In the new movie “X-Men: First Class,” a group of normal-looking people with some highly unusual traits wonder if the world will embrace them.
The studio behind the film, 20th Century Fox, is facing a similar question.
Although the fifth installment in the franchise about superhero mutants resembles many of Hollywood’s summer offerings — a big-budget action movie based on a popular comic book series — the latest “X-Men” is a vastly different creature that presents some unique marketing challenges.
The movie, which cost News Corp.-owned Fox and its two financial partners $160 million to produce before tax breaks, replaces its most bankable star, Hugh Jackman, with an ensemble of less proven younger actors led by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender.
It’s also the most ambitious production yet from director Matthew Vaughn, mainly known for smaller-scale independent films such as last year’s “Kick-Ass” and the 2005 crime thriller “Layer Cake.”
And “X-Men” is set against such historical events as the 1962 Cuban missile crisis that are unfamiliar to much of the film’s target audience of teens and twentysomethings.
Fox executives say they believe that some of these peculiarities will work in their favor as the movie debuts this weekend.
“We feel we have a number of big advantages,” said Oren Aviv, Fox’s chief marketing officer. “This is a film that feels contemporary but it has iconic images from the 1960s.”
Concerned that it could put off a superhero audience, marketing executives debated whether to include a famous speech by President Kennedy about the nuclear crisis in the film’s trailer. In the end, they opted to leave it in.
The origin story, which portrays characters from the previous films in their younger years, centers on a disparate group of humans with quirky superpowers, led by an idealistic professor (McAvoy) and a vengeful Holocaust survivor (Fassbender). It thrusts them into a do-or-die battle with a villainous mutant, played by Kevin Bacon, and a high-stakes Cold War game between the Americans and the Soviets.
“X-Men’s” combination of more serious themes — including a debate over the ethics of revenge — with high-octane visual effects sequences is rare for a summer popcorn movie. But rather than alienate some moviegoers, the studio believes that will attract both sophisticated and thrill-seeking audiences.
“We’re selling this as a character-based action movie,” Aviv said.
Adding to its hurdles, the new “X-Men” went from merely a concept to finished film in just about a year, giving the studio little lead time to roll out the kind of full-on marketing blitz that often accompanies a major studio release. The movie is also not in 3-D, which will deny the studio the advantage of higher ticket prices.
Still, the film has won plaudits from a number of critics, who praised its performances and tone.
Fox hopes to capitalize on the power of the Marvel Comics brand, which spawned a movie series that has grossed more than $1.5 billion around the world since the first installment hit screens in 2000.
But despite grossing $460 million worldwide, the third movie, Brett Ratner’s “X-Men: The Last Stand” in 2006, left a bad taste in many fans’ mouths. In 2009, global ticket sales for the spinoff “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” dropped nearly 19% from its predecessor, showing that the franchise had lost momentum. Now, just two years later, Fox is asking audiences to turn away from that film’s hero and embrace something new.
The movie also doesn’t fit neatly into any particular category.
“It’s so funny that everybody wants to define movies these days — a prequel, a reboot, an origin story,” said Emma Watts, Fox’s president of production. “But every situation is unique. I wish I could give this a clear definition.”
That hybrid quality has won praise from many critics, who have greeted the film enthusiastically.
Bryan Singer, who directed the first two “X-Men” films but stepped aside for the next two, has returned to the series as a producer who came up with the concept for “X-Men: First Class.” Singer said he too was conscious of the movie’s tricky balance between drawing on the previous pictures and standing on its own.
“There’s a lot in ‘First Class’ that harks back to early ‘X-Men’ films, but also has an energy that’s new,” he said. “You don’t want to alter the essence, but you can alter the history.”
Aviv and other top Fox executives compare their attempt at rejuvenating “X-Men” to director Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins,” which helped revive Warner Bros.’ tired superhero franchise. It also spawned a sequel, “The Dark Knight,” which amassed $1 billion in global ticket sales, and helped redefine comic book adaptations as something more than fanboy escapism.
Fox, which does not count as many franchises in its arsenal as some of its rivals, is striving to achieve a similar fate. If “X-Men: First Class” resonates with audiences — the studio will have a good indication about this by Sunday morning — it presents a chance to build a new series. Singer said he’d like to explore the mutants as they matured through different historical periods, from Vietnam until the present day.
To do so, the franchise probably would stay with the new film’s up-and-coming cast, which in addition to McAvoy and Fassbender includes “Mad Men” star January Jones and 2011 Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence. The fresh faces, Fox marketing executives say, will lure younger audiences, particularly given the movie’s theme of alienation.
“Traditionally in these [superhero] movies the characters are older. But many of them are younger here, and we feel the younger part of an audience will relate to what the movie has to say,” said Tony Sella, Fox’s president of domestic theatrical marketing. “Who feels more disenfranchised than a 16-year-old?”