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Appearing at the Edinburgh Television Festival, Bryan Singer and Peter Rice dropped a bombshell. As we already knew, Marvel Entertainment and Fox Television are working together on two TV shows - Legion (inspired by Professor X's son in the comics) and an unnamed series featuring a sort of 'mutant underground'. What we didn't know, though, was that these shows will be based in the same universe as Fox's X-Men films!
Why Is This Big News?
The success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe inspired Marvel to 'cash in' with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a TV series based in the MCU that ties in to the films. Marvel's TV slate has been expanding at a rate of knots, with tremendous successes on Netflix, and commissioning of surprising new shows such as Cloak and Dagger and Runaways. These all occur in the same universe, creating a single overarching chronology. It's a pretty radical concept, but it has problems; Marvel Studios has shown real reticence when it comes to making explicit nods to the shows in their films. Joss Whedon famously chose not to have Agent Coulson appear in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and since then there's been a simmering tension between Marvel Entertainment and Marvel Studios.
DC, on the other hand, has taken a very different approach. With a long history of successful live-action TV shows, DC chose not to restrict themselves by tying in to the films. Instead, DC's TV series take place in a completely different timeline to the DC Extended Universe. It means that the shows can never really take advantage of the films' successes, but it also gives them a freedom Marvel don't enjoy. DC can cast Taylor Hoechlin as Superman over on Supergirl, without it having any impact on Henry Cavill's role in the films. Where Marvel Entertainment is pretty much unable to use any character already featured by Marvel Studios in their TV shows, DC TV has access to every single character and concept.
When Fox first announced their new X-Men TV shows, it was implied that they'd be following the pattern of DC - keeping the films and the TV shows in separate universes. That was why one of their series was Hellfire, exploring the concept of the Hellfire Club (already featured in X-Men: First Class). Now, with Hellfire cancelled, it seems that Fox has switched to Marvel's approach.
Fox Has Learned Marvel's Lesson
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1 started poorly, with fans and critics alike disappointed by the show. That first season was redeemed by the tremendous tie-in to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which completely transformed the show's status quo, and drove the series through another two seasons. Since that first tie-in, though, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has struggled to handle its relationship with the films. There have been occasional cameos - most notably Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury and Jaimie Alexander's Sif - and episodes and arcs have tried to vaguely orient themselves around what's just happened in the latest movie. But it's often felt forced, and left fans disappointed.
Although the X-Men TV shows will relate to the movies, Bryan Singer has revealed that they won't revolve around them.
"[Legion is designed to be] part of the X-Men universe, but when you watched it, you wouldn't have to label it, it could exist completely on its own."
In other words, Fox is jumping straight to the kind of situation you can see with Marvel properties on Netflix. Although Daredevil Season 1 explicitly referenced the events of The Avengers, since then Marvel's Netflix series have essentially existed in a world of their own. Fox is avoiding the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. concept completely. That means we'll never get an amazing tie-in (like the one between Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Winter Soldier), but it also means we won't get forced tie-ins that disrupt the overall plot and structure of the series. Given Marvel's Netflix shows have received far better critical and fan responses than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I can't help but think that this approach has a much better chance of success.
How are Marvel and Fox Working Together?
Fans are watching these TV shows with a sense of real excitement; after all, for once Marvel and Fox seem to be working together! Some fans are hoping this will foreshadow an X-Men / MCU crossover, but this is unlikely. After an organizational restructure last year, Marvel Entertainment (who run Marvel's TV series) is essentially a separate Disney sub-company to Marvel Studios. They no longer have any direct connections, and are essentially little more than concerned stakeholders in relation to one another. Meanwhile, over at Fox, there's always been a careful division between Fox Television and 20th Century Fox (who make the movies). The fact that the TV branches of Marvel and Fox are working together well doesn't imply anything about the relationship between the two film studios.
That said, the relationship between Marvel Entertainment and Fox Television is seeming pretty strong. Personally, I can't help but suspect that Marvel's Jeph Loeb has had a hand in encouraging Fox to integrate the TV shows and the films like this. It just seems a tad too coincidental that Fox is reproducing Marvel's methodology so perfectly, while somehow avoiding all Marvel's mistakes.
A Cautionary Note
One thing fans should realize, though: by committing to this model, Fox is embracing a significant limitation. Where DC can throw in pretty much any character they want into their TV shows, irrespective of what happens in the films, Fox can't. We're never going to see a Wolverine series, starring Hugh Jackman, or a show that charts James McAvoy's Charles Xavier on a quest for peace between man and mutant. These actors are too highly-paid to ever have anything more than a cameo in a X-Men TV series, while existing in the shared universe means they can't simply be recast for TV.
That said, there's no reason minor characters couldn't make the transition, just as Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson migrated from the films to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I'm thinking of actors like Lana Condor, whose character Jubilee was largely edited out of X-Men: Apocalypse. For characters like Jubilee, a minor film role could become a launch-pad for TV greatness. Another thing to remember is that, with the timeline reset in X-Men: Days of Future Past, Fox could easily choose to reuse any characters we saw in the original timeline. So don't count Jamie Madrox's X-Factor out just yet.
All in all, this revelation is a fascinating one. It's really too soon to tell whether or not this is a wise move on Fox's part - this approach has as many limitations as it does possibilities. Still, I for one am excited at what I see as an indication of a strong working relationship between Marvel Entertainment and Fox Television, which will hopefully mean the shows we get are absolutely top-quality. For now, all I can do is settle down, watch that tantalizingly weird trailer for Legion again, and hope that the best is yet to come.