Being a longtime reader of flagship comic titles (such as Batman and Spider-Man and what have you) is like being in a rocky marriage. There are going be good times and bad times, and quite often the bad times are so soul-crushingly awful you may wonder what you saw in that person in the first place. Such is the case with my proverbial comic book spouse, X-Men.
I love the X-Men. I truly do, but I’ll be the first person to admit how inscrutably obtuse the franchise can be. For every “Dark Phoenix Saga” that comes along, I get a dozen “Phalanx Covenants” (not all holofoil covers in the world will convince me this wasn’t a misstep). But the bad times never deterred my love. If anything, lazy story arcs, and unnecessary crossovers, and all that ridiculous Shi’ar technology populating the pages of X-Men strengthens my bond to what I love about the series. I try to remember the good times and forgive the bad, yadda, yadda. It’s what I vowed to do…
I mean, you get it, right? I’m married to the X-Men. Wait…I think I botched this whole metaphor. Forget it. Maybe what I think as a holy matrimony is actually a crazed stalker standing behind me with a rag soaked in chloroform waiting to make me their special loverboy who will never leave their cage. I mean, that’s the feeling I got from X-Men: The Last Stand. Maybe it was all the leather up on screen, I dunno… But it’s safe to say that when the X-Men made the leap onto the big screen, they changed the game forever.
After that initial mutant cinematic splash, comic book properties have become part of the cultural zeitgeist in a way they never have before (seriously, it’s commonplace to see some meathead at the gym wearing a Deadpool tank top, an article of clothing that would have only been worn by the nerds that same meathead might have shoved into lockers twenty years prior), and we now measure the importance of these characters that populate their pages by determining which of them can garner a billion dollars at the box office.
Anyone who has ever heard of movies is aware of the value in these properties. Very few summer weekends glide by without a comic book adaptation rumbling around the box office top ten. And the major operator of this money printing machine is Marvel Studios.
Marvel has done the impossible by generating at least one quality movie (sometimes two) based on their varied comic roster every year for the better part of a decade. They’ve done this by cherry-picking stories from the comics that are well-known by the already established fan base and are easy enough to digest to convert newcomers. It’s brilliant and it makes a ton of money. But unfortunately, it’s not a fair representation of how most relationships with the source material works.
Look, I could dump on Iron Man 2 or either Thor movie, but I’d be hard-pressed to consider any of them objectively bad. They’re all well-made, often well-acted, and are rarely boring. Maybe they’re not challenging on a philosophical level, but who cares? You know what you’re getting into when you pay your twelve bucks to watch the next installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
This is not so with 20th Century Fox’s X-Men film franchise. To call my relationship with the X-Men films rocky would be a gross injustice to rocks…or something. Things started out well enough with Bryan Singer’s double-tap of genuine comic movie gold (X2: X-Men United especially), but things took a nosedive to Crapsville, USA immediately afterward.
Ever since the abysmal X-Men: The Last Stand, I’ve waited with bated breath and a clenched sphincter when a new X-film gets announced, because I have no idea what I’m going to see when I walk into the theater. Sometimes, Fox gives me X-Men: First Class and I’m pleasantly surprised with how good things are. But other times I’m given X-Men Origins: Wolverine and I wonder if I should go home and have a big ol’ X-Bonfire in my backyard.
It’s this uncertainty that makes the X-Men film franchise closer in spirit to its source material than the MCU. Now, I’m not saying that the X-Men films are better. They just follow a more familiar trajectory. And no, I don’t want crappy X-Men movies. That would be ridiculous. I don’t want crappy X-Men comics either, but I gotta chew through those from time to time.
Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment, but the fact that Fox has cobbled together a film series plagued with problems like fractured timelines, seemingly ageless characters, and a soft reset that pretty much omits its two weakest entries is not only admirable, but it’s downright amazing.
Comics are filled with these aforementioned issues and we readers rarely say, “To hell with this garbage,” and walk away forever. Most of us forgive these transgressions and trudge forward. Things will get better. They always do.
When Singer came back to the franchise with X-Men: Days of Future Past (DoFP), the world felt to be set back on its axis. The X-Men film world would keep on spinning and things would work out for viewers. And for the most part they did. I will argue that DoFP is as close to greatness as the X-Men movies have ever gotten. The film culls the franchise’s deadweight and does the whole MCU thing about picking and choosing what from the comics should be implemented on the screen. For a moment there, just like the characters in the film, I actually forgot about the crappier X-Men movies. It felt good.
The MCU has yet to be able to elicit the same sort of emotion from me. When I walked out of Captain America: Civil War, I was pleased that it was better than Age of Ultron, but I didn’t have a sense of excitement. There was no, “we’re back, baby!” bounce to my step. Marvel is going to keep trucking along. They have a perfect formula. They haven’t made any mistakes that demand course correction thus far. Maybe, eventually, there will be a wall Marvel careens right into, but for now, that ship’s on cruise control.
I don’t think DoFP was a fluke. It’s my belief that the X-Films have finally found its own image. It’s decided to embrace the lunacy of the comics. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see crazier story elements like The Brood or the Starjammers sneak their way into future installments. And why not? Go nuts. And as for anachronisms in the time line, who cares what decade these events take place during? Does it really matter that Magneto hasn’t aged a day from 1963 to 1983? No. He hasn’t aged a day in 50 years in the comics. I say let it ride, Fox. Embrace the spandex and the bonkers timeline. Give me Cable and the Fatal Attraction story arc. Combine them for all I care. Just play the hits.
If X-Men: Apocalypse is any indication, that’s what 20th Century Fox is doing. The X-Films might just be able to ride the wave that DoFP & First Class created into greatness. For all its shortcomings, Apocalypse felt like a proper sequel, one that learned from the mistakes of its predecessors while spinning the plates that make up the X-Film Universe. It’s an incredible feat. And now, I think it’s safe to say that if one of those plates falls, there’s nothing to worry about because it’s adamantium-laced.
Or they’ll just crank out 10 more Deadpool movies. I dunno.