With the release of Days of Future Past, it’s time to reassess how Fox’s X-Men movie universe is progressing — and what it needs to do, if it’s going to be able to mount a challenge to Marvel’s cinematic universe.
Before I begin, be aware that there are spoilers for Days of Future Past below.
Frankly, I’m rooting for the X-Men film franchise. Not because I’m a huge X-Men fan — although I’ve read my fair share of the comics and liked plenty of them. I also don’t revere even the “classic” original two Singer X-films. But I recognize their place in history.
I saw Days of Future Past at an AMC theater, and it played a very silly animation in which living versions of the red AMC dot run around like super-heroes, battling giant flying cellphones. The point is just that you should turn off your phones. But I couldn’t help but notice that the super-hero genre is so deeply entrenched now as the blockbuster genre that even such a silly animation can appropriate super-hero tropes. It’s a simplistic appropriation of the most superficial aspects of the genre, but the point is that when you imagine fun at the movies, you imagine super-heroes. When I was a kid, people would have laughed and made fun of this — out loud, in the threater. Now, it’s totally accepted. That’s how dominant super-heroes are, and more than any other movie, it was Bryan Singer’s 2000 X-Men (two whole years before the first Spider-Man film) that ushered this new world into being. We’re all still living in its shadow.
So I respect the X-Men movies. We wouldn’t have a Marvel cinematic universe without X-Men, Spider-Man, and plenty of others who demonstrated movies even starring second-stringers like Iron Man could be blockbusters. And the X-Men franchise hasn’t rebooted itself, the way Sony did with Spider-Man — and the way Warner Bros. have done with everything. The X-Men franchise is the longest-running super-hero movie franchise.
That franchise took quite a critical pounding with 2006′s The Last Stand — although that film still did very well at the box office. 2009′s X-Men Origins: Wolverine did abysmally critically and marked a huge box office drop. 2011′s X-Men: First Class and last year’s The Wolverine didn’t do as well commercially as the original three films, but they’re very good super-hero movies. They’d certainly be above average entries in the Marvel cinematic universe. Now, with Days of Future Past, we’ve had three very good X-Men films in a row. That certainly ought to make up for the franchise’s earlier weak entries.
But there’s another reason to root for the X-Men franchise, besides its recent quality. It’s the only game in town, in terms of competition to the Marvel cinematic universe.
Yes, I know DC’s trying to get its cinematic universe up and running. But that’s been slow in coming, and there’s every indication that it’s going to feel more like a take on the DC Universe, departing from the comics significantly, rather than a DC equivalent to the Marvel cinematic universe. And while Sony’s talking about Spider-Man spin-off movies, that franchise is only two movies deep, isn’t exactly loved by critics, and may have its expansion plans curtailed in the wake of the perceived under-performance of The Amazing Spider-Man 2. The X-Men franchise is now seven movies, has deep roots, and both critical and historic cachet. And as cool as it is to have a Marvel cinematic universe, it would be cool if that universe had some competition.
Days of Future Past shows the X-Men franchise may well be up to the task.
If I have one complaint about the movie — and the X-franchise in general — it’s about continuity.
Obviously, most of the X-Men movies weren’t produced with the expectation that they would eventually comprise seven films, with at least two more on the way. Disjunctures and continuity errors were inevitable, especially when you’re producing prequel films.
Days of Future Past is designed in part to fix this. Time gets altered, in 1973, during the movie, that’s obviously intended as a way of wiping the slate semi-clean, like the Abrams Star Trek reboot, in a way that still acknowledges the original version.
This means, in essence, that there are two timelines. The original iteration is centered around the original trilogy (2000′s X-Men, 2003′s X2, and 2006′s X-Men: The Last Stand). This timeline culminates in 2023, in which Sentinels have decimated the mutant population — as well as many humans.
Both timelines share First Class (2011) — because it happened prior to the change in the timeline. In both timelines, Professor X had lost his powers and his school had fallen into disrepair by 1973. But in the new timeline, Wolverine’s consciousness possesses his 1973 self, and events unfold differently.
Last year’s The Wolverine clearly takes place in the original timeline. A big part of that movie is Wolverine mourning Jean Grey’s loss, in the wake of The Last Stand. It’s odd that this movie’s been rendered out-of-continuity only a year later, but that’s in fact the case. The Wolverine is probably best understood as a denouement to the original trilogy.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) is a little more difficult. Perhaps some feel it’s best forgotten, in any case, and it might be convenient to place the movie in the original timeline, since the movie’s events are probably never going to be referenced again. Chronologically, the bulk of the film takes place after the 1973 portions of Days of Future Past — specifically, in 1982. Since it’s a prequel film, it would be tempting to place it with the other prequel films (First Class and Days of Future Past). But in Days of Future Past, the 1973 Wolverine ends up falling under the control of Stryker, who’s then revealed to be Mystique. This is apparently incompatible with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, in which Wolverine’s serving in Vietnam in 1973, leading Stryker to gain control over Wolverine. (That Stryker controls mutants in Vietnam in Days of Future Past is a nice nod to continuity, although it’s hard to imagine how Wolverine wouldn’t already be serving in the military during those events.) It’s not clear what happens to the 1973 Wolverine after Days of Future Past — presumably, he got his metal claws somehow, but was the Weapon X program run by Mystique this time around? In any case, X-Men Origins: Wolverine belongs to the original timeline — making it the one prequel movie that does, which puts it in an odd situation.
