Fox’s X-Men saga is truly a unique body of work to dissect. With a dozen films under their umbrella, the Fox X-Men Universe had plenty of opportunities to do right by the comic book canon, subvert expectations by taking creative liberties, and cement itself as one of the most successful (and most divisive) cinematic superhero franchises to date.
Now that this story has come to an end, future film makers hoping to craft the next superhero saga should take note and learn ten lessons from Fox’s X-Men movies.
1. Don’t Focus Too Much on the Wrong Characters
Arguably, there are no “wrong” characters to focus on, but Fox has shown that characters can be focused on wrongly. Mystique’s role in the films rose with Jennifer Lawrence’s star-power yet pushed the character to the wayside in the process. Similarly, Jean Grey’s character shouldn’t have been sacrificed to make room for the high-profile Phoenix – in actuality, it’s how Grey’s character deals with the Phoenix Force that makes the story so intriguing. When choosing the focus of a superhero film, studios must be mindful that diluting the source material in favor of star-power or notoriety creates hollow characters. Remember, these two-dimensional character characters needed nothing more than speech bubbles and single panels to become household names.
2. Too Strong of a Spotlight on the Right Characters
Even the biggest Wolverine fan can admit that his cameo was unnecessary in Apocalypse. Too many characters were either neglected or deprived a debut on the silver screen while the likes of Magneto, Xavier, and Wolverine dominated the story.
No, not every character can have their fifteen minutes of fame, but Fox has also demonstrated that it could still give any character a memorable moment if they desired. Quicksilver, while a massive breakout star in Days of Future Past, never felt forced in Apocalypse or Dark Phoenix. Nightcrawler became a fan favorite in X2 even though he was largely expendable after the White House sequence.
Future superhero films should take note of the law of diminishing returns. Magneto said it best, referencing his dynamic with Xavier, “You’re always sorry, Charles. And there’s always a speech. But nobody cares anymore.”
3. Sending Hallmark Villains to Slaughter Way Too Early
What’s worse than not seeing your favorite villain make the jump from the comics to the screen? Watching them go out with a whimper in a predictable three-arc story. Sabretooth was neutered in X-Men, Bolivar Trask was made a fool, and Apocalypse perished without taking any heroes down with him. If the villain needs to be a one-and-done entry, at least let their actions create a ripple effect that dramatically impacts the sequels.
4. Underutilizing Fantastic Actors
Peter Dinklage. Caleb Landry Jones. Oscar Isaac. Jessica Chastain. The X-Men films were stacked with talent yet more than a handful of exceptional actors were sidelined with limited ability to showcase their mastery of the craft. To have Alexandra Shipp stand in the background and simply react is wasted opportunity of criminal proportions. When future studios invest in talent, they should make a point to get their money’s worth.
5. Overstuffing Runtime with Multiple Major Storylines
Subplots add a depth to the story, but they should always be inferior in nature to the primary arc. The Mutant Cure and Dark Phoenix were frankly too important to juggle simultaneously. Superhero films need balance and layering to form a solid foundation for the story to grow; incorporating multiple major plots into a superhero film will inevitably do neither of them justice.
6. An ‘R’ Rating is not a Box Office Bomb
There’s no denying that children need role models — real and fictitious — but they aren’t the only ones who can benefit from superhero storytelling. Adults also need to see themselves in flawed characters, too. The R Rating does more than satiate the desire for profanity, violence, and sex; it imparts life lessons to adults on a mature, relevant platform.
7. Don’t Be Afraid to Shatter the Status Quo
From decade leaps between sequels to the black leather battle suits, Fox was ready to roll the dice on ideas that may have left audiences displeased. Brilliant or baffling, they dared to forge their own path even when their contemporaries were achieving success following the status quo. Without the bold approach to X-Men and Days of Future Past, the current landscape of superhero cinema would be vastly different.
8. Intimate Conflicts Create the Greatest Stakes
While absolute chaos raining down upon our heroes is adrenaline-inducing, the X-Men have showed that intimate battles between limited characters can be just as exciting. Nameless goons and CGI fodder were largely removed in favor of smaller, meaningful conflicts. The protagonist and antagonist can effectively be at war with no more than their convictions backing them.
9. Too Many Easter Eggs are Distracting
If scouring a scene for Easter eggs leaves the audience too distracted to pay attention to the primary events on screen, why draft a script in the first place? The occasional nods (“what would you prefer? Yellow spandex?”) make us giddy with glee but too many winks to our fandom can overshadow the movie itself. Not even Deadpool gets a pass for his flagrant sidetracking.
10. Keep the Heart of The Characters Beating with Passion & Strength
Despite any faults, Fox’s X-Men universe rarely waivered from the core principles established in the comics. This team is a diverse family struggling to cope with the intersectionalities their genetics create. Fox kept the pulse steady on the defining undertones of the X-Men comics: identity, family, and social injustice.
For the future of superhero cinema to progress forward, studios need to learn from the past and adapt accordingly. After all, mutation is the key to our evolution.
This article was originally published on 5/22/20
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