The X-Men Need to Evolve for the MCU
When the X-Men finally join the MCU, they should draw inspiration from more modern stories, not the classics.
This article contains spoilers for the last two years or so of Marvel X-Men comics.
“Humans of the planet Earth. While you slept, the world changed.”
The opening line of Jonathan Hickman and Pepe Larraz’s House of X hit like a bolt of lightning, and everything it promised paid off. Hickman took over the floundering X-Men line of comics, isolated and diminished after years of corporate meddling, and reinvigorated them creatively and financially with an exciting five-year plan.
House of X and Powers of X was Hickman, Larraz, RB Silva and Marte Gracia’s overture. It started with a barrage of resets and retcons: the opening page of House of X #1 heralded the change with a designed infographic with Professor X announcing the new order to the world, and the issue jumped right in with what appeared to be (and actually was, to the disbelief of many) Cyclops hatching from an egg with a sinister-looking, walking, helmeted Professor X summoning him. From there, we met mutants living on the old X-foe and sentient mutant island, Krakoa; saw the planning that went into uniting all mutants, hero or villain or civilian, on one nation; met a new threat in Orchis, the human secret society dedicated to eradicating mutant kind; and welcomed murderous monsters like Apocalypse, Mystique, and Mr. Sinister not only to the island nation itself, but to the ruling council of Krakoa.
And of course, there was the biggest retcon: Moira MacTaggert, the X-Men’s long-time genius (but human) ally, was revealed to be a mutant with the power to return to the womb and reset the timeline each time she dies, resurrected to try again with all the knowledge of her previous life. Or lives – the Marvel Universe we’ve been reading since the 1960s is her tenth time through and her sixth attempt (life 1 was a normal one; life 2 was cut short by a plane crash; and life 3 was cut short by Mystique, Pyro, and Mystique’s precognitive wife Destiny, who were very angry with Moira for developing a cure to mutantcy) at creating a durable, secure future for mutantkind. Or so we thought.
Hickman was joined by a team of old and new hands – established, successful creators like Leinil Yu and Gerry Duggan, and fresh faces like Tini Howard, Larraz, or Vita Ayala, who used their tenure in the X-line to explode into superstardom – and together they turned out the most exciting X-Men books in years.
The story recontextualized the entire mutant canon, gathering all of mutantkind on the living mutant island Krakoa, establishing mutant language, culture, geopolitics, bioscience, espionage, rule of law – a whole new paradigm that, by the time it ended, had evolved into a completely new conflict for a new era in the real world.
This period of X-Men comics has revolutionized the line, with some of the most creatively effervescent and exciting comics since the era of Grant Morrison. And now, with Marvel’s Merry Mutants ready to join the MCU, it’s time to ask the natural question to ask is “How are they going to put Krakoa on screen?” But the smarter question might be “what might the MCU learn from Marvel’s massive Krakoan X-Men revolution?” Well, we’ve got some ideas…
MASSIVE RETCONS WORK…
The biggest and most obvious lesson coming out of the Krakoa era is that if it’s a good story, the audience will tolerate just about anything.
The post HoXPoX X-Men books have been successful beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, to the point where Hickman walked away after only one act of his planned story – HoXPoX may have been the introduction, but it very clearly seeds the inevitable mutant conflict with machine intelligences from space and Moira’s end. But the readers and the creators were having too much fun to move the story along.
Hickman’s mutant books succeeded in no small part because they took decades of beloved X-Men continuity and character work and used the Krakoan setting to play hard against type. No longer was Moira the tireless, put-upon geneticist trying to help her friends in a world that hates and fears them. Instead, she’s a scheming mastermind using 1000 years of knowledge to manipulate the world to protect her own power. Apocalypse is no longer the blood-drenched tyrant of Earth 296, ensuring only the fit survive. Now he’s a wife guy on vacation with his kids (seriously X of Swords is brilliant). Hank McCoy isn’t the bouncing, blue-eyed Beast anymore. Now he’s a mutant Henry Kissinger.
