The ‘X-Men’ franchise doesn’t care about continuity – and that’s what makes it so good
Spend more than 20 seconds thinking about how any one X-Men movie connects to another, and you’ll probably find yourself throwing up your hands in exasperation.
Is the Caliban in X-Men: Apocalypse the same one that’s in Logan? Is there a canon reason that the Deadpool Deadpool is so different from the X-Men Origins: Wolverine Deadpool? Is it weird that First Class and Apocalypse are set 20 years apart, but everyone’s only aged five years? How can Blink be in The Gifted when she came from the future in Days of Future Past?
For that matter, is The Gifted even supposed to take place in the same continuity as the X-Men movies? How about that other X-Men show, Legion? Or any of the other X-Men-related TV projects in the works?
At a time when meticulously interconnected cinematic universes are in vogue (think Star Wars or the Marvel Cinematic Universe), X-Men‘s complete disregard for continuity seems quaint, bizarre, even maddening. But the same inconsistency that makes X-Men such a frustrating franchise is also what allows the individual X-Men films and series to shine.
When did X-Men continuity get so screwy?
Although the X-Men franchise kicked off the current wave of superhero movies, it was the MCU that started the craze for shared universes. And while other major superhero properties have changed to keep up – Warner Bros. is currently building its own DCEU, while Sony made a deal to bring Spider-Man into Disney’s MCU – X-Men has continued to … not really give a shit about continuity.
The first three X-Men movies proceeded in a more or less linear fashion, but after that, things started to go off the rails. X-Men: The Last Stand was followed by X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the spinoff no one wanted to remember, and then the entire franchise got a soft reboot with X-Men: First Class, a prequel set in 1962.
Right off the bat, there were things that didn’t add up. Nothing about the earlier X-Men films suggested that Professor X and Mystique had any significant relationship, yet First Class established that they were essentially foster siblings. The first X-Men showed us a 30something Cyclops circa 2000, but First Class introduced Havok – Cyclops’ little brother in the comics – as a young man in the 1960s.
The sequel to First Class, Days of Future Past, did little to clear up any of that confusion. But it did wipe the slate clean for future films, using time travel to reboot the entire timeline after 1973. Theoretically, this was a chance for the franchise to move forward with a more coherent narrative, free of any obligation to line up with the decisions made in the original X-Men trilogy or The Wolverine or most of X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
They didn’t take it. Among its other sins, Apocalypse conveniently forgot where Days of Future Past left things with Wolverine and Mystique, and inexplicably maintained the pattern of jumping ahead one decade per installment without aging up any of its characters. Meanwhile, spinoffs muddied the waters even further. It’s not at all clear how Deadpool or Logan intersect with the current X-Men continuity – or even, really, whether they’re even part of it at all.
How inconsistency hurts the X-Men franchise …
The problems with X-Men‘s narrative inconsistencies should be obvious. Apocalypse is probably the worst of the recent X-Men films because it tries to have its both ways. It makes very little effort to establish its characters, apparently assuming audiences will remember any relevant info from earlier films – but at the same time, it can hardly be bothered to keep its own stories straight.
The ten-year jumps between First Class, Days of Future Past, and Apocalypse turn out to be a lazy way to soft-reboot the series, so that each installment can hand-wave away whatever happened in the last installment and go about rehashing the same plot points all over again. The team needs to be rounded up again to fight some greater evil. Xavier is so sure there is still good in Charles, only to be proven wrong. Et cetera, et cetera, rinse and repeat.
In contrast, the MCU is the master of integrating storylines for maximum impact. The rift between Captain America and Iron Man in Civil War is painful to watch because we’ve spent so many years invested in their friendship, for instance, and Star-Lord and Yondu’s relationship in Vol. 2 is all the more poignant because we remember their dynamic from the first Guardians of the Galaxy.
For fans like myself, then, who’ve been trained by Marvel to connect the dots, it’s confounding to deal with a franchise that barely even seems like it’s trying to make sense. And it’s kind of puzzling to come across something like Legion, which references familiar elements of X-Men mythology but doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the universe on any level.
