X-Men changed superhero cinema forever. It gave us a comic book adaptation that felt bigger than just one film. It opened up a world of heroes and villains to viewers in a way that previous comic book movies hadn’t. Now, in an era of multiple shared cinematic universes, we take that for granted.
Marvel Studios has become a comic book movie-making machine — and their films adhere to a formula. They’ve established a style across their entire body of work. That can be great for quality control, but it’s not always a positive. Look at the complaints leveled at Ant-Man and Doctor Strange for having the same story structure as Iron Man.
Meanwhile, Fox’s X-Men universe is nearly two decades old. Things got stale there for a while (sorry, X-Men: The Last Stand), but the creative leadership behind the franchise recognized that and made important changes. They decided to mix things up. That new attitude has given us some of the best superhero movies ever on screen…
Let’s start with the obvious: Deadpool changed everything. Fox was so nervous about releasing a raunchy, violent, and irreverent R-rated superhero movie. They figured it would be a disaster. The marketplace had been saturated by Marvel’s four-quadrant films and they had been consistently successful. But, after some test footage made its way out into the wild, the response from fans was one of utter joy. “Wait, this could actually work?” said a bunch of Fox executives.
You bet your sweet bippy it could. And it did.
Deadpool gave us a comic book movie that felt true to its titular (hee hee) character. It was self-deprecating and self-aware of the genre it was playing in, and it embraced that fully with no reservations about who it might upset. And the result? Deadpool became a critical and box office sensation. And Fox said, “OK, maybe we need to start trying something new.”
Fox let Noah Hawley, showrunner for the quirky and groundbreaking Fargo, take a shot at one of the strangest characters in the X-Men canon: David Haller a.k.a. Legion. For Legion, Fox went to the go-to realm for more mature storytelling: TV. Marvel has done this with success on Netflix, but some would argue that the street-level heroes of Hell’s Kitchen have fallen victim to formula, too.
But Legion has defied such constraints. The show has played with genres from day one, mixing elements of psychological drama, action, and even surreal horror. The fact that Legion has more in common with Twin Peaks than it does Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. should give you some sense of how experimental Fox is letting Hawley be with the material. That’s helping to create a show that not only stands out among the crowd of other superhero films and shows, but it makes it something unique in the landscape of all television. For people who like exciting and fresh storytelling, that’s an undeniable win.
Which brings us to Logan. After Deadpool‘s success, Fox decided to let Hugh Jackman and director James Mangold make the Wolverine movie they always wanted to make. It would be a definitive sendoff for this version of the character while also acting as a superhero film that tried to do something bold and fresh.
In my opinion, it worked like gangbusters. Logan has helped set the stage for more X-Men films that can be true to themselves instead of having to conform to some arbitrary mold. Logan is a western — heck, it’s basically Unforgiven — and isn’t as interested in the typical beats of a superhero story. There is no world-saving or mystical MacGuffin at the core of this story. It’s a character piece through and through, and it’s kind of sad that a lot of Marvel movies aren’t really that.
The New Mutants
Need more proof that the X-Men series is defeating Marvel when it comes to innovation? Director Josh Boone has said that the upcoming New Mutants film is an outright horror film. The movie will take place in a secret facility where five teenage mutants are being held captive. They don’t have full control of their powers and must figure out a way to work together to escape. They will also be confronting the sins of their past and that could show up in some freaky ways.
The fact that the X-Men series is willing to jump into the realm of total horror is delightful. It shows how truly varied these kinds of characters and stories can be. They don’t all need to fall under some catch-all idea of world-saving or family-friendly fun tone. Like Marvel does with all of their films.
The Marvel Security Blanket
The Marvel Cinematic Universe films figured out their formula long ago and have stuck to it. Granted, they will take a step or two left in order to make some movies feel a little more different than others — Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy for example — but their tones, quippy nature, visual stylings, and often story structure won’t deviate too far from their comfortable center. While some may argue that Doctor Strange or Ant-Man challenge this notion, they don’t really when you think about it. There’s still a uniformity that has to be in place in order to make all of these stories feel like they take place in a connected world.
And that’s where the X-Men franchise is trouncing Marvel. Logan, Deadpool, and Legion technically take place in the same “universe,” but that doesn’t mean they feel beholden to anything that’s come before or since. They’re the best versions of themselves they can be without worrying if what they do will reflect poorly on the next big X-Men property. That’s how we get stories that will withstand the test of time. As it stands, the X-Men are doing far more interesting things than anything the MCU is putting out.