The movie mutants may not have the depth of pop culture zeitgeist penetration, but the general public is very familiar with most of the mutant family. And the MCU can play against type the same way the comics did. MCU mutants are going to need a distinct reason for existing; a reason why we never saw them before; and a reason why they’re what scares regular people, and not teenagers in spider pajamas or giant green shouty fellas. That can be done, but it’s going to break a few story eggs, and maybe a few well-known characters, to do it.
…BUT ONLY IF YOU TAKE CHANCES
Every single revelation in the entry above was a massive risk. If you walked up to a steady X-Men fan in 2015 and said “Hey Moira MacTaggert is a mu” you wouldn’t even be able to finish the sentence before they cut you off and said “No she’s not.” The whole era hinges on that one retcon, and that one retcon recontextualizes literally 45 years of comic book history. That is a massive, massive change. Had Hickman and the X-Office been more timid about it – introducing a new character playing the same game as Moira, or making her an AU Moira, for example – the entire era would have collapsed before it started.
The MCU needs to be similarly bold. Professor X appearing on some kind of multiversal Illuminati is one thing, but integrating mutants by merging multiple universes or siloing them on their own separate Earth would be a disaster for the MCU, and should be avoided at all costs. They need to go big on the mutants.
That means doing everything the mutants can do.
MIX IT ALL UP
The very first issue of House of X has a guest appearance from the Fantastic Four. That guest appearance served two purposes: it was a thematic callback to Hickman’s previous work in the Marvel Universe, but it was also a signal to readers that the X-Men, who for years had been sidelined at the expense of characters whose film rights were controlled by Marvel and Disney, were back in the MU in a big way.
Since that issue, Krakoa has cast a visible, tangible shadow on the rest of the Marvel line: Krakoan politics impact Black Panther; Magik balances her work as a Captain Commander and her work as an instructor in Strange Academy; Wolverine guests in Runaways to try and bring a mutant back to Krakoa. Hell, one of the best single issues of this entire era is the issue of X-Men where Magneto, Professor X and Apocalypse crash a G8 meeting. Krakoa’s presence is felt throughout the Marvel Universe.
The MCU works as well as it does because it feels like the comics, because every shot could have Iron Man flying by in the background as part of his own movie, yet have nothing to do with the one you’re watching. The shared universe feels HUGE because conscious decisions are made to make it feel big. The mutants need to be integrated seamlessly, and need to have an impact on the other films as much as the other movies need to be felt in the X-line.
Just as the X-Men touched every corner of the Marvel universe, X-Men comics come in almost every flavor imaginable. X-Men was basically an anthology series. Excalibur was swords and sorcery fantasy. X-Force is a spy thriller. X-Factor was a police procedural (that had elements of a teen drama sprinkled in). New Mutants is the school book. Empyre: X-Men was a zombie comedy jam session. X-men touch all genres. Once the X-Men line of films has been established, the MCU should take advantage of that and use them all.
There’s no reason why we can’t see an X-Men movie that’s a sci-fi thriller. There’s nothing preventing us from getting a political thriller with Russia, Wakanda, Krakoa, and the United States on different sides. The MCU used to do this very well: Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy are two EXTREMELY different movies, and they’re all the better because of it.
There’s also no reason why the X-Men franchise needs to limit itself to X-Men: The Motion Picture or whatever they’ll call it. Make a New Mutants Disney+ show centered on the Akademos Habitat. Give me an in-universe radio drama starring Legion. The point of entry should be Krakoa – why the mutants are hated and feared and what they’ve done to protect themselves from that. But once that is established, there are no guardrails left on what kind of stories you can tell with Marvel’s mutants.
Close your eyes and imagine with me what the world would look like if we had an X-Men movie that Wolverine wasn’t in? Bold question, I know, but look at what’s happened with this era of X-Men.
Your breakout characters in the Krakoa era are almost all second tier mutants. Sure, Magneto has had MORE than his share of moments (especially in Inferno, my god). But Polaris is every bit the star of this era as her old man, first as one of the leads on the very underrated X-Factor and then being elected to join X-Men. Similarly, Sage and Black Tom, Cypher, M, Sebastian Shaw, and Synch are all borderline superstars now, and half of them were dead before the X-Men moved to Krakoa.
