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What Disney’s acquisition of Fox means for Marvel’s superhero movies

The X-Men movies could become more consistent, but also less creative.

A still from Avengers: Infinity War.
Marvel Studios
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

In 2012, the most expensive punch in Marvel history was thrown. Emma Frost, co-leader of the X-Men, went up against Tony Stark, the smart-mouthed brain of the Avengers. Stark tasered Frost first, rendering her telepathy useless, but in doing so he activated her secondary ability: turning her body into pure diamond. Frost’s organic diamond fist crashed into Tony Stark’s midsection. Multibillion-dollar metal and technology crumpled around her uppercut.

Frost’s punch was part of a fight between the Avengers and X-Men that resulted in multiple concussions, at least four broken noses, a helicarrier with a broken belly, the shattering of the cosmic entity known as the Phoenix Force, and a rift between Earth’s most popular Marvel superheroes.

Avengers vs. X-Men no. 2/Marvel Comics

This fight was something that could only exist in comic books. But that’s about to change.

Today, after weeks of speculation, Disney confirmed it will acquire a majority of 21st Century Fox’s assets, including film properties and some its television businesses, in a deal worth $52 billion. Among other seismic shifts throughout the entertainment industry, Disney’s deal with Fox will bring the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, their respective villains, and several other characters back under the roof of the Disney-owned Marvel Studios, making this the first time in history that Marvel’s most popular superheroes and supervillains will share the same cinematic universe. This unlocks the possibility of telling stories that, like the showdown between Frost and Stark, previously could only exist in comic books.

With Marvel’s track record of producing solid-to-great superhero movies, the deal seems like every Marvel fan’s dream — especially looking at some of the superhero clunkers Fox has produced. But the Marvel standard also might mean less freedom and fewer risks taken, two big factors that gave us recent non-Marvel hits like Logan and Deadpool.

Marvel will have the option to make crossover stories featuring its most popular comic-book heroes

Considering the entertainment juggernaut Marvel has become since the turn of the millennium, the financial struggles the company had in the ’90s feels like fiction. But the company was indeed teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, and in order to survive, it took a scalpel to its comic book heroes and began selling off their film rights to different studios. Sony took Spider-Man, while Fox landed the X-Men and the Fantastic Four.

Marvel selling the X-Men to Fox resulted in the 2000 hit movie X-Men, and its box office successmore than $290 million worldwide — showed Sony and Marvel that superhero movies could haul in mountains of cash. Spider-Man was released in 2002, followed by X2 in 2003, and by 2008, Marvel had kicked off its own cinematic universe with Iron Man.

In selling its characters’ film rights away, Marvel ensured its comic book characters would live in separate worlds onscreen. But the success of X-Men and Spider-Man ensured that this separation of cinema and page would continue for years: By hauling in so much money, Fox and Sony, until recently, had no motivation give up their Marvel film rights or work with Marvel.

Disney buying Fox’s Marvel superheroes and villains would mean that Marvel, a Disney property, could start creating movies for the X-Men and the Fantastic Four. But beyond that lies a more tantalizing prospect for Marvel fans: Marvel having the ability to tell comic book stories that it couldn’t before.

Because of splintered film rights, Marvel’s crossover comic stories like the aforementioned Avengers vs. X-Men and House of M could never be told. Crossover comic book events that did make it on screen, like Captain America: Civil War and the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War (which looks to be an amalgam of the Infinity Gauntlet event as well as the Infinity arc) are only half-told with Avengers characters; in the comic books, the X-Men and Fantastic Four are present for those stories. A huge comic book crossover event on the big screen would be a spectacle, and done well, it could be as pivotal to the superhero movie genre as The Avengers.

Fox’s inconsistent track record with superhero movies makes a move to Marvel look enticing

Fox’s 2015 Fantastic Four reboot is the greatest superhero movie disaster ever foisted on fans, suffering from weird wigs, bad action, and a script that feels like it was constructed by a kindergartener. It’s also the biggest argument for letting Marvel take control of the Fantastic Four onscreen.

Over the past decade, Marvel has produced the biggest superhero hits in the industry, establishing a high floor for the genre: Its “worst” movies rank at about a 66 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Marvel has developed a standard for what audiences can expect going into a superhero movie.

