At the height of their popularity, the X-men were selling millions of copies of comics each month. It had a hit Saturday morning cartoon running. Wolverine, the most popular character, popped up in every Marvel Comic.
So, what’s happened since then? There hasn’t been much of a push to sell X-men comics lately. Marvel heavily promotes its Avengers lines. There is as much Avengers related product now as there were in the 90’s with the X-Men.
What made the change?
It’s simple. It’s all about film rights.
With the X-men topping the sales charts, Marvel cashed in by selling their film rights to 20th Century Fox Studios. The rights sold for 3 million dollars, a paltry sum in hindsight. With Fox unwilling to re-negotiate a financially balanced deal, Marvel decided to look for another existing IP to prop up.
Enter the Avengers.
Marvel has always wanted to make the Avengers a franchise that was as popular, if not more so, than the X-men. There was a failed experiment in which Marvel leased their characters to Jim Lee and Image Comics. That created buzz but nothing sustainable. Then in the Early 2000’s Brian Bendis took over the title and turned the team into Marvel’s version of the Justice League, opening the membership to include characters as popular as Wolverine (ironically), Spider-man, and Daredevil.
That proved to be a winning combination, and coincided with the creation of Marvel Studios. Marvel cut the number of x-men titles they published, excluded them from any merchandising deals they had, and have ignored the franchise for the better part of 10 years.
What’s the idea behind this neglect? It’s in the hopes that the studio can make a deal with Fox the way they made a similar deal with Sony and the use of Spider-man. Like the X-men, the Spider-Man franchise was sold to another studio before Marvel had decided to create their films in-house. Unlike the X-men, the Spider-man deal was much fairer. He starred in three very successful films and everyone was happy.
Fortunately, for Marvel, their studio was up and running and had just culminated years of hard work with the release of THE AVENGERS at the same time Sony was trying unsuccessfully to reboot the Spider-man franchise with the release of THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. The first of a planned trilogy made a good amount of money but nothing close to the billions that THE AVENGERS made. And unlike the Solo Avengers films, there was nothing to connect Spider-man to. Fans were looking for their films to connect to a larger universe much like the comics. It set up for a negotiation where Sony and Marvel would share the character and allow him to become a part of the larger Avengers universe.
Marvel has attempted to make a similar deal with Fox, both with the X-men Franchise and the Fantastic Four. But Fox has no need to negotiate, with the X-men Franchise still being a successful, profitable IP for the studio. Fantastic Four hasn’t been as strong as the X-men, but after seeing with Marvel did with characters once owned by Fox, like Ghost Rider and Daredevil, Fox is reluctant to do any kind of deal for the Marvel Characters they own. It got so ugly that Marvel cancelled their longest running comic, THE FANTASTIC FOUR, to undermine any success the franchise might have with the films.
Marvel would love to do the same with the X-men at this moment and have tried to push the Inhumans as a surrogate to the X-men in some stories. But the television show (that was once supposed to be a film) hasn’t made the same mark culturally as the X-men has. The X-men are a universe unto themselves now, and Fox has been much more forward thinking with the franchise than Marvel ever would.
They have rebooted the franchise once, while also connecting it to the previous incarnation. They have already released two R Rated X-men films, Deadpool and Logan, to financial and critical acclaim. They have infiltrated television, with LEGION and THE GIFTED doing well in the ratings. And with the upcoming NEW MUTANTS film release, they are now Genre melding (superheroes and Horror).
The film franchise is doing strong. And the comics are still making enough money to continue to be published. The future of the X-men seems very healthy. And for Marvel the publisher, that’s a very good thing.
For Marvel the Film studio, not so much.