“Mutation: it is the key to our evolution. It has enabled us to evolve from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet. This process is slow, and normally taking thousands and thousands of years. But every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward.”
Contains spoilers for X-Men, X2, X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men: First Class, The Wolverine, X-Men: Days of Future Past.
Back in the late nineties, the superhero genre was struggling to survive on the big screen. Superman, Batman and Howard the Duck had all tried their luck in Hollywood, but while some went on to become cult classics with dedicated followings the majority were consigned to an eternity of dusty bargain bins and late night syndication. The Crow, The Rocketeer and The Mask made small advances, but they did so as horrors, period adventures and slap-stick comedies rather than straight superhero movies.
Blade too found an audience, and after a lull in TV movies re-established Marvel as a comic book studio with cinematic ambitions. It wasn’t until X-Men landed on the scene in 2000 that they gained any real traction, however, and with that one movie they defined what not just a Marvel movie but comic book adaptations in general were to be: spectacular, yes, but also funny, grounded and relatable. Mainstream cinema had mutated, changed irreversibly for the foreseeable future; the X-Men were superheroes and proud.
X-Men saw Professor X and Magneto resume their conflict from the comics, as analogues of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X respectively. It opened during World War II, with a young Erik Lehnsherr taking out his frustrations on the gate of a concentration camp, before cutting to Mississippi where 17-year old Rogue accidentally put her boyfriend into a coma. Rogue (alongside Logan, a cage fighter calls himself Wolverine who she met in Alberta) join Charles Xavier’s X-Men, and fight alongside Cyclops, Jean Grey and Storm when Magneto threatens an international summit.
For more than a decade the genre flourished, as X-Men found favour at the box office and soon opened the floodgates to its superhero kin. Thanks to Bryan Singer superhero movies would cast real actors, explore current themes and continue to develop the use of special effects in cinema. Before long Marvel had stopped releasing films and started launching franchises; and the likes of Spider-man, Daredevil and Hulk were soon breaking box office records for rival studios Sony, 20th Century Fox and Universal.
Singer, however, stayed ahead of the game, and in 2003 released what was arguably (up until that point, at least) the greatest superhero movie of all time. X2 made X-Men look like test footage, upping the ante with a larger cast, considerably increased budget and thematic complexity that had never before been seen in the genre. New mutant Nightcrawler brought religion into the mix, while Iceman came out (as a mutant) to his parents and anti-mutant crusader William Stryker used his own son’s gifts to commit genocide — a sort of genetic cleansing.
X2 still holds up to this day, largely thanks to Singer’s direction. Although the focus is on Wolverine, a mutant with the ability to heal himself, and his search for answers pertaining to the adamantium plating that was previously applied to his skeleton, almost every member of the supporting cast gets something interesting to work with. Weatherwoman Storm is struggling to have faith, shape-shifter Mystique doesn’t want to hide anymore and telepath Jean Grey is finding it increasingly difficult to control her abilities. The latter sacrifices herself to save her friends, but a final sequence suggests that she is about to be reborn as Phoenix, as in the comics.
Singer has always been good at endings, and X2 boasted one of the most exciting yet. Before post-credits stingers became a thing and each superhero movie insisted in teasing the next in line, X2 invoked one of the most celebrated storylines in comic book history: X-Men‘s Dark Phoenix Saga. With Wolverine having found his answers at Alkali Lake it seemed that it was finally time to shift the focus to a different character. Wolverine would still feature heavily given his feelings for Jean, but if it was to stay true to the story the sequel would also require beefed up roles for Professor X, the previously underused Cyclops and the as yet unintroduced Beast (discounting Hank McCoy’s brief television appearance in X2 of course).
It was not to be, sadly, as Singer then left the series to reboot Superman over at Warner Bros. A number of directors flirted with X-Men 3, including Matthew Vaughn, before Brett Ratner took over the reins. Unsatisfied with merely concluding the Phoenix storyline set up in the previous film, Ratner also attempted to adapt Gifted, another much-loved miniseries created this time by Joss Whedon and introducing for the first time a mutant cure. The results were famously disastrous, as the story — a plot-driven and disappointingly shallow affair starring Vinnie Jones as The Juggernaut, Bitch — called for the deaths of about half the cast and left much of the rest depowered by the end of the film.