The era’s biggest star is the one who’s been on the page the least: mutant precog and Mystique’s wife Destiny was always one of the great X-Men characters, but House of X #2 kicked her to a whole new level as Hickman and Larraz showed her terrorizing a past Moira, an event that cast her shadow across the entire rest of the era as one of Moira’s hard and fast rules was specifically to not resurrect Destiny. Before this era, she was a legend, but also a bit of a blank slate. Now she’s part of the new Krakoan first family and the subject of her own blockbuster crossover.
There’s no reason why we should have to sit through another X-Men movie that stars Cyclops, Storm, Wolverine, Phoenix, Rogue and Beast. It’s time for some deep pulls. Give me movie Maggot and Cannonball. I want to see big screen Sabra. But put them on an X-Team. Please.
BUT ONLY ALL TOGETHER
The point of the X-Men is community. This entire era has been about developing mutant society – New Mutants was mostly about bringing young mutants to Krakoa and figuring out how to integrate them into the island; Way of X was about mutant spirituality; Excalibur about mutant magic; hell, the second volume of X-Men is specifically about mutants becoming superheroes to build community with human society.
We don’t need any solo movies.
There have been two solo books in the Krakoa era: Wolverine is an ongoing, and Cable was a limited series. Both of them are lovely books, but they are two of the least essential to the overall mutant narrative. The fact is, if you strip the culture and community out of this new era of X-Men, you’re left with a pretty typical superhero book, and that is explicitly not what has made these mutant comics exciting. The same logic applies to the movies: I would love to spend two hours with about a thousand different mutants each, but that takes away from the overall story, and to me, that’s more important.
DEATH IS MEANINGLESS
In the comics, the Krakoan resurrection protocols are a clever story beat that implied a ton of interesting ideas, several of which have been followed up on expertly by Hickman and Leinil Yu in the pages of X-Men and by Vita Ayala, Rod Reis and Danilo Beyruth in the pages of New Mutants. For those of you who aren’t up on it, here’s a quick breakdown:
Mutants can’t die anymore. Or, to be precise, they can die, but the X-Men have a way of bringing them right back. Professor X makes weekly backups of every mutant consciousness and stores it in Cerebro, while Mister Sinister keeps a DNA library of nearly every mutant ever. When a mutant dies, they go in the resurrection queue; Goldballs makes an egg of biological matter with his mutant power; reality warper and Moira’s son Proteus uses his powers to make the egg viable; the mutant’s DNA is injected into the egg, and then Elixir uses his power to kick start cellular reproduction; Eva Bell uses her time manipulation ability to let the egg mature; and Hope Summers uses her power mimicry to smooth everyone else’s talents. Then the mutant hatches, and Professor X restores their consciousness from a backup. Et voila! Cyclops is alive again.
Some mutants use this to come back exactly as they left – Cyclops still needs his visor to control his powers; Wolverine still has his adamantium skeleton; Karma still has her mechanical leg. Others, like Cosmar, use this resurrection ability to match their physical appearance to their self-image.
There’s no reason to bind characters so tightly to actors anymore. If an actor decides not to renew a contract, the resurrection protocols provide a very simple, in-universe explanation for changes in appearance. So good news, we won’t need any CGI Hugh Jackmans to keep Wolverine around the MCU. I hope.
ANTIHEROES ARE GOOD. VILLAINS ARE BETTER.
The X-Men universe is full of grey (GET IT LIKE JEAN?), but that doesn’t mean that it’s completely devoid of actual bad guys. And the line isn’t really that hard to discern: there are people who do bad things for good reasons, people who do good things for bad ones, and giant shitheads who invade and occupy foreign countries because they’re an old school cold war megalomaniac.
