Is a lack of continuity the X-Men franchise’s secret weapon?


Ten years ago, superhero films were fairly ubiquitous, but they also tended to exist in vacuums of their own franchises with little to link them beyond the occasional Daredevil/Elektra mishap. The ways in which Marvel changed the industry are well documented, and now in 2017 the superhero film landscape is essentially dominated by three mega franchises: the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC Extended Universe and Fox’s long-running X-Men series.

Of the three, X-Men remains the most unique in that it was never really rebooted in the last few years the same way as Batman, Superman and many of the Marvel stable were (Punisher, Daredevil, Spider-Man etc). 2000’s X-Men essentially created the modern superhero boom and now, seventeen years later, we’re about to see a brand-new film come out that features two of the stars from that original returning to their iconic characters, as they both have several times in the intervening years. Sure, there might have been a couple of prequels or a time travel related mishap here and there that allowed the franchise a somewhat fresh slate, but the series is essentially still following the path set out in that first film almost two decades ago.

But then, that’s not without caveats, and while Days Of Future Past in many ways existed as an excuse for those caveats, it’s a common complaint that the X-Men films don’t really seem to give a damn about continuity. This is frustrating because it implies a lack of care for the property or the fans who have followed these films for years.

Unlike Marvel, who are very careful in ensuring everything matches up, Fox aren’t fussed if Xavier is walking and friends with Magneto in the eighties in one film, then wheelchair bound and estranged by the early sixties in the next. Was Scott Summers an average high school student when he discovered his powers and went to Xavier’s school under the tutelage of an impressively maned, wheelchair bound James McAvoy, or was he rescued from the clutches of William Stryker by a bald, walking Patrick Stewart? Was Wade Wilson a young mutant in the 70s or an average man given superpowers in the 2010s? Was Emma Frost a child in the late seventies or an adult in the early sixties? Was Boliver Trask Bill Duke in 2006 or Peter Dinklage in 1973? The list goes on.

The altered timeline in Days Of Future Past can explain some things, but not all. No amount of changing history is going to account for Wade Wilson’s vastly diverging portrayals. And don’t even try to explain the total lack of ageing of the cast of First Class over two decades.

The fact is, at this point the best Fox can do is wave their hand and mumble something about alternate continuities, which is okay, but it doesn’t really explain the identical X-Mansions in Deadpool and the series proper, and certainly doesn’t explain anything to your average cinemagoer who has no idea why a film they just watched a couple of years ago seems to have been completely ignored by a new film ostensibly in the same franchise. Now Logan, despite sharing two of the lead actors with most of the preceding franchise, is apparently supposed to be viewed as yet another alternate timeline where the continuity of the preceding films is hardly important.

And Logan is also apparently the best superhero film in years.

The last few years have seen a lot of whispers of ‘superhero fatigue’ setting in, with more and more questions popping up about when the bubble will burst. Kevin Feige and his ilk like to brush away these suggestions by claiming that superhero films will stay fresh as long as they keep trying different things, but the fact is that, as we near the end of the first decade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s starting to get a little boring. A couple of years ago someone suggested to me that as good as most of the Marvel films are, they are all pretty interchangeable and all have essentially the same tone. I brushed it off then; after all, The Winter Soldier is nothing like Guardians Of The Galaxy, right?

Except for the fact that, on closer examination, it kind of is. All the Marvel films, whether they profess to be space operas, heist films, fantasy sagas or spy thrillers, are brightly coloured, CGI heavy quip-fests in which nobody dies and nothing ever really changes. Sure, S.H.I.E.L.D might be infiltrated by Hydra and dismantled one film, but is there really a stark difference in the status-quo between The Avengers and Civil War? There is still a big organisation with a flashy facility overseeing everything. All the heroes are still basically the same. And as much as Civil War professed to be a ‘game changer’, there’s no way that Cap and Iron Man aren’t buddies again in time to take on Thanos together. To expect otherwise is to fundamentally misunderstand what this franchise is all about.

And yet, coming into Logan, does anybody think that Wolverine and Professor X are safe? This is a parallel universe, our heroes are ageing and near death and Jackman and Stewart are both calling it quits; really, anything goes. We have real stakes. And with all early reports suggesting there is a total dearth of over-the-top CGI or cutesy quips and that the film is character driven, intimate and painful, it’s hard not to hope for the best. Logan promises a superhero film that is actually different, one that lives up to Marvel’s surface level assertion that every one of their films is a different genre. And it’s no secret that Logan has more swearing and gore than just about any superhero film yet seen. Even if it isn’t as good as we all so fervently hope, it seems safe to say it will be something we haven’t seen before.

Is anybody really expecting the same of the next Marvel film?

Back when Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire came out, Empire ran a three-star review in which they made a compelling argument. Comparing the Potter franchise to Bond, they suggested that due to the enormous success of the films and the level of studio scrutiny, there would never be a truly awful Potter or Bond film, but without the ability to take real risks, there would never be a truly great one either. The same principle applies to Marvel. At worst, their films can be forgettable. At best, they can be very good. But not a single one reaches the nadir of a Catwoman or the heights of a The Dark Knight. Even the most respected come with caveats. And behind the scenes, every time a director with a real, individual vision comes along, problems ensue. Mentioning Edgar Wright’s take on Ant-Man still gets a wistful reaction from film fans everywhere, and while the eventual product was fine, it’s hard to find anybody who will argue it’s much more than that.

Of course, consistency is nice. X-Men: Apocalypse, for my money, rivals Batman V Superman as the worst blockbuster I saw last year and yet with the enormous popularity of Deadpool, a film that for all its flaws took plenty of risks, it’s hard to see the X-Men franchise as being in especially poor health. Add to this the critical success of Legion, and it’s starting to seem more and more like Fox is the studio to turn to if you want something interesting from your superhero content. While DC preaches autonomy for filmmakers and Marvel makes all sorts of noises about how different all its films are, Fox’s lack of a master-planner making sure all the pieces fit together means that they’re the wild card of comic book films. And if Logan is as good as everyone says it is, it’s hard to see a scenario in which it doesn’t make a staggering amount of money, money that will only open the doors for more and more brave, left-of-centre, unconventional superhero films.

We may yet see a situation where Fox are the only studio actively keeping at bay superhero fatigue, due to their practice of emphasising original films at the expense of continuity or an all-encompassing vision. Marvel are currently creatively trapped by their own popularity, while the alleged behind the scenes meddling on Suicide Squad suggests that DC are so desperate to play catch up that they aren’t about to take any real risks.

Of course, making any assumptions is premature until we see exactly how Logan is received by the world at large. But, speaking as someone who finds it extremely hard to muster the same enthusiasm for the release dates of superhero films that I once felt for the impending Avengers or Dark Knight Rises, everything about Logan has me excited. A cursory glance around the internet proves I’m far from the only one. And even if the film doesn’t quite get where we hope, you can bet the studios are all watching the levels of hype with keen interest and one eye towards the future. Nobody has a greater investment in keeping this bubble from bursting than the people who are making millions from it, and if a bit of weirdness and individuality can stave off universal fatigue for a few more years then you can bet they’ll go for it. At least, Fox definitely will.

For Marvel, DC, and anybody else looking to get into the superhero game: the ball is in your court.



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