Unlikely as it might seem, the X-Men are having a bit of a moment.
The comic characters, at the center of 20th Century Fox’s superhero strategy (largely because the company only owns the rights to the X-Men and Fantastic Four), have taken a backseat in recent years to discussion of Marvel Studios’ cinematic universe and Warner Brothers’ DC films.
Yes, movies like X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) have garnered critical acclaim, and 2016’s Deadpool — which focused on a more peripheral character from the X-Men universe — was a massive hit. But the response to X-Men films and the excitement surrounding them is perhaps better summed up by 2016’s flaccid flop X-Men: Apocalypse, which received neither great reviews nor sterling box office returns. The X-Men, for most of the 2010s, have been an afterthought.
But weirdly, in the first few months of 2017, the X-Men are everywhere, in some of the most acclaimed superhero projects of the moment. Logan, the final film to star Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, scored $88 million at the box office in its first weekend — the fourth-best opening for an R-rated film ever. While its haul still lags well behind Deadpool’s $132 million opening weekend, its Metacritic score of 77 is a nice step up from Deadpool’s 65.
Meanwhile, on FX, the first official live-action X-Men television series, Legion, is one of the best-reviewed new series of the year, scoring an 82 on Metacritic and winning plaudits for its daring visuals and hypnotic storytelling, courtesy of Fargo creator Noah Hawley. (Unfortunately, audiences have yet to sign on. After a healthy debut, Legion has dropped in the ratings every week.)
Time will tell if Logan and Legion prove to be a bold step forward for the X-Men in popularity, but both have improved upon the franchise’s recent diminishment in critical buzz.
Arguably, the failure of Apocalypse is the best thing that ever could have happened to Fox’s cinematic X-Men projects. It reminded the studio that it can’t compete with Marvel Studios or DC Films — so maybe it shouldn’t even try. And the more it realizes this fact, the more creatively adventurous it becomes.
Both Logan and Legion play with very different genre beats from each other — and the usual X-Men fare
By now, the superhero film has become so familiar to us that it’s forgivable to feel a little bored by it. The hero confronts a new superpowered villain. The villain fights back. There’s a climactic battle, often with some portal opening up in the sky. In the end, everything mostly reverts to the status quo.
Even Deadpool — which is self-consciously a snarky deconstruction of the genre — plays with these tropes for the most part. (The portal in the sky is basically just a very tall tower in Deadpool’s case, presumably because the film’s budget couldn’t accommodate the effects required to depict intergalactic threats.) But the strength of the X-Men as characters is in the way they allow the superhero genre to travel to other genres and hang out there.
Wolverine, for instance, is an indestructible badass. That makes him a great fit for genres where a lone wolf shows up in a community and stands on the side of truth and justice — which is why director James Mangold could so skillfully plop him into the middle of a samurai film (in 2013’s The Wolverine) and a Western (in Logan). Wolverine’s superpower separates him from a classic Western hero like Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name (seen in films like A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). But that’s really about it.
Legion is even more driven by the unique powers of its central character, rather than superhero tropes. David Haller (Dan Stevens) has been in a mental institution from a young age for what was initially diagnosed as schizophrenia, but actually turns out to be some combination of potent mental superpowers and a strange being — dubbed a “parasite” — that’s been hiding out in his brain since he was a kid.
Thus, Legion takes the form of a psychological thriller, with occasional excursions into weird mind-trip territory and even into outright horror. A wordless sequence in the fifth and most recent episode played out like a particularly intense and terrifying haunted house tale, complete with strange, silent monsters racing around the house. Then, it concluded with a tremendous reveal that teased an answer to a question the audience had surely been asking all hour long — at precisely the scariest possible moment.
Both Logan and Legion explore what it means to force superhero characters to behave by the rules of other genres. That doesn’t necessarily translate to total buy-in — we won’t worry that Wolverine could die if he takes a bullet to the chest, like we do with most Western heroes. Plus, Logan takes place in the near-future, not America’s past. But otherwise, putting Wolverine into a new genre throws the character into new relief — by the end of the film, we know him as an individual and understand his moral code better than we ever have in any of the overly busy X-Men team-up films.
Now, the X-Men, by virtue of their massive roster of characters, has always been a superhero team that makes sense to keep tossing into big, ensemble-driven team-up movies. But every time Fox has attempted to shoehorn them into an established superhero film template, particularly Marvel’s, the resulting film has felt a little like leftovers.
That’s what makes Logan and Legion so exciting — just one year after Apocalypse, they’re both showing how much more can be done with the X-Men, and with superheroes in general.
After all, wouldn’t a superhero heist movie be fun? How about a superhero film noir, or a superhero rom-com? Perhaps accidentally, Fox may have stumbled onto act two of America’s ongoing cinematic superhero obsession, and I’m actually excited to see what’s next.