Rumors abound that Capcom will be announcing Marvel vs. Capcom 4 at the PlayStation Experience this weekend, and that, like most recent Marvel tie-ins, the mutants of the X-Men won’t be making an appearance. The Marvel vs. Capcom fighting series is steeped in mutants—the original game was simply X-Men vs. Street Fighter—so some longtime fans are upset about their rumored absence in this rumored game. It’s understandable that Wolverine and Magneto fans might miss their favorite fighters, and any universe-wide Marvel tie-in that doesn’t at least include Wolverine remains weird and confusing, but if any of this news is true it will actually be a good thing for the series and for fans of the history of Marvel Comics. It’s another sign that the X-Men’s cultural imperialism over the Marvel Universe is long dead.
Like so much of Marvel’s output throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the Marvel vs. Capcom games depended too heavily on the X-Men. The first two installments felt less like Marvel games than X-Men ones with Captain America, Spider-Man and the Hulk casually thrown in. Somehow ancillary X-Men characters like Spiral and Marrow made a roster before core Marvel characters who had been headlining their own comics for decades, like Thor, Fantastic Four and Daredevil. The line-up for 2000’s Marvel vs. Capcom 2 might be the most laughable collection of Marvel characters ever assembled; out of 27 playable Marvel characters, 17 are almost exclusively associated with the X-Men and its many offshoots. If you weren’t familiar with one section of the Marvel Universe during the 1990s, Marvel vs. Capcom 2 would barely be recognizable as a Marvel game at all.
Before movie rights issues forced Marvel to focus their cinematic ambitions outside the realm of mutants, this was standard. Forgettable, fifth-rate X-Men hangers-on introduced in the late ‘90s were treated with more care and respect than foundational characters created by Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Stan Lee. Marvel vs. Capcom 2 might’ve been the most extreme example, but it wasn’t an outlier. Characters that endured for decades were deemphasized in favor of “kewl” flashes in the pan. A medium where story had always been less important than the name value of the character on the cover now cared less about characters than costumes, and specifically how many pouches and guns the artist could fit on them.
This started to change in the comics in 2004, when Marvel tried to boost Captain America, Iron Man and the Avengers brand through liberal application of Spider-Man and Wolverine. The New Avengers and Civil War comics recentered the Marvel Universe around its traditional superheroes, while the X-Men gradually returned to the private corner that they largely occupied in the 1970s and ‘80s. As Marvel established the box office clout of their non-mutant, non-Spider-Man characters, and as a turbulent relationship with the holder of the X-Men’s movies rights continually deteriorated, the once-dominant mutants further receded, both within the fictional universe and within Marvel’s product line. Although the X-Men are too popular to outright cancel and ignore, as Marvel has infamously done with its original heroes, the Fantastic Four, their prominence outside of the X-Men movies has consistently diminished over the last decade.
2011’s Marvel vs. Capcom 3 illustrates that beautifully. Released eleven years after its absurdly mutant-heavy predecessor, the latest game in the series dedicated only six of its 19 character slots to characters associated with the X-Men. Thor made his first appearance in the series, as did relatively obscure non-mutant Marvel characters like Taskmaster, MODOK and Dormammu. An expansion released later in 2011 added six new Marvel characters, none of whom are connected with the X-Men. Comic purists can perhaps complain about the mutants that did make the cut—the lack of Cyclops is galling—but six mutants out of 25 total characters is a totally fine ratio of mutants to non-mutants for any Marvel tie-in.
If those rumors are true, the next game in the series will avoid the mutants altogether. Although that’s shocking in light of Marvel vs. Capcom’s history, it’s in keeping with how Marvel as a company has handled the characters whose film rights they don’t own. Removing them entirely is a drastic move, considering how thoroughly the mutants have dominated these games, but there’s nothing wrong with them sitting an installment out. Wolverine, Magneto and Storm will be missed by many, but there are more than enough fighting games out there featuring those three. Marvel has introduced thousands of characters over the last several decades, creating one of the deepest and richest fictional universes ever known, and its main fighting game series has barely tapped into a fraction of what it has to offer. By removing the X-Men family tree and its overly complicated branches, this potential Marvel vs. Capcom game can let the light shine on some of Marvel’s overlooked characters. Sure, that probably won’t happen—odds are this will basically be the all-star line-up from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (hopefully including Neil Hamburger as the Baskin Robbins manager from Ant-Man)—but the possibility is there. The mutants have had their time, and there’s a lot of Marvel left for Capcom to tap into.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.