Every X-Men movie produced after 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand has spent screen time reversing the events of that film. It’s easy to understand why when you look at the death toll: Cyclops, Jean Grey, Xavier (well, mostly), and dozens of other D-list mutants lose their lives — not to mention Magneto, Mystique, and Rogue lose their powers, which seems just as bad for new stories featuring those characters. Some of the reversals happen offscreen, but then the franchise introduced time travel in X-Men: Days of Future Past, and things got complicated.
The history-reversal story line was not new: In fact, it was based on the trailblazing 1981 comic The Uncanny X-Men: Days of Future Past by Chris Claremont, John Byrne, and Terry Austin. And alternate universes created by time traveling are not new either: The comic X-Men continuity is beleaguered by multiverses, pocket universes, and alt dimensions.
In the film’s interpretation, the future is grim, with mutant-kind being hunted to extinction by Sentinels, so the remaining X-Men hatch a desperate plan. Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) will send Wolverine’s consciousness back in time to his younger body in 1973, and he will then attempt to alter a crucial part of history. The mutants reason that the ripple effect will send their future down a different path.
Wolverine’s journey on film thus far in the original X-Men trilogy, set and released between 2000 and 2006, trod a pretty linear line. The first two Wolverine films (X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine) also fit — at least, if you squint.
After all, let’s not forget that Origins introduced us to the fast-talking, smart-mouthed Deadpool, portrayed by Ryan Reynolds. And while there have been recasts or retoolings of characters relatively often, including Bolivar Trask (in The Last Stand, he’s portrayed by Bill Duke, and in Days of Future Past, he’s played by Peter Dinklage), it’s impossible to fit the fourth-wall-breaking Deadpool movies in any sort of logical timeline at all. Deadpool 2 featured Cable, another time-traveling character from a separate dark future; a scene where Deadpool literally kills the previous version of himself from X-Men Origins: Wolverine; cameos from the cast of X-Men: Apocalypse and references to Wolverine’s death in Logan, a film set in 2029 that must have been set after the cameo.
But let’s rewind. The truly bonkers apocalyptic future portrayed in Days of Future Past takes place in 2023. That is only four years from today. Here is an abridged list of events that must have happened between the end of The Wolverine, set in 2013, and Days of Future Past: Wolverine upgrades his bone claws to adamantium; the Sentinel program goes online; mutant concentration camps are de rigueur; and Xavier and Magneto start getting along. While the military’s setting up a program to hunt down mutants is not that far of a jump if you consider the destruction Magneto and Jean Grey unleashed upon San Francisco in The Last Stand, everything else seems to have gone sideways and fast.
To make sense of the quickly shifting timelines, we must view them through our time-traveler Wolverine. Viewers get glimpses of a dark(er) future that awaits when his reversal mission initially fails, which proves the mutants in 2023 were correct: They can change the future. And then there’s that third timeline too.
Wolverine wakes up in the brighter future his past actions have created in Days of Future Past’s final scene.
But that final scene is extremely problematic. After all, what happened to the mind of Past Wolverine, who must have lived a life between 1973 and 2023? Did Original Wolverine destroy the existence of an alternate self?
Without even opening the can of worms that is predestination, the rules of time travel are a bit, let’s say, flexible. But there is at least one, according to Days of Future Past: Original Wolverine cannot permanently overwrite the mind of Past Wolverine. He could only borrow his past body while Kitty Pryde manipulated his mind in the future. So then when Original Wolverine’s mind sought to return, he existed in two places — which created a brand-new splinter timeline.
And just like that, there are four. An alternate universe formed — and it’s in that new universe that the newest films made after 2014 exist, spinning off adventures that don’t line up to the original X-Men trilogy, reintroducing characters in differ- ent ways (Angel has an alternate origin story in Apocalypse than in The Last Stand) and introducing eerily similar story lines — like Jean Grey’s in Dark Phoenix.
While complicated, it’s good news for writers of future X-Men films, who are unshackled from needing to line things up perfectly — and even better news for viewers, who will continue to be surprised.
Dark Phoenix hits theaters June 7. In the meantime, pick up your copy of EW’s Ultimate Guide to the X-Men now.