They may have broken down walls in Hollywood as the first certified superhero blockbuster, but the X-Men series has seen more highs and lows than most movie franchises ever endure. But the future looks brighter than ever, with a younger cast of heroes set to battle the comic team's greatest foe in X-Men: Apocalypse. But when you realize that it's the same man who launched the series who is now undoing his past films, the miracle Bryan Singer and Fox have pulled off starts to come into focus.
After the X-Men proper fell into trouble in their third outing, and an origin spin-off with its most popular hero fell even farther, plenty called for the series to be put on hold indefinitely. Instead, they tried something different: an origin story of the team, starring lesser-known mutants, and incredible actors on the rise. With a more intimate story, intimate scale, and a different director, no fan could've guessed what was to come...
In short: time travel. On a larger scale, a trip through time was the bridge needed to link the original films and the new origin story. But with Apocalypse keeping the spotlight on the new class, Fox and Singer have done the impossible: a reboot without any of the risks or fan backlash that usually brings. And to make thing better, he even gave the original heroes a happy ending in Days of Future Past's closing scenes. Or did he?
It turns out the timeline is nowhere near as clear as fans may have assumed - a fact explained to us by Singer himself during our Apocalypse set visit in July. And according to his candid explanation, no matter what Days of Future Past seemed to imply, the future is still very much in flux... and nobody is safe.
The X-Men Timeline That Was
Since it began over a decade and a half ago, it's safe to assume most comic book movie fans are aware of the original take on the X-Men. The live-action versions weren't a hit with every fan, particularly as they diverged from their comic source material as the fan adoration of (or indifference to) certain characters took hold. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) became the star of the team, even if Cyclops (James Marsden) was still technically leading. Even so, it was a better fate than fan-favorite heroes like Storm, Rogue, or Colossus got.
It's clear Singer was the creative force keeping things in check, as X-Men 3: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine struggled with both fans and audiences. Not to mention the multiple plot holes and inconsistencies introduced as a result of their disparate plots. But all else paled in comparison to the personal drama and loss throughout the team. Jean killed Scott, Rogue and Iceman couldn't make things work, Mystique was abandoned by Magneto, and the former villain's powers were lost to a mysterious 'cure' (or were they??).
Delivering blow after blow to fans wasn't guaranteed to doom the franchise, but the apathy among audiences was enough to guarantee that a blockbuster future was no longer likely. That was, until X-Men: First Class came along.
It shouldn't have worked: prequels, origin stories (to which the endings are already known), and re-casting roles made famous by some of Hollywood's biggest stars should all have spelled disaster. But miraculously, First Class pulled off the challenge. James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence were just three young actors who would soon have fans debating which were the better X-Men: the old guard, or the new class?
But it wasn't yet a shared universe: First Class was advertised as the story of how Professor X and Magneto first met, aligned as friends before becoming enemies, and delivered exactly that. The timeline remained intact, with the audience alone in seeing how small decisions, betrayals, and blind luck would set events and relationships from the original movie in motion. But there was a larger problem.
For the studio, there was a choice to be made: continue with the less-successful but promising younger heroes - on their way to a destination we've already seen - or use the renewed interest to give the older team a new adventure (the ones who hadn't been killed or de-powered). First Class director Matthew Vaughn and Bryan Singer came through with an answer that could use both in tandem: a time travel story pulled from the comics, known as "Days of Future Past."
The Birth of a Brand New Timeline
We're going to skip by the obvious time travel question - what happens to the actual characters who manage to change the past that created them - at this point and zero in on exactly what Days of Future Past did to the movie timeline (as best as we can figure). To keep things simple, the original movie timeline birthed a terrible future where mutants were wiped off the face of the Earth (and civilization along with them); the same future that awaited the stars of First Class decades in the past.
Deciding that Earth's fate couldn't actually get worse, Professor X and Magneto determined that the only answer was to change the past, and make sure that their younger selves would not follow the timeline they now looked back upon. Wolverine became the man for the job, and the younger rivals played their roles to perfection. With the job done, Wolverine returned home... but not the same one he left.
Fans called it a brilliant twist, an undoing of lackluster films, a total blank-slate reboot, or a cheat on Singer's part, but we'll just call it the happy ending every fan could have hoped for. Returned to the Xavier Mansion in New York, it appeared that none of the terrible events of the first three films ever occurred. Jean and Scott were alive and in love, just like Iceman and Rogue, and children once again happily roamed the halls.
It was a reboot unlike any movie series had accomplished to that point, and the message seemed clear: Bryan Singer now had the chance to start all over, creating new adventures with the older X-Men with the ability to 'do it right' this time around. But as Apocalypse revealed, that's not the case at all. Singer explained to us why the message of Days didn't come in the final scene, but in a quantum physics discussion much earlier on:
"Again, f*cking with the reboot idea: I get to take control and reboot my own movie. I rebooted the universe so now anything can happen. So here's the plan, in my head... What happens when you use Days of Future Past to erase movies like X1, 2 and 3 - yes you can erase those events that occurred - but I also was very adamant... to make sure we have that Beast/Hank McCoy talk about the theory of time’s immutability, because that defines what I’m doing with this universe and with these prequels to X1, 2 and 3. Which are erased? Or are they not? Does that make any sense?”
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