Part of the appeal of X-Men: Days Of Future Past is the way the story brings together members of the cast from Bryan Singer’s original movies about a band of gifted mutants, and the actors who portrayed those characters’ younger selves in the 2011 reboot, X-Men: First Class. But the first full trailer, released today, also provides an opportunity to reflect on the ways superhero movies have and haven’t changed since 2000, when X-Men broke out and ushered in the age of superhero blockbusters with intellectual and political aspirations:
First, the focus on Wolverine makes clear a discouraging trend: a decade and a half into the superhero craze, there are a limited number of characters Marvel, DC, Sony, Fox, and other rights holders have been able to really break out with audiences. The X-Men are a huge, shifting team, and while Professor X and Magneto are iconic, Wolverine has been the clear stand-out with audiences, the only X-Man to get his own spinoff franchise, and the one who, thanks to story selection and casting, has become a stand-alone box office hit in Asia, an increasingly critical set of markets. Marvel’s done better in building franchises around its individual characters. The Iron Man trilogy concluded this year, the second movie in the Thor arc will arrive next month, and we’ll get a second Captain America movie next year, as well as the start of a new franchise, Guardians of the Galaxy, with Ant-Man. It would be great business for all of these companies to develop more characters who could be viable franchise opportunities. And it would be terrific for audiences to have more characters to root for. Marvel executives keep talking vaguely about developing franchises around female characters or the Black Panther, but talk is cheap compared to the profits superheroes have racked up over the years. A decade and a half into the craze, it seems like our best option for a new kind of superhero would be for Mystique to stay in male form for ninety minutes.
The return to the Oval Office, the scene of Nightcrawler’s memorable introduction serves as a strong visual reminder of how closely superhero movies are tied to action blockbusters as a genre. There are some signs that Captain America, at least, is getting burned out on mass destruction. But for all that superhero movies have captured the action genre to the extent that even a space exploration opera like Star Trek is leveling San Francisco on the regular, the fact that superheroes as characters haven’t jumped genres speaks to their limitations as subjects — and to the limited imaginations of the people bankrolling them. There’s nothing wrong with superhero action movies, which have proven to be hugely entertaining, and provided opportunities to introduce large audiences to new fighting styles. I enjoy a good fight scene as much as the next gal or guy. But until we get a superhero romantic comedy, a superhero legal drama or procedural, or a non-action superhero indie, superheroes’ claims to have conquered the culture will always be qualified.
But more promisingly, the crossover nature of Days Of Future Past serves notice that a set of franchises that’s constantly rebooting has acquired a meta sense — if not sense of humor — of itself. Time travel gives the X-Men franchise an opportunity to acknowledge its patchwork nature, just as the audience necessarily must, and to have some fun with it. Sony probably won’t do that with Spider-Man, marketing Peter Parker and Miles Morales simultaneously to us, and given their positions in separate universes, there isn’t a crossover for them to play with. DC’s decided to simply hit the reset button on Batman, rather than, it seems, trying to develop a Nightwing movie with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as John Blake. And Marvel’s working on building a big enough continuity that it can keep its timeline going for a very, very long time, and in many different settings. But for all superheroes have moved beyond their origins on cheap paper stock, I’m glad to see 20th Century Fox give us a movie that’s confident enough to acknowledge the cognitive leaps that readers of superhero comics have been making for years. Part of rising from a humble position in the culture to a dominant one is being comfortable enough with your pulpy, commercial origins to embrace them.