Everything You Need to Know About the Messy ‘X-Men’ Timeline After ‘Dark Phoenix,’ Explained

If you think the timeline of the “X-Men” films doesn’t make sense, you’d be correct — and “Dark Phoenix” doesn’t really add much clarity

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20th Century Fox

(We spoil the entire ending of “Dark Phoenix” here, and since this is about the full franchise we’ll also have spoilers for the rest of the “X-Men” movies as well)

“X-Men: Dark Phoenix” was the lowest grossing entry in Fox’s “X-Men” movie franchise, and it wasn’t close. But the flick, which concludes the main series of “X-Men” movies that began all the way back in 2000, has landed on HBO, and we’re all in coronavirus quarantine, and so a lot of folks are finally giving it a shot. Might as well just go for it, right? “Dark Phoenix” is the capper on a movie series that has been around for two decades, and the oldest of all the current Marvel franchises. You oughtta see how it all ends.

It’s only the end of this whole thing because of the Disney-Fox merger, of course — “X-Men: Dark Phoenix” actually ends on a somewhat ambiguous note, rather than the sort of definitive conclusion you’d generally expect from the end of a two-decade series. And no, that’s not because the spinoff “New Mutants” will someday be actually released, despite all the delays. Or because a third “Deadpool” film starring Ryan Reynolds would seem to be a certainty though there hasn’t been any movement on that front in forever. (Either way, the “Deadpool” films are pretty much their own thing, connecting to the “X-Men” film series usually just to make jokes.)

“New Mutants,” as far as we can tell, won’t feature any character from the other Fox “X-Men” films. And as for post-“Dark Phoenix,” since Disney now owns 20th Century Fox, Marvel almost certainly intends to introduce the main X-Men into the Marvel Cinematic Universe at some point, and it’s unlikely they’re gonna keep going with these actors playing these characters — unless they really wanna get into that whole multiverse thing that was teased in both “Avengers: Endgame” and “Spider-Man: Far From Home.”

So it’s time to say goodbye to a franchise that kicked off nearly 20 years ago — and more importantly, to a crazy timeline built up over the years that makes it hard as hell to nail down what the story even is.

That difficulty stems from two factors: The fact that “X-Men: Days of Future Past” included an in-universe soft reboot of the franchise using time travel, a la the JJ Abrams “Star Trek”; and the series’ general lack of concern with maintaining its continuity as it began doing prequels with “First Class.” All we can say with absolute certainty is that the main continuity is probably everything except the “Deadpool” films and “Logan.”

So let’s talk about the time travel thing first, since it’s the biggest issue that throws people off. The original film timeline, in chronological order, prior to “Days of Future Past,” went like this: “First Class” -> X-Men Origins: Wolverine” -> “X-Men” -> “X2” -> “The Last Stand” -> “The Wolverine.” There are plenty of weird continuity issues among those movies, but those films made up one long story.

The frame story of “Days of Future Past,” set in an apocalyptic future in which the sentinel robots have destroyed the world in their quest to eliminate all mutants, takes place at the end of that timeline, several years after “The Wolverine.” In that terrible future, they send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to 1973 to try to prevent that robot apocalypse from happening, and he succeeds.

The net effect there is that everything that took place after 1973 was wiped from history, and the following decades were very different from what they were in the original “X-Men” movies. The events of “Apocalypse,” for example, occurred because the existence of mutants became widespread much earlier than it had in the previous timeline, and that in turn set in motion the chain of events that brought En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac) back to wreak havoc on the world.

Likewise, Jean Grey’s whole Dark Phoenix situation happened differently after Wolverine’s journey through time. The prerequisite scenario for Jean to go Phoenix is that she has to either die or be put in a situation where she’s going to die — in the old timeline that happened in 2003 at the end of “X2,” and in the new timeline that happened in 1992.

So to be perfectly clear: none of the events of the original three “X-Men” movies are going to take place after “Dark Phoenix.” By going back in time and changing things, he created a new future. So Mystique dying in 1992, for example, doesn’t contradict the original films in which she was alive later on, because those movies didn’t happen in this timeline. The new sequence of events is: “First Class” -> the 1973 parts of “Days of Future Past” -> “Apocalypse” -> “Dark Phoenix.”

That’s the basic gist of it, though the movies haven’t been all that great at keeping their continuity straight otherwise, but most of the screwups come from characters being the wrong ages in different films. For example, the character Moira McTaggart features in both “X-Men: The Last Stand” (played by Olivia Williams) and “First Class” (played by Rose Byrne). Both actors were in their 30s when their respective movies were released — but the two films are set 44 years apart.

The “X-Men” movies are rife with that specific type of continuity goof because they kept re-using characters from the original films in movies set decades earlier even when that didn’t make sense — Angel, Jubilee and Psylocke being some other prominent examples. It was also amusing to see the character of Trask, played by Bill Duke in “The Last Stand,” be recast in “Days of Future Past” with Peter Dinklage. Obviously those two look nothing alike, but that’s not actually a continuity error since their ages do match up well enough.

Adding to the confusion a bit is the fact that James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender and Nicholas Hoult are all playing characters who have aged 30 years across the films they starred in, even though in the real world less than a decade has passed. Hoult was still a few months short of his 30th birthday when the movie came out, but in “Dark Phoenix” he’s playing a character who’s in his 60s without the aid of makeup to age him up. That kind of thing can mess with your head.

Of course, “Dark Phoenix” goes out on a note that may throw one last wrench into the messy continuity of the “X-Men” films. At the end of the movie, Jean takes full control of her Phoenix powers and is seen flying around in space, with Xavier’s school now called the Jean Grey School, and Professor X implied to have left the school with Hank McCoy to run.

In “Days of Future Past” we get a glimpse of what the new version of 2023 will look like when Wolverine returns to the updated version of his present at the very end of the movie. We see Jean hanging around the school, with Xavier in charge. A lot can happen in three decades that could still bring that future to fruition, but with this main series ended now it’s tough to draw a line from what happened at the end of “Dark Phoenix” to where “Days of Future Past” shows everybody ending up.

That that means that “Dark Phoenix” may or may not have introduced some massive new continuity errors to the series, and we’ll never get to find out because there aren’t going to be any more movies that follow this thread. To me, that sort of timeline ambiguity is the perfect way to end this whole thing.