How Fox Is Beating Marvel at Its Own Game
With limited access to Marvel Comics characters, Fox had to get creative. From ‘Logan’ to ‘Legion’ to ‘The Gifted,’ it’s flourishing with new ways to tell stale superhero stories.
Maybe Fox has nothing to lose.
Marvel Studios is like a well-oiled machine at this point. Its film and television schedule is planned meticulously, years in advance, so there’s little room for error or experimentation. Outside of anomalies like Thor Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy, each film manages to maintain the same tone and visual aesthetic. With Marvel, you know what you’re going to get.
That’s less apparent when it comes to Fox. And while it may have provided diminishing returns with its X-Men film franchise, Fox might actually be better with Marvel Comics adaptations than Marvel Studios itself.
There’s no denying Fox has had a string of flops commercially and creatively. Fantastic Four (pick one) was a disaster. The X-Men films are hit or miss (for the record, X-Men, X2, First Class, and Days of Future Past are the good ones). But this year, Fox has absolutely flourished by taking a chance on new ways to tackle source material that we’ve seen repeatedly. Perhaps it was off the heels of last year’s successful turn with Deadpool, but the year kicked off with another film that broke away from the traditional X-Men mode: Logan. It wasn’t just a fantastic superhero film; it was one of the best films of the year.
James Mangold brought his love of Westerns to the Marvel universe and interpreted Wolverine as an aging frontiersman battling the future while fending off the sins of his past. It re-invigorated a character who’d become tedious since his introduction in 2000 and also gave a much-needed jolt of energy to the latest string of mundane Bryan Singer-directed X-Men sequels.
Fox didn’t stop there, however. F/X, owned by Fox, ventured into superheroics by adapting X-Men character David Haller for television with Legion. The trippy, mesmerizing series has a late-’60s/early ’70s aesthetic (though it’s not set in any certain time or place) and has broken convention with more than just superhero shows: Most prestige dramas would be lucky to match what Noah Hawley accomplished in a single episode. It didn’t always work, but the series had verve and looked like nothing else on television. Who knew that we were craving an arthouse take on the X-Men and that it’d end up so damn entertaining?
Then there’s the latest addition to the Fox family: The Gifted. Sure, it had the benefit of debuting a mere three days after Marvel’s epic disaster Inhumans, but it’s also a fresh take on the X-Men characters that was desperately needed. For the most part, Singer’s films have become chess games, moving characters around to fight some powerful villain amid broad strokes about how humanity fears mutants. The Gifted ratchets up that tension by putting in actual character work with lesser X-Men like Blink, Polaris, and Thunderbird and focusing on a family that learns two of their own are mutants. It takes those scenes that were only brief moments in the first X-Men film, where characters had to “come out” about their mutant powers, and builds a series around it. It makes the X-Men somehow feel new and somehow feel much more necessary in 2017.
This isn’t to say that Marvel is doing much wrong. Its movies are, by and large, the best that comic-book films have to offer and Thor Ragnarok continues in that tradition. But its television series leave much to be desired. There’s the aforementioned Inhumans, then the dreadful Netflix series Iron Fist, which followed up by a moderately entertaining yet middling team-up series The Defenders. Five shows in, Netflix needs to do something else with its properties besides putting out the same show every few months. And ABC, well, it needs to either give a budget to shows like Inhumans or Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or put them out of their misery. When CW shows look better produced than a show on ABC, why are we even here?
Fox has limited properties when it comes to Marvel characters, which has forced it to put a laser-focus on different ways to tell X-Men stories. Marvel Studios, on the other hand, has a myriad of options and can’t wait to pick up a shiny new character or green-light several sequels of an already popular character. It’s a behemoth and it needs to keep the machine running before it sputters and derails.
But Marvel could stand to take a few more chances like Fox. Hiring directors like Taiki Waiti (Thor Ragnarok) and Ryan Coogler (Black Panther) to tackle films is great, but no Marvel film seems like it’s in danger of reinventing the superhero wheel. With Fox, the possibilities seem endless. And if somehow, through prayer or dark magic, it manages to finally make a good Fantastic Four (or F/X series, preferably), then all bets are really off.