X-Men Timeline Confusion Makes for a Perfectly Faithful Adaptation

If you're confused about how X-Men, Deadpool, Logan, and now FX's Legion interconnect, then 20th Century Fox is doing it right.

At this very moment, comic book fans and genre enthusiasts alike are staring at the narrative genetic soup of the X-Men movie franchise and scratching their collective heads. After the time traveling shenanigans of X-Men: Days of Future Past, it’s fair to wonder what’s canon and what isn’t? Did Jean Grey die, get resurrected, or just simply return home to Winterfell? Even as Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool snickers, “McAvoy or Stewart?! These timelines are so confusing!”

Indeed, they are. And they’re only about to become more so with Logan potentially erasing the happy “future” ending of Days of Future Past with a grim reality where he and a decrepit Xavier are two of the last mutants alive, and with today’s further confirmation that yes, the Fox X-Men TV series will take place in the same timeline as the X-Men films (although which one is yet to be determined) while FX’s Legion will not.

“We’re making [Legion] separate,” Lauren Shuler Donner told IGN. “We’re in our own world. [Fox series showrunner Matt Nix’s] is much more a part of the world in terms of there are mutants, mutants are hated, and there are Sentinels, though very different from what we’ve seen before. You feel like you’re in the X-Men world.”

Does your head hurt? Terrific. It should, because this is a many splendored thing; it means they’re doing right by the X-Men comics and showing this bizarre corner of the Marvel universe for the glorious goat rope that it is. If you don’t get a migraine trying to figure out who is alive, who is dead, and who is or is not evil at any given moment when opening an X-Men comic, you’ve already done it all wrong. X-Men narrative cohesion and tidy continuity went out the window back in 1981 when Chris Claremont and John Byrne gave us The Uncanny X-Men #141 and #142, and its simple two-part story entitled (what else?) “Days of Future Past.”

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In a story that curiously predated James Cameron’s The Terminator by three years, a mutant from the future goes back in time to prevent a robot apocalypse in the guise of deadly Sentinels. It was short, entertaining, and memorable enough that it spawned what is arguably the best X-Men movie by the same name over 30 years later. And like that movie, its singular quality as a good piece of science fiction storytelling with superheroes quickly opened a can of worms of such infernal bewilderment that you’d have better luck with Sisyphus’ boulder than you would making sense of X-continuity.

Hell, the much anticipated Deadpool 2 is poised to introduce Cable to the big screen, a mutant whose convoluted backstory is as entrenched in ‘90s fanboy iconography as his bionic arm. Cable is from a possible future 2,000 years from now where he was spirited away as a baby after being born to Scott Summers/Cyclops and Madelyne Pryor, a clone of Jean Grey (who was dead at the time). However, he spends most of his existence traveling to our present in order to battle Apocalypse, who he wages war against throughout multiple millennia by taking short-cuts while the ancient mutant goes the long way around the time-stream.

When written out, it obviously seems ridiculous, but his inclusion is fairly quaint compared to modern X-Men comics which currently have now seen Jean Grey die a half-dozen times, Emma Frost be villainess and heroine, Magneto lead the X-Men and attempt genocide in equal measure, Old Man Logan come from an alternate dystopian timeline to replace regular Logan, and the original five teenage X-Men now time traveling to the present to co-exist with their non-dead 30-something counterparts.

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This is more or less to say that comic book storytelling is often like Swiss cheese; there are so many holes that you must accept that as part of its charm. The X-Men are just more of this than their contemporaries. The trick tends to be whether or not you tell good stories in the present moment, with what happened before and what comes next being damned. In the last few years, 20th Century Fox has had some success of transferring the appeal of the comics to the screen (X-Men: First Class, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Deadpool) while enduring some lesser efforts too—albeit, I’d contend X-Men: Apocalypse is not without some qualities, however fleeting.

To worry about timelines and whether A matches up to B is a fool’s errand, particularly for those from the fan community that attempt to rationalize the arbitrary results of editorial changeovers and writers separated by decades attempting to come up with a new angle on very familiar characters. The same has inevitably become true for the X-Men movies as they crossover into their 17th year of narrative expansion, especially after the time travel card was played. Now we have multiple casts for the same characters, and storytellers like James Mangold, Josh Boone, Noah Hawley, or even Ryan Reynolds having a very different vantage on things than Bryan Singer. A more apropos question is whether Logan is good unto itself—not how it affects another movie.

Of course, another recent shared universe has done all of this balancing much more smoothly, but Disney’s Marvel movies aren’t without their own frictions, and they likewise chase a tonal uniformity. Deadpool and hopefully Logan indicate Fox is getting further away from that, which makes recent rumors about the next X-Men movie going “supernova” particularly intriguing.

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Otherwise, enjoy the ride or don’t. But if it all seems like nonsense, know you’re not alone. X-Men comics fans have been either smirking (or denying) the same thought for years.