Meanwhile, Fox’s takes on the X-Men and Fantastic Four have been, at best, wildly inconsistent. Last year’s X-Men: Apocalypse was poorly received, as was 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand and 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. When it comes to the studio’s three Fantastic Four movies, none manage to rise above awful.

Marvel’s worst movies are, in terms of critical reviews, better than any Fantastic Four movies that Fox has made. The number of critically acclaimed superhero movies Marvel’s produced vastly outnumber Fox’s best X-Men movies. So given Marvel’s track record, it wouldn’t be hard to believe that Marvel could make the Fantastic Four great again, or bring consistency and continuity to the X-Men.

But subjecting the X-Men in particular to the Marvel process might also mean losing what’s made some of Fox’s recent superhero movies so good.

Divided film rights forced both Marvel and Fox to take risks. Bringing them back together could put an end to that.

What’s important to consider about Marvel giving up its film rights back in the ’90s is that if it had held onto them and managed to dig itself out of financial demise to produce a movie like X-Men or Spider-Man, we probably would have never gotten the array of great Marvel movies we have today.

Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the X-Men, Spider-Man, and to some extent the Fantastic Four were the faces of Marvel comics. The Avengers were basically a JV team, whose sales paled in comparison to those headliner properties. From a business standpoint, it makes sense to tap the most popular comic book superheroes for film adaptation — which Sony and Fox did with massive success. If Marvel held onto those rights, it may have never deviated away from movies featuring those heroes.

Because Marvel didn’t have the rights to Spider-Man or the X-Men, it had to think outside of the box and figure out which characters to promote on film. In Iron Man, they found a hero that was cut from a different cloth (sardonic, tech savvy, arrogant, damaged, etc.) than Peter Parker or Professor X’s mutant-rights warriors. Marvel extending that spirit of looking to less-expected heroes has resulted in many of its best films, from Guardians of the Galaxy to Thor: Ragnarok.

The flip side of that approach is borne out in Marvel’s cinematic strategy of having interlocking stories and heroes that come together for giant team-up movies like The Avengers, which made over $1.5 billion for the studio. However, that strategy can result in Marvel movies feeling like they’re more concerned with setting the table for future installments (see: Marvel seeding its films with Infinity Stones in the leadup to next year’s Infinity War), making a lot of its movies feel very similar or locked into a bigger system.

Fox’s X-Men aren’t locked into that system, nor does there seem to be an overarching narrative that the studio wants to accomplish with its X-Men movies the way Marvel wants to with its Avengers, leaving individual X-Men movies to establish their own distinctive approaches and personalities. X-Men: First Class is a stylish, charming superhero period piece set in the Cold War era. X-Men: Days of Future Past plays with time travel and the idea of changing history. Deadpool is a raunchy comedy full of butts, murder, and jokes about chimichangas, while this year’s apocalyptic Logan is a bloody Western that received rave reviews.

Yes, the freedom that Fox has given the X-Men has resulted in some clunkers, like 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. But it’s also resulted in superhero films that take risks, delve into different genres, and play around with different modes of storytelling. The results haven’t been consistent, but breakout movies like Logan and Deadpool are what happens when those risks pay off — and it’d be a shame if Marvel regaining control of the X-Men on film means those risks will stop being taken.

This speculation is, of course, based on what we’ve seen from both studios thus far — anything could happen once the X-Men are back under Marvel’s roof. The only thing we can know for certain is that we’re still a long ways away from seeing the effects of this sale on superhero movies at the theater: Marvel right now has a litany of movies already scheduled for release, including 2018’s Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, and further-out films like Ant-Man and The Wasp, Captain Marvel, the sequel to Avengers: Infinity War, the sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming, and a Guardians of the Galaxy follow-up.

Fox has its own set of movies coming out — including X-Men: Dark Phoenix, New Mutants, and a Deadpool sequel — that appear, for now, to be going forward as scheduled. (Fox gave Entertainment Weekly a preview of X-Men: Dark Phoenix this past week, and teasers for New Mutants and the Deadpool sequel were recently released.) However, it’s still unclear if they’ll be officially released as Marvel movies, or what will happen to future projects after the acquisition.

What is clear with such a dense cinematic schedule already established, it’s unlikely Marvel could fit anything it wants to do with the X-Men before 2021 without disrupting its current schedule. That doesn’t mean that fans wouldn’t go see a Marvel-made X-Men movie in 2022 and beyond — they’ll just have to wait for it.