For almost a decade now, Marvel Studios has been the gold standard in the wave of superhero movies that has dominated the international box office and reshaped the way studios develop and produce their tentpole franchises. While other studios have made plenty of money with their own superhero franchises, none seem to match the respect and adoration Marvel Studios' films elicit, even when competing studios are using popular Marvel characters. And with the support of Disney's genius and muscle for marketing, branding, and distribution -- along with the critical drubbing received by both films in the DC/Warner Bros' rebooted Superman franchise -- it seems like Marvel Studios may be the sole possessor of the magic formula for modern cinematic superhero success.
But after watching the impressive X-Men: Apocalypse, I'm beginning to think that 20th Century FOX and the X-Men franchise -- after some misguided, gutsy, and arguably maddening moves -- might finally be closing the gap with Marvel/Disney by following their lead. Watch the trailer for X-Men: Apocalypse below.
The original X-Men trilogy was completed two years before Iron Man, the first official film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was released in 2008. But with Iron Man's modern sensibilities, humor, the depth and humanity of Robert Downey Jr.'s performance, and the film's focus on realism, Iron Man ushered in the beginning of the revitalized superhero age we're now in. If superhero movies were smartphones, Iron Man felt like the first iPhone while the X-Men trilogy felt a bit like the Blackberry -- a beloved champion of its day that still had a lot of earning potential, but suddenly felt a generation older when compared to its new competition.
FOX first attempted to mine material from the X-Men trilogy with an X-Men Origins series that yielded only a single Wolverine film that kept the franchise alive but felt stale in a post-Iron Man world. So FOX tried a different sort of prequel by going further back in time with X-Men: First Class.
The X-Men trilogy started in a world already well aware of the existence of Mutants, and where the primary Mutants were mostly adults in full control of their abilities who had already chosen which good guy/bad guy team they were on. This denied viewers of the heroes' origin stories, which is often the most satisfying and edifying part of a superhero story, since it's where we learn to relate to the characters as they begin their journey from regular human to superhuman and attempt to figure out their place in the world. And good origin stories are something that Marvel Studios excels at.
But with First Class, we began in a stylish 1960s world where most Mutants didn't even know that other Mutants existed, and where the two most powerful Mutant nemeses (Charles Xavier and Magneto) were allies still learning how to use their powers while figuring out what role Mutants would play in humanity's future. And by making the first generation of X-Men teenagers, not only did FOX inject the franchise with youthful energy, but it instantly made the characters more sympathetic and relatable as the angst and confusion of adolescence was compounded with the alienation of being a Mutant. However, First Class was still a prequel for a completed trilogy, which meant that the roadmaps for its characters were already set.
That's what made X-Men: Days of Future Past such an audacious, unprecedented move. First, it projected the trilogy timeline into an apocalyptic future, then merged it with the prequel timeline by sending Wolverine back in time to the 1970s to meet up with the characters from First Class to prevent that future from happening. By changing the past, not only did Days of Future Past effectively erase the events of the X-Men trilogy, but it retroactively turned First Class into a partial reboot since any new X-Men films would no longer have to lead to the events of the original trilogy.
Normally, a move like this that invalidates nearly everything that came before it would be as infuriating as learning that the X-Men trilogy was really just a dream and that all of the affection and concern you might've felt for the characters was basically for nothing. At the same time, a reboot of a franchise basically does the same thing by starting a story over again with new actors and license to make changes, like what happened when Spider-Man was rebooted just five years after the original trilogy ended. However, a character from an original series going back in time to essentially reboot his own franchise has got to be a first.
And the amazing thing is that it actually worked -- which finally brings us to X-Men: Apocalypse. Now in 1983, the young X-Men -- anchored by Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique and Nicholas Hoult as Beast, with newcomers Sophie Turner as Jean Grey, Tye Sheridan as Cyclops, Kodi Smit-McPhee as Nightcrawler, and Alexandra Shipp as Storm -- infuse the film with humanity, vulnerability, and a welcome amount of humor, though the returning Evan Peters as Quicksilver once again speeds away with the movie's most fun scene. James McAvoy delivers as a young Charles Xavier becoming more assured of his powers and his responsibility for the futures of both Mutants and humans. But it's Michael Fassbender as the tortured, conflicted Magneto who gives the film's best performance, and may soon replace Hugh Jackman's Wolverine as the franchise's most interesting character. Unfortunately, Apocalypse, the awakened Mutant/Egyptian god (Oscar Isaac) who wants to destroy and rebuild the world is a bore, as are Ben Hardy and Olivia Munn as his mostly-silent henchmen.
X-Men: Apocalypse is no the Avengers or Captain America: Civil War, and the X-Men franchise has a ways to go before it can match the best films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But while I eventually became uninterested in the original X-Men movies, X-Men: Apocalypse now has me excited and curious to see where this franchise might go, how screenwriters will weave the storyline into recent history, and how its talented cast might reinvent and deepen their characters. Despite director Bryan Singer's statement that Apocalypse is "kind of a conclusion of six X-Men films", it feels like a franchise that now has a promising future.
Put another way, while I still feel that the Marvel Studios films are the best-in-class iPhone, the pseudo-rebooted X-Men no longer feels like the now-dead Blackberry, but more like today's best Android phones, which have had years to learn from the best while developing a few original tricks of their own. And while I'm not getting rid of my iPhone, I'm pretty interested to see what Samsung has in their product pipeline.