In any conversation about the superhero genre in film today one truth must be observed: Marvel Studios is king.
Whether you’re looking at recognition, box office, or critical acclaim, no collection of superhero films has been as successful as those created by Marvel Studios over the past decades. What that means for everyone else, is that Marvel has established the model to beat. That’s why so much of the conversation today swirls around what studio or concept might actually manage to compete with this entertainment juggernaut. Now it appears that another studio using some of Marvel’s own properties might be have discovered an answer; we’re talking about Fox and the X-Men.
In some ways Fox beat Marvel to the discovery of the shared universe.
The first X-Men movie cast a wide net and allowed for the chance to explore stories beyond those of the core team. That isn’t how the studio decided to go though, and it wasn’t until the ill-fated X-Men Origins: Wolverine that the first non-X-Men movie premiered. Marvel Studios perfected the shared universe and after the almost equally ill-fated X-Men: Apocalypse it doesn’t appear that Fox is any closer to refining the shared continuity model. However, they seem to have discovered something different and possibly even better.
Deadpool is patient zero in this new model. It’s the superhero movie that defied all of the common knowledge about the medium and succeeded far beyond even its most optimistic boosters hopes. There are lots of things that set it apart. The most obvious different element was the R-rating, but there was plenty more to consider. It was primarily a comedy with lots of violence all based on a character that mainstream audiences had little to no understanding of. It was a big gamble that paid off.
Looking at those surface elements of a rating or comedy or ultra violence undercuts what truly sets Deadpool apart though. What made this movie different was its embrace of the successful character at its heart. Deadpool has been a hit in comics since he was created by Rob Liefeld and Fabian Nicieza. The elements of screwball comedy and extra bloody violence stem from his success in comics. Everything about the film reflects what makes the character work.
The film also managed to create its own sense of continuity in that it was ready to share the X-Men universe, but paid no attention to any elements that didn’t benefit it. Deadpool acknowledges the existence of mutants, Colossus, and Xavier’s school, but is still impossible to place within the continuity of the other films. That’s because the other films don’t matter within the context of Deadpool. Audiences understood what was being taken from what had come before and the rest didn’t matter. All of these elements are key to the successes Fox would have in the next year and what might compose their new superhero model.
Logan shares some superficial aspects with Deadpool. It also has an R-rating and lots of very intense violence, but it’s an incredibly different movie. Whereas Deadpool celebrates violence, Logan abhors it with each new action sequence feeling like a stain upon the soul. Guided by director James Mangold the film explores the effect of violence and a variety of political topics. While it might also feature cursing and bloodshed, it’s difficult to think of a superhero film more different from Deadpool than this one.
What Logan does share with Deadpool is a dedication to what makes the character work. Mangold’s film is about the hardwork of fighting for the future and the toll that fight takes on the individuals brave enough to continue it. It is a film about responsibility and progress, and one that ultimately does not rely on a connection to other X-Men films in any meaningful manner. The lesson to learn from Logan is not that R-ratings or violence sells; it’s that staying true to a vision and a character will attract audiences. The overlap between Wolverine and Deadpool is purely coincidental in this regard.
These elements are not quarantined to the big screen either. The most recent mutant outing on television in FX’s Legion has been a massive success amongst critics, and it’s for many of the same reasons. Legion can’t display the same level of violence or drop the same number of curse words as an R-rated film. However, it is every bit as dedicated to its character’s core strengths and a unique vision as Logan or Deadpool.
Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley has deployed his incredible visual sensibilities to tell the story of a young mutant plagued by his own powers, struggles he never chose, and mental illness to compose a visually compelling narrative. While Legion may not be as popular as the previously mentioned anti-heroes, his story in X-Men: Legacy offered a springboard from which the show has exploded. It is a story connected to the ideas of the X-Men that audiences will understand, but still unhinged from the continuity allowing it to be entirely its own thing.
Meet the New Boss
In just under a year Fox Studios has experienced three of the most significant successes within the superhero genre after kicking off the trend with X-Men when many of us were still in school. It’s not mistake or coincidence either. After years of focusing on the core X-Men team and an ongoing history, the studio has finally shifted their focus in a way that proposes a brand new model for superhero franchises.
That model can be summarized in three core elements:
- Focus on character. Understand what makes an idea work and execute on that understanding.
- Ignore continuity. Tell the story you need to tell and only use what you need from the franchise, ignoring the rest.
- Believe in the vision. Don’t let ratings or stylization hold you back. If you make something great, it will find an audience.
Following these tenets, Fox can compete with a juggernaut like Marvel Studios because they are capable of doing things that Marvel simply cannot. By telling great individual stories, each new installment stands out as something worthy of recognition. The greatest strength of the X-Men franchise today is that it’s an alternative in the world of superhero stories, not a substitute. We can only hope Fox maintains that strength in the years to come.