Though there has been speculation about it for a while, Twenty First Century Fox (NASDAQ:FOX) recently announced that Channing Tatum had officially been signed to play the mutant hero Gambit in future "X-Men" films. While this may be a move to capitalize on Tatum's increasing popularity, there may be another reason behind it as well: Hugh Jackman's contract is getting close to expiring.
Is it possible that Fox is planning to move Gambit to the forefront of its films, letting him take the spotlight that Wolverine has largely enjoyed in the X-films so far? If the company did take that route, would it run the risk of alienating viewers and hurting a major franchise in the process?
Wolverine and the X-Men
By the time Disney (NYSE:DIS) bought Marvel Comics in 2009, Jackman had appeared onscreen as Wolverine in four films. His contract obligated him to play the character in a total of eight films, of which the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past is the seventh (as his cameo in X-Men: First Class didn't count toward the fulfillment of his contract). This means that the third "Wolverine" solo film that's currently in early development could end Jackman's contractual obligations.
This is significant as Jackman has stated multiple times that there's a good chance that he won't re-sign to play the character once the contract ends. (He at one point said that he was "99.9% sure" that he wouldn't, though in a more recent interview with IGN he admitted that he's "less sure as it goes along.") While Jackman supposedly still enjoys playing the character, he has had concerns that his own aging may cause problems with him playing a character who doesn't age.
While Jackman may end up signing on for additional X-films, it's unlikely that his new contract would be as extensive as his original one. When Fox originally signed Jackman to a multi-film contract, he was still an up-and-coming actor; X-Men was only his third film. After the success of the "X-Men" films and other hits such as Les Misérables, resigning Jackman to multiple films would likely be a much more costly endeavor. Instead, Fox could opt to try and repeat its success with another up-and-coming actor who could be signed at a lower premium. Enter Channing Tatum, who has been in a number of films but who has yet to reach "superstar" status.
A fresh new face
During the 1990s, Gambit competed with Wolverine as the most popular X-Man in the comics. Though the characters had significantly different powers, they seemed to compete for the same role on the team -- the "loner" who was part of the team without really being a team player. Because of this, Gambit might be a logical choice to take over the "starring" role that Wolverine has enjoyed in many of the "X-Men" films.
Though the character of Gambit appeared briefly in X-Men Origins: Wolverine as played by Taylor Kitsch, it's unlikely that Tatum's take on the character will resemble Kitsch's version. Given that Tatum will first appear in X-Men: Apocalypse, which takes place in the 1980s, it's possible that Tatum's Gambit will retcon the character somewhat since Origins took place in the early 1980s as well. Depending on how Gambit's origin is presented in the new film, it may even affect the canon of the Origins appearance.
One advantage of introducing Gambit in Apocalypse is that it uses the First Class cast and timeline, making the film an effective prequel to the original "X-Men" films. This allows Fox to proceed without Jackman or other members of the original cast, and potentially allowing Gambit to step in as the "star" of the ensemble cast (and potential solo films as well).
Will Gambit have star power?
While the "X-Men" films are focused on a team, most of the films have centered around one or two specific characters to anchor the plot. This has often been Wolverine, but with him stepping out of the spotlight it opens up new possibilities. James McAvoy, who plays Charles Xavier in First Class and Days of Future Past, recently suggested that Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique might become the new "face" of the series, though he seemed to merely be suggesting it as a possibility instead of hinting at something that was definitely in the works.
Part of the decision will be based on how well Tatum's Gambit is received by audiences. Fox's priority with the film franchise is to get moviegoers to buy tickets and buy the film once it's released on Blu-Ray and DVD. Gambit is a popular character, so if his appearance in Apocalypse is well received then Fox will be much more likely to put him front-and-center in the future because it will help to pack the theaters. If Tatum is poorly received in the role, however, the company may shift its future films away from Gambit and focus much more on other characters (possibly including Mystique).
The future of the X-Men
Days of Future Past is the most expensive film in the "X-Men" franchise (and is supposedly the second most expensive film that Fox has ever made), with its estimated $225 million budget coming in well over many of the previous X-films. It has been getting a number of positive early reviews, however, and some estimates have its opening box office potential in the U.S. coming in as high as $125 million over Memorial Day weekend. Fox is investing heavily in the future of the franchise, even as one of its stars seems set to bow out.
The company is likely already looking for a new lead for the franchise, and Channing Tatum seems like a good bet. It's likely no coincidence that the studio has chosen to bring Gambit in just as Wolverine steps out, and if he's well received there's a good chance that he'll be a major part of the franchise going forward.
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