In summary, everything set before 1973 takes place in both timelines. This includes flashbacks at the beginning of several movies, as well as all of First Class. The original trilogy, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and The Wolverine all take place in the original timeline, as does most of the 2023 material and some of the 1973 scenes in Days of Future Past. Days of Future Past also creates a new timeline, which includes the revised version of 2023 seen at the end of that film.
But there are still problems, or at least gaps. One of the most important is that The Wolverine includes a mid-credits sequence in which Wolverine, two years after the main events of the film, meets Professor X and Magneto in an airport. Professor X warns Wolverine of a new threat to mutants, in a set-up for Days of Future Past. But if The Wolverine takes place in the year of its release (2013), this mid-credits sequence is set in 2015. The next time we see these characters is in 2023 in Days of Future Past. Does this mean that the new model of Sentinels appeared in 2013 and the fight against them took ten years to progress until what’s seen in Days of Future Past? Perhaps more basically, how did Professor X come back from the dead, how did Magneto regain his powers, and how did the two team up? The end of The Last Stand points in some of these directions, but only as a tease. There’s a gap here, and these are some pretty big developments to have occur off-screen.
Perhaps the Wolverine sequel, currently planned for 2017, will answer these questions — although there’s been no indication that Professor X and Magneto will co-star in that film. If this is addressed, the new Wolverine film would be set in a timeline that’s already been negated. On the other hand, if this isn’t addressed, there would remain odd gaps in the original timeline, and setting the new Wolverine movie in the revised timeline would mean revealing that timeline’s far future, relative to where we left it in 1973.
Days of Future Past has other continuity problems. For example, Magneto’s imprisoned beneath the Pentagon in 1973. This is true prior to any change in the timeline, so in the original timeline, he was freed or escaped some other way. Also, when the government imprisoned Magneto after 2000′s X-Men, it would have had some some experience doing so — yet it’s hard to fathom this being the case, based on how his imprisonment is depicted there and in X2. Similarly, Magneto appears to have a huge degree of control over his powers in 1973. He’s capable of performing multiple operations simultaneously, requiring great intricacy, even when he can’t see the metal he’s animating. Yet this is a degree of control far exceeding what we see in the original trilogy, which is set about 30 years later.
To put it mildly, the continuity of the X-Men movie series is a bit of a mess.
What is it about the X-Men that spurs such complicated continuity? In the comics, X-Men continuity is considered almost impossibly opaque and has long been one of the biggest barriers for new readers.
This poses a more practical problem for the X-Men movie franchise, especially relative to the Marvel cinematic universe. Inevitably, the continuity of the Marvel cinematic universe will grow more complicated — and it already has. It also has continuity errors, which fans have largely ignored. But Marvel’s been careful not to require much knowledge of its viewers. Familiarity with the basic plot of The Avengers is usually enough. Most (but not all) of the teasers for the next film are compatible with that next film. That’s not really the case with the teaser at the end of The Wolverine.
If 20th Century-Fox is really going to mount a shared universe that can compete with Marvel’s, Fox is going to have to get its continuity in order.
It’s not enough to simply put out more movies. They’ve got to interlock in a way that’s intelligible, that goes beyond teasing the next release by creating a sense of shared continuity.
The benefits of doing so are obvious. Besides the X-Men, including the ever-popular Wolverine, Fox also controls the Fantastic Four’s cinematic rights, including the Silver Surfer and the villain Galactus. The X-Men, Wolverine, the Fantastic Four, and the Silver Surfer could all be the focus of regular movies, much like Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America. Other X-Men characters, like X-Force or Magneto, could be the focus of supplemental films, much like the Hulk, Ant-Man, or the Guardians of the Galaxy. The real parallel for the Avengers wouldn’t be the X-Men; it would be a Fox crossover movie, starring the various X-Men as well as the Fantastic Four and the Silver Surfer. Given that the X-Men have been mined enough, the first villain for such a crossover movie is obvious: Galactus. It’s easy enough to imagine a structure in which this would work, with teasers at the end of each movie, guest appearances, and everything building up to — and then flowing out of — the next crossover movie.
Days of Future Past is a step in the right direction, because it’s at least going to be perceived as a fresh start, given its alteration of time, and also because it’s likely to be a commercial and a critical success. One of the challenges Fox faces is the perception that the X-Men films have grown stale, or simply gone on too long. Another challenge isn’t perceptual: it’s the reality that Fox’s properties haven’t been as big hits as Marvel’s own have, and this makes mounting ambitious plans more difficult. Days of Future Past might help with this perceptual challenge, making X-Men movies feel fresh again, while also encouraging Fox to see that it has a real shot of being able to create the kind of self-reinforcing cash cow that the Marvel cinematic universe has proven to be.
But if Fox is going to seize the moment, it’s got to streamline its continuity and make viewers feel as if they understand how all these movies fit together.