling. Look at what happened this week in the UK with fears of mass immigration. Everything has changed since the X-Men’s creation and not much has changed at all.
The X-Men have never been more relevant than now. Professor Xavier formed them to reach out to a world that doesn’t understand them and prove that they just want to live in harmony and peace. Our world hates and fears their own more openly than ever. How would mutants fare today?
So mine the source material. As always, the adaptation has to be in no way literal, but there have been countless stories that resonate with today’s socio-political climate.
In the comics, Genosha is a land that becomes the designated home for mutants across the world. Mutants worldwide risked it all to reach this safe haven. It’s eerily relevant. Genosha fractures the X-Men in the comics with some believing it makes them an easier target and others believing it will put mutants on the map as a political force – it makes for a great and relevant soap opera.
Graydon Creed is a fictional political figure who forms the ‘Friends of Humanity’ — a group responsible for stifling the mutant civil rights movement, attacking sympathizers and using the acts of radicals like Magneto to justify their cause.
It’s as if the comics were prophetic.
The X-Men were created to protect a world that hates and fears them –let’s see how they’d fair today. It would make a pretty startling and topical superhero movie that would offer a flavor different from Marvel and Warner Brothers superhero output…
This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.