A gay mutant? A female Wolverine? They’ve both already happened in print – and after the success of Deadpool, studios have no excuse to keep playing it safe with the diversity of their superheroes
Ever since Marvel burst on to the scene, carrying with it the crazy concept of comic-book movies featuring multiple superheroes and actual jokes, the question other Hollywood movers and shakers have been posing is quite how to mirror the Disney-owned studio’s extraordinary success. But what if the real trick, in an increasingly crowded marketplace, is to venture right off the map and into dangerously uncharted territory?
That is surely the question facing 20th Century Fox, which finds itself at the centre of a perfect storm of opportunity over its own superhero “universe”, the one based on the studio’s rights to all those X-Men related comic-book titans that Marvel foolishly hawked to the highest bidder a few years back.
Fox has put out two superhero movies this year: the inexpensively produced,critically acclaimed, R-rated, $760m (£538m) blockbuster Deadpool, and thetedious, moany, X-Men: Apocalypse, which will be lucky to hit $600m by the time it ends its run. This despite the benefit of a Chinese release and a ensemble cast that includes the world’s most popular female Hollywood star, Jennifer Lawrence.
At the same time, the clamour for superhero movies to modernise has never been louder, especially since Marvel and DC Comics have already led the way in print. The current comic-book Ms Marvel is a Muslim Pakistani-American, while Gail Simone’s bravura 2011 reboot of Batgirl gave Barbara Gordon a transgender best mate. Meanwhile, several of the X-Men are gay in at least some versions of the comics. You’ll no doubt have seen the Twitter campaign urging Captain America to be given a boyfriend on the big screen: its point, I think, is that Hollywood’s superhero vision is inexcusably blander, hokier and tamer than what’s often seen in print.
Directors such as Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn have warned against the idea of suddenly making every superhero movie an R-rated, “edgy” Deadpool rip-off. But in the case of X-Men, delivering a more grown-up take seems like a natural progression, especially since the saga’s colourful mutants have always made the most sense as an oh-so-subtle metaphor for the existential struggle of the societal outsider.
Fox wouldn’t even need to transform its core X-Men series too radically, since it has already shown that Deadpool-style spin-offs can be far more successful. It seems unlikely that Lawrence will agree to sign up for another turn as shape-shifting Mystique after Apocalypse’s critical travails, but what if the studio offered her the chance to make history as the first ever gay superhero to get their own movie?
Fox has the opportunity to make these changes now that it has been proven, thanks to Deadpool, that the most successful comic-book movies can be those that initially looked the hairiest. The Ryan Reynolds-led romp stands as the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time despite its failure to secure a release in China, the world’s second-largest box office. It would never have been made at Marvel Studios, which goes out of its way to keep prudish censors and audiences happy in the world’s most populous nation. We don’t yet know how far the fledgling Warner Bros’ rival DC universe will push the envelope, although the upcoming Suicide Squad does look like just the kind of jagged little pill we’ve been waiting years to swallow.
A clue as to whether Fox really is thinking of moving in a spikier direction will come with the next Wolverine movie, which is currently filming. Shots of Hugh Jackman as the adamantium-clawed mutant suggest producers are plumping for a look influenced by Mark Millar’s offbeat 2008 comic-book run Old Man Logan, which saw Wolverine come out of retirement for a battle with future supervillains. Visible alongside Jackman in one shot is a teenage girl who some are speculating might be the comics’ X-23, a female clone of Wolverine. Intriguingly, X-Men stalwart Bryan Singer has previously pitched the young mutant, also known as Laura Kinney, as a candidate to replace Jackman’s character, with the Australian actor set on making the new film his last hurrah in the role.
A female Wolverine? It’s already happened in the comics, and would be the perfect way for Fox to begin building a world of superheroes that truly stands out from the crowd.