Tony Black attempts to make sense of the continuity of the X-Men franchise…
Have you ever attempted to make sense of the X-Men movie continuity? As in pick apart the entire timeline of events across the eight, soon to be nine films in the franchise? Of course not, you all have lives. You have friends and family and loved ones, and probably spend time with them. I, on the other hand, give a worrying amount of time over in my brain space to consider these things, and recent conversation with my good friend Lee Chrimes, ostensibly about the merits (or lack thereof) of the brand new X-Men: Apocalypse, led to a very deep exploration of X-Men chronology which drove us toward one inescapable conclusion: the writers have no idea, and are probably hoping we’re past the point of worrying about it. Well I have news for you, Simon Kinberg – this matters. We talk. And when you pull a massive continuity wobble like the use of Wolverine in Apocalypse, we very much notice. So you, however, don’t have to hurt your minds trying to untangle the narrative web that is the X-Men series, let me try and do it for you, based on the chat Lee and I had (and he deserves almost equal credit for what you’re about to read).
Bryan Singer’s first movie way back in 2000 was simply X-Men, which introduced a functioning X-Men operation led by a middle-aged Professor Charles Xavier, played here by Patrick Stewart, including adult versions of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Scott ‘Cyclops’ Summers (James Marsden), Ororo ‘Storm’ Munroe (Halle Berry) etc… and on the flipside we had Erik ‘Magneto’ Lensherr’s (Ian McKellen) Brotherhood of Mutants which principally involved his loyal sidekick, the blue skinned shapeshifter Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos). Let’s call this ‘X-1’, as in timeline zero, the first timeline we see on-screen as, you’ll come to see, there end up timelines aplenty in Terminator-style fashion. The first X-Men film, crucially, establishes that Xavier and Magneto have been ‘frenemies’ for some time, and indeed Erik lost his parents in 1944 in a concentration camp, which roughly puts them both at around 55-60 years of age when X-Men 1 begins. Okay? Good. Keep that in mind.
X2 then in 2003 continues the narrative and the majority of characters while throwing in a few new players – Kurt ‘Nightcrawler’ Wagner (Alan Cumming), another blue-skinned teleport (here probably around 35 years old, so that just about tracks with his age when we see his younger self in Apocalypse played by Kodi Smit-McPhee), who flits between good and bad guy to an extent, and importantly the middle-aged General William Stryker (Brian Cox). He will prove to be crucial to working this all out, as indeed are the revelations connecting him to Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine aka Logan, and the ‘Weapon-X’ program some decades ago which created him. X2 sees Wolverine reach Alkali Lake, figure out a decent chunk of the past erased from his memories, before taking out Stryker and getting on with his day. This is all still X-1 timeline, remember, as are the events of X3: The Last Stand – only this is the beginning of where things start to get complicated.
See this was the point Bryan Singer left to go and make Superman Returns, and his franchise fell into the dubious hands of blockbuster hack Brett Ratner, who apart from making a right dogs dinner of a film also made some crucial, and series changing decisions. He firstly killed off Professor X, but in the post-credits sequence we saw Olivia Williams’ uncredited Dr. Moira MacTaggert (here roughly mid-30’s, also keep that in mind) discover Xavier had transferred his consciousness into a suspiciously bald, bed-ridden man. Ratner also killed off Jean Grey in a hashed-up version of the Phoenix saga, introduced a middle-aged Hank ‘Beast’ McCoy (Kelsey Grammer) and seemingly took the aged Magneto’s powers away from him, though the film hints that was just temporary. Everyone agreed The Last Stand was a bit rubbish, bar a terrific score.
