Having acquired Fox and all its assets earlier this year, Disney — and by extension, Marvel Studios, its most beloved arm — have the film rights to the uncanniest superheroes of all, the X-Men. And now the film studio faces a unique conundrum.
Marvel’s spate of 1990s licensing sales forced the Marvel Cinematic Universe to build a setting around the Avengers and Iron Man. But with Tony Stark dead after Endgame and the merry band of mutants back in the game, how can they be woven into the fabric of the biggest and, give or take one competitor, the only successful shared movie universe in history?
To give this question proper weight and due consideration, we consulted with experts. Cullen Bunn, a longtime comics writer whose credits include Deadpool, Uncanny X-Men, Magneto and X-Men Blue; Zachary Jenkins, comics journalist, podcaster, and founder and editor-in-chief of The Xavier Files and Hox Pox Tox; Chris Sims, comics journalist, podcaster and co-writer of X-Men ‘92 and the Deadpool: Bad Blood graphic novel; Dungeons & Dragons Young Adventurer’s Guide co-writer and Shout Out editor Andrew Wheeler; and Kelly Thompson, Eisner-nominated this past year for her work on Uncanny, Rogue & Gambit and the (now concluded) Mr. & Mrs. X, among other titles.
[Ed. note: Chris Sims is an occasional contributor to Polygon.]
While it’s all speculation at this point, these experts’ familiarity with the Children of the Atom gives them greater authority to prognosticate on, just how exactly, Cyclops, Wolverine, Rogue, Shadowcat, Storm and the rest might fit in in the Franchise That Tony Stark Built.
How do you add the X-Men to the MCU?
My first question for the X-perts was about format. Given that the Fox film series, by and large, contented itself in using a small sliver of the millions of mutants that have been created over the years — so many, there were multi-year storylines that spun out of the mutant population being drastically reduced by magic — I asked whether it might be easier to just make a TV show (hopefully more Legion and less The Gifted) rather than use them in the movies.
Thompson was rather democratic on the matter: “The bench is seriously deep when it comes to the X-Men and there are so many different types of stories and genres to embrace beyond typical superhero fare — there’s so much deeply weird and cool X-stuff that I’d love to see re-imagined and re-contextualized for the big screen. So while I’d love to see an X-Men movie-verse that is bold and integrated the way the Avengers [have] been, I’d also love to see a TV series following students at Xavier’s Academy, y’know? And can someone please fight the Technet immediately? I need to see that.”
Bunn also saw the benefits of both sides, saying, “It might be best to introduce them in a television show, something that could take its time and introduce various characters over the course of several seasons. That said, I’d rather see them introduced on the big screen. I feel like the X-Men deserve that kind of treatment, and a talented writer and director can make it happen in a way that seamlessly brings them into the MCU fold.”
Sims, who got into the X-Men in the ‘90s with the iconic Fox Kids cartoon, was more discursive. “[The cartoon] had a narrow core cast (even smaller than the […] comics at the time), but there were a ton of guest appearances that hinted at this huge world,” he said. “Believe it or not, that was a big part of the appeal for me, that it was so overwhelming. I thought that I’d never understand that world and all the stuff that was going on in it, and to me, that was hugely appealing. I was also right — I’ve written the X-Men and I’m still surprised by bits and pieces of their history.”
“But,” he wondered, “does that kind of expansive universe work in a movie or a TV show? I’m not sure it does. As much as [Avengers: Endgame] can do a really fun story with, like, 47 characters, that’s also springing off of, what, 50 hours of movies? It seems like the more you can pare down a core cast, the better. [...] Like anything else, I think it comes down to how much effort you’re willing to put into it and how much skill you can bring to bear on it. I think if you’re going to really go all in, then you need to do it in a sequential medium that has room to expand, so: Television.”
Jenkins was a bit more realistic, saying, “Since X-Men comics are serials, sequential stories that will never really end, it’s easier to assign them to a TV show. That said, we just got an idea of what an X-Men TV show would look like with The Gifted, and frankly, I don’t see the budget giving people what they want. [...] The X-Men are already a massive film franchise, the 6th top grossing of all time. It would be foolish to do anything but put them back in films. The worst case is that you get a movie that only makes as much money as Spider-Man.”
