It’s 2017 and the name of the superhero movie game is continuity. Marvel is now fourteen movies deep into a sprawling cinematic universe, and the studio is increasing its output to three movies a year ahead of 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. is about to jump backwards from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice with a Wonder Woman movie set during World War I, before tying things together in Justice League.
In stark contrast, the continuity of the X-Men series – which helped to kickstart the whole superhero boom in 2000 – is a bit of a mess (in the same way that Quicksilver is “a bit” fast).
The series always conflicted with itself thanks to its “near future” setting and the varying ages and abilities of its school kids, but the original trilogy came in a time when continuity was a tertiary concern. Real cracks arose with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which messed up the X-world’s backstory almost as much as it did Deadpool (almost) and were blown open by the otherwise good First Class, which jumped back to the 1960s and introduced contradictions aplenty. By the time Marvel deftly assembled The Avengers in 2012, Fox’s merry mutants were looking a little confused.
X-Men: Days of Future Past attempted to right the whole problem by bringing together the two established time periods and using a famed comic arc to do a flat-out reset. Wolverine pulled a Terminator and created a new timeline, providing a fitting end to the original cast and allowing the prequel gang to carve their own path without any predestination problems. In doing so, the movie created a few plot holes of its own – how did Professor X come back from his death in X-Men: The Last Stand unscathed? – but the movie ultimately left things cleaned up and ready to move forward in a fresh, creative direction.
How short-lived that promise was. 2016 brought Deadpool, which existed almost entirely independent from canon and then X-Men: Apocalypse trashed it. The film was meant to take the new timeline baton from Days of Future Past and run with it, but instead got confused by the continuity simplification and returned us to square one. Bar the very end, most story elements were treated as if we were back in the original timeline with a straight prequel, creating a bunch of contradictions – the cliffhanger thread of Mystique posing as Stryker was flippantly dropped, Cyclops made a meta gag about seeing Logan in the future – leaving us with two continuities that didn’t make much sense. Now Logan’s on the horizon, set in a 2029 where all mutants are dead and – according to director James Mangold – made to function as a one-off with minimal universe building.
Not for the first time, the X-Men timeline is a mess, with little connective tissue between films. And maybe that’s the ultimate lesson from all this: Fox simply shouldn’t bother trying to fix it. Take away the precedent set by Marvel (one that no other mega-franchise has yet pulled off in the same way), does it really matter that the X-Men movies don’t have a cohesive overarching continuity?
From a financial standpoint, no, it really doesn’t. The X-Men movies have consistently published average-to-good box office numbers – not the peak of blockbusters, but respectable. There are fluctuations – typically based on how positive the release buzz is – but there’s not been the noticeable drop in interest over the movies that met the Spider-Man franchise. The X-Men series has survived for seventeen years coasting on shaky continuity and there’s nothing to say that better continuity would equal more ticket sales. Days of Future Past is the highest grossing main entry, but that was more from the time travel appeal than it was the geek resolution, and its box office was later topped by Deadpool – a movie that gleefully poked fun at the terrible continuity instead of attempting to fix it.
More importantly, the key drive for a shared universe is the cross-promotion and increased box office that team-ups allow. X-Men already has that by nature of being an ensemble franchise; you don’t need to thread five movies together to have Wolverine and Professor X share the screen, you can just do it. Unless Fox is interested in bringing together two groups – be that different timelines or, as we go on, New Mutants meeting X-Force (for example) – there’s no financial incentive to have an intricate continuity.
Forgetting money for a moment, abandoning between-movie continuity could also lead to better movies. Marvel films are strengthened by their interconnectedness because it’s been so well threaded over the better part of a decade; Captain America: Civil War had throwback references to pretty much every previous MCU movie and the characters were weightier and the story more expansive because of it. As the X-Men are dealing with a broken continuity, any throwback is just a basic Easter egg that pulls you out of the action.
Not leaning on it means that the focus is less on fan bait than it is on making a good film. Deadpool worked because it was forced to not be connected and thus define its own style, while much of the hype for Logan hinges on the promise of seeing Wolverine’s final fight. Conversely, The Wolverine stumbled because the Logan in Japan tale was lumbered with his PTSD from The Last Stand, while First Class was weakened by its desperation to tie into the pre-existing series. Continuity can be treated as a shield to telling an interesting story or lead to an obsession with setting up future adventures, but once you get past it, all creative focus has to be the movie at hand. Mad Max: Fury Road has no semblance of continuity, for a silencing example.
Abandoning concerns about continuity also makes it OK for Fox’s Marvel films to be more distinctive in terms of tone, aesthetics, genre and ratings. It’s hard to picture Marvel TV and Netflix’s mature-rated heroes like Jessica Jones and Daredevil mixing it up with the Avengers, if only because Captain America would probably go hoarse from saying, “Language!” Meanwhile, Deadpool‘s fourth wall-breaking comedy might undermine the more self-serious sincerity of the other X-Men entries if the two were ever mixed. And based on the trailers, Logan‘s distinctive palette of colors and post-apocalyptic vibe speak to a movie that’s more action-Western than straightforward superhero adventure.
Fox appears to be moving away from, with the X-Men slate dominated by a bunch of standalone movies (or at the very least sub-franchises) – New Mutants, Deadpool 2, Logan, Gambit (eventually), X-Force. This is something that the studio has been keen to do since the original trilogy wrapped up and in the shared universe landscape would actually be quite novel. These films will all be vaguely set in the same world, but they are essentially episodes. Disregarding having an evolving continuity, X-Men can be an anthology series of movies featuring different characters that all fit the basic fabric of a world with a school for mutants. Now doesn’t that sound cool?
From a more fanboy perspective, it makes speculation on the future a bit more exciting. Marvel and DC are currently in the middle of the slates they each announced in fall 2014. Both have seen changes of varying magnitude, but for all intents and purposes the movies we’re getting in 2017 we’ve known about for years and any unconfirmed ones are still many more years away. It’s an impressive selection of films and the foreknowledge makes connecting the dots fun, but the hype machine is made increasingly robotic as a result. X-Men needn’t have such shortcomings; ignoring this model is what allows them to turn on a dime to double-down on Deadpool without it feeling shocking and getting a bunch of “franchise in trouble” headlines.
Taken at face value, the X-Men series not having a coherent continuity is a disaster in the modern blockbuster landscape. But when you see just how much of a hindrance connecting the dots has been in the past, and the dividends paying it little respect could yield in the future, it’s amazing that Fox hasn’t ditched the whole thing sooner.