20th Century Fox, seeing how the Batman and Bond reboots had done fantastic business, nevertheless had prequels on their mind – first failing to get a Magneto prequel off the ground, showing a younger Erik in the 40’s & 50’s with McKellen bookending as his old self, but then utterly making another pigs ear of Gavin Hood’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009, and crucially muddying the continuity waters significantly. Here we saw a younger Victor ‘Sabretooth’ Creed (Liev Schreiber), suddenly Logan’s brother despite the two seemingly not knowing each other in the first X-Men when he was played by lurching Tyler Mane, and a terribly misconceived first attempt at a Deadpool origin which Ryan Reynolds of course recently had chance to do properly. We saw Danny Huston portray a young Major Stryker, with the film set in the 70’s, and it ostensibly explains the events Wolverine couldn’t remember in the preceding three movies. At this point, that makes these events within the X-1 timeline. There is no suggestion that’s not the case. We see a teenage Cyclops, and a younger Xavier (played by Stewart), plus a shonky attempt to introduce Remy ‘Gambit’ LeBeau, played by the ever dull Taylor Kitsch. So yeah, like it or lump it, X-1.
Then came the curveball. Still determined to establish a prequel of some sort, working through writers and ideas that always came back to the showing the young versions of Charles & Erik and how they came to be X and Magneto, Singer returned – this time as producer, with Matthew Vaughn taking the chair for a radicalised adaptation of the First Class comic in 2011. Set in 1962, it pitches Charles (here played by James McAvoy) and Erik (Michael Fassbender) at around roughly 25 years old each, which tracks with the X-1 timeline. For the purposes of what’s to come, let’s call this X-0–a base original timeline that everything essentially flows from. The events of First Class always appeared to happen, as did Erik in Auschwitz and Charles meeting a young Raven, aka Mystique, in the same year at a children’s home. This pitches Mystique, as played by Jennifer Lawrence in First Class, as roughly the same age. It means, if this leads to the X-1 timeline, that Romijn-Stamos was playing a roughly 60 year old Mystique in the first three films. Hmmm…
Anyway, First Class also introduces Alex ‘Havok’ Summers (Lucas Till) as a young man, plus all new characters who existed long before the X-1 timeline. Fine. No contradictions there, though having Alex look roughly the same age in Apocalypse when he’d be at least mid-40’s by then stands out (but then that’s an issue across the board). Indeed one or two niggles aside–such as a now 25 or so year old Moira McTaggart, played by Rose Byrne, romancing Charles which would have meant Williams was playing a 65 year old in The Last Stand–it tracks with Singer’s original pictures relatively smoothly.
2013 saw the release of James Mangold’s The Wolverine, in which he and Jackman made no apologies for attempting to correct the mistake of the previous Origins movie, and deliver people the Wolverine film they deserved. Adapting in part Chris Claremont & Frank Miller’s critically acclaimed 1982 comic which saw Wolverine fall in love in Japan, The Wolverine takes place pretty clearly in the X-1 timeline – after The Last Stand, given he sees visions of the deceased Jean, who haunts his attempts to move on from her and the X-Men. It appears to be a standalone (and pretty decent) adventure for Wolverine… until the obligatory post-credits sequence, in which a fully powered old Magneto and very much alive, Patrick Stewart-incarnate Xavier recruit Logan for a coming war, after a hint that we may see Trask Industries at a later date.
So this can’t be X-1, right? Professor X was dead, Magneto was powered down, and though hints were laid those circumstances may be temporary, no direct confirmation as to how Xavier is alive or Magneto is back to full strength are forthcoming. We can still assume, therefore, we remain in X-1. At which point, in 2014, Bryan Singer returned to wrest control back over the franchise he abandoned, with one clear purpose: to erase the mistakes of The Last Stand and Origins. Enter Days of Future Past, an adaptation of the legendary 1980’s comic book event, and the one film that truly put a spike through any attempts at understanding a clear, defined X-Men movie timeline.
The film begins in what we can assume is X-1, but the future post-2014. Old Xavier & Magneto, plus the Wolverine they recruited and many of the surviving X-Men from The Last Stand – Storm, Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Rogue (Anna Paquin), Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) etc… are losing to the Sentinels, an army of sentient robotic creatures who are wiping out both humans *and* mutants, created in 1973 by scientist & industrialist Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). It was his assassination by young Mystique that led to Stryker’s program using her DNA over the years to enhance the Sentinels, who proceeded to go all SkyNet and take over. In the comic, Kitty is sent back but for blockbuster purposes, she sends Wolverine’s consciousness back to find younger Xavier & Magneto and save Trask, thereby changing the dark future. The Wolverine we therefore see in 1973 is the man before Weapon X, before the metallic claws, and in the X-1 timeline before the events of Origins.
