Despite being the first studio to break into modern big-budget superhero movies, Fox has never really staked a claim for itself in the larger blockbuster world. They were around eight years before Iron Man and all most people think of them for is a mediocre X-Men movie every couple of years. But in just over a year (seriously, since February 2016), Fox has managed to carve out a nice niche for itself with three key titles that took superhero properties outside of the action/crime genre and into new terrain.
I won’t go on about the unprecedented success of Deadpool. I’ve written about it in previous articles, and I’m sure you can find much better articles about it, full of actual research and numbers rather than unsubstantiated ramblings. However, part of the appeal of Deadpool was that it was a comedy first, action/superhero movie second. Sure, we enjoyed the characters, and the kinetic, violent action, but it was focus on humor, complemented by its marketing campaign, that set it well above the adventures of other costumed heroes. (Plus no space laser.)
This ‘alternative’ genre focus is shaping up to be a major plus in Fox’s category. The only time Marvel significantly overcame its genre trappings was with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which spent the majority of the movie as a fairly respectable espionage film – even if it did, “understandably,” have to end as a major effects spectacular.
This year’s Logan, another R-rated foray into the X-iverse, ends up more as a Children of Men-esque sci-fi drama/Western with precious few references to previous X-films, and the film is all the stronger for it. We didn’t need to know exactly what happened to the rest of the mutants because it’s irrelevant to the story being told. It’s the relationship between Logan and X-23 and between Logan and Professor X that carry the day. Throwing in a cameo by Cyclops or flashbacks to the X-Mansion would have distracted from the sense of isolation that permeates the film, what Logan wanted to accomplish, and the relationships that the film successfully builds on its own terms. (Plus no space laser.)
Of course, it should be noted that relationships has been Fox’s key strength from the start. The depth of the history between Professor X and Magneto (which is at its height in X-Men: First Class) easily surpasses any interpersonal relationship in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Outside of Jessica Jones and Kilgrave, it’s hard to think of a pairing from the MCU that has any significant level of emotional strength.
Perhaps the most remarkable, challenging, and “artsy” foray in the superhero genre thus far is FX’s Legion, created by Fargo‘s Noah Hawley. This X-Men spin-off is nearly entirely disconnected from the X-Men universe; if it wasn’t for knowledge of its source material, you’d be hard-pressed to recognize any links. Unlike most other comic book series that are dependent on their association with the larger cinematic or comic universe (Agents of SHIELD being the most notable), Legion is all the better existing within its own pocket, without reference to Weapon X or Professor Xavier or Wolverine or even much of the outside world. Legion proves that a superhero property that can stand on its own does not need Easter Eggs to lure us in. (Plus no space laser.)
Legion also shows that, much like recent X-movies, “superhero” series don’t need to be constrained by the action show or the crime drama genres. Now sure, while many of these shows are higher quality examples of these genres, they rarely break through those boundaries. Of all the series (the Netflix four, the CW multiverse, Gotham, etc.), Jessica Jones has probably done the best at successfully eking out genuine drama from its franchise trappings; mostly, they devolve into endless rounds of Fight the Ninja.
Stylistically, Legion is a cut above pretty much everything else under this umbrella. It is a surrealistic voyage into the mind of a mutant with severe, yet untrained, psychic powers. And by ‘surrealistic,’ I don’t mean in the Doctor Strange way. Sure, Doctor Strange had the nice prog-rock album cover sequence with lots of good effects and cool visual designs (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but the film never felt genuinely surreal. Nothing in the movie really challenged concepts of reality – for the audience or for the characters; Legion does that on a regular basis. It understands how to use lighting and set design and sound mixing to disorient you, make you feel trapped with the characters, and join with them on a compelling journey of mystery and discovery. You feel involved in figuring out what’s going on. Sure, it’s no hands growing out of hands growing out of hands, but what do you expect without a Marvel movie budget?
Is this success guaranteed to continue? Of course not. Fox had three remarkable hits in just over a year, but that’s still only a 75% success rate (with, ironically, the flagship series X-Men: Apocalypse being the biggest failure). (And 60% if we expand a couple of months to include the Fantastic Four catastrophe from August 2015.) The Matt Nix-created X-Men series Gifted (pilot directed by series mainstay Bryan Singer) seems like it could fall into the trappings of a more conventional superhero series, and they’re probably not going to let the main X-Men movie franchise die, which itself has its own set of issues that must be worked out. This recent line-up could easily be a fluke.
But it’s a fluke that studios could learn from. The giant, Marvel-style interconnected universe isn’t the sole option for these franchises. The three aforementioned properties might benefit from our general knowledge of the universe, but they certainly don’t depend on it. Put another way, our familiarity matters only insofar as it informs that specific property, rather than how that property plays into the rest of the universe. And audiences are apparently comfortable with it. The tone and content of the Deadpool 2 teaser couldn’t have been further from the tone and content of Logan, but both excellently complimented one another. Plus no space laser.
It’s something Warner Brothers/DC could take to heart. Mel Gibson wants to do Suicide Squad 2? Ridley Scott was (let’s face it, falsely) rumored to want to do The Batman? Nicolas Winding Refn wants to do Batgirl? DC’s niche could be for awards-favorite and respected filmmakers to do their own takes on the characters; something “classier” and more adult than what we can expect from Marvel. If a (George Miller) Justice League happens down the line, it happens; if not, at least we’re not getting awkward YouTube videos ‘introducing’ characters because they needed to rush Justice League into production.
Or they can just add more guns to the Batmobile.