Shouldn’t the X-Men all be a lot older by now?

Huw Fullerton unravels the tangled timelines of 20th century Fox’s merry mutants

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One of the best jokes in this year’s adult-themed X-Men spin-off Deadpool came when the rapid-healing mercenary was being dragged off to face the wrath of Professor X, only to quip: “McAvoy or Stewart? These timelines can get so confusing.” 

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In the screening I was at this got the biggest laugh of the night, and it’s not hard to see why – in recent years, the world and timeline of Fox and Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies have become increasingly confusing, muddled and contradictory.

And to think, it all began so simply. Back in the early 2000s, the first three X-Men films proceeded linearly from one to the next, telling the story of mutants coming into the world in the 21st century in a way we could all understand. We skipped back a bit for X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but as a straight prequel for Hugh Jackman’s clawed antihero that pretty much made sense.

It was only when Matthew Vaughn brought 1960s-set prequel X-Men: First Class to screens in 2011 that things started to get confusing. One character (the diamond-skinned Emma Frost) who had previously been seen in 1980s-set spin-off X-Men Origins: Wolverine was introduced as a completely different person, and older, two decades early, while the moment that Professor X (James McAvoy) lost the use of his legs directly contradicted flashbacks in both X-Men 3 and the Wolverine prequel.

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James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender were cast as younger versions of Patrick Stewart’s Professor X and Ian McKellen’s Magneto respectively, and while in of itself that wasn’t too jarring, the film’s 1960s setting put the 30-something actors about 10 years older than their characters would have been at the time (based on the age of Stewart and McKellen in 2000’s X-Men).

None of this would matter, of course, if First Class was a reboot. But producers at the time made very clear that the X-Men universe was supposed to all hang together, and then X-Men: Days of Future Past confirmed it by uniting both generations of mutants in one great big adventure. 

This made everything even more confusing. Set about a decade after First Class (but using the same actors who had barely aged), DOFP merrily set about tearing apart the history of the X-Men movies thus far, as Hugh Jackman from the even closer future (set after the first three X-Men films) went back in time to just after the First Class prequel to stop something (Mystique’s blood making killer robots, basically) that hadn’t yet been a problem in the first three X-Men films. Oh, and it was also set both before, after and during X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

Like we said – confusing. And at the close of the film, Wolverine was sent back to the “present” to find all his friends alive and well, tacitly rewriting X-Men 3 to have never happened (several of the returning characters like James Marsden’s Cyclops and Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey were offed in that movie) as well as possibly the other two original X-Men movies, seeing as Mystique decided not to be a villain after all (as she appeared in those films).

It’s also worth noting that DOFP saw Patrick Stewart’s Professor X return from the dead and Ian McKellen’s Magneto regain the use of his powers after the events of X-Men 3, with no explanation bar ambiguous post-credits scenes in the earlier 2007 Brett Ratner movie.

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The above infographic from Delayed Gratification and Empire more or less sums up the twisted state of the X-Men movie universe after DOFP’s release – but then they made this year’s X-Men Apocalypse. This muddles things up even further by jumping forward another decade to the 1980s (putting James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender in at least their 50s while 25-year-old returning First Class actor Lucas Till would be in his 40s) and including characters like Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Angel (Ben Hardy) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who had supposedly not been encountered, and in very different forms, until 20 years later in the original X-Men trilogy.

Apparently the plan is now to set the next X-Men movie in the 1990s (hello, 60-plus James McAvoy), and to be honest it’s getting a bit silly. Sure, the film series tries to explain away some of its odd paradoxes and contradictions with Wolverine’s travel to the past in DOFP and, yes, applying strict logic to superhero movies can seem pointless, but if you’re ignoring the basic laws of time there’s something very wrong, right…?

Well, there is at least a precedent here. The original Marvel X-Men comics on which the movies are based also have a loose approach to time, using a so-called “elastic timeline” that reimagines and compresses events from the 1960s (when the first X-Men comics were published) to have happened roughly 10 years prior to the present day. And if the comics did it, can’t the movies?

I would argue that not everything that works in the medium of comic books works onscreen, and while the X-Men comics do compress time, in doing so they have not (generally speaking) tossed characters into different decades willy-nilly to serve the whims of the next plot, or entertained quite so many bizarre paradoxes without at least an attempt to explain them (called “retconning” in the business).

And the age issue is important. Fundamentally, whether the characters look older or not doesn’t matter too much – it’s the fact that none of them feel older that bothers me. When you consider Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man in this year’s Captain America: Civil War, you can see the changes in him over the 10 years he’s been a superhero.

But when I look at the characters in X-Men: Apocalypse, I don’t see or believe that they’ve been fighting for justice for two decades. I don’t see the narrative justification for jumping through time, or re-writing characters to appear completely differently. I just see a screenwriter trying to make a plot fit together, and it’s a bit jarring. 

Look, I love the X-Men series, First Class in particular, and I’m sure that the future movies will continue to entertain me as they do many others. I’ll go along to X-Men: Apocalypse this week (despite the mixed reviews), and I’m sure that I’ll find plenty to enjoy in the latest mutant adventure. 

It’s just a shame that I’ll have to turn off my brain to do that, lest the whole thing seem like one big joke. 

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X-Men: Apocalypse is in cinemas now