The Search for Temporal Truth in The 'X-Men' Movies

The revamped X-Men series once used its period setting as a way to tell its story, but this effect has dwindled with each new installment.

Sophie Turner Dark Phoenix
20th Century Fox

After a string of disappointments, the X-Men franchise was far from an exciting prospect in 2011. X-Men: The Last Stand dropped the ball in a big way, while X-Men Origins: Wolverine failed to deliver on anything that might make a Wolverine origin story remotely compelling or exciting. Then along came X-Men: First Class, injecting the series with a sense of comic book color that had long eluded it while staying true to the pathos that has underlined the best of these movies (and the comics they’re based on).

On top of that, First Class was also a fun, stylish riff on ’60s spy movies that made memorable use of its period setting. Gone were the infamous black leather costumes, and in was a blue and yellow design that harkened back the original source material. Most importantly, the movie firmly rooted itself in the time period with a breathless climax that expertly weaved character arcs with the Cuban Missile Crisis. But ever since, that sense of specificity has slowly dwindled with each installment. And while Dark Phoenix, the latest and probably final entry, takes place in the ’90s, you certainly wouldn’t know it from the film’s marketing. So what happened?

Well, a lot of it comes down to the changing roster of directors the series has gone through. When Matthew Vaughn came onboard to direct First Class, along with frequent collaborator Jane Goldman, the goal was simple: soft reboot the franchise, taking it out of the vaguely defined near-future and into the swinging ’60s. And Vaughn, a filmmaker known for his visual panache in movies like Kick-Ass and Kingsman, ensured that the decade was all over his film. He directs with an energy that’s right in line with the retro production design and Henry Jackman‘s Bond-inspired score, giving the film a slick, distinctive style that reinvigorated the X-Men brand.

Meanwhile, the story is able to juggle numerous threads that all tie it firmly to the ’60s. Magneto being a Holocaust survivor has always been a part of his backstory, in a way that informs the character’s choices throughout the films. But never have we seen such potent rage from him as when he’s mercilessly hunting down those who wronged him during this time. By setting First Class just two decades on from those atrocities, we see a different side to Erik Lehnsherr—a bloodthirsty young man, hellbent on exacting revenge. While Ian McKellen‘s version of the character carried himself with considered wisdom, Michael Fassbender brought more loose-cannon energy to the role, with a sense that his newfound friendship with Charles Xavier could blow up at any time.

In addition to this, setting the film’s climax at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis is not only fun from a historical perspective, but also makes for an excellent distillation of the mutant/human conflict at the core of the X-Men. That these two enemies would, out of fear, set aside their differences to attack the mutants is a powerful reminder of the lengths mankind has gone to persecute those we fear.

By the time Bryan Singer took back the reins for X-Men: Days of Future Past, the effect was already beginning to wear off, though. Through various time travel mechanics, the story involves Wolverine going back to the ’70s in order to prevent a nightmarish future where mutants face extinction. The decade still plays a significant role here — President Nixon factors into the climax, while Quicksilver injects the film with a sense of retro fun in his short appearance.

But originally, under Vaughn, the film was to lean more heavily into Magneto’s involvement in the Kennedy assassination and the question of whether JFK was a mutant. In the final film, this idea just sort of lingers in the background. Magneto sits in a Pentagon prison for allegedly trying to stop the bullet, but without actually seeing it, the whole thing feels more like a leftover from a previous draft. While it was likely considered a distraction — the assassination didn’t take place in the ’70s, nor does it have anything to do with the future plot — it does take away from Magneto’s arc and the specificity of the film.

It stands to reason that Singer was more interested in the future timeline, with the core cast of his earlier X-Men films, while Vaughn’s version would have given more time to the younger First Class cast, carrying on the tradition of tying the films to historical events.

As a director, Singer has a significantly less stylized approach, and his take on comic book action, aside from the flashy Quicksilver sequence, is often muted and mostly stuck in an era where studios were still embarrassed to be making superhero movies. The problem is further exemplified in X-Men: Apocalypse, but here you can already see that focus on tying the films to their respective decades was beginning to fade away. The ’70s stylings are mostly on a surface level, and while the film is a satisfying final outing for the original cast, the lack of any major historical event to hang the story on is unfortunate considering what came before.

Which brings us to Apocalypse, a movie whose connection to the ’80s is tenuous at best — almost all the references to the time period are frontloaded in the first act, no significant world events play a part in the story, and the climax takes place in a bland, nondescript location that doesn’t remotely evoke the decade it’s supposed to be taking place in. This is where the feeling of a sort of temporal alienation really begins to set in; we’re now 20 years on from First Class and the no effort has been made to age up the cast, while the lack of connection to the real world makes for a film that lacks any real identity or imagination.

At one point, Oscar Isaac‘s Apocalypse rids the world of all its nuclear weapons, an action that should have a dramatic effect on the balance of power in the world (especially with the Cold War still going on), but it’s only used as a way for the villain to assert his vaguely defined strength. We’re never given a sense of how this affects anything outside of our hero’s immediate circle, instead, it just highlights how paint-by-numbers the film’s version of Apocalypse is.

Singer directs the film as if on auto-pilot, with a big action finale that he’s barely equipped to handle, which aims for the effect of The Avengers but instead feels like smashing action figures together in the middle of nowhere. Little effort is made to nod towards any type of ’80s blockbuster filmmaking, while the bright period clothing gives way to black super suits that more closely resemble the leather costumes of the original X-Men movies than the primary colored uniforms in First Class. Overall, Apocalypse is an odd hodgepodge of a film, that can’t seem to decide whether it’s a modern Marvel movie, an early 2000s X-Men entry or a fun ’80s romp (the Quicksilver scene, while not as strong as the one in Days of Future Past, is the closest Apocalypse gets to the latter).

So now we come to Dark Phoenix. Despite sticking with the new decade gimmick, the nondescript feeling is more prevalent than ever. In contrast with Captain Marvel, another 2019 comic book movie set in the ’90s, virtually nothing about the film’s trailers suggests it takes place in that decade. This could speak to how ’90s culture is vaguely defined, beyond broad references like grunge music and Blockbuster Video, but it also reminds us how hazy these films have become with regards to their time periods.

The core characters have aged only as much as their actors have in real time, despite 30 years having past between this and First Class, which is especially ludicrous when you consider that 42-year-old Michael Fassbender is supposed to be a Holocaust survivor in a movie taking place in 1992. The costumes bear the closest resemblance to those seen in Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely‘s comics, a reference that doesn’t really make sense since that run didn’t start until 2001. And from what we can gather from the trailers, the plot revolves around very similar story beats to those in The Last Stand, while the action appears to take place in similarly unspecific locations.

Singer did not return to direct this time (I guess Fox finally realized what a bad look that was), with helming duties being handed to Simon Kinberg, who’d written screenplays for a handful of Fox superhero movies, X-Men installments included. This being Kinberg’s directing debut, it’s doubtful we’ll see the type of flare that Vaughn once brought to the series, and this decision does raise concerns about the studio’s investment in the project. Handing the culmination of your franchise over to a first-time director is an undoubtedly questionable move, regardless of his past involvement, and gives the whole affair a feeling of “let’s just get this one over with.”

If Dark Phoenix is to be the last call for the X-Men before the Disney (and Marvel Studios) behemoth swallows them whole, it’d be a shame to see them go out with such a whimper. Especially since this new series, with its potentially neat decade-hopping gimmick, was supposed to breathe new life into the franchise, not run it into the ground as had been done before.

Sometimes knows what he's talking about.