The 2000 release of 20th Century Fox's first X-Men movie can be credited with clearing the way for the superhero movie boom of today. However, since the Marvel Cinematic Universe became the standard by which all other superhero franchises are judged, the X-Men have been living in the shadow of the Avengers. Yet, in recent years, it seems like Fox has figured out a way, whether by design or by accident, to turn the X-Men movies franchise vital part of the superhero cinema landscape, and they've done so by working outside of the lines established by Marvel Studios as a brand.
This strategy is a large part of the reason that Deadpool was made. According to co-writer Rhett Reese, he and Paul Wernick were told to "write it as dark as our minds would go, as silly and sexual and violent as we wanted."
They did just that, and the film was shelved for six years. It was only after the rise of Marvel Studios (and test footage leak) that Fox put Deadpool into production with the idea of, "Let's do something Marvel and Disney can't do," according to Reese, adding, "It really feels like an apple among oranges with big studio movies. I think that contributed to its success."
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It wasn't just the R-rated material that set Deadpool apart from the superhero movie pack, although that was a large part of it. The extended sex montage between Wade and Vanessa is the first time we've seen a Marvel Comics movie protagonist so much as acknowledge the existence of sex without practically blushing on screen, and the gleeful bloodletting that takes place during Deadpool's bridge scene is a distinct departure from the epic but often consequence free action of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
However, it's Deadpool's irreverence for the genre and its own protagonist that truly sets it apart. Marvel Studios' house style may involve a lighthearted tone and plenty of jokes, but those jokes never come at the expense of the heroes. The MCU heroes are too precious for that. A universe built on continuity relies on the legitimacy of its heroes to stay standing. To endow one of those heroes with a sense of self-awareness risks damaging the verisimilitude, and those cracks can spread fast and are nearly impossible to repair. The Avengers may have some quips and one-liners, but they can never truly acknowledge what they are the way Deadpool can.
The approach to Fox's first X-Men television show, Legion, has been similarly unconventional. The Marvel Cinematic Universe television series so far have largely imitated the form and structure of the Marvel Studios films on a smaller scale for the small screen. On ABC, Marvel's Agents of SHIELD and Agent Carter practically cloned the style of the Marvel Studios movies and simply set about telling stories with lesser known or brand new characters. The Netflix series have adopted a grittier tone and a slower pace, but the structure is basically the same, in that a hero fights a villain and hopefully learns something about himself along the way, only this time with blood.
Legion, which comes from the mind of Fargo creator Noah Hawley, barely acknowledges that the show is somehow supposed to fit into the superhero genre. Instead, the series plays out like a psychological drama following David Haller as he deals with almost entirely internal threats. Sure, one of the demons he struggles with turns out to basically be a literal demon, it is still embracing the kind of internalized drama that Marvel has typically avoided in favor of almost exclusively super-powered external threats. This and the nature of David Haller's powers has allowed Legion to be more stylistically and structurally adventurous than either branch of MCU television.
Logan is the most recent Fox project leverage something that the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn't have, and that's legacy. The X-Men movies franchise is eight years older than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While the MCU is still working with its original stars, the X-Men movies are working with the second generation of leading men and women. The recasting or reshuffling of the MCU's primary players is mostly thought of as an inevitable obstacle that Marvel Studios will eventually have to deal with. X-Men: Days of Future Past used that problem to its advantage, using its 17-year history in a way that that Marvel Cinematic Universe is incapable of in its current form.
Logan took the idea a step further by doing something that Marvel Studios has yet to do, and that most superhero stories shy away from in general. It gave its characters, at least some of them, an ending. Beyond that, Logan exists in a setting that the MCU cannot conceive of, a world where the heroes saved the day, but the future they live in makes you wonder if it was worth all of the trouble.
All of this is grounded by how the film acknowledges real word issues that society is either facing today or will face in the near-future. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, every problem feels like a superhero problem, but Logan acknowledges contentious issues like the genetic modification of food by big agriculture, the plight of working class farmers, immigration, and automation. These issues are not what Logan is about, but their presence creates a very different sense of what that world is than what audiences get from Marvel Studios, a sense that regular people and their problems exist, where the MCU often feels like it is comprised entirely, gods, vigilantes, and dangerous megalomaniacs.
Deadpool, Legion, and Logan all represent alternative takes on what superhero movies and television can be, and that's a large part of why they have succeeded. This isn't to diminish the quality or the importance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In fact, without the Marvel Cinematic Universe to serve as a kind of "control universe," Fox's experiments may not be able to exist as they do. However, these projects represent a certain niche that the X-Men movies franchise can now call its own, acting as a kind of experimental imprint for live-action superhero stories, almost a version of the Marvel Knights or Marvel MAXX lines once published by Marvel Comics.
It remains to be seen how far Fox is willing to send its superhero franchise in this direction. X-Men: Apocalypse certainly stands a step in the opposite direction, a clumsy attempt to build an X-Men team that fits into the standards of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While it's fine to push the main X-Men series in a more mainstream direction, here's hoping that Fox continues to go to the creative places that the Marvel Cinematic Universe simply can't.