The X-Men cinematic universe is complicated—perhaps more complicated than that of any other superhero franchise. There are the original films, prequels, spin-offs and a movie that basically erased the original series and started a whole new timeline. Now, the newest entry in the series, X-Men: Dark Phoenix will take place in 1992.
Here’s where all the movies fit on the fictional timeline and (spoiler alert!) summaries of the plots for those who have forgotten what’s happened so far.
X-Men: First Class
Date in X-Men Universe: 1962
Release Date: 2011
Plot: Two mutants meet. Charles Xavier a.k.a. Professor X (James McAvoy) grew up rich with the power to read minds. Erik Lehnsherr a.k.a. Magneto (Michael Fassbender) lost his parents in a Nazi concentration camp and has the power to move metal. (This skill sounds pretty lame until you remember just about every weapon and building ever created has metal in it.) Understandably, they have very different views of humanity. They’ll fight over whether humans are fundamentally good or evil for the next eight movies and counting.
These two dudes team up with a blue shape-shifter named Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), who often walks around naked for no apparent reason, and a few others, including scientist Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), who has prehensile feet. (Hank tries to cure his mutation, but it backfires and turns him into a big, blue Beast.) Together they defeat a bad mutant who jumpstarted the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Another thing made of metal that Erik can control: missiles!) But a bullet accidentally hits Charles in the spine and Erik kills the bad guy by shoving a coin through his brain. Charles is pretty mad about both the sadistic murder and losing the use of his legs, so the two part ways. Magneto takes an angsty Raven, who begins calling herself Mystique, with him.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Date in X-Men Universe: 1970s
Release Date: 2009
Plot: In 1845 a boy named James (Hugh Jackman) sees his father murdered. He’s so traumatized he grows bone claws out of his hands and kills the murderer only to discover—gasp!—that the murderer is his real father. The character we’ll now call Wolverine runs away with the murderer’s other son, who will become Sabretooth (Liev Schreiber). They fight in a whole bunch of wars because they have healing powers that prevent them from dying. After Sabretooth tries to rape someone—spoiler: Sabretooth’s not a good guy—and they survive death by firing squad, William Stryker (Danny Huston) invites them to join Team X, a military mutant group. Among the group’s members: Ryan Reynolds as an extremely lame Deadpool and will.i.am because it was 2009.
Wolverine goes hipster and tries to live as a lumberjack in Canada, but Sabretooth murders his girlfriend. Stryker tells Wolverine he can make him stronger and infuses his bones with adamantium, an indestructible metal. It’s super painful. Stryker then tries to erase Wolverine’s memory, but Wolverine escapes. He teams up with a mutant named Gambit (Taylor Kitsch)—whose main talent is card tricks—to raid an island where Stryker is experimenting on mutants. They decapitate Deadpool and evade Stryker, but Wolverine, shot with an adamantium bullet in the head, loses his memory.
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Date in X-Men Universe: 2023 and 1973
Release Date: 2014
Plot: This one is complicated. In 2023, mutants are being slaughtered by killer robots that look like giant Iron Men. The X-Men decide to travel back in time and tell Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) that assassinating the scientist behind the bots will turn humanity against the mutants and accelerate the killer bot program. There’s a lot of postulating about how time travel actually works, but mostly the film’s an excuse to get the actors from the prequels and original films together.
A mutant who can run through walls named Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) has inexplicably acquired the power to send people back in time, and only the indestructible Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) can time travel. So off Wolverine goes to inhabit his younger self and recruit a young Professor X (James McAvoy) and a young Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to try and stop Mystique. Magneto gets a little off track and tries to kill Nixon. Mystique grows a conscience and saves the president. Wolverine returns to a new future where—wait for it—Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and Cyclops (James Marsden) are alive! And they’re all still in a love triangle! So they’re happy, except not really. (This revelation will make a lot more sense later in this timeline.)
The upshot: Bryan Singer completely erased the original three films so he could reboot the series. And since the mutants have changed time once, they could always do it again, which means Singer can create infinite reboots and maintain ultimate creative power. He’s cackling in a Professor X-like mansion somewhere.
Date in X-Men Universe: 1983
Release Date: 2016
Plot: Ancient Egyptians entomb a super powerful mutant, “Apocalypse,” that looks like a blue Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. (Tragically, it’s the very handsome Oscar Isaac under all that makeup.) He wakes up in 1983 and decides to take over the world. He recruits a bunch of mutants to his cause, including a teenage Storm (Alexandra Shipp), who can control the weather. Meanwhile, Professor X (James McAvoy), Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, who is finally good guy in this timeline) bring mutants to a school for special kids, including teleporting mutant Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a kid who can shoot beams out of his eyes (Tye Sheridan is Cyclops) and a telepathic and telekinetic girl named Jean Grey (Sophie Turner).
