Why the X-Men Don’t Belong in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Despite fan reactions to recent reports of a Disney/Fox deal, the X-Men aren't a good fit for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

As per reports all month, 21st Century Fox and the Walt Disney Company are close to finalizing and getting full reguatlory approval for a deal that would sell Fox’s film studios and various other adjacent entertainment divisions to the Mouse House. When finished, this deal will have a sweeping effect on the movie industry as two of Hollywood’s biggest studios merge, consolidating resources and throwing confusion upon the future of American entertainment. But be that as it may, and ignoring the horrifying ramifications of culling one of Hollywood’s oldest studios, the big takeaway in geek culture is, of course, the X-Men. And more explicitly how these mutant brothers and sisters might be making their way home to Marvel Studios and the movie universe so many fans cherish. From social media to internet forums, this was a cause for online celebration, for in short order, Wolverine could be trading quips with Iron Man, and Magneto might finally offer the MCU a foe with some menace.

As appealing as all that potential fan service could be on a surface level though, I have to say the fact that it is still somewhat disappointing that this merger is all but certain to be concluded before the end of the year. Yes, despite surely committing heresy among the fanboy set, I’ve never really considered Marvel Studios to be the “home” of any property, and I find this growing sense of brand loyalty, where pledging an oath of fealty to one studio or another is demanded, to be reductive.

On simply a narrative level, there are reasons to view the mutants as a beat apart from the impressive universe built by Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios. The implicit appeal of X-Men from one generation to the next is it celebrates “the Other” and allows any marginalized youths to find power in their differences and individuality. In short, the X-Men are often allegorical stand-ins for persecuted minorities, whereas the Avengers, especially in recent Marvel Studios films, are mainstream icons to be as celebrated onscreen as they are off. Even being considered “a war criminal now” does not mean Captain America can’t be a local high school hero in Spider-Man: Homecoming.

This uneasy distinction between born and bred mutants and the Marvel superheroes who are gifted their powers by luck or providence has always been confounding on the page and would undoubtedly be even more cumbersome to explain on the screen. However, this is not the real issue. The best Marvel films paper over inconsistencies with well-placed deflections or witticisms (again, “Pretty sure this guy’s a war criminal now”). The real reason they should stay separate is for the sake of the fans, who risk getting everything they want—which is more of the same.

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At this point, the X-Men movie franchise has become a true cultural oddity. Having existed for nearly 20 years and spanning 11 films, it’s outlasted several shifting epochs in comic book movie history, from its original heyday as a somber, leathery reclamation of comicdom following the infamous Batman & Robin to somehow weathering the multiple ages of first gritty and then lighthearted, universe-building reboots that claimed both Batman and Spider-Man. Twice.

During all of this, the X-Men movies have kept trucking, which has led to some dubious continuity issues. However, it has also forced filmmakers and executives at 20th Century Fox—particularly, ahem, after the Tom Rothman era at Fox—to consistently reevaluate the mutants until you ended up with what we have today, a semi-shared universe that is currently surviving on risk-taking and diversification, as opposed to hegemony and solidification. While superhero franchises at both Disney and Warner Bros. in recent years have chased the rewards of a “shared universe” multi-franchise Hydra, the X-films have flourished in the last seven years by rewarding individuality. Like the mutants they chronicle, it is their differences that become cause for celebration.

The reason Fox has gone this direction is multi-faceted. In part, Fox’s fleeting attempts to replicate the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been stumbling and, much like the course correction Warner Bros. is currently under with its DC Universe films, there has been a pivot toward focusing on individual stories, as opposed to turning them into disposable entries in an ongoing saga. Further, the lack of merchandising rights to the X-Men brand allows the studio to take risks in the actual filmmaking, as opposed to always focusing on the four-quadrant appeal of its brand that will move toys, video games, and bed sheets.

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Consequently, I would argue four of the last five X-Men-related movies have had more personality than most of the modern superhero slugfests. This is best crystallized in Logan, a film that is unafraid to take its time with its exploration of the weight of comic book-mythmaking on flesh and blood humans. In addition to its gore and swearing, there is a measured patience in its gait, and it’s as deconstructive of the superhero genre as the best revisionist Westerns of the 1970s.

James Mangold took major risks by genuinely departing from what is considered to be the “superhero movie,” as opposed to merely suggesting in the press that because Robert Redford is in a movie, it should qualify as an espionage thriller. Mangold is poised to push his deconstructionist impulses that value character and acting even farther in his currently developing X-23 spinoff. Meanwhile, Tim Miller and Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool is as different from Logan as Animal House was from McCabe and Mrs. Miller. A raunchy, fourth-wall obliterating comedy, the Merc with a Mouth also deconstructed the clichés other studios toil in with gleeful scorn.

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This level of experimentation is likely to continue with the X-brand, as Noah Hawley pushes artful boundaries on FX’s Legion, and Josh Boone only begins teasing his fascinating “mutant horror movie” concept with New Mutants, which looks like A Nightmare on Elm Street and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had a super-powered baby.

As other superhero franchises push closer and closer to a narrative singularity, and even concepts as bleak as an apocalyptic “Ragnarok” are sandblasted into the familiar constraints of a comedic “get the band together” team-up yarn, creative ambition within the genre is hardly anything to throw away. While the mainline X-Men movies hit a misstep in X-Men: Apocalypse, there has still been significant creativity in its predecessors to suggest the brand can endure. X-Men: First Class resembled an actual spy movie, if of the goofy Sean Connery variety, and was a warm-up for Matthew Vaughn before taking on Kingsman, while X-Men: Days of Future Past churlishly used mutant superpowers to challenge its heroes with the temptations of drug addiction and political assassination.

Just as Logan was not afraid to turn its proverbial immigrant song into a subplot that was actually aware and vocal about the increasing scapegoating of foreigners who’ve crossed a border out of desperation, most of the recent X-films have been forced to embrace and constantly reconsider the allegorical appeal of mutants, if only because a franchise this old is compelled to dig deeper past formula.

So as much as I would enjoy seeing a comic book accurate costumed X-team fight the Avengers, with Gambit calling Captain America “Mon ami,” the tradeoff of storytelling and filmmaking possibilities is too severe. In many ways, the losses of putting the X-Men in the MCU are a microcosm of what is wrong with a potential Disney/Fox merger. As the resources of Hollywood studios consolidate, the chance for competition in the market drastically shrinks. Consumers lose the opportunity of larger diversity, and everything starts looking the same. There cannot be anything more antithetical to Charles Xavier’s dream for a better future than that.

This article was originally published on Dec. 5, 2017.