We are at a new dawn for the X-Men, one of comics’ most famous superhero teams. Marvel’s mutants are set to arrive in the Marvel Cinematic Universe over the next few years, but it’s not going to be easy to shake the franchise built up over the last 20-years.
The X-Men films are adapted from comic books of the same name. The X-Men first arrived on the page in September 1963, created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, they built on the new brand of superheroes that Marvel had developed with great success since 1961. These heroes were less sure of themselves and their powers than the all-powerful heroes that had come before – they also experienced the same problems we did. One difference between the X-Men and their Marvel predecessors was that they were mutants. That meant each naturally carried a unique power that didn’t require a specific explanation or origin.
As comics’ ultimate outsiders, the X-Men have the power to tackle issues of society and discrimination as much as the worst the Marvel universe has to throw at them.
The X-Men and spin-off titles soon became one of the most popular parts of the Marvel comic universe. Sales of the X-Men titles have consistently ranked strongly, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s. The launch of the main title’s second volume, 1991’s X-Men #1, remains the best-selling single comic book of all time, with 8.2 million copies. It’s no surprise that these popular mutants ended up on the screen.
The first X-Men film was released in 2000. Along with 1997’s Blade – also a Marvel property – it helped kickstart the rapid growth of modern comic book movies, laying the seeds of the ongoing comic film boom that’s led by the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)
But like Blade, the X-Men were not part of the MCU. Facing financial difficulties that would reach a peak when the firm filed for bankruptcy in 1996, Marvel sold the X-Men film rights to 20th Century Fox in 1993. Fox would quickly snap up The Fantastic Four, too, while Sony caught Spider-Man in its web. The sale of those rights left Marvel with lesser-known properties when it attempted to form its own superhero film sequence in 2008. What the MCU achieved was phenomenal, but it also forced rival studios to raise their game.
Twentieth Century Fox produced thirteen X-Men movies over 20 years before the property was reunited with its Marvel stablemates when Disney acquired Fox and its properties in 2020.
Fox’s X-Men franchise started in a fairly conventional way, complete with a classic opening trilogy. But within a decade, confronted with the MCU, the franchise’s increasing confidence led to a diverse portfolio of superhero films. It also created an impressive continuity nightmare, although many fans expected that. X-Men comic stories had long featured time-travel conundrums and casual continuity, so it made for a faithful adaptation in many ways. It took one of the franchise’s best movies to turn it into a feature.
It was all so simple at the beginning. After X-Men’s chilling opening showed Magneto’s powers materialize at Auschwitz, the main story occurred in a ‘near-future’ parallel 2000. The franchise stuck with that timescale until the third film, at which point a mixed response stalled the franchise.
The response was an inspired reset, jumping back in time to explore the friendship and enmity of Professor X and Magneto from the beginning. The franchise would then progress a decade at a time, while spin-offs focussed on particularly popular X-Men. The most prominent was Wolverine, played by Hugh Jackman in three solo films outside the main series. Deadpool, despite his weak entry to the franchise in X-Men:Origins: Wolverine, starred in two successful spin-offs. His films picked up a combined $1.5 billion, ranking as the second and third highest-grossing R-rated films of all time. If anyone was going to set Disney and the MCU a challenge, it was Deadpool.
It was Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class that pulled the franchise back to a stylish and atmospheric 1960s, literally returning the superteam to its roots. There’s no doubt this led to continuity issues, not least in the relationship between Professor X and Mystique. However, it also created a franchise with a rare texture. First Class’s sequel showed the strength of the new approach. It adapted the seminal 1981 comic storyline Days of Future Past to combine a 1970s period piece with the characters and cast of the former modern trilogy.
Apocalypse did its best with the 1980s but couldn’t recapture the quality of Days Past. The merger with Disney and the blander fit of the 1990s meant the mains series limped off with Dark Phoenix. After two decades, the franchise ended with the derided New Mutants. But you don’t need superpowers to know that there are even newer mutants in the Marvel universe that have a long future ahead of them on film.
X2: X-Men United (2003)
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
X-Men: First Class (2011)
The Wolverine (2013)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
Deadpool 2 (2018)
Dark Phoenix (2019)
The New Mutants (2020)
Should you feel inclined, you could jump around the franchise by period, thanks to its characters’ longevity. This purely chronologically based timeline lets you enjoy every film without worrying about divergent timelines, although the continuity will be confusing.
X-Men: Apocalypse (3500 B.C – Apocalypse’s origins)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (the 1800s, 1917-1918 – Wolverine and Sabretooth’s early rivalry)
X-Men / X-Men: First Class (1944 – Magneto’s powers emerge, Xavier and Raven meet)
The Wolverine (1944 – Wolverine makes a fateful choice in Nagasaki)
X-Men: First Class (1962 – main story)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (1973 – main story)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (1973 – Wolverine in Vietnam, 1979 – Wolverine escapes Weapon X)
Dark Phoenix (1975 – Jean Grey’s powers emerge)
X-Men: The Last Stand (1986 – Magneto and Xavier try to recruit Jean Grey)
X-Men: Apocalypse (1983 – main story)
Dark Phoenix (1992 – main story)
X-Men (2000 – main story)
X2: X-Men United (2003 – main story)
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006 – main story)
The Wolverine (2013 – main story)
Deadpool (2016 – main story)
Deadpool 2 (2018 – main story)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2023 – main story)
The New Mutants (c.2026 – main story)
Logan (c.2030 – an unspecified future)
The events of Days of Future Past were shattering, confusing, and paradoxical – splitting the franchise’s timeline in two. It made a few of the saga’s inconsistencies easier to swallow, but not all of them. Most importantly, it separated the first film, 2000’s X-Men, from the penultimate entry, Dark Phoenix, set in 1992. In doing so, the franchise bought itself room to grow that it would never fully use.
The creation of two X-Men timelines wasn’t conclusive, either. Deadpool 1 and 2 and Logan appear to sit outside both. Deadpool could be in a meta-aware universe of its own, while Logan refers to events in both timelines. For a balanced viewing experience, it’s best to add them to the second.
The critical divergence comes down to one bullet in Days of Future Past. If Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique killed Bolivar Trask in the 1970s, his Sentinels would take mutantkind to near-extinction, creating the grave Timeline A we’d become used to. However, if Wolverine stopped Mystique, leaving her free to save President Nixon from being assassinated by Magneto, it would lead to Timeline B. That was the odder and more erratic timeline that all subsequent films followed. While it had happy peaks and parody, it ended with a slice of horror and Wolverine’s sentimental swansong.
X-Men: First Class
X-Men: Days of Future Past (1970s)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
X2: X-Men United
X-Men: The Last Stand
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2023 – the last of the mutants)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2023 – a happy ending)
The New Mutants
Following Disney’s acquisition of Fox’s media assets in 2020, your best bet to watch the X-Men films is on Disney+. The movies appeared on the network in the summer of 2020. Otherwise, most entries, including the Rogue Cut of Days of Future Past, are available to rent and buy at iTunes and Prime.
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