After X-Men: Apocalypse, Jennifer Lawrence is done with the franchise, and Nicholas Hoult isn’t exactly closing the door but his First Class contract will finally be up. Bye-bye, Mystique and Beast. After Wolverine 3, Hugh Jackman is hanging up the adamantium claws, or at least that’s what we think he meant when he posted “One Last Time” along with a picture of Wolverine’s claws on Instagram this weekend. Those are some pretty major defections, especially in the case of Jackman, who has quipped in multiple prior interviews that he’d love to play Wolverine for the rest of his life. Maybe he realized that unlike Wolverine he does actually age, and it was best to finally give in to the inevitability of Fox needing to re-cast the role at some point down the road. They still could go with one of the comic book storylines in which the practically immortal, ageless Wolverine actually started to grow old.
Or maybe Fox is actually planning for X-Men life without Wolverine, a character so well-represented on film at this point that even some of the most ardent fans have been begging for other X-Men characters to get the spotlight. Well, Apocalypse has already lined up new versions of Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and Jubilee (Lana Condor), and solo films are on the way next year for Deadpool (February 12, 2016) and Gambit (October 7, 2016). Beyond that, there remains an unspecified X-Men film due July 13, 2018, which could either be an Apocalypse sequel or the long-delayed X-Force film about a more aggressive X-Men splinter group.
This is all for the franchise that technically goes back to 1996 when Bryan Singer was announced as director of the first X-Men movie. To put that in perspective, Batman & Robin didn’t come along to thoroughly destroy any credibility the comic book movie genre had until a year after that. In fact, throughout the 90s there had been a parade of comic book adaptations that either disappointed (Dick Tracy, Spawn) or bombed (Judge Dredd, The Rocketeer, The Shadow, The Phantom). Marvel’s biggest success prior to X-Men had been 1998’s Blade, which was made through New Line Cinema and grossed $130 million worldwide on a $40 million budget. That’s not bad, but it’s worlds away from anything that would ever inspire Marvel to form its own film studio. The record-setting $54.4m X-Men made on its opening weekend in 2000 was obviously a different story.
Of course, Fox had very little faith in X-Men even though they gave it the greenlight. Singer was only given a $75 million budget to work with, and everything he did was kept on a very tight leash. His cast was full of people you’d probably seen before or at least heard of (Halle Berry, Patrick Stewart, Anna Paquin, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen), but the star was a complete unknown who was totally wrong for the role (the far too tall, not nearly muscular enough Hugh Jackman, stepping in at the last minute for Dougray Scott). Given its proximity to the embarrassing brightness of Batman & Robin, the X-Men movie Singer and company put together comes off as embarrassed of its own source material, broadly ignoring years of comic book continuity in many sections and openly mocking any audience member hoping to see the characters in their signature yellow spandex costumes.
The source fidelity or lack thereof would eventually haunt the franchise to the point of causing the Days of Future Past reboot, but that was literally a decade away from being a concern in 2000. Personally, I had never read an X-Men comic book at that point, and loved yet barely remembered the Animated Series which aired from 1993-1997. All I really cared about was just how well the film’s central relationship between Wolverine and Rogue worked, to the point that I was a bit verklempt when the finale teased Rogue’s potential death.
X2 is much, much better, arguably a classic of the comic book movie genre, X-Men: The Last Stand set franchise highs at the box office despite its many creative failings, X-Men Origins: Wolverine obliterated the audience’s good will towards the franchise, X-Men: First Class built the good will back up thanks to the compelling prequel trio of Fassbender’s Magneto, McAvoy’s Xavier, and Lawrence’s Mystique, The Wolverine tried a low-budget, low-stakes character study, and Days of Future Past was a time-traveling Avengers for the X-Men world. Anchoring all of it outside of First Class has been Jackman’s Wolverine, but along the way there are those who have argued that the franchise has inevitably fallen into repeating itself, Magneto and Xavier’s Malcolm X vs. Martin Luther King, Jr. thing apparently having cinematic limits despite having served the comics for decades.
I enjoyed The Wolverine despite its insane ending, but I remember that when the trailer came out many argued that’s its best moments were all things we’d already seen before. In other word, how many times can Wolverine be cut in the face only to turn to the camera for a close-up as his injury quickly heals and freaks out his opponent? Of course, part of what made Wolverine interesting was the way it briefly upended that formula, but now that it has played the “What if he doesn’t heal for a while?” card will it be as effective if they go there again? I liked Days of Future Past, but it did more or less rehash the Magneto, Xavier, Mystique triangle from First Class, leaving the franchise squarely focused on those three as well as Wolverine, frustratingly killing off almost everyone else from First Class in-between films. Plus, Quicksilver’s prison break for Magneto is one of the highlights of Days of Future Past, but to some it kind of played like the franchise revisiting its greatest hits, trying to one-up Magneto’s prison breakout from X2.
So, with Lawrence and Jackman on their way out it’s only natural to wonder about the future of the franchise. Days of Future Past neatly differentiated X-Men from the rest of the comic book movies because unlike everything other than Captain America: The First Avenger these have become period pieces, First Class in the 60s, Future Past in the 70s, and now Apocalypse reportedly in the 80s. The solo Wolverine movies can be set whenever they want, Origins largely in the past and Wolverine in the present, thus meaning Wolverine 3, which will reportedly co-star Patrick Stewart’s Xavier, could head to the future. However, even with all the cries to give someone other than Wolverine the spotlight that new Deadpool movie is going to have its own version of the Weapon X program, something we have seen multiple times now in X-Men/Wolverine movies, meaning even Deadpool will cover similar territory. Plus, there are significant doubts that Gambit’s comic book history supports him being anything other than a charismatic bit player.
We’re already on our second versions of most major characters, with many more coming in Apocalypse, and who knows how much longer Fassbender and McAvoy have since all the First Class principles apparently only signed 3-picture deals. Not surprisingly then, the apparent intent of Apocalypse will be to close out the trilogy started with First Class. The question we can start to ask is whether or not that should be it for the X-Men for a while? After that and Wolverine 3, will it be time to maybe take a break from the saga of humans vs. mutants, regardless of that untitled X-Men movie Fox has for 2018? Obviously, Fox is going to keep trying to make money, and they have a need to keep making movies to prevent the rights from reverting back to Marvel. However, while I would argue that the franchise has a renewed creative urgency I do wonder how much more we can really ask for or how much new material can be broken after 7 movies across 15 years and 5 more planned for the next 3 years? Do we really want to see someone else playing Wolverine? Are Deadpool and Gambit the next faces of the franchise? Or should it be some awesome character only X-Men comic book readers know about at this point?
Deadpool opens February 12, 2016, followed by Apocalypse on May 27, 2016, Gambit on October 7, 2016, Wolverine 3 on March 3, 2017 and an untitled X-Men film on July 13, 2018.