For nearly a decade, fans and critics have been singing the praises of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). While the interconnected stories and true-to-the-source-material tales of Iron Man, Captain America, and the rest of the Avengers have popularized the shared universe approach to franchise filmmaking, there is a growing contingent that has come to recognize the overly formulaic story structure that most of the films share, as well as their willingness to sacrifice an individual story to set up future releases. However, since Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury emerged from the shadows to tell Tony Stark about the Avenger initiative, competitors have launched their own comic book shared universes.
We’ve already talked about what the DC Extended Universe needs to work on to creatively compete with Marvel. Meanwhile, Sony’s attempt at establishing a slate of films based on its The Amazing Spider-Man franchise fell resoundingly flat, leading to Sony’s current collaboration with Marvel that brought Spidey into the MCU.
Yet, while those universes have yet to reach the level of the MCU, another Marvel-based franchise has been steadily building a library of its own since before Marvel Studios even existed. For more than a decade and a half, Fox’s X-Men franchise has been building its own interconnected web of stories, consisting of sequels, prequels, and spinoffs that combine to tell an ambitious (though admittedly convoluted) superhero tale.
Although the X-Men films have traditionally relied too strongly on popular figures like Wolverine and Magneto, the franchise has managed to expand its scope a bit more in recent years. Following the original trilogy of films that ran from 2000 to 2006 — X-Men, X2: X-Men United, and X-Men: The Last Stand — Fox kept the series alive post-MCU with the release of X-Men Origins: Wolverine and X-Men: First Class.
Although the former was poorly executed, there was inherently great promise in doing a prequel spinoff that revealed Wolverine’s Weapon X roots. The film was a bonafide box office hit. It established a solo franchise for Hugh Jackman that will presumably wrap up with next year’s Logan.
Meanwhile, X-Men: First Class served as a pseudo-reboot to the franchise, introducing younger versions of established characters and some new faces to boot. By going back to the beginning, the film was able to explore the friendship between two pillars of the franchise: Professor X and Magneto, bringing in a new team without ignoring what had come before.
However, the true test of the X-Men franchise wouldn’t arrive until X-Men: Days of Future Past was released in 2014. More than simply a sequel or spinoff/prequel, this film — which marked original X-Men filmmaker Bryan Singer’s return to the director’s chair — aimed to tie it all together into one time-travel plot that incorporated both veterans of the original trilogy and the younger cast of First Class. In doing so, Days of Future Past essentially served as the game-changing X-Men equivalent to The Avengers, boldly setting the stage for grander adventures to come.
Sure, Fox’s X-Men franchise may take some deserved flack for playing fast and loose with its timeline, but what it lacks in strict continuity the franchise makes up for in versatility. It doesn’t matter if an MCU film takes on Earth, space, or a magical realm, there is — in almost all cases — a pervading “sameness” to their stories.
Sure, this makes them all feel like they co-exist but it also limits the amount of vision a filmmaker can bring. It’s the reason directors like Patty Jenkins and Edgar Wright were unable to take on MCU projects and why most directors can only helm one or two films before becoming burnt out. Marvel Studios pushes to fit everything into a strict blueprint for the over-arching storyline, hence Joss Whedon post-Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Films like Deadpool and the upcoming Logan (we’ll give critics X-Men: Apocalypse, which largely seemed like a step backwards creatively) have created a template that allows filmmakers to do what best fits the storyline. Maybe that’s a sarcastic, hard-R action-comedy like the former, or perhaps it’s a more reflective, moodier piece like the latter. Whatever the case may be, the X-Men franchise has more wiggle room to take chances and create bold new strokes within the larger canvas of the shared universe. This differs from the more restrictive landscape of the MCU, even if the Marvel mutants still need to perfect their consistency.
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