There were positives, though they were admittedly few and far between. The introduction of Angel was surprisingly effective — we meet him in the bathroom, trying to file down his wings so that his anti-mutant parents wont notice — but he never felt like an integral part of the story. Similarly, the introduction of Kelsey Grammar as Beast and Ellen Page as Shadowcat were undeniably astute choices, and both did excellent work throughout the movie. And while Professor X and Cyclops may have met with ignoble ends Jean Grey and Mystique got rather more fitting send offs: the former was murdered by a distraught Wolverine while the latter was de-powered by a guard and quickly abandoned by Magneto.
Things only got worse when instead of continuing the story (with a cast as high-quality as Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen and Halle Berry they were beginning to get quite expensive) 20th Century Fox announced a series of prequel spin-offs centring on Wolverine and Magneto. Only the former ever actually made it into cinemas, and it became immediately apparent why — Gavin Hood’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine continued to sully the franchise’s once good name. Just as X-Men: The Last Stand had wasted a number of characters, X-Men Origins: Wolverine introduced a number of fan favourites only to leave them stranded in the past or butchered beyond recognition. Gambit, though ably played by Taylor Kitsch, was never to be heard from again, while Deadpool, a comedic character with incredible potential, was reimagined as a mute henchman.
In 2o11, 20th Century Fox released another prequel, this time centring on the formation of Xavier’s School For Gifted Youngsters. Taking its subtitle from the comics, First Class saw Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) form an uneasy alliance against Sebastian Shaw and the Hellfire Club. Having previously turned down The Last Stand, Matthew Vaughn took the reins for First Class, introducing a new team of X-Men that included Havok, Banshee, Mystique and Beast. Though ostensibly a prequel, Vaughn’s film also took a few liberties with continuity, like including a young Beast (remember: Hank’s still human as of X2) and having Charles meet Xavier before they meet for the first time in X-Men Origins, and before they meet for the first time again in the original X-Men.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine was loathed by fans and mocked by critics, and to all intents and purposes it was ultimately dropped from canon by the studio. That didn’t stop Fox from pursuing a second Wolverine spin-off, however, and after intriguing talks with Darren Aranofsky broke down James Mangold signed on as director. Nobody was expecting a straight sequel from Hood’s film, but what was truly surprising was that The Wolverine was actually set after the events of The Last Stand, with Logan still haunted by the spectre of Jean Grey. Unexpectedly, The Wolverine was also quite good, and though it had little to do with the other films it took the time to explore Logan in more depth than ever before. With post-credit stingers now in vogue, it also teased X-Men: Days Of Future Past by reintroducing Patrick Stewart as Professor X and Ian McKellen as Magneto, together for the first time in over five years.
Stewart and McKellen weren’t the only original cast members to be returning for the film, which was tasked with acting both as a sequel to X-Men: First Class and X-Men: The Last Stand. Based on the time-travelling storyline from the comics, Days Of Future Past would see both ensembles united for one cross-generational adventure. X1 and 2 director Bryan Singer was also set to return, and many expected him to use the film as an opportunity to erase the subsequent instalments from existence, or simply to ignore them all together as he had once done in Superman Returns. But could Singer do it? Could he replicate the success of X2 while juggling two separate casts and simultaneously trying to erase the last five years from history? Or were the X-Men destined to die out; outmoded, outdated and out-evolved by The Dark Knight Trilogy and Marvel’s Cinematic Universe?
The success of X-Men: Days Of Future Past comes from Singer’s obvious love for the franchise. This is not a vein attempt to reassert his dominance nor is it an attempt to dismiss the work of others, it is simply the continuation of a saga that is clearly close to his heart. The film opens with a long overdue and much missed Patrick Stewart voiceover, in which he muses about whether the future is truly set or whether it can still be changed. Singer knows the answer, and having — along with everyone else — witnessed his characters abused at the hands of Brett Ratner uses the opportunity to give them the send off they deserve. Sentinals have wiped out most of mutant-kind, but thanks to Shadowcat’s time-travel abilities the X-Men have managed to survive. Understandably unhappy with the status quo, however, Professor X and Magneto conspire to send Wolverine back in time to prevent their future from ever having happened.