Wheeler felt similar, saying, “Marvel’s schedule is pretty much booked until 2023 on both streams, so anyone hoping to see mutants introduced soon had better hope they appear in other stories first. I don’t think this is an either/or choice. X-Men movies could be supported by shows like New Mutants or X-Factor.”
Who does Marvel Studios go with the X-Men?
Fox’s X-Men film franchise kept Professor X, Magneto, and Wolverine squarely in the center, necessarily sidelining other prominent and beloved characters. Wheeler zeroed in immediately on what he saw as a failure of the Fox films.
“I always felt the movies sidelined the women to an absurd degree,” he told Polygon. “The X-Men have the strongest roster of female heroes in comics, but the movies never gave characters like Storm, Rogue, Kitty, Jubilee, Emma, or Psylocke their due, and never tapped into characters like Illyana, Dazzler, Monet, or Dani. It’s not the X-Men to me if the women aren’t front and centre.”
Thompson felt the same way. “I don’t want to dismiss Professor Xavier, Magneto, and Wolverine and their importance to the X-mythos,” she said, “but we’ve had literally two decades of those men being the wheel upon which all X-Men film stories turn and I, for one, am very ready for something wildly new. Something (and some ones) that feel young and fresh and like the future.
“I’m not opposed to seeing the classic characters,” she continued, “and like any diehard fan, there’s an excitement in seeing new takes on those characters, but I confess that my focus is more on wanting to see all the incredibly cool stuff/characters we haven’t gotten to see yet, instead of seeing new takes on what’s already been seen. I want to see a teen Laura Wolverine. I want to see Armor and Magik. I’d like Storm to get a real story; she’s so fascinating and was so underserved in the films. Obviously what I’d like to see most of all is Rogue and Gambit on screen together — flirting and fighting as they are meant to be.”
Jenkins agreed but was slightly more pragmatic. “As much as some folks would want to avoid him, Wolverine is absolutely essential to the X-Men from a mainstream standpoint. Dude sells,” he said.
“Beyond that, though, I don’t think anyone is truly essential. What’s more interesting to me is who would be inessential, and that is Professor X and Magneto. Comics writers since the Silver Age have been trying to find ways to write Xavier out of the comics. Additionally, Magneto has been a maleficent force in every X-Men movie. A great way to make these films stand out would be to force other characters into these central roles.”
Sims and Bunn had more generationally specific answers. The former agreed with Jenkins regarding Wolverine: “Like, Wolverine is the obvious answer, but there’s a reason Wolverine is the obvious answer. Here’s my hot take: Wolverine rules, actually.
“For me, the essential X-Men are (big surprise) the ones I grew up with, which also happens to be the team that Chad Bowers and I wrote (with Scott Koblish, Alti Firmansyah, Cory Hamscher, Matt Milla and Travis Lanham) in X-Men ‘92: Wolverine, Storm, Rogue, Gambit, maybe Scott and Jean, and of course, the best X-Man, Jubilee. Much as I love the classic Claremont/Byrne/Cockrum “All New X-Men” lineup, those are my dudes.”
Bunn advocated for what he referred to as the Giant-Size lineup (a reference to the team formed in Giant-Size X-Men #1, which included Wolverine, Storm, Nightcrawler, Thunderbird, etc.): “Sure, there could be a few additions or some characters could be swapped out, but this is a diverse, exciting team that could really wow audiences right away. And it includes so many of the characters who are must-sees for so many fans.”
What X-Men stories do you tell?
Given the MCU’s long track record of taking a recent comics event’s title and basic story and nothing else, I asked what famous X-story should get that treatment. Bunn was more emphatic about what he didn’t want to see: “There are plenty of stories that might work, but I’d hope that — for a while — they steer clear of the Dark Phoenix tale. As much as I love that story, I think we need to give it a rest cinematically.”
Wheeler felt we should go back to the beginning. “A lot of recent X-Men stories are based on a history that hasn’t been established in the MCU,” he pointed out. “I think X-Men movies need to go back to the beginning. There are plenty of stories to tell about the emergence of mutants in the MCU.”
Thompson took a broader stroke, saying “I think [Joss] Whedon & [artist John] Cassaday’s Astonishing and [Grant] Morrison and [artist Frank] Quitely’s New X-Men are both fascinating stories and parts of each could work as TV or film. But again, I tend to lean toward wanting to see things like … a super weird Excalibur movie that’s one part action, one part comedy or to see a sort of gritty mutant detective agency like we got in X-Factor.”
