Guest column by George Brandes
In the heyday of the 1990s, the X-Men were far and away the most popular Marvel comic on the shelves. The animated series from the same era remains beloved by fans and the movies still consistently put up big numbers at the box office. But today, one place we’re seeing the X-Men less and less is in the pages of the actual comics. With the attention of the comics becoming ever more focused on reflecting the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it has begun to look as though one popular franchise is being left behind, the X-books.
Unless you’ve been living under a particularly large rock, you know there’s been a bit of a clash of the titans concerning the ownership rights for Marvel properties between Disney and Fox. Fox has the rights to the X-Men and Deadpool while Disney (and subsequently Marvel) gets the Avengers and everyone else. Disney has apparently made nice with Sony, who have the rights to Marvel’s other flagship hero, Spider-Man. The latest iteration of the web-slinger appeared in the recent Captain America: Civil War while Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark will make his own appearance in Sony’s upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming. This reconciles the two once disparate cinematic continuities and their partnership is being reflected in the comics. Marvel continues to push new and exciting Spider-Man stories while experimenting with and expanding the character’s world.
Unfortunately, no such deal has been reached between Disney and 20th Century Fox. As a result, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the big-screen exploits of the X-Men remain at a noticeable arm’s length from each other. Even in the Avengers films with their inclusion of characters such as the Scarlet Witch, they’re careful to never specifically mention the world “mutant” lest they step on the toes of the films from Fox or recognize that mutants are even a thing in the MCU.
In the publisher’s latest relaunch with its All-New Marvel campaign, fans noticed a significant dearth of mutant-related titles, with the company instead choosing to focus more on the extraterrestrial Inhumans. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that Marvel and Disney still have the film rights to a potential Inhumans movie while Fox retains its death grip on the X-Men franchise. It should also be noted that Marvel is no longer publishing The Fantastic Four as an ongoing comic, a property whose film rights are also owned by Fox. As a result of this impasse, Marvel has taken to slowly but surely erasing both the X-Men and the Fantastic Four from its merchandising as well.
The lack of X-books certainly isn’t because the characters are no longer popular. If anything, the X-Men are just as popular as ever judging by the money made at the movies. The mutants also continue to make their mark in video games, with three separate X-Men-themed casual titles among similar jackpot-based offerings online. They feature classic line-ups of characters that fans know and love while using the time-tested gameplay of a traditional slot-reel. These games work to expand the property’s reach to a much larger audience than would be possible through just the comics, or even the movies. Also, with the massive overhauls being seen throughout the X-verse, these games are one of the few places you’ll still be able to find the take on Wolverine that you remember from the original cartoons. The comics are now populated by Old Man Logan while the female mutant formerly known as X-23 now wears the Wolverine mantle.
If fans didn’t still connect with the mutants on a personal level, there’d be little incentive to use them as a draw for mass audiences. Clearly, there’s something larger at foot for their notable absence from the comics. The X-Men are obviously still a popular property, so it would be surprising to see the team disappear entirely from comic book pages. Marvel would be cutting off its nose to spite its face if they made such a move, but it wouldn’t be all that surprising given what happened to the Fantastic Four.
The X-Men have been a pivotal property in helping shape Marvel into the company we know it today, and they were also largely responsible for the modern day superhero film boom. While we would seriously doubt to see the mutants disappear completely, the future for homo superior has never looked more bleak. We can only hope that Marvel can reconcile with the property that helped to save it in its darkest hour.