Trust A Few, Fear The Rest: A Look Back At X-Men Movie Posters
X-Men is one of the longer comic book movie franchises out there, which is not too surprising, given the vast amount of characters to build films around. That said, the vast amount of characters have not always been utilized properly and only a few (and one in particular) have really been pushed to the front again and again, but this is not a post about the quality of the films. I like the series in general and would even make arguments for certain positive aspects of even the worst entries in the series (X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine). Instead of talking about the movies, with the heavily anticipated debut of X-Men: Days of Future Past on the horizon, I would much rather focus on something more specific: the franchise’s marketing campaign via movie posters, which are generally dull to terrible.
Something to keep in mind is that I am not a movie marketing expert, I understand the validity of having Hugh Jackman’s face front and center on a movie poster, and no, I cannot produce one that is better, myself, regardless of various ideas I may have to suggest to others. With all of that said, I have been fairly outspoken for a long time about how terrible posters for the X-Men movies have been, with their fairly bland and repetitive designs that do nothing imaginative, despite the potential that is there. With very few exceptions, this is a series with posters that I largely remember for how dull they are, instead of having something to really enjoy in the same way other superhero films have delivered on.
The following will be a film-by-film breakdown of the posters for all of the X-Men films. I should point out that I am aware of the different international marketing for some of these films and while I am aware that there are different posters (which mainly make Hugh Jackman even bigger), they largely hit upon my same points.
Last note, if you want to read more about the actual films, be sure to stop by both The Naptown Nerd and Cinemaxwell, to dig into some great retrospective articles.
It is perhaps easiest to forgive the first film in the franchise. Just like the film itself, there was a lot of testing the waters as for how to sell a film based on the X-Men comic book franchise. Two key aspects began in these early posters though: Having a big ‘X’ featured and showing off Wolverine’s claws. For the most part though, given how the ‘big name stars’ of this 2000 feature were not exactly ‘name on the poster’ big, shrouding everyone in shadows or hiding them behind doors was apparently the best course of action.
One of these posters obviously dates the film in a way that is unfortunate; the ‘hiding behind doors’ approach is asking a lot for an audience outside the realm of comic book fans; and then you have the roll call, where the only most deceptive will be able to pick out more than just ol’ red eye and claws man. I don’t want to have to pick on the font to add on to what I think makes these posters so bland and boring, but apparently having a metallic logo in italics was a good way to emphasize the evolution that was coming summer 2000. Last thought, though I was happy to use the film’s tagline for my title, what is the implication here? Based on the fight to accept mutants for who they are, along with the presence of far more good mutants than bad mutants in this film, were audiences supposed to expect villains galore in this first feature? Well, I hope Toad and Sabertooth were satisfying enough…
X2: X-Men United (2003)
As far as taglines go, X2: X-Men United did a better job at hitting at a core aspect of the film. This series follow up (and still the best film in the franchise) may have changed its title from X2 to a more generically subtitled version late in the game, but it was able to communicate how the series would be evolving in some manner, even if we still see the bad guys doing some bad guy stuff. Still, the posters only modified the approach seen for the first film. We still have claws and big X’s, but now we are incorporating more characters and the line-up approach that is, I guess, fitting for Bryan “The Usual Suspects” Singer. Star presence is clearly more of a factor, as we see Hugh Jackman and his Swordfish co-star Halle Berry front and center, with the most visually dynamic ordered behind them (though Nightcrawler and Mystique are strangely in the far back for the main theatrical poster; perhaps Fox did not think the world was excited for the coming of Cumming).
For the ‘X’ poster, there is not much to say about the floating heads approach, beyond how impressed I am that they could sneak a claw or two in there. For the ‘line up’ poster, the most notable aspect is how much negative space there is. Simplicity is nice, I guess, but that is a big hearty tease of nothing except, “these guys again.” There are the individual character posters as well, but for every image of someone new with an interesting look, you also get to decide if Rogue’s back to the camera and the Photoshop work on her shapeliness is enough to get you to buy a ticket.
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Where to begin with X-Men: The Last Stand… Let’s start with these posters that look as if we finally got to see the results of the X-Men meet Rent. I can admire taking a chance on something different, but what was the idea here? Characters having moody looks, set against odd, atmospheric backgrounds, with “Take A Stand May 26th” as the sole piece of writing on the poster. I am either standing against some kind of disease or movie piracy it seems, but I am certainly not taking a stand for the movie, which was facing enough trouble on its own (though the first teaser trailer is terrific).
