Spoilers for the X-Men films to date lie ahead.
Successfully rebooting a franchise is one of the trickiest tasks in Hollywood, which explains why studio executives only tend to attempt this when they’ve exhausted every other option in their arsenal.
For example, before consigning themselves to recasting Peter Parker and rebooting the Spider-Man franchise in 2011, Sony gave Sam Raimi and his cohorts several years to try and correct the course of the Tobey Maguire-starring franchise after the lukewarm response to Spider-Man 3.
As we discussed recently, Raimi didn’t manage it, and Sony took a gamble on Marc Webb and Andrew Garfield instead. The result was another batch of mostly-unenthusiastic reviews, and ultimately a second reboot with the help of Marvel Studios.
All the while, the X-Men franchise – which predated Raimi’s first Spider-Man – has endured. X-Men: Apocalypse is out next year, with the first X-Men movie’s creator Bryan Singer still at the helm.
What’s Singer’s secret? And how has the X-franchise managed to survive this long? We had a look at its bumpy and unconvential route to success…
2006 – 2009: The Bankable Brink Of Doom
The first two X-Men films were excellent. Their director Bryan Singer had found a way to make superhero movies cool again, and Fox had a big new cash cow on their hands.
But in 2006, with Singer temporarily out of the picture due to his commitments to Superman Returns, Fox attempted its first X-Men film without him at the helm. And this is where things started to go wrong.
Brett Ratner – who’d just received a critical mauling for the not-awful Pierce Brosnan movie After The Sunset – took the director’s chair, and the resultant film was X-Men: The Last Stand. Tasked with directing a sequel to the immensely well-received X-2, Ratner inherited plot strands that Singer had left dangling. Singer had teased that Jean Grey may still be alive and could become the dangerously powerful villain Phoenix, and so Ratner took that baton and ran with it.
The results were a mixed bag, it seems fair to say. Although some people enjoyed The Last Stand and the film made bigger bank than either of its X-predecessors at the global box office, the critical response was middling and some of the reactions from cinemagoers were vehement. Comic book fans that adored the original Phoenix Saga were particularly vocal, and Ratner was accused rather a lot of having mishandled a beloved comic book arc.
This is when some studios executives may have started to worry. Perhaps a couple of itchy trigger fingers were begin to hover over the big red reboot button.
But the money coming in was good, so Fox pressed ahead regardless, as Singer continued to be busy elsewhere. Because everyone loves Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, a prequel exploring his origins (despite the fact that X-2 had already unravelled that mystery impeccably) was green-lit. Gavin Hood, who was coming off the back of impressive Jake Gyllenhaal picture Rendition, was brought in to direct. X-Men Origins: Wolverine was made.
Again, Fox found themselves with a movie that made plenty of money – not as much as The Last Stand, but more than the original X-Men – but failed to inspire a majority of positive responses from critics or fans. There was particular disdain for film’s third-act decision to sew up the mouth of Ryan Reynolds’ Wade Wilson. In the comics, Wade became Deadpool: the ever-chatty ‘Merc With The Mouth’, whom many readers adore. Here, he’d been turned into a mute baddie with laser eyes.
And so, the studio was presented with a crossroads: should they reboot, and try to get the quality of the franchise back on track, or should they carry on with the original X-cast and X-continuity in the hope that everything will turn out okay in the end? Would audiences keep coming back to see these characters, even though they hadn’t loved their most recent cinematic appearances? It was a tough call.
When Sony reached a similar situation with Spider-Man 3 (big money but little acclaim), director Sam Raimi found that he couldn’t find a satisfying script for Spider-Man 4, and so the franchise was rebooted. Sony went back to square one, Peter Parker was bitten again, and Uncle Ben was gunned down in slightly different circumstances. A similar course of action was surely an option on Fox’s table, with regards to the X-Men’s cinematic future after the disappointing double-bill of The Last Stand and Origins: Wolverine.
