Way back in 2000, before the likes of Iron Man or Captain America ever hit the silver screen, comic book movies were dominated by DC characters like, Superman and Batman. With disasters such as Superman IV and Batman & Robin, each of those series’ popularity dwindled and the end of comic book movies seemed imminent. Of course, this was far from the truth. Owning the rights to multiple superhero teams, Fox decided to produce their first Marvel adaptation with X-Men in 2000. Sixteen years later, audiences are still flocking to the theatre to catch the latest X-Men movie with the universe expanding faster than ever.
Unlike the Marvel films, X-Men was not originally created as a universe, but rather as a standard trilogy-based franchise. So far, the universe has been broken down into three trilogies with one outlier. These trilogies are all a part of the same universe, despite the fact that they are all separate from each other and often have few connections to the other films in the trilogy. Sometimes they do overlap (as we’ll see with X-Men Days of Future Past); however, each trilogy can be enjoyed on its own without too much knowledge of the others.
The original trilogy started with X-Men in 2000 and ended with X-Men: The Last Stand in 2006. It followed the X-Men led by Charles Xavier (Professor X) and their fights against the Brotherhood of Mutants led by Erik Lensherr (Magneto). All these characters were first introduced in X-Men (2000), which follows Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), a mutant with claws who can heal himself immediately (so he can’t die), and Rogue (Anna Paquin), a mutant who absorbs others’ powers and life by touching her opponent’s skin. They end up in the care of the X-Men in Professor X’s Mansion. There, they meet Storm (Halle Berry), who can control weather, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who has telekinetic and telephonic powers, Cyclops (James Marsden), who shoots lasers out of his eyes, and of course Professor X (Patrick Stewart) himself. As a team, they fight off Magneto (Ian McKellan), a mutant who controls metal, and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), a mutant who can change her form into any person, as the villains attempt to change the most powerful people in the world into Mutants, threatening everyones’ lives. This is the start of the over-arching series conflict. Many humans don’t like mutants and see them as a threat to society. The Brotherhood of Mutants think that all humans must be eliminated, whereas the X-Men try to protect society and prove that mutants are people too. SPOILER ALERT: The movie ends with the X-Men defeating Magneto and his crew plus Wolverine joining the X-Men for good. This leads into the second movie X2: X-Men United.
X2: X-Men United is generally considered the best of the original trilogy and definitely is the most important. In terms of the greater universe, X2 is our first introduction to William Stryker (Brian Cox), a human who hates mutant kind but envies their powers. Stryker will return throughout the series as an antagonist, but is always played by different actors. His main contribution to the universe is his relationship with Wolverine, who we find out in X2 was one of Styker’s test subjects; this is how he acquires his Adamantium (metal) claws. The movie is also important for giving the audience the introduction to Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), a mutant that can teleport, and for the death of Jean Grey. Up to this point in the story, Jean’s primary function was to serve as a love interest to Wolverine and as the fiancé of Cyclops (manic pixie dream girls, am I right?). X2 is our first glimpse at the phoenix power (which I’ll come back to) and her death seems to give up hope for the potential of her power.
X-Men: The Last Stand was the third and final film of the trilogy. This time, director Brett Ratner was at the helm instead of Bryan Singer. All of the main cast returned including Famke Janssen as Jean Grey. The story follows the X-Men as they work together against the Brotherhood of Mutants who have joined forces with the Dark Phoenix (Jean Grey) who’s come back from the dead. This story has lots of seemingly crucial aspects in terms of the universe, except that they are then all basically erased by later movies. SPOILER AGAIN: In short, both Cyclops and Professor X are killed by the Dark Phoenix and the movie ends with Wolverine having to sacrifice Jean for the safety of the world. A post-credits scene shows that Professor X isn’t really dead. X-Men: The Last Stand concluded the original trilogy, and seemed like the end of the universe.