… But becomes a secret weapon for the individual X-Men projects
If this messiness is a drag on the franchise as a whole, though, it’s also a boon for the individual projects that make up that franchise.
Apocalypse aside, the X-Men franchise has had a remarkable run over the past couple of years. Deadpool was a breath of fresh, salty air in a sea of PG-13 blockbusters. Logan ventured into the world of Westerns and came back as one of the very best superhero movies of the past two decades. Over on the small screen, Legion felt like nothing we’d ever seen before from X-Men – or even TV in general, really.
And the reason it’s been able to hit these highs is that none of these X-Men projects were tied down by what any of the other X-Men projects were doing. It’s hard to imagine something as idiosyncratic as Legion surviving endless meetings about continuity and uniformity. When Legion decided to reference Charles Xavier, it didn’t concern itself with matching the version of him we saw in First Class or the original X-Men. It just pulled him into the story and did with him as they saw fit.
Or take Legion‘s oddly timeless setting. It’s exactly the kind of detail that’d never fly in a continuity-obsessed franchise like the MCU, because it’d go against everything the MCU has done to make their world seem like a real, coherent place. Even if the MCU wanted to pull of that kind of mysterious, dreamlike setting, it probably couldn’t – we know that world too well at that point.
Similarly, Deadpool isn’t waiting around for the core X-Men films to catch up to the present day. (As of Apocalypse, we’re in the ’80s; the next film, Dark Phoenix, is expected to bring us into the ’90s.) It cheekily acknowledges that, outside of the two X-Men that Deadpool runs into repeatedly, the X-Men are nowhere to be seen, and then it goes off to do its own thing. Deadpool is free to smash through the fourth wall because those four walls contain only himself and his close associates – not the entire X-Men franchise.
Of the recent X-Men movies, Logan strikes probably the most ideal balance between franchise entry and standalone film. It benefits from the fact that we’ve been watching Hugh Jackman play Wolverine for the past 17 years. When the movie ends, it feels like the end of an era not just for the character, but also for us. Still, it doesn’t go out of its way to reference past adventures or set up future films (Deadpool-centric prologue aside). There’s just a single, streamlined story about a man reckoning with his legacy and facing his worst fears.
Building a great franchise vs. making a great movie
None of this is to say that a steadier franchise like Marvel can’t put out good movies. Meanwhile, their individual films are still pretty good – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, in my humble estimation, was one of their best yet. But that commitment to consistency cuts both ways.
Marvel isn’t just coherent on a narrative level – it also maintains similar tones and themes across all of its entries. True, the candy-colored snark of Guardians of the Galaxy felt a world away from the chilly paranoia of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Step back a bit, though, and it’s the same formula with different window dressing: likable leads, quippy dialogue, forgettable villains, world-ending stakes, fake-out deaths, and a big, expensive CG battle in the sky.
That sameness is a feature, not a bug – it’s what makes it possible to imagine Captain America standing alongside the Guardians in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War. It’d be far more difficult to envision, say, a Deadpool / Logan crossover that does both properties justice without sacrificing what makes each one special. Forget different worlds; the characters feel like they belong to completely different universes. (This despite the fact that Deadpool and Wolverine did, in fact, appear together in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. But no one wants to see that again.)
The result of Marvel’s efforts is that they’re a great franchise made up of pretty good movies. They’re one of the most reliable brands in the biz. You know exactly what you’re getting with an MCU movie, more or less; that’s why we keep flocking to them. But it’s also why they’ve yet to put out a single film as bold as Logan, or a single show as dizzyingly unique as Legion.
X-Men doesn’t have that steadiness, which is why we get sloppy, borderline unwatchable messes like Apocalypse. However, that’s also why we get swings as wild and ambitious as Logan or Legion or Deadpool. (The Wolverine, which I’ve barely mentioned so far, falls somewhere between the two sides. It’s best when it’s unusual and worst when it’s sticking to formula.) In other words, X-Men is a crap franchise – and that’s why their individual projects have the room to be great.