‘X-Men’ film franchise must mutate to be heroic again

Oct. 09, 2009 | 5:56 a.m.

FOUR FRANCHISES AT A CROSSROADS: PART THREE

This week we’re taking a look at four major trilogies from this decade that are looking to add a fourth film despite substantial challenges — not least among those challenges the skepticism of moviegoers who may wonder whether some of these Hollywood vehicles are running on empty. You can find the other three installments of the series right here.

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X-Men

The story so far: With the triumph of comic-book properties in Hollywood today, it’s easy to forget how startling Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” was when it arrived in 2000. Sleek, sophisticated and respectful of its studied source material, the Fox film ran counter to the then-standard Hollywood approach of turning comic-book adaptations into smirking cartoons that insulted loyal fans of the properties. The $75-million film made $296 million in worldwide box office (it finished as the eighth-highest-grossing film in America that year) and later won over a vast audience that saw it on home video, cable or pay-per-view. The sequel “X2: X-Men United” arrived as one of the most anticipated releases of 2003 and finished with $408 million worldwide and better reviews than the first one. Singer left the franchise to take on the oddly airless “Superman Returns,” so Brett Ratner (“Rush Hour“) was brought in for the third movie, “X-Men: The Last Stand,” which rolled up $459 million at the box office but suffered some withering reviews.

The challenge: When the credits rolled on “The Last Stand,” most observers assumed the franchise (like a good number of the main characters) was dead and waiting to be buried. The fact that the franchise’s central hero, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), was spun off into a lone-wolf film this year suggested that the Marvel mutant team might be akin to aging band that just watched its lead singer launch a solo tour. But last month, producer Lauren Shuler Donner, a key figure in the franchise from Day 1, said that a fourth X-Men film remains viable and, more than that, there are efforts moving toward that goal, although they are in very early stages. That may be true, but there have been plenty of mixed signals when it comes to Fox and potential mutant movies; more than a half-dozen different projects have been trumpeted at one time or another, among them a Magneto film, a Deadpool movie, a Gambit project, a New Mutants spin-off and a Wolverine sequel. It’s maddening to try keep track of what is (and isn’t) happening.

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The status: Amid all the noise, the most interesting tidbit in recent months was the August report in Variety that Singer was flirting with the idea of directing “X-Men: First Class,” which would be a prequel based on the popular comic book series and the draft script by “The O.C.” creator Josh Schwartz. Later, Donner publicly stated that “First Class” is not the likely next film, but the linkage of Singer to any Marvel mutant is big news — and may signal an effort to have him back in X-business. Donner has made a point of saying in interviews that having Singer back would be a welcome idea, and why not? The director’s departure from the X-franchise didn’t burn any bridges. Plus, Donner’s husband, “Superman” director Richard Donner, was an engaged mentor for Singer as the younger filmmaker toiled on a version of the Man of Steel that was a valentine to the Donner interpretation. Singer’s slate of upcoming projects looks dense, but Fox wants to keep the “X-Men” properties front and center, clearly. The studio’s rights will revert back to Marvel in 2012 if there is no project in active development. I know Donner is looking at the wide mythology of the entire “X-Men” universe and there is plenty there, of course, but if they go with a “First Class” prequel, they may have a tough time shoehorning Jackman and his signature character into the film continuity. A reunion sequel may be the safer way to go, but that would require reuniting the scattered big-name cast (which would be difficult) and coming up with a deft way to bring back the dead characters (less challenging, if the old comics are any indication).  

The prediction: Back in 2000, I remember telling one of the top film-coverage editors at the Los Angeles Times that there was huge potential audience for “X-Men,” and he scoffed. “Well, ‘Mystery Men‘ tanked,” he said. “Why should this be different?” “X-Men” was a pivot point in superhero cinema and, with the intensity of its opening concentration-camp scene, it gave a ready generation of filmgoers the heroes they wanted, not the bloated old-school farce of “Batman & Robin,” which was a mere three years earlier. With all that context, watching “The Last Stand” was torture. “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” was better but still not on the level of the Singer films. Despite the upbeat chatter on both sides, I’m skeptical that Singer will actually return to the franchise — when decision time comes, there will have to be a truly marvelous script to get the “Usual Suspects” director to circle back to ground he’s covered before, especially considering that the landscape is charred and pitted after Ratner’s noisy residence. No, I predict we instead see more spinoffs of Singer’s outsider tale. And (judging by recent history) the directors entrusted with those mutant ventures might deliver video-game plots, flimsy characters and some killer explosions.

– Geoff Boucher

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