Nineteen years after it all began, and helped usher in the early waves of the superheroic cinema dominance we see today, Fox’s X-Men saga is at an end with the release of Dark Phoenix. It may have gone out in a damp squib rather than truly fiery flames, but it now means we have a complete, and utterly batshit, chain of events to break down.
The X-Men saga is made convoluted not only by its topsy turvy release schedule—a soft-reboot halfway through flinging us back to a series of prequels—but also by the presence of X-Men: Days of Future Past, making any attempt to break down the actual chronological order of these movies an exercise in hair-pulling frustration. We did it anyway, because hey, that’s what we do! So if you want to know just how the entire X-Saga went down, from X-Men to Dark Phoenix and beyond? Here’s our guide.
Two Timelines, Both Alike in Dignity
Full disclosure going in: we’re on some alternate timeline bullshit here. Two distinct movie sagas—the original three X-Men films, directed by Bryan Singer, and then the four “reboot” films starting with X-Men: First Class—are connected by the events of Days of Future Past, creating one timeline of events where the original X-movies happened, and a second where the First Class saga happens...mostly. Bits of them technically happen in both! You’ll see...
Timeline A: In the Beginning, There Was the Wolverine
Well, technically it was Apocalypse: En Sabah Nur’s rise and fall in the backstory of X-Men: Apocalypse as one of the ancient world’s most powerful rulers and the firstborn of the mutant race takes place in approximately 8,000 BC. He gets overthrown and imprisoned by his former followers in 3,600 BC, but we get to forget about him for a while. Especially as, in this timeline at least, he doesn’t come up again.
We really start with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which charts the long history of Logan. In 1845, James Howlett’s mutant gene activates upon witnessing the death of the man he believed to be his father, only for the young James to accidentally kill his real father, Thomas Logan, in the ensuing moments. James and his half-brother, Victor Creed—who’ll eventually be known as the mutant villain Sabertooth—then spend the next century and a bit fighting in various wars, surviving their misdeeds thanks to their regenerative mutant abilities. James will, of course, eventually be known as Wolverine. We’ll get to that!
Meanwhile, in 1944, Erik Lensherr (the eventual Magneto), a young Jewish boy imprisoned in the Auschwitz concentration camp, begins to manifest his own powers. Experimented on by the sinister leader of the Hellfire Club, Sebastian Shaw, Erik eventually escapes, spending the next two decades hunting down every Nazi he can find and killing them for their horrifying role in the Holocaust. In...lighter events? The young Charles Xavier meets shapeshifting mutant Raven Darkholme for the first time, inviting her to live with his family in their Westchester mansion.
We can now fast-forward two decades to 1962, when most of X-Men: First Class takes place. Moira McTaggert uncovers the existence of the Hellfire Club and mutants in general; Charles, Raven, and Erik team up to take on Shaw; and the X-Men are born—after Charles uses a prototype version of the Cerebro helmet to locate and recruit a team of likeminded young mutants. He and Erik also attempt to recruit Logan/Wolverine at this point, and fail. The X-Men battle Shaw and the Club in Cuba, and while they succeed, it comes at great cost: Xavier is paralysed and Lensherr—now operating as Magneto, the master of Magnetism, takes Raven as well as Angel, Riptide, and Azazel to form his own, more morally grey splinter group, the Brotherhood of Mutants.
Now, buckle up, because things are about to get really weird. The seeds of a timeline split begin to germinate after the events of X-Men: First Class in the setup for its sequel, Days of Future Past (which was probably not a great move for the franchise).
In 1963, Magneto is falsely accused of assassinating President Kennedy, while a few years later, Xavier formally opens his school for “Gifted Youngsters”....only for most of those youngsters to get signed up for the Vietnam war in 1970, spiralling Charles into despair. Also, we’re back in Origins for a bit, because James Howlett is fighting in Vietnam too, before he and Victor are recruited to join a secretive Mutant Black Ops squad by William Stryker, known as Team X. James takes on a new name and codename here—borrowing his true father’s name to become Logan, and earning his Wolverine moniker—but quits Team X after several years of service, when Stryker’s casual disregard for life and the squad’s violent missions begin to weigh on him. But let’s forget about that for now...
