Twenty-First Century Fox (NASDAQ:FOX) (NASDAQ:FOXA) is reportedly considering a reboot of its X-Men film franchise after lackluster performance for the series' most recent entry and indications that its biggest stars will not be returning. With big disappointments for the company's Ice Age and Independence Day franchises landing in 2016 and a number of X-Men film projects in the works, the future of the franchise is a significant consideration for Fox.
While rebooting the property hardly guarantees better results for the franchise going forward, charting a fresh course is likely in the company's best interest. Talk of a refresh also raises the specter of whether the property could be sold to Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) for integration in the hugely successful Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
The X-Men franchise faces a confusing timeline and declining star power
Fox's X-Men is the world's longest-running superhero movie series, and has spanned nine entries if the 2016 release Deadpool is included in the count. The first installment debuted in 2000, with its success kick-starting the return of the superhero genre to big-screen prominence. The series did undergo a soft reboot of sorts with the 2011 entry X-Men: First Class, which introduced an almost entirely different cast and took place decades before the original continuity, but the two timelines were merged thanks to 2014 release X-Men: Days of Future Past's use of time travel as a plot device. Future Past was a huge hit, but it created a confusing story line and couldn't set up to a sequel that matched its performance.
With worldwide ticket sales of roughly $544 million, X-Men: Apocalypse came up well short of Future Past's roughly $748 million gross. The most recent installment was also less favorably received by critics and audiences, and illustrated the weaker appeal of movies not built around the original cast -- particularly Hugh Jackman and his Wolverine character. Apocalypse was a tentpole release for Fox featuring a cast that included Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy, and Michael Fassbender, but only narrowly surpassed the $520 million managed by Disney's Ant-Man -- a comparatively lower profile release in the scheme of the MCU.
Jackman has stated that 2017's Logan will be his last turn as Wolverine, and indications are that Jennifer Lawrence is also done with the series. With the franchise's biggest stars walking away and box office appeal apparently in decline, Fox has good reasons to retool its X-Men formula.
Strengthening the case for a refresh, the company is probably interested in creating some on-screen crossover with the Fantastic Four after its 2015 film featuring the characters cratered at the box office. Fox has to continue releasing films based on its superhero licenses to prevent the rights from reverting to Disney and Marvel, and the current X-Men series is likely too convoluted to make for an easy introduction of the Fantastic Four.
One character that definitely won't be subject to a reboot
While the broader X-Men series appears to be in some trouble, Fox does have a red-hot superhero commodity thanks to Deadpool. The picture went on to gross more than $780 million, a record performance for an R-rated film, and the successful movie could serve as a launching pad for a new take on the X-Men universe. Deadpool's penchant for meta-commentary and referential humor present a frame for restarting the property in a fun way, and the character's demonstrated appeal could provide a familiar anchor for audiences.
A Deadpool sequel is in the works, and the character could feature in Fox's upcoming X-Force film, according to comments from actor Ryan Reynolds. Fox might also aim to make its planned Channing Tatum vehicle Gambit the springboard for a new take on X-Men, but the picture has been stuck in production and rumors that the lead could leave point to an uncertain future for the project. For now, it looks like Deadpool is the top candidate to lead the X-Men.
Why Fox won't sell the X-Men movie rights to Disney
Outside of Deadpool's breakout performance, 2016 was a crippling year at the movies for Fox. The mainline X-Men series deflated, its attempt to relaunch Independence Day crashed and burned, and the latest Ice Age film delivered a performance that could end the series. Sales for Kung Fu Panda 3 also came in significantly below those for its two prequels. If Fox were to sell the X-Men film rights to Disney, Avatar and Planet of the Apes would be its only bankable big-screen franchises.
Movies are one of Fox's most promising growth avenues, and Disney would have to offer an incredible deal in order to make selling such a valuable property to a competitor an attractive proposition. For now, a reboot of the X-Men property looks like the best move.
Keith Noonan has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Walt Disney. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.