Meanwhile, Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is living in the woods of Poland with a wife and child. He uses his powers to save a co-worker, so the police try to capture him and kill his family. He murders all of them and emits the sort of wail only an Oscar nominee can muster in a superhero flick. Magneto destroys Auschwitz where his powers first manifested and joins Apocalypse, which, if you think about it, all feels teensy bit exploitative of the Holocaust. Back at the school, a bunch of the mutants are captured by Stryker (remember him from Wolverine: Origins?). Cyclops, Nightcrawler and Jean save them from Weapon X and also release Wolverine for a one-minute cameo. Apocalypse tries to use Professor X’s mind to take over the world but Jean, whose mind is even stronger, stops him.
X-Men: Dark Phoenix
Date in X-Men Universe: 1992
Release Date: 2016
Plot: We see Jean as a child in a car with her parents. She accidentally causes a crash killing her mother, and seemingly killing her father. Professor X visits Jean in the hospital and offers to take her to a school for mutants. Fast-forward to 1992. Somehow none of the X-Men have aged much since the last movie even though it’s been a decade. The X-Men go on a mission into space to save some astronauts and Jean gets hit by a mysterious beam of power.
The energy force begins to break through blockades that Professor X put inside her brain, and Jean begins to hear her father’s voice. She visits her old house and discovers her father is still alive but did not want to care for her after the accident, blaming her for his pain. Professor X blocked the memories in Jean’s brain so as to save her from her father’s rejection. Jean gets mad at the X-Men who have arrived to bring her home, and she accidentally kills Mystique. Meanwhile an evil alien who wants to control the power inside Jean (Jessica Chastain) and destroy the earth follows Jean and convinces her to fight Beast and Magneto, who come after Jean to avenge Mystique’s death, as well as Professor X. Professor X, however, convinces Jean that she is not broken but a good person, and Jean sacrifices herself to save all the X-Men. In a voiceover she says she has not died but evolved, and we see a Phoenix shape in the sky.
Date in X-Men Universe: 2000-ish
Release Date: 2000
Plot: Okay. Now we’re back in the original timeline before Days of Future Past, which means everything is normal again (kind of). A senator tries to push a mutant registration act through congress. The mutants are justifiably suspicious of this Big Brother-like measure. Magneto (Ian McKellen this time!) kidnaps the senator and makes him his lab rat in an experiment with a machine that channels Magneto’s metal-changing abilities to create mutations in humans. This makes almost no sense scientifically, but then again neither do mutants. The senator escapes.
Meanwhile, a young girl puts her boyfriend in a coma when she kisses him. She runs away and calls herself Rogue (Anna Paquin) and meets Wolverine (still Hugh Jackman). They’re attacked by Sabretooth (Tyler Mane) but are saved by the X-Men who bring them back to Professor X’s (Patrick Stewart) school. There they meet Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Cyclops (James Marsden) and Storm (Halle Berry).
Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), who in this timeline is working with Magneto, disguises herself as a cute boy to convince Rogue to run away so Magneto can use her to power the mutation machine. Mystique then goes and destroys Professor X’s machine that lets him read everyone in the world’s mind—sure, it’s super invasive, but Xavier’s a good guy! It’s fine. Don’t think about it.
Professor X is able to read the senator’s mind and find out Magneto has put the mutation machine on Liberty Island to mutate a bunch of world leaders. The X-Men engage in an epic battle at the Statue of Liberty (that’s some heavy-handed symbolism). Wolverine destroys the machine and gives his healing powers to Rogue to revive her—why doesn’t he do this with all the mutants?! Magneto is locked up in an all-plastic prison.
X2: X-Men United
Date in X-Men Universe: 2003-ish
Release Date: 2003
Plot: Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), who’s been brainwashed, tries to assassinate the president in a cool scene where he keeps disappearing and reappearing doing karate kicks but fails. Stryker uses the opportunity to raid Professor X’s school. Most of the mutants, including Professor X (Patrick Stewart), are captured. Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) breaks Magneto (Ian McKellan) out of prison, and Magneto finds the remaining X-Men to tell them Stryker has built a second machine that can read the world’s minds. (OK, yeah, so this machine is problematic after all.) Stryker plans to use Professor X and the machine to kill all the worlds’ mutants. Magneto also drops the bomb that Stryker is the dude who put adamantium in Wolverine (Hugh Jackman).