Though not without its moments, X-Men: First Class suffered for its distance from the original series. Vaughn had for the most part been left with secondary and tertiary characters with which make up his team, and couldn’t take any real risks without upsetting the fans and jeopardising its place within the established canon. Not only does X-Men: Days Of Future Past inextricably link the two timelines, but having finally given the future team the send-off they deserve Singer could persevere with the prequel and rewrite history as he saw fit. In this respect X-Men: Days Of Future Past is in a similar position to J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, only rather than threatening a fan culture that spanned ten movies, four television series and countless novels and comics Singer’s film would only erase five films, three of which had already been largely dismissed.
This rather unique situation had an unexpected side-effect. By establishing a new timeline Singer didn’t negate the other movies but validate them. By taking away their responsibility to uphold the main story, audiences could no longer criticise them for wasting characters or spoiling stories. They could be re-evaluated, assessed differently, and maybe even accepted as unremarkable movies that nevertheless had their place in the franchise. Singer facilitates this approach by featuring flashbacks not just to his earlier movies but to every film in the series. He also incorporates Ellen Page and Kelsey Grammar from Last Stand (not to mention the Sentinals first glimpsed in its Danger Room scene), and nods to X-Men Origins: Wolverine by giving the character bone claws in the past. What’s more, the ending arguably has more impact if you’ve seen The Wolverine.
Another of the film’s many successes is the way it shifts focus from Wolverine to the rest of the young team. Once in the past, Logan takes on something of a supporting role, sent back with a mission that is widely ignored by everyone he puts it to. Though he succeeds in convincing Charles and Hank to suit up, their plan to free Erik and reason with Mystique backfires when the former instead tries to kill the latter. It’s a shocking scene, and for the first time in the series puts Mystique front and centre. McAvoy and Fassbender do terrific work, once again acting as contrasts to Stewart and McKellen, but it’s Jennifer Lawrence as Raven who everyone will be talking about afterwards. In the original trilogy she was little more than Magneto’s right hand man, in X-Men: First Class she was Charles’ pet and Erik’s prize, but here she’s a force of change in her own right.
Having spent most of the movie trying to kill Bolivar Trask (an assassination which will directly lead to the events seen in the future section of the film), Mystique decides to spare him at the behest of Charles. No longer the killer that she was once destined to become, Mystique suddenly has a new fate to look forward to. She doesn’t stop there however, shooting Magneto in the neck with a plastic bullet and dooming him to a life in prison. The effect this is likely to have on the timeline is incalculable, as not only does it side Mystique with the X-Men rather than the Brotherhood of Mutants but it also takes Magneto out of action long before he can threaten the world in X-Men, X2 and X-Men: The Last Stand. She also changes Wolverine’s fate, rescuing him from William Stryker’s Weapon X programme and potentially saving him from ever having adamantium fused to his bones.
Ending the film here would have been impressive enough, but rather than finishing with temporal upheaval Singer instead chooses to depart on a far sweeter note. Waking in a new future, having succeeded in saving the world from Trask and his Sentinal programme, Logan finds that everything has changed. At this point Wolverine is the only character who knows the full story — knows that he was betrayed by his best friend, experimented on by the government and responsible for the death of Jean Grey — awakens to find most of that suffering erased from history. It’s a moment of incredible power and beauty, and continues to build as he sees Rogue, Iceman, Shadowcat, Storm, Jean, Cyclops and Charles all alive and well.
With X-Men: Apocalypse and an untitled The Wolverine sequel already announced, it’s clear that this isn’t the last we’ll see of the X-Men. Perhaps we’ll also get an X-Men 4, or a spin-off centering on Quicksilver, Gambit, Deadpool, Angel, Blink, Bishop or indeed any of the other characters under-served by the extant series. (Having written a small caveat into his latest film — revealing that time is like a current that has a way of re-establishing itself — he can really have his cake and eating it.) Right now, however, it’s important to take stock and to appreciate the magnitude of Singer’s achievement. Evolution has once again leapt forward; following Marvel’s The Avengers it seems that we have moved into a new age of superhero movies, and with X-Men: Days Of Future Past Fox has shown that they are still in the game. As I said in my review: Singer hasn’t just re-written history, he’s made it.