Acknowledged continuity is one of the more titillating features of the mainstream superhero universes. It’s the thrill of watching a hero you like interacting with another character you like for a story that produces tangible results in both worlds. It doesn’t even need to be that serious, really — it can just be something as quick as Spider-Man swinging through an alley over the Punisher’s head, or poker games between the saltier characters in the Marvel Universe. On the other hand, ambition is why we keep buying those big summer event projects, year in and year out, no matter how disappointing the return on a War Games or a Secret Wars II.
But it is the best route to take for the comic book movies?
Recently, Hugh Jackman explained that “The Wolverine” will be a standalone film, breaking from what we’ve seen before. “We’ve deliberately not called it Wolverine 2 because we want it to be placed and feel like a standalone picture,” he said. “The approach to character means we won’t be overloaded with mutants and teams and the like, so it’ll be more character-based. I think in many ways it will feel like a completely different ‘X-Men’ film.”
Obviously, anything “character-based” and not “overloaded with mutants” is going to pass every smell test with us. But it’s an interesting idea, the standalone film, because every X-movie we’ve seen thus far has been deeply involved in the bigger X-verse. “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” made numerous references to the established continuity, from Logan’s past with Stryker to the involvement of Professor X, and even “X-Men: First Class” snuck in a little Jackman cameo in the middle to get a laugh out of the crowd. It’s interesting to consider what might be done in a movie that disavows all previous ties — that doesn’t harp too much on Weapon X or his rivalry with Sabertooth or what have you, and instead delivers a completely divested experience.
That would seem like a pretty easy concept to master, right? And yet, it’s also very easy to imagine “The Wolverine” doubling down into its own ephemera for a reference-heavy movie. Look at the weighty “Days of Future Past” subtitle that was just announced for the next “X-Men” movie — a development we’re excited about, but one that carries a much larger risk of turning calamitous than a completely new storyline. Plus, with the apparent intention of the X-producers to fold all of the mutant properties into a shared universe ala the “Avengers” movies, “The Wolverine” could’ve been used as a partial springboard for that grand, universe-spanning “X-Men”/”X-Men: First Class” crossover blockbuster coming our way in 2016. (I’m joking, I think.)
However, the length between every comic book movie makes me think that it might be a little better if all these superheroes spent some time on their own. Take “The Avengers,” for example. For all of its entertainment factor, it was an astonishingly conservative film in terms of story direction. (SPOILER WARNING, though if you haven’t seen “The Avengers” by now what are you even doing on this website?) After four years of buildup, there was nothing for the heroes to do but team up and fight the bad guy — which they did, succeeding in a perfectly over-the-top way that mostly justified the hype. But despite the excitement of having such expectations validated by the execution, the essentially foregone conclusion left me a little disappointed. Take the false death of Iron Man after he drops the bomb into the temporal wormhole. We knew he would come back to life because we knew an “Iron Man 3” was coming — that the promise of another payday would undercut any real sense of drama. It was a little surprising when Agent Colson was killed, but if the elimination of an invented supporting character is what qualifies as dramatic shock, I think the standards are a little low.
Compare it to the recently concluded “Dark Knight” trilogy, which Christopher Nolan was allowed to divorce from any shared DC movieverse. The stakes of each movie felt real, because the decisions were made by Nolan and not some vague corporate payoff. Granted, those movies made loads of money and Nolan is probably the best modern director who’s ever gotten his hands on a superhero movie. (Though I’ll personally fight for Sam Raimi until I die.) And he was never going to do anything really crazy, because it’s a Batman movie. But he did shake up important characters and comic book continuity in believable ways, and take some narrative leaps from what we might’ve seen in a more standard superhero movie. After the relative freshness of his Bat-verse, imagine the cheapness of watching a Bale or non-Bale Batman participate in a “Justice League” movie, shackled into a superhero team-up after years of playing in his own sandbox. It would seem like kind of a scam.
That’s the trickiness of making a compelling “X-Men” movie. By nature, they’re team-up movies, and as we’ve seen before, devolve too easily into a mutant-palooza free-for-all with thin characterization and weak dramatic tension. On the other hand, that’s what gives the solo movies such rich potential to be about more than men in tights punching each other in the face — the idea that we can get into a character’s own world, and into the specifics of what makes them tick.
After all, it’s been three years since Hugh Jackman appeared in a fully fleshed out Wolverine role. Why would we want to spend time with anyone else?