Retcons and Adaptations: A Discussion of Canon in the X-Men Film Franchise

As we approach the end of Fox’s tenure in charge of the X-Men, it seems like a good time to take a look back at how they have addressed continuity over 12 films and almost two decades.
X Men Days Of Future
By  · Published on June 10th, 2019

Since X-Men was released in 2000, there have been twelve movies released in the X-Men universe with the final coming from a pre-Disney-owned Fox currently in the pipeline (if The New Mutants ever makes it out of development hell). This franchise was the MCU before the MCU; in fact, the overlapping comic book canons shared by 20th Century Fox and Marvel Studios (both of which are now owned by Disney) have lead to some interesting compromises such as divvying up Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch between the franchises.

While the MCU has managed to have a surprisingly cohesive canon, the DCEU has wholly divorced its television shows from their cinematic universe (and at this point might be better off to reboot the cinematic ‘verse entirely). The X-Men franchise’s canon has always been…muddled, at best. Many small details don’t line up at all between films, and there are some large, glaring inconsistencies even between subsequent installments.

Part of this is due to the soft reboot that the series experienced in X-Men: First Class. Part of it has to do with the nature of adapting comic book stories, which originated how the term “retcon” is used today. Comic book timelines have always been fuzzy at best. New writers come in wanting to take characters in entirely different directions and wield the retcon wand like a fire hose. This fluidity has lead to many characters who died being resurrected or their previous actions being hand-waved away through multiple universes or shape-shifting imposters.

There have been countless attempts to make sense of the contradictions in the X-Men timeline(s). It’s gotten to the point that audiences would probably enjoy the series better if they stop trying to wrangle the mess into something logical — how did Professor X get revived after X3 again? Don’t question it, let’s move on. Even those responsible for creating the series have acknowledged the inconsistencies. At the premier to X-Men: Days of Future Past, producer Lauren Schuler Donner told fans: “Just forget about X3 and the first Wolverine – forget about that, too!” (Gladly). Days of Future Past supposedly “reset” the timeline, effectively wiping away all of the pre-First Class films and allowing for new directions to be taken with characters and storylines.

Perhaps it’s not about making logical leaps to explain every gap in logic or plot. Maybe ignoring the timeline is better for the series – or at least more enjoyable for the audience.

While Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian MacKellen were wonderful casting choices as Professor X and Magneto, the earlier films were victims of times when studios didn’t have much faith in comic-book adaptations. Compromises had to be made in everything from the costumes to the dialogue. And adapting comic books to film is something that has taken a long time to perfect. Zack Snyder films tend to rely heavily on the iconography of the comics – often recreating exact frames from comics on screen and relying upon slow-motion effects to emphasize them – while steering the storylines into much darker directions than some of its source material.

The soft reboot of First Class allowed the series another try at the same characters and stories that already existed in film. James MacAvoy and Michael Fassbender were perfect recasts as the young Professor X and Magneto. As iconic figures in the Marvel comics, bringing these characters back would obviously help the franchise, but doing so at a very different phase of their lives allowed MacAvoy and Fassbender to present the characters in a very different way than Stewart and McKellan. Not only that, the time-traveling X-Men: Days of Future Past (arguably the best film in the franchise) allowed us to see both pairs of actors playing the same characters in the same movie. Never is the contrast more beautifully demonstrated than when they interact with each other in the same scene.

Rebooting the franchise (or just ignoring the timeline) has also given the franchise a chance to redo characters and storylines which weren’t done well the first time through. Characters like Bolivar Trask, Moira McTaggart, and Emma Frost got a second life in later films after being used sparingly in the 2000s. The beloved comic Dark Phoenix storyline is being redone after flopping it in X3: The Last Stand, though based off of early reviews perhaps it shouldn’t have been written by the same person who wrote X3.

Logan has tenuous ties to the rest of the franchise (if this is in the same timeline as Days of Future Past, then nothing they do in the prequels matters because everyone dies tragically and mutants are more or less extinct anyway), but that doesn’t detract from enjoying this film in the slightest. Although viewing the previous X-Men movies helps us appreciate Hugh Jackman and Stewart as these iconic characters, the movie serves as a fantastic stand-alone film and send-off to their 17-year careers bringing us one interpretation of Wolverine and Professor X.

Fox’s X-Men is not a series that requires the audience to watch every single film, because some of them are just not that good. However, their attitude toward continuity has allowed filmmakers to bring multiple incarnations of characters and storylines that are beloved in the comics and made each installment of the series less shackled to the decisions of made before. None of this is to say that in-universe continuity isn’t important, but that the lack of it in the X-Men franchise is not going to stop it from being a very enjoyable superhero franchise. In the same way that different comic storylines make fans elicit adoration or irritation from die-hard fans, different installments of the film franchise will be remembered fondly (or not).

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