The history of Hollywood superhero franchises may not go back as far as you might think. Sure, the Christopher Reeves Superman movies of the ’70s and ’80s technically qualify, but if we’re really splitting hairs, the first real franchise began just 15 years ago with Bryan Singer’s X-Men movie, released by Fox. At the time, no one was really sure that comic books were the best properties to adapt to the silver screen. But after the 2000 release of X-Men hauled in almost $300 million worldwide on a $75 million budget, the game, as they say, was afoot.
Two years later, Spider-Man shattered box office records with a $114 million opening weekend, enforcing the idea that comic book movies were indeed here to stay. In 2003, Bryan Singer’s X-Men sequel hit theaters, topping 2000’s release in terms of both its box office haul and overall quality. Many even argue that X2: X-Men United is still the franchise’s strongest film to date. The result: In four short years, Hollywood had transformed forever, with superhero mania careening into full swing on the coattails of Fox’s brand new franchise.
But then a series of odd decisions occurred, effectively tainting a series of movies that began with such immense promise. Director Bryan Singer was shown the door after two wildly successful movies, replaced with Hollywood hackjob Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) for X-Men: The Last Stand. A series that had focused on compelling characters and exciting action sequences quickly devolved into senseless plotlines, and some monumentally poor decisions. Included on that list (spoilers ahead): Killing off Cyclops and Professor Xavier, taking away Magneto’s powers, and getting bogged down in an ill-advised Dark Phoenix plotline. All that took place in a single movie, and suddenly a once-promising franchise was forced to slam the brakes.
Three years after the Brett Ratner disaster, Fox tumbled deeper down the rabbit hole with the release of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The bad decisions just kept on coming, as Gavin Hood’s creative disaster concluded by introducing fan favorite Deadpool, only to literally sew the character’s mouth shut to turn him into a mindless mutant zombie. At this point it almost felt as though Fox was gathering writers in a room together and asking “OK guys, how can we kick X-Men fans in the teeth today?”
At this point, things were looking bleak. It had been nearly six years since Singer’s X2, and finally Fox was beginning to realize that it needed to commit to actually making good movies again, especially competing against the rising tide of Marvel Studios. The days of X-Men being the only superhero game in town had long since come to an end, and the franchise needed a shot in the arm if they wanted to survive in a much more competitive environment. As a result, Fox became committed to disavowing Ratner’s Last Stand and Hood’s Origins, tagging Matthew Vaughn to take on X-Men: First Class as a way of bringing things back to square one.
First Class opened to delighted audiences, telling the story of the men who would later become Professor X and Magneto. It was widely thought of as the third best X-Men movie behind Bryan Singer’s first two installments, marking a new age for the franchise. Soon after, another try at a standalone Wolverine movie saw a return to quality character stories, followed by the return of Bryan Singer for X-Men: Days of Future Past. What had seemed like a lost cause had finally been revived, thanks in large part to the return of Singer (who wasted no time in signing for the next sequel, X-Men: Apocalypse).
But it’s not just the return of Singer that revived the storied franchise. Tim Miller’s Deadpool boasts a lion’s share of the credit, when the R-rated meta-movie became the highest grossing film in the entire X-Men saga. It showed Fox’s willingness to think outside the box, and the studio was subsequently rewarded for their risk (albeit one they had to be forced into after test footage was leaked to the public). Beyond that, it demonstrated that the franchise doesn’t need the main X-Men story thread in order to be successful, opening all kinds of new doors for innovative new ideas.
We see all sorts of crazy new ideas in the near future for the X-Men. The recent Wolverine film, Logan, was R-rated, Deadpool 2 is already in the works and Fox recently debuted it’s X-Men themed series, Hellfire and Legion. With X-Men: Apocalypse having been received to middling reviews, it’s clear that the studio isn’t content to rest on their laurels (lest they return to the Ratner/Origins days).
It’s been a long, strange journey for Hollywood’s first true superhero franchise. It’s gone from amazingly entertaining, to terrible, and then back full circle to entertaining after a decade-long hiatus from quality movies. With a cast of characters as vast as the one featured in its source material, there’s a solid chance we won’t see the last of the X-Men for a good long while. But if we’ve learned anything from the past few years, it’s that Fox would be served well by treading carefully, and avoiding Brett Ratner at all costs.
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