Speaking of teasers, it does not get much simpler than having a big X and some claws to make an X-Men poster, apparently, which is exactly what it is featured on the teaser poster. Not the biggest fault, but nothing to write home about either. The biggest indication is that Wolverine would of course be featured prominently, as usual, but hey, he has 3 claws and it’s the third film, so easy win, right? We can save the argument for why this did not need to be the ‘Last Stand’ as opposed to the next film in a series with plenty of future potential, beyond a closed off trilogy, but as it stands, while not outright terrible, big X and claws in full force, paved the way for the next bland effort.
Look, we comic geeks all know how wasted the Dark Phoenix storyline in the X-Men films was. Despite building anticipation in X2, The Last Stand does a poor job with something that could have been truly epic. On the marketing side of things, some insult was added to injury by not even attempting to sell that story on a poster. Given all the comic book covers this movie franchise could be drawing inspiration from, the fact that the biggest change between the theatrical posters for X2 and X3 was slightly titling the cast was pretty damn upsetting. This is the weird trend that took over X-Men posters, angling the cast, as they walk towards the camera. We still have star prominence put first, with Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry having their name above the title, with the addition of a chiseled Ben Foster blocking most of the presence of Beast and Professor Wheels. As for the Phoenix, she’s in the back looking pretty bored. Good job.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Now we have the film that apparently needed to tell us the origins of Wolverine, since we apparently did not get the gist of it already. While I am of the opinion that X-Men Origins: Wolverine simply exists in the wrong decade and would be well-suited to the macho action film period of the 80s, I can see why the complaints exist and totally agree that the film stumbles a lot, to the point of not even being able to get Wolverine’s claws right. I am curious what the origins of some of these posters were as well. Being a solo film for everyone’s favorite raging Canadian, it is easy to see why the big X was ditched, but the claws were retained for the posters. It does make me wonder if anyone was confused about seeing another X3, but a simmering Hugh Jackman seems to get some kind of point across.
The other poster is a bit stranger, as we have Wolverine looking super-jacked, with only one other immediately recognizable character, Gambit, and that is because he’s holding a card. Liev Schreiber is on hand as a man in black with long fingernails, Van Wilder is tucked away on one side, and not-Jean/Rogue is standing on the left. Who are these people? At least they are standing tilted, so we know it’s an X-men movie. The only thing more confusing is one of the promotional images, where everyone, but Wolverine is looking down. I can only hope this image will be used for the eventual Wolverine: The Musical.
X-Men: First Class (2011)
The most promising part of this disastrous poster campaign was the lack of claws anywhere. While Wolverine does provide a very entertaining cameo in the rather wonderful X-Men: First Class (Review Here), having a film that did not focus on him was refreshing. Unfortunately, while I was plenty excited for this film due to the involvement of a variety of people, namely Double-0 Fassbender, and the real Kick Ass and Hit Girl (Director/screenwriter Matthew Vaughn and screenwriter Jane Goldman), the main posters for this film are largely terrible. Let’s start with the good though, as the simplest idea, having a big X, was treated properly with a teaser poster that had just that, in the form of a school seal, which makes plenty of sense. There were even two decent posters emphasizing the origin story, by having the reflection of the future appear by young Magneto and Professor X.
Then the fit hit the shan, as we had some good enough ideas for posters, using silhouettes, only to have a floating head layered right in the middle of them. Huh? Given the teaser images of the new characters and costumes, which received a lot of flak and reminded people of the underwhelming initial images from the first X-Men, these dud posters were not helping matters much at all. It is fortunate that later images from the film and the actual movie did a lot to reverse those reactions, but that still didn’t save the final one-sheet, which only had other dull X-Men posters as way to connect the series in this format. Lots of tilting, lots of Photoshopping of individuals, a subtle big X, and fancy-looking Kevin Bacon were apparently the answers for how to sell a Wolverine-less X-Men movie, though I’m sure having him giving a thumbs up in the corner was considered at some point. Later marketing would also add the Blackbird Jet into the mix as well, but once again, only the presence of various people standing was apparently the thing to take pride in.
