If one thing defines the Marvel cinematic universe, it’s continuity. Other superhero sagas have chopped and changed timelines and cast members more times than Theresa May has visited Brussels in 2019. But all 21 Marvel movies released between Iron Man in 2008 and last year’s Avengers: Infinity War (with the exception of early dud The Incredible Hulk) can be viewed as a single, expanding, multistranded narrative. Even the addition of Spider-Man, once part of a different series of films, was so deftly handled that it is now almost impossible to imagine the masked wall-crawler existing outside of the main movie continuum.
But if integrating Spidey into the MCU proved deceptively simple, Marvel’s next challenge could be far more difficult. With the merger between parent studio Disney and 20th Century Fox nearing completion, it won’t be long before the latter’s superhero properties – X-Men and the Fantastic Four – are plonked unceremoniously into Marvel chief Kevin Feige’s sandpit. There will surely be pressure from above to introduce prominent characters such as Wolverine and Deadpool to the MCU sooner rather than later, especially because they already feature alongside the likes of Iron Man and Captain America in comic books – if only to keep Disney’s lucrative merchandising operation thriving.
Rumours suggest that the current cast of Fox’s X-Men movies, will be pensioned off after the forthcoming Dark Phoenix. We already know that Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique will be killed off in the new movie, because director Simon Kinberg has suggested as much. Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, the final hanger-on from a previous X-Men timeline, made his last hurrah in 2017 in the standalone film Logan. So it would appear that the saga is very much winding down ahead of the Disney merger. Fans of the current Fox films might be a little disappointed, but this seems as good a time as any to draw a line in the sand.
It’s easy to see why Feige and his team might choose to do so. Imagine the excitement if Michael Fassbender’s Magneto or James McAvoy’s Professor X suddenly turned up in a Marvel movie – but how then to explain why mutants have never been mentioned in any MCU episode?
There’s also the question of whether many other members of the X-Men cast are truly worth saving. While Fassbender and McAvoy have had their moments in the Fox movies, it’s hard to imagine other mutants who stand out in the way even minor Marvel figures such as Dave Bautista’s Drax the Destroyer do in the MCU. Perhaps the most underwritten Marvel superhero is Jeremy Renner’s fairly superfluous Hawkeye. (Sometimes X-Men movies seem to be populated entirely by Hawkeyes.)
These divergent quality levels are another reason Marvel is wise to be wary of connecting the MCU to the Fox movies. Would the Disney-owned studio have stooped so low as to adapt the Dark Phoenix storyline for a second time, as Fox has done for Kinberg’s film? (It was also the basis of 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand.) It seems unlikely, especially as the storyline of the good superhero turning bad has become something of a genre cliche. Last year’s Deadpool II even sent up the tired trope with its introduction of Julian Dennison’s Firefist/Russell Collins, a good-hearted young mutant who has been rendered evil due to repeated abuse by Eddie Marsan’s cruel school headmaster. Yet Fox seems to be playing the same old tune without a hint of irony in Dark Phoenix.
Surely Marvel would have found a way to spin the comic book storyline so it played out more convincingly on the big screen, just as it did when loosely adapting Planet Hulk and Age of Ultron for Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Age of Ultron. Even if the studio had chosen to cleave closer to the original text, its strength in the cosmic realm beyond Earth’s borders would have made for a much more bombastic and far-out adaptation than we may get in Kinberg’s movie. The original comic had aliens from a far-off solar system turning up on Earth to complain that Dark Phoenix’s godlike tinkering had accidentally wiped out the entire sentient population of one of their planets – and demanding that Jean Grey be put to death for her crimes.
If Marvel does recast all of the X-Men, with the possible exception of Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool (who should be allowed the occasional toned-down cameo), it can hardly be blamed for doing so. And if the studio is in no rush to introduce mutants to the MCU, as Feige has heavily hinted, that is surely the only sensible route to take.