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The MCU needs the X-Men (but the X-Men don’t need the MCU)

Long before Marvel became a Disney-owned Hollywood juggernaut, the cash-strapped comics publisher stayed afloat by licensing the movie rights to its most popular characters to major studios. Sony and Columbia Pictures hit the jackpot with Spider-Man, with the film franchise having grossed over $9 billion since 2002, but it’s arguably 20th Century Fox who got the most bang for its buck by purchasing the rights to Marvel’s most sprawling roster of characters: the X-Men.

The X-Men pose for a photo in a Marvel comic book.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

More than just a single super-team, the X-Men are a universe unto themselves, with a massive mythology spanning centuries, light-years, and branching alternate timelines. Fox’s X-Men franchise was an important superhero movie success story, but it barely scratched the surface of its source material and, with the exception of the smash-hit Deadpool films, it was running on fumes by the time the studio was purchased outright by Disney in 2019.

Since the Disney buyout, Marvel movie fans have anxiously awaited the introduction of X-Men characters into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where they were legally off limits for the entirety of the Infinity Saga. There’s enormous potential in adapting the mighty Mutants in Marvel’s prismatic, interconnected multimedia idiom, and given the uneven response to Marvel’s post-Endgame installments, the X-Men could provide the MCU a much-needed infusion of familiar characters and beloved stories. On the other hand, aside from a fresh start in a new continuity, what — if anything — does the MCU have to offer the X-Men?

The MCU needs the X-Men to revitalize its roster

Captain America standing next to the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, Black Panther, and co. in "Avengers: Endgame."
Marvel Studios / Marvel Studios

While the Multiverse era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had its share of hits, like the box-office giant Spider-Man: No Way Home, the emotionally stirring Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and imaginative TV series Loki and Ms. Marvel, the MCU is inarguably enduring what sports fans call a “rebuilding phase.” With many of the most popular veterans from the Infinity Saga either dead or sidelined, Marvel has been investing in building up their young prospects. This isn’t the first time Marvel Studios has had to start fresh with a bunch of B-listers and total unknowns — after all, it built the hugely successful Phase One out of the characters  it had left after Fox, Columbia, and Universal scooped up all the most recognizable names.

However, after the satisfying conclusion of Avengers: Endgame, and with superhero franchise fatigue finally setting in with audiences, there’s just not as much excitement about the new blood. Try as they might, there’s never going to be another Iron Man — at least not any time soon. The scattershot nature of the Multiverse Saga, with no single character receiving more than one film installment, is also not doing Marvel any favors.

Absent a greater investment in the current freshmen class (why is there still no Shang-Chi sequel on the calendar?), Marvel could benefit from an influx of characters with an established fan base to reacquire lapsed fans and help support the less popular upstarts. The X-Men provide a great avenue for this that doesn’t require undercutting the satisfying farewells to Tony Stark or Steve Rogers. We’ve already had a taste of this, with the end of Ms. Marvel teasing that Kamala Khan is a capital-M Mutant (as opposed to an Inhuman like in the comics), though the instantly lovable Kamala is arguably the new addition who least needs the extra help. Cross-pollinating new and old heroes for promotional purposes is a time-honored comics tradition, and one that Marvel Studios will no doubt be relying on heavily in the future.

There’s an X-Men team for every mood

Jean Grey, Storm, and Cyclops look up in the 2000 movie X-Men.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

When Fox launchedits X-Men film series in the year 2000, the superhero genre was still establishing itself on the big screen, and in order to appeal to a mass audience, it needed to present itself as a fairly dry, grounded sci-fi/action franchise. Hence, everyone dresses in black leather and no one visits other planets. Even as wilder aspects of the comics such as time travel and cosmic space birds were introduced, the film franchise rarely strayed from this generic action movie tone, making the goofy and irreverent Deadpool films that much more of a charming outlier.

In actuality, the Fox X-Men films represent only a small sampling of the genres and tones that can be found in the X-Men comics line at any given time. The X-Men and their many, many offshoots are extremly diverse, to the extent that there’s an X-Men title that could pick up the baton from just about any popular segment of the MCU. The X-Men are your Avengers, a team of heroes — many of whom could support a solo film — who tackle the big blockbuster threats. Like the Avengers, the roster is constantly in flux, but to an even greater extent, no one member is irreplaceable.

