It’s time to admit Fox’s Gambit just may be cursed. In development since 2014, but publicly discussed before that, the planned X-Men spinoff has been dealt setback after setback, resulting in its initial October 2016 release date being pushed back first to February 2019, then to June 2019, and now to … well, it’s unclear. The loss last month of the film’s third director, Gore Verbinski, means principal photography won’t begin in March after all, making a premiere next summer increasingly unlikely.
Throughout those travails, which include scrapping the script last year and starting over from scratch, Channing Tatum has remained, apparently hell-bent on fulfilling his destiny to play Marvel Comics’ smoothing-talking Cajun mutant. Denied that opportunity in 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand and then in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the charismatic actor won’t be denied again. But are Tatum’s determination and charm reason enough for Fox to trudge forward with Gambit, or for audiences to fill theaters to watch the result?
Created in 1990 by Chris Claremont and Jim Lee, Gambit has been a divisive character, virtually from the start. You’ll find strong opinions among X-Men comics fans about Remy LeBeau, the devil-may-care thief known for his super-charged playing cards and painfully exaggerated accent: They absolutely love him or they absolutely hate him; there’s no Switzerland in this debate, mon ami.
A quintessential ’90s character, trench coat and all, Gambit possessed a shadowy past — raised in the New Orleans Thieves’ Guild, then employed by the villain Minister Sinister — that, in grand X-Men tradition, became far less interesting, and coherent, once exposed to light (see also: Wolverine). A “ladies’ man” with a lengthy on-again, off-again romance with Rogue (another point of division among fans), Gambit proved popular enough over the years to headline his own comics series and miniseries, but seldom for long. He’s a supporting player within the larger X-brand, and not necessarily a star in his own right.
Gambit isn’t likely to be mistaken, by anyone, for one of the crown jewels within the massive library of X-Men characters at Fox’s disposal since 1994. (Those rights will return to Marvel within the next couple of years, if government regulators approve Disney’s acquisition of key 21 Century Fox assets). Yet, somewhat inexplicably, studio executives, and the producers of the blockbuster X-Men franchise, have long been enamored of Remy LeBeau. Director Bryan Singer initially envisioned introducing Gambit in a cameo in 2003’s X2 before giving him an expanded role in its sequel. That didn’t pan out, of course, as the filmmaker left X-Men: The Last Stand in favor of Warner Bros.’ Superman Returns. However, Gambit lingered a while longer, with Tatum selected for the role, only for the ragin’ Cajun to be cut from the screenplay.
The character finally made his live-action debut in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, only this time played Taylor Kitsch — then best known as a star of NBC’s Friday Night Lights — because Tatum was busy with G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. The 2009 X-Men spinoff was not only intended to provide a showcase for Hugh Jackman’s breakout character, but also lay the groundwork for a franchise expansion. The announced X-Men Origins: Magneto was soon relegated to development hell, but other signs of Fox’s intentions could be found in the inclusion of Gambit (Kitsch was reportedly signed to a three-picture deal), and Ryan Reynolds as Wade Wilson, which finally placed the actor on his long, circuitous path to the 2016 blockbuster Deadpool.
Ahead of the release of X-Men Origins, Fox was convinced that Gambit, and Kitsch, would strike a chord with audiences. “The discussion is always, ‘Is this a good use of this character or do we want to save them to fully use down the line?’ — and that was the Gambit debate in the original trilogy of movies,” producer Jeff Katz explained in late 2008. “With the original [X-Men] trilogy, there was also the idea that he and Wolverine would have tried to fit the same space, and it would been awkward. They understood that Gambit was popular, but was it worth just popping him in as a throwaway character, and not in service of setting up something down the line? Now I think there is a level of strategy in how we grow these things, and what characters can transition between multiple films.”
Gambit didn’t turn out to be one of those characters, at least not then. X-Men Origins: Wolverine was a commercial success, but received a lukewarm response (at best) from critics and fans. Any dreams for a Gambit solo film were seemingly forgotten, at least until 2013, when Tatum first publicly expressed interest in the project. Coming off back-to-back hits 21 Jump Street and Magic Mike, Tatum by then had enough Hollywood clout to make something like Gambit happen; by January 2015, he was officially attached to star in the film, which was fast-tracked for release in October 2016.
Considering the Marvel mutant is so closely associated with playing cards, perhaps it was only to be expected that his solo film would fall victim to the luck of the draw. Repeatedly. What Tatum championed as a very different superhero origin story swiftly enlisted Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt, and barreled toward an October 2015 production start, only to just as quickly lose both. Those were only the early signs of the troubles to come, with the film delayed first to undergo a rewrite, and then due to be departure in 2016 of Wyatt’s successor, Doug Liman (he “just wasn’t feeling” the script). Despite little public movement after Liman’s exit, Tatum assured fans in July 2017, that, “of course,” Gambit was still in development.
But much like each cable network or streaming service is in search of its own Game of Thrones, virtually every Hollywood studio is on the lookout for the next Deadpool or Logan. Even Fox, which produced those two films. Addressing Gambit‘s numerous delays, Tatum revealed the financial and critical success of the X-Men spinoffs had helped to clear some creative obstacles from his project’s path. “We were trying to do something completely different,” he said. “We were trying to do something that this genre of movie hasn’t seen before. We kept running into the same problems, and then Deadpool and Logan came through and kicked the doors down. Now we’re really getting to do some of the things we’ve always wanted to do with the script – we’ve just sort of started over.”
However, just as the next random fantasy or sci-fi TV pilot with political themes and nudity isn’t likely to explode into a Game of Thrones-size phenomenon, it’s a safe bet that Gambit won’t come close to the commercial and critical success of Deadpool and Logan. That’s in part because Remy LeBeau isn’t Wolverine or Wade Wilson, now matter how many times comic book writers and movie producers have tried to will him to be. Like Ryan Reynolds and Hugh Jackman, Channing Tatum has charisma to spare, but that alone isn’t enough reason to push ahead with a movie that no one, beyond its star, appears to be demanding.
With the studio’s acquisition by Disney on the horizon, maybe after all of these production setbacks it’s time for Fox to finally realize that a Gambit movie may not be in the cards.