The greatest trick Marvel pulled off was turning the X-Men into its junior varsity superhero team.
Back before Marvel Studios perfected its cinematic strategy of turning comic book pages into billion-dollar blockbusters, and before Fox ran the X-Men into the ground with multiple Dark Phoenix stories, the X-Men were the apex predators on Marvel’s comic book food chain in the ’80s and ’90s. Wolverine was a household name; Iron Man was a second-tier hero.
This made the X-Men’s film rights (along with those of Spider-Man, another hugely popular character) prime assets to sell off when Marvel filed for bankruptcy in 1996. And since then, thanks in large part to the critical and commercial success of Marvel’s blockbusters, Fox’s relatively panned releases (Deadpool and Logan are the exceptions), and a bevy of lackluster X-Men comic book stories, the X-Men eventually ceded their top-tier status to the Avengers.
Captain Marvel is now just as recognizable as Storm. Captain America is more beloved than Cyclops. Black Widow and Scarlet Witch have the same clout in superhero fandom as Jean Grey. Thanos is just as fearsome a villain as Magneto. Thor and the Hulk are household names compared to Colossus and Rogue. And Iron Man has eclipsed Wolverine in popularity.
But now, with Disney’s acquisition of Fox’s entertainment assets — the X-Men and Fantastic Four in particular — Marvel has the opportunity to pull off a bigger trick: make the X-Men great again.
At San Diego Comic-Con last month, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige confirmed that the mutants would be back in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Perhaps we’ll get a better idea of when that’s happening and a basic storyline at D23, Disney’s entertainment convention, later in August. But just like when the X-Men were at the top of their game, the hype is starting back up in the comic books first, as a new storyline called House of X has breathed new life into the spirit and souls of Marvel’s Merry Mutants.
Marvel’s “House of X” revitalized the X-Men with a hard reset
Prior to House of X, the X-Men were decimated and sent to a different reality in 2019’s Age of X-Man. In 2016, the X-Men were squaring off against the Inhumans and a terrible disease-spreading mist; in 2012, the X-Men fought against the Avengers. Peppered throughout all these events are a couple of monumental deaths (and subsequent resurrections) involving characters like Wolverine, Cyclops, and Professor X; time travel involving a mutant who would be the hope for all mutants; and the return of Jean Grey, the iconic X-Woman whose death, well multiple deaths, broke our hearts (each and every time).
All these threads lead back to one very important storyline in the X-Men series: 2005’s Decimation, in which Scarlet Witch (yes, the Avengers character) de-powered more than 99 percent of the world’s mutants. Ever since “Decimation,” mutants and the X-Men have become an endangered species, forced into doing anything and everything in their power to adapt and survive (including taking on fellow superhero teams).
Years after Decimation, House of X (and its companion series Powers of X, out this week) arrives from writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Pepe Larraz as the comic book equivalent of unplugging the X-Men, blowing on the cartridge, and then plugging it back in.
The storyline doesn’t require knowing all the intricacies and reality-warping from recent months. Instead, it thrusts you right into a new reality: Charles Xavier has created an island for mutants on an actual sentient mutant island known as Krakoa. The only people allowed through Krakoa’s gates are mutants or people accompanied by mutants, ensuring the species’ safety. Xavier has also created three powerful drugs for humans — one that extends life spans, another that cures “diseases of the mind,” and a super antibiotic — that give him sway with world leaders.
Hickman has also reintroduced the concept of omega-level mutants, under a taxonomical system that identifies mutants by their power levels. Omegas like Storm, Jean Grey, and Magneto represent the most powerful mutants on Earth, possessing unfathomable upper limits to their mutant abilities, and almost all who exist are allied with Xavier and Krakoa.
Under Xavier’s supervision, mutants are thriving and once again poised to become the dominant species. Under Hickman and Larraz’s critically lauded vision, the X-Men once again possess an air of myth and mystique. And for X-Men fans, it feels, just a bit, like the way it did when the X-Men were at their peak — prior to Decimation.
The death of a conspiracy theory as X-Men fans find new hope
To be an X-Men fan over the past decade has been a test in endurance and optimism. The last two X-Men ensemble movies, X-Men: Apocalypse and X-Men: Dark Phoenix, were horrible.
In the comics, from Avengers vs. X-Men to Inhumans vs. X-Men to the ho-hum Battle of the Atom and Apocalypse Wars, the X-Men’s stories have varied in quality. And when it comes to thrills, they have often struggled to shake off their listlessness.
Comics and cultural critic Evan Narcisse explained in a 2016 io9 article that the mutants have, in comparison to other Marvel counterparts, been stuck in a lifeless holding pattern.
“Spider-Man’s a jet-setting CEO. Wolverine is a mantle held by a woman. Dr. Doom is an unscarred sorta-good guy. Daredevil has a secret identity again. Amadeus Cho is a very different kind of Hulk,” Narcisse wrote. “There’s very little chatter about the X-Men books, which is a weird place for the franchise that blew minds with the Dark Phoenix Saga to find itself.”
The degrading quality of X-Men stories over the years, and Marvel’s tendency to portray them as the losers or irrational antagonists, was so offensive to fans that it even spurred a conspiracy theory among the fandom. Their thinking: Marvel didn’t own the X-Men’s films, and therefore sank their stories in the comic books — there was no greater benefit to Marvel in promoting the characters, after all. And this war of attrition would continue until Fox relinquished the X-Men’s screen rights.
At the same time, Marvel propped up the characters and heroes whose film and TV rights it did own.
Look no further than Marvel’s full-court press of the Inhumans, a race of beings whose origin stories (the idea of being born with superpowers and a different species) and powers run similarly to mutants, with the only difference being that Marvel retained the film rights to the Inhumans. There were several storylines and arcs featuring the Inhumans in the comics, all leading up to that complete disaster of a television show in 2017, which Marvel even showed on IMAX at movie theaters.
Or, as Narcisse pointed out, consider all the ways in which Marvel jump-started its other characters, while the X-Men just stalled.
But Marvel maintained that it treated all its comic book properties equally. Fans found that hard to believe, however. When Hickman himself said in an interview with Newsrama that Marvel canceled its Fantastic Four comics in 2014 because of how badly Fox’s Fantastic Four films had performed, fans saw it as proof that Marvel was deprioritizing any of its comics that were adapted by Fox and not Marvel Entertainment.
“I think it’s pretty common knowledge at this point that Marvel isn’t publishing Fantastic Four because of their disagreement with Fox,” Hickman said. “While it bums me out, I completely understand because, well, it isn’t like they’re not acting out of cause. Fox needs to do a better job there.”
The fandom belief that Marvel is sabotaging its own creations is all but dead now, as Marvel’s parent company Disney has since acquired 20th Century Fox and, thus, the film rights to the X-Men and the Fantastic Four. It seems like the latter might be an easier fit to slide into the MCU — just by numbers alone, bringing in four superheroes sounds a lot easier than introducing the many X-Men, their disparate origin stories, major villains like Magneto, and the concept of mutants. (A riff on House of X could conceivably work if folded into the five-year time jump in Endgame, however, which would be nice to see.)
But Feige said at San Diego Comic-Con in July that the mutants would indeed find their way into the MCU. Add to that the rumors of Marvel planning something huge at the D23 Expo and you can’t help but think the company already has plans for something X-related. And now with Hickman and Larraz’s new X-Men comic, and all of its mythos and swagger, there is truly a new dawn for Marvel’s mutants. It’s finally a great time to be an X-Men fan again.