We’re going to a weird place.
The Split: Movies of Future Past
A divergence occurs in 1973 when Raven—going by her alter ego Mystique—assassinates Bolivar Trask in Days of Future Past’s dystopian version of the timeline. Trask, head of Trask Industries, was attempting to get the US government to utilise his giant robot program, the Sentinels, to hunt down and contain mutantkind. His death, while taking place in one of the “reboot” era movies, is what actually leads to the continuation of what we’re referring to as Timeline A...which is the original X-Men movies. We’ll get to the split eventually, but for now, let’s carry on with the events off of Timeline A.
A lot of the backstory of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men, and X2 starts unfolding over these years. Much of Origins: Wolverine takes place in 1979, when Wolverine’s half-brother Victor (Sabertooth), begins hunting down his former comrades in Team X. Wolverine is inducted into the Weapon X program, gets adamantium coated over his skeletal structure, and breaks free of captivity before bringing down Three Mile Island, the Trask facility where he and a bunch of other mutants were experimented on. Unfortunately, Wolverine takes an adamantium bullet to the head in the process, giving him amnesia. Also unfortunately, the audience cannot do the same themselves and is forced to remember the events of X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
We now fast forward to 2003, when both X-Men and X2 take place. It’s an uneasy time for mutantkind, and Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants strikes at a political summit in New York discussing the future of mutants’ role in society, hoping to use the young mutant Rogue and some technology to transform the world’s leaders into mutants themselves. Xavier, with the help of Wolverine, brings together the X-Men once more to stop Magneto’s plot. Meanwhile, in X2—yes, same year, different movie—William Stryker is up to some bullshit. Using the mind-controlling powers of his own mutant son, Jason, Stryker brainwashes Nightcrawler into attacking the White House, an incident he uses to leverage an official attack on Xavier’s school and kidnap several of the X-Men, including Xavier himself.
The X-Men that escaped the attack—including Colossus, Wolverine, Rogue, Iceman, and Pyro—find themselves forced to team up with Magneto and Mystique to stop Stryker and his son from brainwashing Xavier into using another Cerebro to kill every mutant on the planet with a psychic command. During the rescue mission, Magneto decides to be an arsehole and have Jason convince Charles to use Cerebro 2 to kill every human instead, before taking off and leaving the X-Men to deal with his mess. Womp womp! Nightcrawler and Storm free Xavier from Jason’s control before he can use Cerebro 2, and the X-Men escape Stryker’s base as its being flooded by a nearby dam, which was damaged in the battle.
Well, mostly. Stryker drowns, and Jean Grey sacrifices herself to save the X-Men and hold back the tides, tapping into a strange, fiery new power in the process. Everyone’s sad until 2006, when the events of X-Men: The Last Stand occur. And then everyone in the real world is sad because the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, a terrible movie, occur. Jean is reborn as the evil, all-powerful Phoenix force, just as the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Mutants get into another scrap—this time over the development of a supposed cure for the mutant gene, with Magneto believing it will be used to forcefully exterminate mutants.
Everyone realises that fighting over it while a giant fiery psychic goddess of immense power threatens to wreck the entire planet is a bad idea, and they team up to stop Phoenix. Wolverine is forced to kill Jean, and is sad, though mutants do get some equality in the wake of, you know, saving the world and all that. Oh, and by the by, Xavier is killed by Phoenix before her death, but don’t worry, he gets better by the end of the movie. Like I said, it’s a bad one!
Anyway, everything’s fine for a little bit. In 2013, Wolverine is living as a hermit, traumatised by having to kill Jean, but is caught up in a new adventure in Japan where he beats up the Silver Samurai during the events of The Wolverine. Things begin to get freaky again when he returns to the US and finds that not only is Xavier alive again somehow, but he and Magneto are working together in the face of a grave new threat to mutantkind. Because this is where all that Days of Future Past stuff starts coming into play again: things are bad for mutants (again), with Trask Industries having fully developed the Sentinels as the perfect Mutant-hunting device.
