Why the 'X-Men' Franchise Needs to Evolve or Die (Analysis)

After 16 years, should the mutant superhero series start over after 'X-Men: Apocalypse'?
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'X-Men Apocalypse'

Nine movies and 16 years into its run, Fox's X-Men movie franchise has built up an impressively complicated history that includes two versions each of multiple recurring characters, a time-travel do-over that may or may not have rewritten parts of what happened in earlier movies and a timeline that means that its leading characters are somewhere in the region of 70 years old or so. With X-Men: Apocalypse leaving many critics cold, is it time to reboot the entire universe?

At this point in their existence, the X-Men movies have become a confusing mess for anyone trying to step into the series cold: The first three movies took place in the present day, then everything else takes place in the past, except for The Wolverine and Deadpool, the former of which ends with a cliffhanger that kind of leads into X-Men: Days of Future Past, except not really, and the latter seems to maybe exist in an entirely different reality. And how does the Cyclops in X-Men Origins: Wolverine connect to the one in X-Men: Apocalypse or the original trilogy? Perhaps it's better to not think about things too much for fear of causing a headache.

There is some level of cohesion in individual trilogies — X-Men, X2: X-Men United and X-Men: The Last Stand work together, as do X-Men: First Class, X-Men: Days of Future Past and X-Men: Apocalypse — but when viewed as a whole, things get significantly more complicated and contradictory: Have the 30-something heroes in the original X-Men movie really been around since the 1980s, when they were teenagers? More to that matter, have the 30-something heroes in Apocalypse really been around since the 1960s, when they also seemed to be around 30 or so? How does the Angel in X-Men: The Last Stand co-exist with the one in X-Men: Apocalypse? What about the two Nightcrawlers?

Beyond simple continuity concerns, there are two other big reasons to consider a reboot. Firstly, the aesthetic of the movies remains curiously set from the original film from 16 years ago — either "civilian" clothes, or costumes with colors that are muted at best, both of which feel particularly out of step with the contemporary cinematic trends as dominated by the Marvel Studios movies. A reboot offers the fastest and most straightforward way to significantly overhaul the visual aesthetic of the series and bring it closer to what audiences are used to seeing, both in terms of other superhero movies and also, notably, the X-Men comics themselves.

Secondly, a reboot would allow the series to re-center and refocus itself, allowing it to break its bad habits and plan for the future. Let's be honest, if there's one problem that the X-Men movies have, it's that they're going to be about one of three people: Wolverine, Charles Xavier or Magneto. Sure, there'll be an external threat and some other characters as window dressing, but with only one exception to date (Deadpool, which technically isn't even an X-Men movie considering he even denies he's an X-Man in it), the pics will have at least one of those characters dominating events, and likely at least a cameo from another.

In itself, this would be fine — repetitive, sure, but it's not like Marvel doesn't have a similar Iron Man problem — but the thing is, the strength of the X-Men comic book franchise is that it's filled with fascinating and unique characters who, importantly, each get their own time in the spotlight. (Also important, and nowhere near reflected enough in the movies, is the percentage of fan-favorite women in the franchise; there's more than just Mystique, Jean Grey and Storm, producers.) A film franchise that reflected the variety of characters on show in the comics would be a stronger franchise, undoubtedly.

That's also true in terms of narratives. It's true that the X-Men movies play around with genre somewhat — Days of Future Past is more of a sci-fi tale than, say, The Last Stand — but once upon a time, the comic books were famous for their genuinely bold diversity. Traditional superheroics would be interrupted by fairy tales, trips into space to fight aliens, magical alternate realities that put everyone in Dungeons and Dragons costumes, and so on. That kind of thing is, of course, easier to do in a monthly ongoing series than a movie franchise that updates every couple of years, and yet … there's no suggestion that the current incarnation of the X-Men movie franchise would even be interested in going in that direction. A reboot would offer the chance to mix things up.

The trouble is, there's no impetus for Fox to reboot the series right now. Apocalypse looks set to be a success, if not a Captain America: Civil War-scale monolith, and spinoffs like Deadpool, The Wolverine and the in-progress New Mutants are suggesting that the property is doing just fine, thank you very much.

Arguably, the studio has missed its chance to reboot, as well; 2014's Days of Future Past reset the series' timeline, which was the best opportunity to have its cake and eat it; as in 2009's Star Trek, that could have created a wholly blank slate for future releases. Instead, the climax reaffirmed the cast of the original movie once again.

The future of the X-Men movies, then, more than likely looks a lot like its past — only undoubtedly more confusing, as contradictions pile up and the series strains to find new ways to center stories around the same characters over and over again. The fact that a movie series based on mutants who are the next step in evolution seems so reluctant to evolve itself is, at least, as ironic as it can be frustrating.

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