To cut a long story short, he helps the First Class crew–including a younger Beast played now by Nicholas Hoult–save the day, and this is where it gets tricky. We remain ostensibly still in X-1 but now the outcome of that timeline has changed. Not only is the unconscious Wolverine–who won’t have remembered any of these events or helping young Charles–rescued by Mystique in disguise before any of the events of Origins, thereby negating those, equally when Wolverine’s consciousness returns to the future it’s no longer dark and full of Sentinels, but rather slightly soft washed, warm & glossy with an alive old Xavier alongside Jean & Cyclops, all of whom never died in The Last Stand because in this timeline, none of those events ever happened. We can only assume therefore that X-1 ceases to exist as we knew it when Trask isn’t killed in 1973, and X-2 is created from it – a new timeline in which the Sentinels never rose, and Wolverine gets Jean back in presumably about the 2020’s. Only there’s a snag…
If we go by this thinking, where do the First Class crew fit in? This means fundamentally that if the X-1 timeline never happened, and X-2 now leads into the recently released Apocalypse in the 1980’s, with a roughly eighteen year old Jean (Sophie Turner), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) & Storm (Alexandra Shipp), then the events of X-Men, X2, The Last Stand and The Wolverine never happened. So how would Wolverine even know Jean in the first place? We can therefore only assume that the changed future in Days of Future Past should be classified as X-3, a third timeline which existed independently of X-1–which takes in X-Men: First Class, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men, X2, The Last Stand, The Wolverine & the original dark future of Days of Future Past–or X-2 which takes in X-Men: First Class, everything in 1973 after Trask survives in Days of Future Past, and Apocalypse so far. If that’s the case however… how do we reconcile the end of The Wolverine?
If that film exists in X-1, and it directly leads to the Sentinel dark future, then how can Wolverine wake up in X-3 after he’s sent back to X-1 & ultimately X-2? It may only be a short post-credit scene but it completely muddles the chronological timeline of events, and suggests that no evidence exists at all for X-3 even existing, and under examination the temporal logic behind the changing time events of Days of Future Past make absolutely no logical sense, even in the science-fiction framework of these films. An old Xavier’s recently confirmed involvement in The Wolverine 2, about to start filming, equally adds fuel to the confusing fire; producer Kinberg has claimed its set “in the future” and will most likely adapt the legendary ‘Old Man Logan‘ comic book arc for Hugh Jackman’s final appearance as the character. What future is he talking about? The post-The Wolverine future? The happy Days of Future Past future? Or the current X-2, post-Apocalypse future? In which of course young Jean let Wolverine escape Stryker’s Weapon X program and he’s currently on the run, feral, in 1983 – presumably allowing him to move full circle to the mind-wiped hustler with no knowledge of the X-Men we met in Bryan Singer’s original. And let’s not even get started on trying to figure out if and where the Deadpool movie features!
If you’ve made it to the end of this piece, let me provide you with a handily, if crude, drawn representation of this mess by my aforementioned friend Lee which may illustrate:
Still confused? I’m not surprised. If we drew one conclusion from attempting to wrap our heads around the X-Men continuity, it’s that in all likelihood not even Kinberg, Singer or their other writers probably fully understand how they’ve tangled the franchise up. They would no doubt tell us not to worry and just enjoy the films. Fine. We can do that. Apocalypse may not be great but it was perfectly good fun on its own terms. The utter confusion of the X-Men mythology and it’s timeline however should serve as a warning sign to the legions of writers and producers crafting their own cinematic universes now in the age of continuity: don’t make shit up as you go along. Because us fans will always always always know.
I’m off now for a lie down, because man has this given me a headache!
Tony Black is a freelance film/TV writer & podcaster & would love you to follow him on Twitter.
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