But Fox came up with a completely different idea, and made a choice that wasn’t an obvious option at their crossroads. From the brink of rebooting and losing all the lingering goodwill from Singer’s days with the franchise, Fox found a way to have their cake and eat it too…
2011: Recast Almost Everyone, But Keep The Continuity
In Bryan Singer’s original X-Men movie, the audience was essentially introduced to the eponymous team through the eyes of Wolverine. Charles Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters had existed for years, and Hugh Jackman’s Logan was the latest in a long line of lost mutants to find refuge there.
At some point, while trying to find a route to continue the X-Men franchise without a full-on reboot, someone at Fox must have noticed this, and decided that there was story potential in the bit that happened before Wolvie showed up at X-Mansion.
Matthew Vaughn – who had earned plenty of adoration from comic book movie fans with Kick-Ass – was brought in, and X-Men: First Class came into being. And therein, the studio found a way to keep this golden goose of a franchise plopping out eggs, whilst making a film that looked like both a reboot and a prequel at the same time.
It’s a film that could cater to everyone, regardless of their stance was on the X-Men franchise at the time. For those who were fed up with the series, First Class served as a cooler, brighter and groovier revamp, choc-full of trendy up-and-coming stars. And for those that still had a lot of love for the original cast and crew, there was the Hugh Jackman cameo to enjoy, nods to established lore (e.g. Magneto’s Auschwitz origins coming into play again) and the fact that Bryan Singer was back on board as a producer and story co-writer.
X-Men: First Class made less money than the original X-Men movie, but it served such an important purpose in the history of the franchise – it won back critical acclaim, and re-established the X-Men as cool and modern and likeable. That’s what a reboot would have aimed to achieve, but Fox managed it without having to throw out the old films all together.
Despite an ever-growing amount of continuity inconsistencies, this was still broadly the same world that the first X-Men film took place in. Wolverine still looked the same, and Magneto was still embittered at mankind because of World War II. With a little bit of squinting or ignoring of certain details, you could see that this was all one big continuity. But now it was younger and sexier and Mystique was Charles’ childhood best friend.
The X-Men were cool again, and now Singer was available, leading to another unpredictable but hugely successful choice from Fox…
2013 – 2014: Unite The Casts, Reset The Timeline
With a new cast of X-Men established in First Class, it would’ve been easy for Fox to press ahead without the original actors. There was no necessity – in terms of story – to bring back Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry or Famke Janssen. But Fox and Singer saw an opportunity to go bigger than they had done before; to have multiple cakes and eat them all in quick succession, as it were.
And so, James Mangold’s film The Wolverine was next out of the gate. It’s a sequel to X-Men: The Last Stand, the Brett Ratner movie that had garnered such derision for its take on the Phoenix Saga. Rather than just letting The Last Stand be history, The Wolverine sought to look at the emotional consequences for Hugh Jackman’s Logan after he killed Jean Grey. He’s haunted by her memory, as Famke Janssen infiltrates his dreams as a manifestation of Wolvie’s guilt.
The Wolverine wasn’t perfect and didn’t make all that much dosh, but it established that Fox weren’t finished with the old cast. The original trilogy still counted, and still mattered. This was confounded by the film’s closing tag, where Ian McKellen’s Magneto and Patrick Stewart’s Professor X showed up announced, attempting to recruit Logan in the battle against a dangerous new foe – Trask Industries.
This revisiting of the original cast may have seemed a little odd to any casual viewers who thought X-Men: First Class was meant to be a reboot, but again it served an important purpose – setting the stage for Fox’s next movie, which would mash the old and new together unlike any film in history…
X-Men: Days Of Future Past is a rather unique beast. It’s a film that stars two different actors in most of its main roles, as the original X-Men cast (now living in a dystopian future) turn to the First Class crew (now hanging around in 1973) for help. ‘Can the past save the future?’ is perhaps the easiest way to sum it up.
Of course, the casts stayed separate for the most part, with only exceptions being Wolverine (who handily exists in both eras) and Professor X (who has a mental powwow with himself, when Patrick Stewart direly needs James McAvoy to sort his shit out and save the world).
That Professor X scene is was one of the highlights of the movie, while seeing Logan reluctantly take the mentor role in the 1970s timeline is a terrific role reversal that throws up plenty of comedy and drama. This is the kind of fun the X-Men franchise can have now, and it’s all because Fox made the decision to produce First Class – a prequel where all but one of the characters are recast – instead of a traditional reboot.
