Where next for the X-Men franchise?

With X-Men: First Class proving to be something of a success, what lies ahead for the X-Men movie franchise?

Earlier this year, X-Men: First Class (out now on DVD and Blu-ray) re-established Marvel’s mutant heroes as a franchise to be reckoned with, in the wake of the critical poundings heaped upon its previous entries, X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. With its blend of period politics, character development and sci-fi allegory, it re-established X-Men as an action series with heavy philosophical heart – the thinking person’s blockbuster.

The film’s release on DVD this month brings the current chapter in the X-Men franchise to a close, and while nothing has been confirmed just yet, the next time we can expect to hear from the promotional machine will surely be when news of a new X-Men film finally leaks out. But success is fragile. Another bad film could cause the franchise’s resurgence to falter, and it’s not easy to outdo expectations once they’ve been raised. For every The Dark Knight, there’s an Iron Man 2.

What, then, can we expect to see from the X-Men franchise in the future?

The Wolverine

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The film most likely to happen next is, of course, the long-awaited Wolverine sequel. Although it’s been subjected to more delays than a space shuttle launch, there’s finally a script in place and a director – James Mangold – ready to take it on. As soon as Hugh Jackman finishes with Les Miserables, shooting can begin, and production should properly begin in Spring 2012.

Described (thankfully) as more of a stand-alone film than a sequel to X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Wolverine is expected to see the character in Japan, perhaps following the plot of the original Chris Claremont/Frank Miller comic book miniseries. As with X-Men: First Class, a new setting could help bring a new perspective to the character’s ideas and themes – Wolverine stories set in Japan have traditionally played up the divide between the honourable man and the savage berserker that makes Wolverine so compelling as a character.

With a plot that pits Wolverine against the Japanese underworld and vying for the affections of a crime bosses daughter, it’s perfect material for a movie.

Of course, hilarious cameo aside, it’s debatable what, if anything, Wolverine has to do with the current incarnation of the X-Men. It’s possible – though not entirely likely – that the film could be a prequel to the original X-Men movies and feature members of the First Class cast in some capacity. But let’s face it – at this point, the last thing a Wolverine movie needs is greater ties to continuity.First Class 2

Although it’s tempting to call this X-Men: Second Class (and if the film’s bad, expect that temptation to prove all-but-impossible to movie reviewers everywhere) the next most probable entry in the X-Men franchise is an X-Men: First Class sequel. Director Matthew Vaughn seems interested in returning, as do the principal cast, but it’s not entirely clear where the story might go following the lead of the original. Hints, however, have been dropped.

Politically, the sixties offers plenty of opportunity for allegorical backdrops, from the Vietnam war to the Civil Rights movement to the increased visibility of alternative lifestyles. Vaughn has already suggested that the sequel could open with Magneto being shown as the man responsible for the Kennedy Assassination.

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Also confirmed are plans to add ‘one more character’ to the mix – a villain who can go toe-to-toe with Magneto in a role similar to Sebastian Shaw’s in the first. It’s hard to think who that might be, but we’re at least hoping for Nathaniel Essex, aka Mr. Sinister – a long-lived mutant geneticist as intelligent as Magneto and Xavier (but with little interest in their respective philosophies) and one of the major villains that the franchise has yet to touch. And, if you’ll permit me a moment of fanboy speculation, it’s a choice that would conveniently lead to the use of Apocalypse in the third film…

X-Men 4

Now that the franchise has been brought back from the brink of x-tinction (ho ho!), there have been rumblings that now is the time to do a true sequel to X-Men: The Last Stand. If First Class 2 takes a while to get off the ground and The Wolverine takes yet another dive, it’s possible that this could come next (albeit a long shot).

One of the producers of the previous X-Men movies, Lauren Shuler Donner, claims that the film is in “active development” at Fox following their acceptance of the latest treatment.

It might not be as simple as that, of course. With most of the principal cast dead or de-powered, there was the pungent whiff of contract negotiations surrounding the plot of X-Men: The Last Stand, and any of the bigger actors spoiling for a pay rise might find themselves left on the benches, or otherwise re-cast – although aside from Hugh Jackman, no cast member is really irreplaceable, especially considering that a made-up Fassbender/McAvoy could prove acceptable replacements for the otherwise unassailable McKellen/Stewart pairing.

Story-wise, we’ve only been told one thing about the idea being pitched: that the X-Men 4 story will lead into X-Men 5. Donner has, in the past, expressed an interest in doing Days of Future Past, the seminal alternate-future X-Men storyline, but at this point it really is wide open.

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Something Else?The X-Men franchise seems to have as many unproduced spin-offs as it does produced films. The disappointing box office and commercial performance of X-Men Origins: Wolverine has made any more solo prequels an unlikely prospect, and besides which, story elements planned for X-Men Origins: Magneto and X-Men Origins: Emma Frost were incorporated into X-Men: First Class.

But that said… there’s still a Deadpool treatment floating around somewhere (with Ryan Reynolds, at least until recently, keen to star), and everyone from Taylor Kitsch to James Marsden to Tyler Mane has expressed an interest in reprising their X-franchise roles, however dead or forgotten their characters may be. It’s true that we don’t think a Gambit solo movie is all that likely right now – but remember, the X-Men franchise is controlled by the same studio who spun off Elektra just because they could.

All it’s going to take is for one of those guys to co-star in one big hit action movie, and they could find themselves on a fast-track to their own X-Men spin-off. And hey, when True Blood eventually finishes, Anna Paquin’s going to need something to do with her time…

X-Men: First Class is out now on DVD and Blu-ray.

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