Sims and Jenkins took a decidedly more recent tack. “It’s hard to think of a movie that would be called X-Men: Here Comes Tomorrow, right?” Sims asked (referring to the alternate future story that ended Morrison’s tenure on New X-Men.)
Jenkins also hearkened back to the Morrison/Quitely era: “I think the best thing they could do is keep the scope of the X-Men small. Focus on the school and the internal conflicts of mutant culture. That would lead me to … Riot At Xavier’s. This is a tight story that balances the legacy of Xavier vs the legacy of Magneto. It would be a good, almost meta way, to address the X-Men moving into the MCU.”
To time travel or not to time travel?
I couldn’t resist asking if — given the polarizing way Avengers Endgame introduced time travel into the MCU, and given the X-Men’s long, complicated history with the very same — whether or not time travel should be a part of the MCU X-verse going forward.
Wheeler came down on the negative side, saying “X-Men time travel stories are about placing the ongoing struggles of a minority group in a historical context. They make more sense to me than outer space stories, but I still don’t much like them! I think time travel in a shared universe introduces a degree of complexity that tends to break the world.”
Sims agreed. He said, “For the X-Men, believe it or not, I actually don’t like time travel stories [...] Days of Future Past is a great comic, but its main effect should be to show us the future that we’re avoiding rather than making time travel a core element of the team. [...] Time travel is tough to pull off at the best of times, and I kind of love that Endgame basically treated it as a thing that doesn’t make a ton of sense and should be thrown in with a mostly lighthearted tone. [...] But I’m also the guy who thinks that fighting Dracula should be a core element of the team because I read that story when I was a kid, so, grain of salt and so forth.”
Jenkins also concurred that time travel should be avoided: “I think the heavy sci-fi elements can work well in comics but in film, you would want the X-Men to have a more defined role. Elements like time travel muddy the central hook of the mutants and shouldn’t be used in their cinematic adventures.”
Thompson was a bit more democratic: “Love it or hate it, time travel is a sci-fi staple and thus always manages to work its way into superhero stories. But hopefully, it’s a while before we have to get caught in that trap.”
Bunn brought up another possibility, saying “I’m not sure if time travel is necessary. It’s more likely that something with the multiverse/alternate realities will play a role. Maybe the Celestials. With time travel being such a big part of Endgame, I’d think they’d want to leave that on the shelf for a while.”
The really big question
In his absurdly excellent “Road to Endgame” series for Slashfilm, Siddhat Adlakha reckoned with the way the MCU’s superhero stories have aesthetically and textually reinforced American militarism, concluding that, while the franchise will subtly critique modern US military overreach, it never definitively rebukes it. Instead, Marvel movies tend to tacitly endorse things like, say, one man being able to control killer drones via sunglasses.
Over their own long history, the X-Men have gone from saving an army base in their first appearance to being hunted by, to quote Sims, government-contracted “giant purple robots made of racism,” Given this, I asked my experts if they agreed with Adlakha’s take militarism in superhero film and whether the X-Men (exempting military-adjacent characters like Wolverine & Deadpool or technopath/Vietnam vet Forge) can square that circle.
Bunn offered a bit of a roadmap, saying “Almost all superhero movies tend to lean into a little more of a military aesthetic. Thus far, it’s been a big part of making it all seem much more realistic. But, as time goes on, more and more of the films have gone into crazier and (less realistic) areas. I think we could see an approach to X-Men that could put them at odds with the military vibe to some degree.”
Jenkins felt similar, although he disagreed with Adlakha’s core thesis: “I think it’s fair to say from a design standpoint, military and tactical elements are used as set dressing from the MCU films. However, I think [the] characters in the film explicitly reject that structure. It opens with Iron Man, a film damning the military industrial complex. Films like The Winter Soldier and Captain Marvel continue to attack ‘the system.’ The X-Men are the ultimate rebels, outsiders. I don’t think the X-Men could square with a military concept because they are the antithesis of that concept. And that makes them a great fit for the MCU. ”
Sims, on the other hand, was a bit more defensive of the militarism, saying, “I think it’s interesting to note that the X-Men have, since day one, been an extragovernmental paramilitary strike force. The least charitable read of the team is that it’s a dude gathering up potential child soldiers, but the MOST charitable read still has to acknowledge that Xavier gave a bunch of 15 year-olds codenames and uniforms and sent them out to stop Magneto from stealing nuclear missiles from an army base in their FIRST MISSION.