The Wolverine (2013)
Here is where “trust a few” really plays a role, as The Wolverine easily has the best series of posters for the franchise. Before we even get to the very cool black and white imagery, there was a teaser image that did everything it needed to by handing Wolverine a samurai sword and indicating that things were moving overseas, away from everyone else. Of course, I was almost ready to go into berserker rage when some new posters were teased online, but never actually used. One pictured, as well as one more, attempted to copy the look of the classic Wolverine comics that inspired The Wolverine and failed miserably, but fortunately we got something better.
With the Japanese aspect playing a large role in The Wolverine, someone made the brilliant decision to incorporate that into the poster campaign, giving audiences a great, iconic poster for the film, as well as an additional number of character posters, maintaining the look and feel of Wolverine’s image. While there is some ambiguity in regards to who some of these characters were, it was a different and much more palatable way to sell a film such as this, which ended up being a pretty solid solo adventure for a character I was not sure I needed to see another movie from (Review Here). In fact, these black and white (with some color) posters were cool enough to make me look past the other, more blandly traditional posters used to sell the film, as it got across the basic idea that Wolverine was apparently really angry at the weather in Japan (in 3D).
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
It is hard to blame the marketing for what has happened with their poster campaign for Days of Future Past. Really, up until the third theatrical trailer, which basically spells out everything for those who either want to be spoiled or would only care about the film if it was clearly explained to them with no nuance, a good job was done of confining marketing of this film to various images of new and old characters, along with a Sentinel-themed viral campaign. Obviously more details would have to be shared, which included finding ways to show off X-Men as a fairly audience-friendly blockbuster, with the generic posters that come with it. The main poster has fallen into the trap of most major blockbusters of today: blue and orange as the colors to draw you in, big name stars featured prominently (usually posing in ambiguous ways), and some indication of destruction at a notable location (Here’s that pattern).
X-Men: DOFP is a bit of a mixed bag, poster-wise, overall, as some of the ideas are actually pretty neat, but others just lean on the stars, which is understandable, but misses a lot opportunity to go for something truly iconic. Given that this X-Men storyline is easily one of the best ones, as far as X-Men comics go, I could have seen more going into how to sell a time travel-themed superhero movie, but instead we have lots of claws and a very weird flying chair for Professor Wheels-No-More. The teaser images are actually pretty cool, because they use the big X to communicate an aspect of the story in some way. In this case we get that both the old and new versions of characters will be involved somehow. Plenty of character-specific posters are around as well, with a heavy emphasis on Jennifer Lawrence being the new Halle Berry, in terms of who is most qualified to be second banana to Hugh Jackman, star presence-wise. I only wish some of the other interesting posters were more prominent offline, as they at least try for something.
I more or less discovered a lot of these during the time of X-Men: First Class, which I was really angry with, as far as being angry about movie posters goes. So many cool ideas were floating around the web, which includes some ideas drawing from one of the best designers in the business, Saul Bass, as well as from the actual comic covers. I would have loved to see the classic Days of Future Past cover be turned into an X-Men movie poster, but that’s why the internet can be so wonderful every now and then.
What’s Worked For Others
We are of course steeped in comic book and superhero movies these days, as well as many from the past. While I would not say many of the more recent posters seen are anything all that special, there are some standouts, such as the various posters from The Dark Knight Trilogy, along with some attempts from Marvel Studios. Taking some steps back in time though, there will always be posters as memorable as the ones for huge hits like Batman and Superman: The Movie, along with some box office misses like The Rocketeer and The Shadow. Being a success or well-regarded is one thing, but at least you could see the personality in place.
Who knows what will happen. With another Wolverine film, as well as X-Men: Age of Apocalypse already being planned, I can only hope we will have the chance to see some more inspired ideas emerge, as far as how to market these films with posters that really grab your attention beyond who is in it. Less tilting would be a nice step, but maybe we can at least find a more creative use of the big X and claws, which will no doubt be a factor. Given the span of this series, popularity is not necessarily waning, especially with Days of Future Past in a position to do the best business of any X-Men film, but slapping a title onto a poster that was put together in 5 minutes is clearly not the best sign of forward evolution. Let’s see more work and ideas from those who are truly gifted.