8:30am PT by Josh Wigler
'The Gifted': How Fox's X-Men Series Measures Up Within Marvel's TV Empire
[Warning: This story contains spoilers for the series premiere of Fox's The Gifted.]
The Children of the Atom have arrived on television.
Not that they weren't here already, of course, as anyone who feverishly devoured FX's Legion will happily inform you. But this week saw the arrival of some new mutants (not New Mutants, which is its own thing) on the TV scene, in the form of The Gifted, the new Fox drama from showrunner Matt Nix and X-Men movie mastermind (not Master Mold; again, its own thing) Bryan Singer.
The series focuses on a family of four forced on the run after the two children are outed as mutants, a dangerous development in a world that lacks tolerance toward "persons of genetic difference," and actively persecutes these people. While The Gifted mostly centers on brand new characters, it also brings some fan-favorites from the comics into the foreground, including Blink (Jamie Chung), one of the most popular and enduring figures from the 1990s Age of Apocalypse story arc.
Of course, The Gifted is just one of many Marvel TV properties currently on the air. Unlike many of those shows, this one exists in its own universe, free from the need to adhere to any larger cinematic universe edicts. That said, it's still part of the House of Ideas, which means there are some ideas that are very likely off-limits. Don't expect a heavy role for Wolverine, in other words, if we're even lucky enough to hear the man's name mentioned directly.
With its first episode officially out in the universe, here's how The Gifted stacks up against the other Marvel shows currently on the air, in no specific order.
The easiest and first point of comparison: the other X-Men series on television. The FX series takes its cues from comic book lore, with a surprising amount of references drawn into the drama, from the Astral Plane to the emergence of the Shadow King. Through it all, it remains very much a Noah Hawley endeavor, unique to the Fargo auteur's playful and emotionally stirring sensibilities. The Gifted doesn't come close to reaching that level of unmistakable identity, though it has aspects of that, thanks to Singer setting the tone as the director of the pilot. The two shows both seem unafraid to forge their way forward in the X-Men mythos, even if they are both restrained in just how far they can travel into those trenches. (See: Professor Xavier's physical absence in Legion, and one wonders if we'll get an actual Magneto sighting in The Gifted despite his seeming importance.) Given the toys they're able to play with in their respective sandboxes, however, both of the active X-Men shows are putting their imaginations to good use.
The first entry in the Marvel Netflix Universe spent an entire season working toward a costume. Whatever else you can say about the initial Daredevil season, its reticence to fully embrace its comic book roots must be noted. The show shifted in that regard starting with season two, leaning heavily on comics-friendly faces like Punisher (Jon Bernthal) and Elektra (Elodie Yung), with Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) in full Daredevil attire all the way through. But right from the jump, The Gifted moves forward with code names in the mix: Polaris (Emma Dumont), Thunderbird (Blair Redford) and Eclipse (Sean Teale), just to name a few, without any explanation yet for why they're operating under these aliases. The aliases simply exist. If only in that area, The Gifted has the edge as early as its premiere.
Marvel's Jessica Jones
Among its greatest strengths, Jessica Jones takes a grounded and gritty approach toward its superheroics, not to mention the serious issues of physical, mental and emotional abuse that permeate the story. There's a matter-of-fact quality to the way the first season of the Krysten Ritter drama unfolds, whether it's the frank depiction of the dynamic between abuser and the abused, or the ways Jessica's powers manifest. It's too early to call the shot on how The Gifted will flesh out its exploration of social issues, but as far as a casual depiction of powers? So far, so good, as demonstrated in the opening moments of the series, in which Eclipse uses his glowing hue as a flashlight, or how Polaris explores the weaknesses in Reed Strucker (Stephen Moyer) with nothing more than the twitch of a finger.
Marvel's Luke Cage
Frankly, same notes here as with Jessica Jones. The two Netflix shows are linked not just in the existence of Luke (Mike Colter) across both stories, but also in their fearless approach to social justice issues, and their relaxed presentation of superpowers. Granted, the Luke Cage origin story gets a bit cheesy at times, though it does end with a wonderful nod to the character's Power Man aesthetic of the 1970s. Likewise, The Gifted nods at its own X-Men history in the pilot episode, most notably through the Stan Lee cameo, but even more amazingly through the quick use of the 1990s animated X-Men theme song. In both cases, the shows are clearly honoring the stories that have come before.
Marvel's Iron Fist
Not to pile on Danny Rand (Finn Jones) anymore than necessary, but Netflix's Iron Fist series found the most mundane aspects of the character — namely, his corporate dealings — and decided to build a show around them, while almost completely shying away from the characteristics that make Danny so compelling in the comics. So far, The Gifted is leaning on the right notes for X-fans: the highs and lows of the mutant experience, the fear of persecution for being different, the sheer elation that comes with watching these powers in action, and even some faithfully interpreted characters from the comics. Really, it's not a flattering comparison for Iron Fist. Then again, what is?
Marvel's The Defenders
When eight episodes feels like an eternity, something has gone wrong. But there are two episodes in which The Defenders hits the height of its powers: the third and fourth installments, featuring the heroes slowly getting to know and work with one another. The Matt and Jessica cat-and-mouse game, along with Luke and Danny's conversation about white privilege, stand out as two of the best scenes of the series, followed closely by the hallway fight and the restaurant summit where all four of the Defenders are allowed to let their individuality shine in contrast with one another. In the first episode alone, The Gifted has explored similar team dynamics through the mutant underground side of the story, and would be wise to continue leaning on those strengths as the series moves forward.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
The elder of the Marvel TV universe as it stands, the ABC flagship Marvel series spent several episodes finding its voice before finally bursting through with its Captain America: The Winter Soldier tie-in arc. Since then, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has wisely relied on classic comic book structure, splitting seasons into specific story arcs, and finding creative uses for concepts ripped straight out of the pages of Marvel. Hopefully, it doesn't take The Gifted quite as long to find its footing. It certainly helps that the series doesn't need to react to a sprawling cinematic universe a la S.H.I.E.L.D., which very much exists within the MCU. For its part, The Gifted showrunner Matt Nix described the show's relation to the greater X-Men film universe as follows: "It's not like we're not conscious of it and we're not trying to undo or counteract anything from the people who haven't seen the movies, but we do get to do our own thing while still nodding to stuff that people care about, and that we care about in the movies and the comics."
Honestly, what's there to say? THR's very own Dan Fienberg put it best: "So perhaps the smartest thing Fox has done is scheduling The Gifted to premiere Monday, just days after ABC's own more directly Marvel-affiliated drama Marvel's Inhumans. I've watched the pilot for The Gifted, the only episode made available to critics, multiple times, and each time it's been after watching Marvel's Inhumans, so I don't know if The Gifted is good, but I'm sure it has a little heart, a little humor and that gives it a pretty huge advantage."
Let us know how The Gifted measures up for you within the Marvel TV pantheon in the comments below.