“They’ve always been militaristic,” Sims continued, “which I think is exactly why they attract military-adjacent characters like Wolverine. There’s an inherent hierarchy and power structure in place that mirrors the military in virtually every aspect, right down to having this devotion to an abstract cause that requires them to do violence in order to defend higher ideals. We just don’t think of it that way because the ‘uniforms’ went out the window by the late ‘60s, and because those battles of ideals are fought against giant purple robots made of racism. That said, you cannot look at Cyclops and tell me that dude is not a career military man in every way except the actual place where he draws his paycheck.”
Wheeler thought the question should be sidestepped so that the new X-series focusing on different one. “The tension of the X-Men has always been between those who think mutant powers are a threat and those who think they’re an identity. Leaning into militarism centers the first question, which views the X-Men from the outside. I’d like to see screen (and page) X-Men stories that look at the X-Men from the inside, from the perspectives of marginalized people, and that focus on questions of identity.”
Thompson felt similarly, although she agreed with Adlakha: “I think it’s really natural that superheroes end up falling into that mode. First of all, it’s a really juicy — and obvious idea — that the military literally wants to get their hands on super soldiers and to control all aspects of something like that. The government would be quick to see both the advantages and disadvantages of a powered population. And even if you leave the government out of it, any team working together ends up with a sort of vaguely militaristic hierarchy … otherwise you’ve got chaos.
“But I think it’s in exploring the other ‘genres’ of superheroes where you can really break super free of that,” she continued, “what a mutant high school story looks like … what a mutant horror story looks like … what a detective noir with a mutant cast looks like … what a broad comedy or a space adventure looks like … what an adventure story that leans into romantic comedy (>cough< Rogue & Gambit >cough<) looks like. There are so many options and those would be less likely to fall into traditional militaristic superhero tropes.”
Who should direct a new X-Men movie?
To end on a lighter note, I asked my team of experts who they’d reach out to write or direct an X-film if Kevin Feige asked them. It was Thompson who had the widest net. She said, “I’d tell him that I’ve got a great pitch ready to go for Gambit and Rogue when he’s ready and to please call me. Directors? Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Michael Schur, Greta Gerwig, David Fincher, Barry Jenkins, George Miller, Leslye Headland, Denis Villeneuve, Mindy Kaling, Donald Glover, Wong Kar Wai, Issa Rae. And it’s only tangential to the X-Men but I’m definitely going to need a Taika Waititi Nextwave movie immediately.”
Jenkins really only had one pick in mind: “I’m horrible with stuff like this but I would want the X-Men to be stylish and smart. For that I’d tap Alex Garland. Dredd and 28 Days Later show how he can write action. Ex Machina and Annihilation show how he can direct suspense. I don’t know what it would look like but it should be interesting.”
Bunn and Sims had more ambitions for this fluffy question. Bunn (no stranger to horror with comics like Harrow County) said, “How about the Duffer Brothers? They might do an astounding job with the mutants. Or James Wan. Or — because I’m down for anything he directs — Guillermo del Toro. I think David Cronenberg could give us a really messed-up version of the X-Men, too, and I’m all for it.”
Sims, an avowed Dracula guy, had a goofier idea: “They should fight Dracula. In fact it should literally be a remake of Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, with Keanu as Cyclops and Winona Ryder as Jean Grey. I’m mostly joking but try to tell me that wouldn’t rule.”
It was Wheeler, though, who had the most ambitious idea: “Invite Dee Rees to make a Storm movie. Invite Justin Simien to make an Iceman movie. Jill Soloway’s Kitty Pryde. Xavier Dolan’s Northstar. Tom Ford’s White Queen. Kimberly Peirce’s Rogue. The actual X-Men movie can wait. I want the focus to be on the characters and their own stories first.”
What have we learned?
Having consulted the experts, it’s hard to argue with any of what they said. The X-Men were suspiciously absent from the new slate of Disney Plus projects announced so far. But I know one thing for certain: Whatever form the X-Men take in the MCU, it certainly can’t get any worse than The Last Stand.