A team of heroes battle in New Mutants.
Marvel Comics / Marvel Comics

For more gritty tales of espionage and moral compromise, there’s the black ops group X-Force. Looking for a more youthful, Spidey-style energy or some light adventure? Consider focusing on the teenage New Mutants or Generation X, or setting a coming-of-age story in the halls of the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters. Dr. Strange doesn’t have a monopoly on magic or multiversal madness — the X-Men cover that same territory with Excalibur and the Exiles, respectively. The core X-Men have had plenty of cosmic adventures, but if you want a dedicated Guardians of the Galaxy analog, there’s always the Starjammers. Make no mistake, each of these teams has a unique appeal beyond their similarities to established MCU properties, but if exploited to its full potential, the X-Men roster has all of Marvel’s bases covered.

Which raises the question: If the X-Men offer so much variety to begin with, what do they need the rest of the MCU for?

The X-Men are better off not joining the MCU

The X-Men battle the Avengers in a Marvel comic book.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

While the X-Men and the Avengers have coexisted since they were both created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1963, their two corners of the Marvel Comics Universe often function as separate spheres, and it’s usually better that way. Behind the scenes, Marvel Comics itself is divided into separate editorial offices for different sets of characters — the Avengers, the X-Men, Spider-Man, etc. — each with their own monthly titles and responsibilities. They cooperate about once a year for a big summer crossover event (and they don’t all participate in every crossover), but otherwise, they have their own agendas, and most comics fans will agree that the more you leave each line to do their own thing, the better stories you get.

This is especially true for the X-Men, whose premise is barely compatible with the rest of the Marvel Universe. In X-Men stories, the superpowered mutants are a new species, homo superior, representing the next stage in human evolution. While they’ve existed in small numbers for millennia, their population spikes during the 20th century and their emergence causes a panic among humans, many of whom see them as either an abomination or a threat to their dominance. In order to ease relations, Professor Charles Xavier assembles a team of mutants to protect the human population that hates and fears them. The existence of other, non-mutant superheroes with extraordinary abilities of various other origins muddies the concept. The contrasting public response to the X-Men and the more accepted Avengers or Fantastic Four can sometimes be fodder for interesting stories about bigotry and double standards, but for the most part, the rest of the Marvel roster is just in the way.

Introducing mutants and the X-Men into the MCU comes with its own set of complications. In the comics and original movie continuity, mutants have been around for generations. Prominent antagonist Magneto is a Holocaust survivor, pinning his origins — and by extension, Charles Xavier’s — to the early 20th century. If the MCU version were to follow suit, new X-Men stories would be forced to justify their absence in previous entries, Eternals-style. Marvel will probably find a workaround for this, most likely using Deadpool 3 and Secret Wars to do some multiversal meddling. But if the goal is to give the X-Men a fresh start under the Marvel Studios umbrella, like the sort Spider-Man received via Civil War and Homecoming, then simply smashing the Fox and Marvel continuities together isn’t really doing justice to the opportunity.

A reasonable compromise

People sit at a dinner table in Immortal X-Men #1.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

In this case, the path of least resistance might also yield the best result: Reboot the X-Men from scratch, but silo them in their own universe. This would allow filmmakers the freedom to explore the expansive canon of X-Men stories and characters unburdened by the need to conform to 40-plus films of continuity. The X-Men universe can support its own superhero stories, spy stories, martial arts epics, space operas, and reality-hopping odysseys without stepping on anyone else’s toes.

Plus, since the multiverse is both an established concept in the core MCU and a key plot device in X-Men lore, there’s nothing to stop the Avengers and the X-Men from teaming up or butting heads in the future. As an added bonus, it offers fans who have lapsed out of the current MCU a new place to hop on board and get invested without feeling as if they’re obligated to catch up on everything they missed. This may not be what Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige has in mind, or even necessarily what a lot of fans want, but it’s the best way to honor the material, tell the best stories, and keep from exhausting the audience.

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Dylan Roth
Dylan Roth [he/him] is a freelance film critic, and the co-host of the podcast "Are You Afraid of the Dark Universe?"
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