By 2023, most mutants are dead, exterminated by Trask Industries’ roving mechanical armies. As part of an audacious plan to change history, Kitty Pryde, enhanced by the psychic might of Magneto and Xavier, sends Wolverine back in time to his body circa 1973, to stop Mystique from assassinating Trask in the first place. We’re off to a new timeline, folks!
Timeline B: There and Back Again
Welcome back to 50 years ago, but we’re still in the events of Days of Future Past (god, my head hurts). Wolverine, back in his younger-but-still-Hugh-Jackman body, finds the X-Men in a state of disrepair, thanks to the aforementioned Vietnam war trauma and Magneto’s whole “Did you kill JFK?” deal. Wolverine convinces the younger versions of Xavier and Magneto to help him prevent the grim future he came from...only for Magneto to attempt to kill President Nixon, too, after Mystique is prevented from killing Trask and the Sentinel program goes into effect anyway. Womp womp. The battle for Raven’s soul between Xavier and Magneto ultimately ends with her choosing the side of good, saving Nixon from Magneto (yay...?) and erasing the Sentinels from the timeline, creating an entirely new timeline in the process.
Everything that happened up to 1973 in Timeline A still happened here, just that instead of assassinating Trask and becoming a supervillain, Mystique kills no one and becomes a hero. Meanwhile, the 2023 Logan of Timeline A returns to a version of the future to find his friends alive and well, while his 1973 self in Timeline B is liberated from captivity by Mystique, in disguise as William Stryker. Is your head hurting now, too?
Remember how we spoke briefly about Apocalypse like, 1,500 words ago? Anyway, it’s time to deal with him now. After the events of Days of Future Past, young Xavier and Magneto go their separate ways again, with Xavier re-opening his school to a new generation of future X-Men, and Magneto falling in love with a woman named Magda Gurzsky, settling down and having a daughter together, Nina. But in 1983 Moira McTaggert (remember Moira? Good times!) unwittingly re-awakens Apocalypse from his imprisoned slumber, and Apocalypse promptly begins gathering his horsemen to reshape the modern world as his dominion. One of those horsemen is none other than Magneto, tricked into working with Apocalypse after his wife and kid were murdered.
Xavier’s new team of X-Men—lead by Mystique, and now including Nightcrawler, Quicksilver, Cyclops, and a young Jean Grey—prepare to battle Apocalypse, but only after an interlude where they’re captured by William Stryker’s forces and liberated by—gasp!—Wolverine. Anyway, Apocalypse launches an attack from his old seat of power in Cairo, and after two of his Horsemen (Magento and Storm) are convinced to change sides, Jean singlehandedly lands the final blow, tapping into a strange, fiery new power in the process. Wait, where have we heard this before? It doesn’t matter, especially not to Dark Phoenix, which completely ignores this tease of the Phoenix force to do something else entirely.
Speaking of which, look, we’re here at Dark Phoenix! The movie takes place mostly in 1992. At this point, the X-Men are a world-renowned, beloved team of superheroes, with Mystique at their helm, and Charles Xavier has the ear of the President. They even have action figures and dolls of themselves! After a mission to rescue the crew of the US Space Shuttle Endeavour when a strange solar flare disrupts their vessel, Jean unwittingly exposes herself to the Phoenix force, the vast cosmic energy that the “solar flare” really was, which fuses with her body and grants her dangerous levels of psychic power.
This gets the interest of the surviving members of the shapeshifting D’Bari species, who were tracking the cosmic force after it destroyed their homeworld. The D’Bari infiltrate Earth and attempt to capture the Phoenix force for themselves by controlling Jean—who is traumatized by the revelation Xavier had lied to her about the death of her father in the accident that led to her joining the X-Men. Thanks to the Phoenix force, Jean’s powers begin to get out of control, leading to her fleeing the X-Men in the wake of Xavier’s deception and accidentally killing Mystique.
