Why Did the X-Men Movies Stop Working?

With the failure -- both critically and commercially -- of two consecutive X-Men films coming at the same time lesser-known properties like Suicide Squad and Guardians of the Galaxy are making bank, people outside of the walls of Fox are asking what happened. In 2000, X-Men felt like a revelation, and almost 20 years later, the franchise was still (at least technically) going on -- but what went wrong in the time after X-Men: Days of Future Past? Quite a few things, actually, but one recurring theme seems to be that Fox did not adapt to the changing face of comic book adaptations on film.

Following the success of Blade and the failure of Batman & Robin, Bryan Singer's X-Men felt like absolutely the right move. Black leather,lots of speeches, a focus on action and combat filmmaking -- it all screamed Blade, even while the characters themselves were broader and, very generally speaking, more "comic-booky" than Blade's characters mostly were. Singer clearly felt uncomfortable with some of the more fantastical elements, and it still carries the hallmark of a lot of '90s action movies (Storm's famous quip when she electrocutes Toad is just one step removed from "What killed the dinosaurs? The ice age!"), but the film was an unqualified success with audiences and critics. A second movie, which took a similar approach, was immediately made and was an even bigger success. That film was able to build on the world established in the first movie and, spending less time tackling the worldbuilding, delve deeper into some of the characters.

That leads to something that has happened recently (but not in a theater near you): there is a strong argument to be made that the best X-Men content created in years is The Gifted and Legion, a pair of TV series unconnected to the larger X-Men movie universe. The two managed to address the themes of the X-Men world without sacrificing character development and visual storytelling. The Gifted, in particular, is notable because it does a splendid job of something the X-Men movies have frankly never been that good at: giving names and distinct personalities to the important characters on the show, rather than allowing them to be referred to as "that guy who can [insert power here]."

That was a problem that started with X2 and got bigger with X3: X-Men United, which saw Brett Ratner take the reins from Singer. Meanwhile, Singer took the gig directing Superman Returns, for which Ratner had been tapped as the director in an early stage of development. While it was nice to see the Easter eggs directed at longtime fans, many of the characters in the X-mansion were never identified for casual fans. This likely tied in with another, related issue -- that because the movies were so afraid of the being as bright and campy as Sam Raimi's Spider-Man franchise, they seemed to avoid using the characters' superhero names at all cost. But while taking itself seriously and steering away from the source material was a serviceable way to handle the first two films, it started to fall apart with X3, in part because fans just didn't think the movie was good.

Look at The Dark Knight. When a comic book movie is good, and people enjoy it, it can get away with a lot. But, like Batman & Robin before it, X3 was a commercial success that nevertheless seemed like a potential franchise killer because of its terrible reputation with audiences. After a similar disappointment with X-Men Origins: Wolverine -- this one coming with a middling box office rather than the franchise-best earned by X3 -- the franchise was at the lowest point it would be until this weekend.

X-Men: First Class and the movies that followed it had the benefit of coming in a post-Iron Man world. The math for superhero movies had changed, making them even safer investments while also affording studios the potential for massive profit. The "shared universe" concept of the comics had finally come to life onscreen, and it was different from what previous movies had done because while there were a lot of characters with a complex web of interwoven relationships in the X-Men movies, they were all explicitly sequels and prequels to one another. At the same time, lower-tier comic books like Sin City and Kick-Ass had become hits. In this new environment, X-Men: First Class became the first movie in the franchise to be named after a comic book storyline, and became a distinctly brighter and less serious affair (mostly).

Next came X-Men: Days of Future Past, and while that film certainly had its share of nameless, pointless background mutants, it was hard to argue the scope and accomplishment of the thing. It managed to finally dethrone X3 as the highest-grossing installment in the franchise, and did so while exploring territory that was truly bizarre by feature-film comic book adaptaiton standards at that point. Blending two franchises through time-travel was the kind of thing The CW was doing on its Arrowverse shows (for which First Class screenwriter Zack Stentz would eventually work), but Days of Future Past was a massive movie with a massive cast, and arguably the high water mark of the X-Men franchise. Not all reviews were as ecstatic as they were for those first iterations, but people liked it. And it had been a while since audiences were truly happy coming out of an X-Men movie that also made a bunch of money.

But all of that ambition, intelligence, exploration, and fun seemed to drain out of the franchise pretty quickly. X-Men: Apocalypse proved to be a dud with fans. The joyless slog of a movie vastly underperformed Days of Future Past at the box office and left audiences wondering whether the people behind these films could even be trusted with Dark Phoenix. It squandered the freshly-earned goodwill of the first Deadpool movie, which was a huge commercial and critical hit while being wildly different from any other X-Men movie yet released. It seemed, to many, that the old X-Men formula, the old tone, the old visual aesthetic, had all started to atrophy. It could not top Days of Future Past and watching it try was embarrassing. So the movies fans were responding to were the ones that felt very different. After Deadpool it was Logan, and if not for Apocalypse coming in between, that might have been the kind of hot streak that would have restored faith in the franchise.

In the more than three years between when X-Men: Apocalypse specifically set up Dark Phoenix as the franchise's next installment and when Dark Phoenix actually came out, we got the Oscar-nominated Logan and a second Deadpool movie, which may not have been as beloved as the first but still made a ton of money and generally pleased the audience. Expectations for Dark Phoenix, though, remained low, and it feels like the audience intuitively knew that Logan and Deadpool were the result of lower-budget movies that gave filmmakers more freedom. Those filmmakers, with a love for the characters and the source material, went wild and the results were self-evident.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix, though, was directed by Simon Kinberg who, despite his involvement with several popular franchises and TV shows, had never directed a feature film before tackling this one. The result feels like a blend of Bryan Singer's X-Men movies with Fantastic 4, which Kinberg worked on right after Days of Future Past. In fact, Future Past feels like an outlier when juxtaposed against Kinberg's other X-Men writing credits: X3: The Last Stand, X-Men: Apocalypse, and X-Men: Dark Phoenix. Kinberg is also something of a company man and may have been seen as a safe and reliable bet when a parade of #MeToo allegations against Bryan Singer made it seem unlikely that he would be back to helm the movie.

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The "safe" bet, though, may be where the problem is. "Safe" is what got Kinberg tapped for the struggling Fantastic 4, which didn't work. The veteran writer/producer directed X-Men: Apocalypse in a fairly conservative way (visually, not politically) while Marvel and DC were hiring filmmakers like David F. Sandberg, James Gunn, the Russo Brothers, and Patty Jenkins. Both X-Men: Apocalypse and X-Men: Dark Phoenix feel less like continuations of the bolder and more character-driven stories set up in X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past and more like attempts at imitating the original trilogy Singer launched in 2000. That sense of nostalgia was present, and appropriate, in Days of Future Past as it sent off the original cast in style -- but after Logan and Deadpool, going back to a version of the X-Men that seemed so ashamed of being a comic book movie feels like a mistake.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe, combined with a comics-on-TV renaissance that started arguably as far back as Smallville, had set up the audience to understand and appreciate more and more of the fantastical elements of comics. Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix, hearkening back to a time when we were all feeling good about Blade and embarrassed by Batman & Robin, feel old-fashioned and out of touch. The audience's definition of what makes a great comic book or superhero blockbuster has evolved since 2000 -- and the X-Men movies, for the most part, have not. For those invested in the films' critical and financial successes, the result is...well...Dark.