There’s nothing wrong with having villains make a point. It DEFINITELY leads to villains becoming anti-heroes: Apocalypse is good now! Magneto is a hero to the children of Krakoa! But the process by which you distinguish an antihero from an actual villain takes a lot more time than the MCU has been willing to invest. Moira MacTaggert’s arc took, conservatively, 35 issues to pay off, but when it did in Inferno, it was GLORIOUS. The same for Nimrod, repositioned as a terrifying, occasionally very funny, and faintly tragic villain, or Omega Sentinel, retconned into possibly the mutant’s greatest foe over three years and 50 issues.
What the creators of the Krakoa era did not try and do was lean on Apocalypse’s history as a genocidal tyrant to force him into being “right but taking it too far.” These books and the creators who made them very often leaned into the contradictions inherent in Operation Paperclipping your way to a new nation, while also having very clear villains, and ambiguous anti-heroes and heroic villains.
The MCU seems terrified of this idea, though. It was most egregious in The Falcon & the Winter Soldier – the Flag Smashers spent two thirds of that show looking like the good guys, then with time running out the writers realized they were too sympathetic to lose, so they forced them to make a monstrous swerve that didn’t land.
The problem here is the Flag Smashers were making some undeniable points: the rich and privileged were hoarding resources and demonizing an underclass, forcing people to live in poverty and squalor when there was no reason for it to be so. The real world parallels were too real, in this case, so the show had to have them suddenly blowing up inhabited buildings to try and wrench audience sympathy from them. If the MCU wants to develop more effective bad guys, they either need to invest a lot more in legendary actors (cough Tony Leung cough) or they need to slow it down and take their time with them.
REAL WORLD POLITICS RESONATE
A HUGE part of the appeal of the Krakoan era can be summed up from part of Cyclops’ conversation with Sue Storm in House of X #1.
“My family has spent our entire lives being hunted and hated. The world has told me that I was less when I knew I was more,” he tells her. “Did you honestly think that we were going to sit around forever and just take it?”
In a world where the trans people are being terrorized by governments all over the planet, where out groups of all kinds are being violently demonized, the appeal of a textual minority group fighting back and winning is massive. A big part of the reason why these X-books hit the way that they did now is because they reflected the real anxieties and conflicts that the world is currently facing.
The X-Men movies have been surprisingly okay at doing this, even if the more nakedly political ones were directed by a notorious sex pest. Hell, X-Men 2 was practically a recruitment video for ACT UP compared to what Disney is putting out now. So maybe we shouldn’t expect too much here. But not doing it would be a mistake and completely miss the point of why this age of X-Men books was so good.
Of course, putting real politics into a superhero story, even if it was filtered through two layers of metaphor, opened the comics up to misreading. That’s why, when the books first launched, you saw so many discussions about if “the X-Men are the bad guys now.” It’s a bad read on the story (and very frequently offered up by people motivated exclusively by bad faith), but it’s certainly a risk when your text is pretty clearly taking a side. But speaking of bad guys…
THE OLD FIGHTS ARE DEAD. FIND NEW ONES.
The final issue of Inferno yet again reworked everything that came before. The main conflict in the X-Men books has been for DECADES the one between humans and mutants. Humans were terrified of the new species they had spawned, of losing their world to their children. This is an extremely resonant central conflict, especially today! People are, generally speaking, terrified of change.
Inferno sets all of that aside.
The humans are now irrelevant, tools being pushed around by the machines who have, through Omega Sentinel, seen their future wiped away by mutant supremacy. It’s a brilliant move on Hickman’s part. It repositions the fundamental mutant conflict for the future, moving it away from the civil rights metaphor and updates it to a salient one for a world driven insane by algorithms.
It’s also a handy way to avoid one of the biggest problems with bringing the mutants into the MCU: why would a tall, handsome man who shoots lasers from his eyes, or a beautiful redhead who can lift things with her brain, be more inherently terrifying to the general public than a masked teenager who poops spider webs or a tall handsome rich man who wears a weapon of mass destruction to formal events?
The conflict between mutants and humans makes a lot of sense metaphorically, but it has several potential holes if not executed correctly. Making the machines the bad guys is an easy conflict to show.