In the ensuing conflict, Xavier and the X-Men team up with Magneto (again!)—who’s been hiding off on his own little secluded island in the years since Apocalypse, creating a mutant enclave—to stop Jean and then the D’Bari. After being convinced that Xavier and the X-Men really do care about her, Jean sacrifices herself to eradicate the D’Bari leader, Vuk, transcending to become one with the Phoenix force. So ends, as far as we know, the events of Timeline B.
Timelines C and D: Oh God, Oh God Please Send Help
You thought we were done just because we got to Dark Phoenix? Hahahahahaha, absolutely not. You see, while most of the X-Men movie saga takes place across these two Timelines we’ve been calling A and B, there are actually another two timelines thrown into the mix thanks to the spinoffs Logan and Deadpool.
Let’s start with Logan, which we will dub Timeline C. Although the movie features Hugh Jackman as Wolverine and Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier once more, it’s implied that this is not in the same timeline as the original X-Men films in our Timeline A, or the future segments of Days of Future Past. And we’re just going to ignore that, even more confusingly, the setup for X-23's genetic material being prepared for Logan takes place in the post-credit scene of Timeline B’s X-Men: Apocalypse!
Anyway, wherever the hell it is, Logan takes place in a dystopian future where, after 2014, no mutants are born thanks to a sinister plan that imbued food supplies with X-gene suppressing chemicals. Fourteen years later, in 2028, a traumatised Xavier falls victim to a massive psychic seizure, killing hundreds of people, including the X-Men. With Mutants on the verge of extinction, Logan takes Xavier to live out his final days in Mexico, but in 2029 the two are roped into helping a group of young clones of Wolverine, including X-23 (known by her “real” name, Laura Kinney), escape captivity and flee to Canada. Both Xavier and Logan die in the process, but Laura escapes to freedom.
That brings ups to the other spinoff timeline, Timeline D. D for Deadpool! The two Deadpool movies likewise contain connections and references to the films of both Timelines A and B as part of their fourth-wall breaking, metatextual Smörgåsbord of references and cameos, like Deadpool 2's teeny moment with some of the Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix stars. But for the sake of our sanity it’s best that we interpret as them having taken place in their own spinoff branch of the timeline. And that’s even before we get to Deadpool 2's time-travel shenanigans.
Deadpool and Deadpool 2 take place in a 2016 and 2018. After being inducted into a secret reactivation of the Weapon X project by one of its own new creations, Ajax, a cancer-stricken Wade Wilson finds himself experimented on in a process that triggers his latent mutant genes of rapid self-healing while also horribly disfiguring him. After teaming up with the X-Men team members Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead, Wade takes vengeance on Ajax, before deciding to become a superheroic mercenary for hire.
Two years later after his girlfriend Vanessa is killed by mobsters, Wade slides into a depression and attempts to kill himself, despite his regenerative abilities. He’s drawn out of his funk by an encounter with the time-travelling mutant Cable, who comes from a dystopian future 2068 to kill a young pyrokinetic mutant known as Firefist, who becomes a dangerous villain in Cable’s future. Wade convinces Cable to not kill Firefist while also ensuring Firefist doesn’t descend into his seemingly villainous destiny, undoing Cable’s dark future in the process.
If you’ve learned one thing from this wild attempt to make sense of a movie franchise that only barely pays attention to narrative coherence at the best of times, it’s that we’ve been on a long, strange, and occasionally incredibly dumb trip with Fox’s ownership of the X-Men. These movies, despite the attempts to tie everything together in a Marvel Studios-esque shared universe, barely make sense with each other, looping over themselves and just flat out-contradicting each other.
But it is what it is, and what it is might not even be quite over yet. Though Disney now owns Fox and will likely reboot the X-Men as part of the much-easier-to-follow timeline of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we still have New Mutants on the way, which could reconnect back to any one of these timelines (though there’s been no indication of that thus far), and we could even have a third Deadpool to throw into the mix! Only time will tell.
For now though, here lies the timeline of Fox’s X-Men—weird and convoluted, just like the saga that was born from it.
Featured image: All Images: 20th Century Fox