The prequel trilogy started with X-Men: First Class in 2011. The film stars many of the mutants we already know, but is set during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Taking place before the X-Men existed, this movie follows a young Professor X (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Holt), and others as they save the world from Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) and his team of mutants including Emma Frost (January Jones) as they try to initiate the Cuban Missile Crisis and World War III. While Professor X and Beast are very similar to the characters we know from the original trilogy, this movie establishes a much different Magneto and Mystique. Magneto is a man with good intentions but every time he tries to do something right, life seems to get in his way. Even more importantly, the new Mystique is not purely evil, as the movie focuses much more on her strained relationship with Professor X and her attraction to the ideals brought forth by Magneto. This conflict within Mystique will dominate the trilogy and will help to breathe life in the next two stories.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is the follow-up to First Class, but it also works as the sequel to The Last Stand (yes, this is where the series gets very confusing). In this story, the future world is nearly destroyed as robots called Sentinels have been created to exterminate all mutants. In an attempt to change their future, many of the original team including Patrick Stewart’s Professor X , Ian Mckellan’s Magneto, and Halle Berry’s Storm decide to send Wolverine back in time to 1973 to stop the Sentinels from ever being created. Days of Future Past unites the trilogies while deleting movies from the timeline. Back in 1973, there is no X-Men, and the Xavier School for Gifted Children doesn’t yet exist. Wolverine must reunite Professor X, Beast, Magneto, and Mystique to help stop Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) from creating the sentinel program. Some new characters are introduced, specifically Quicksilver (Evan Peters) who is now a fan favorite, but the film generally focuses on the four mentioned above and Wolverine. In the long-run, Professor X and Magneto come into conflict as Magneto sees violence as the only option, threatening to kill President Nixon and Trask, while Professor X sees peace as a viable solution. Mystique, once again, must choose which side of the fight she is on. She decides to stop Magneto and not kill Trask, which in turn, makes her a worldwide hero for mutant and humankind. The world is saved and history has been altered. When Wolverine travels back to the future we see that the timelines have been changed as both Jean Grey and Cyclops are alive once again, essentially deleting The Last Stand.
Following Days of Future Past and finishing the prequel trilogy, X-Men: Apocalypse follows the prequel gang against a new enemy in Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac). Following the events of Days of Future Past, Mystique is now looked upon as a hero by many young mutants. She will become the center of the new team and by the end of the movie, she becomes the leader of the X-Men. In this movie, a new team of young X-Men including the previously mentioned Quicksilver, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) must help the original X-Men defeat Apocalypse and his four horsemen. These horsemen include a conflicted Magneto, Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Storm (Alexandra Ship), and Angel (Ben Hardy). Wolverine and Stryker both make cameo appearances, but the bulk of the story focuses on the young team who will most likely be the future of the franchise. Long story short, the horsemen turn on Apocalypse and team up with the X-Men to help save the world. After Apocalypse’s death, the new team of heroes led by Professor X and Mystique are together. As always, Magneto goes his separate way and only the future holds what is next.
The third (incomplete) trilogy inside the X-Men Universe follows Wolverine. It starts with the film, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. This isn’t a great movie, in my opinion, and most of the story has been erased from the series’ continuity by Days of Future’s Past. The directors are mostly just ignoring this film’s existence. The story follows Wolverine before he was given Adamantium claws; we get to see his first encounters with William Stryker. The movie introduces characters such as Sabretooth (Liev Schreiber), Kestrel (will.i.am) and Gambit (Taylor Kitsch), although if any of these characters ever return in the future, they will most likely be recast. It also introduces Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool, and then later completely destroys the character (they sew his mouth shut). Deadpool’s entire origin was reimagined a few years later with his own solo movie. In the end, Wolverine has his Adamantium claws, saves the day, and loses his memory. That is basically all that needs to be known about this movie.
Wolverine isn’t the only character with a solo movie. In 2016, Fox released the small budgeted, R-rated Deadpool. The movie reintroduces Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool with a completely new origin story. Unlike most X-Men movies, Deadpool doesn’t deal with the end of the world, but rather the title character’s quest for revenge after being given his powers (and incidentally a Freddy Kruger-like face). The movie is not really related to any other so far in the universe. Deadpool introduces a very new Colossus (Stefan Kapičić) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), but otherwise doesn’t show any other X-men characters (although Hugh Jackman/Wolverine’s picture and name show up on numerous occasions). Deadpool even jokes about how the movie doesn’t have the budget to show any other characters. In terms of the greater universe, Deadpool’s main importance was being an R-rated hero grounded in meta humor and extreme violence. Being the most successful movie of the series, Deadpool will have a sequel, and will start a new brand of “X-Men” film, which will probably also have R-ratings. In a post-credit scene, we learn that Cable will appear in the next installment of the series.
Stay tuned for the third and final article in our X-Men series!