Not content with that impressive feat, Days Of Future Past flirts with the big red reboot button even further. In going back in time to save the future, Wolverine has altered the timeline, meaning that the events of X-Men, X-2 and X-Men: The Last Stand have all been erased from existence. And, it seems safe to assume that everything post-1973 from X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine is no longer canonical either.
The events of these movies exist as memories in the older Wolverine’s head, but when pops back to the future at the end of Days Of Future Past, pretty much everything seems to have changed. Charles, Jean and Cyclops have all returned to life, for starters.
Back in 1973, the younger Wolverine is pulled out of a lake by Mystique at the end of the film. God knows what he’s gonna think when he wakes up, as the film seemed to suggest earlier on that he won’t remember anything that happened on this adventure once older Wolvie’s mind returns to the future.
The purpose of all this was clear – to establish a new timeline for the First Class team which isn’t shackled to the events of the original X-Men trilogy. Like the young cast of JJJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, these guys are now free to have their own adventures. These may include reimaginings of old material, or even cameos from the original actors where possible.
It’s hard not to see the triple bill of First Class, The Wolverine and Days Of Future Past as a masterful display of careful reboot planning:Fox ensured that we liked the new cast, and then gave Wolverine/Jean’s arc a nice send-off, and then brought everyone together for a big resettling of the timeline.
It was an impressive achievement across the three films, and Fox has been rewarded with enough goodwill that they can now produce films set in the past, present and future – with members from the old cast and the new – without anyone batting an eyelid…
2016 – ???: Do Whatever The Heck You Want
After Days Of Future Past, Fox has displayed an awful lot of confidence. Now that the timeline has been rebooted, they finally got around to making that long-talked-about Deadpool movie. They even kept Ryan Reynolds on, despite the fact that he was right at the centre of one of X-Men Origins: Wolverine’s biggest balls-ups (through no fault of his own, I feel obliged to add).
Cinemagoers certainly didn’t seem to mind that Reynolds was back as Wade Wilson, as Deadpool has gone on to rake in more cash that any other X-Men film at the global box office. And, although it’s now starting to wind down a little, Deadpool hasn’t even finished its theatrical run yet. The film earned lots of positive reviews too, making it an utter slam-dunk on every measurable scale.
This is a movie that literally doesn’t know where it fits in X-Men continuity – lest we forget that “McAvoy or Stewart?” was never answered – but it still became a massive hit. Going forward, the success of this R-Rated humour-focused antihero flick is bound to impact on Fox’s plans. Deadpool 2 and an adult-friendly X-Force team-up are already in the works, and it’s doubtful that they’ll let the fun stop there.
Of course, the team from First Class have their story to carry on with as well. The mainline X-Men franchise continues later this year X-Men: Apocalypse, a film that promises to serve up more McAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence and Hoult action, as well as introducin recast versions of Jean Grey, Scott Summers, Nightcrawler, Storm and Angel.
The X-Men franchise’s self-rebooting is still going on, and talks are already afoot for an X-Men 7 to follow Apocalypse. Make no mistake – This franchise is in no danger of slowing down.
Fox is also developing The New Mutants (a young adult instalment, with new characters), another Wolverine movie (rumoured to feature more dystopian action) and Gambit (feat. Channing Tatum) under its ever-broadening X-Men banner. TV series Hellfire and Legion are in development as well.
The days when this franchise’s future looked uncertain now seem like a distant memory, then, and it’s all thanks to that careful recalibrating of the franchise which started with X-Men: First Class.
The series was previously working itself into a corner, as characters were being killed off at every turn and the quality of the films was on a downward slope. But now, the X-Men universe is full of opportunities.
Deadpool proved that the audience is still there for mutant-centric cinematic fare, as long as the quality of the film is high. So, providing that there aren’t any scripts as wobbly as Origins: Wolverine waiting in Fox’s locker, the future is looking pretty bright for the X-Men… Has any other reboot ever done that well? I don’t think so.