The X-Men invade Stryker’s lab where his son Jason, who is a mutant with mind-control powers, has brainwashed Professor X. (Breeze past that whole Stryker’s son is a mutant thing.) Mystique impersonates Stryker and directs Jason to brainwash Professor X to kill all humans instead. Storm (Halle Berry) creates a, well, storm to distract Jason and free Professor X. Meanwhile, Jean (Famke Janssen) and a brainwashed Cyclops (James Marsden) have a lover’s quarrel and accidentally break a dam. Stryker is killed as is Jean, who sacrifices herself to save the other X-Men. Cyclops and Wolverine, who both love Jean, are pretty bummed. After the X-Men have left, Phoenix rises from the water. Dun dun dun.
X-Men: The Last Stand
Date in X-Men Universe: 2006ish
Release Date: 2006
Plot: Some billionaire finds out his son is a mutant and creates a serum that “cures” the X gene. Meanwhile, Cyclops (James Marsden) sees the supposedly dead Jean (Famke Janssen), but when they kiss she murders him. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman isn’t going anywhere) and Storm (Halle Berry) find Jean unconscious alongside Cylcops’ glasses. Professor X (Patrick Stewart) reveals to Wolverine that he tampered with Jean’s mind to suppress a bad force called The Phoenix inside her. Wolverine gets on his high horse about the ethics of mind manipulation until Jean wakes up and is totally evil.
Magneto (Ian McKellan) and Xavier each vie to bring The Phoenix to their respective side. She disintegrates Professor X, and Magneto and Jean go off to attack the lab where they’re making the “cure.” The good mutants fight the bad mutants there, and Beast (Kelsey Grammer) is able to inject Magneto with the serum and nullify his power after Magneto has already done a number on the Golden Gate Bridge. Jean asks Wolverine to kill her, and he does it while screaming a lot. In the epilogue, Rogue reveals she’s taken the cure, Magneto begins to move a metal chess piece a bit with his mind and Xavier wakes up in a comatose person’s body having transferred his mind there.
The ending leaves a lot of questions about Days of Future Past though: How do Magneto and Rogue have their powers back in Days of Future Past? I guess the “cure” wears off. Why is Professor X still in Patrick Stewart’s body in Days of Future Past? Unexplained—but probably because they wanted Patrick Stewart in the movie.
Date in X-Men Universe: 2013-ish
Release Date: 2013
Plot: While he’s in a Japanese POW camp during World War II, Wolverine (you can’t stop Hugh Jackman) saves an officer named Yashida from the atomic bomb. During the present day (in the original timeline), Wolverine is wallowing after Jean’s death when the now super-rich Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), who is dying of cancer, invites him to Japan. There, Yashida says he can transfer Wolverine’s healing ability to his own body so that he can live and Wolverine can finally die, his secret desire. Wolverine says no thanks but then is infected with something by Yashida’s doctor who’s also a mutant snake lady named Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova).
Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) finds herself the target of gangsters when Yashida dies and leaves her in charge of his business instead of leaving it to Mariko’s father, Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada). Wolverine finds himself not healing as quickly as usual when he and Mariko have to fight these dudes. She eventually gets kidnapped, and Logan goes after her, stopping to perform open-heart surgery on himself to get rid of the parasite the snake lady put into his body. He eventually has to fight a giant robot samurai made of adamantium and controlled by (gasp!) a living Yashida. The robot cuts his claws off and begins to extract his healing abilities, but Mariko stabs her grandfather with Wolverine’s severed claws, and Wolverine regrows his bone claws.
And here is where Days of Future Past’s future section would land.
Date in X-Men Universe: 2016-ish
Release Date: 2016
Plot: This is a very different Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) than the one we met in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. That Deadpool had his mouth shown shut. This one can’t stop cracking jokes. Wade Wilson, a mercenary, finds out that he has incurable cancer. A mysterious man approaches him with an offer to imbue him with superhero abilities that will cure him. Wade is taken to a facility where a sadistic scientist names Ajax (Ed Skrein) and his assistant Angel Dust (Gina Carano) give Wilson a mutation serum, and then tortures him in order to activate it. Wilson develops a healing factor, but he becomes super deformed in the process. (His friend likens him to the result of an avocado procreating with an older avocado.) Ajax reveals that Wilson and others will be sold as slave super-soldiers, so Wilson burns the whole lab down.
Wilson adopts the name Deadpool and takes up residence with an elderly blind woman named Al (Leslie Uggams) while he tracks down Ajax to transform his body back to normal so he can go back to his life with his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). He kills a lot of people, usually by beheading them because this movie is rated R. Also he’s straight-up crazy. X-Men Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) show up to try to get him to join the X-Men, but Deadpool is unimpressed that Xavier seems to have sent the B-team. Ajax abducts Vanessa, and Deadpool has to save her, pausing to address the whether it’s more sexist to hit or not hit a female supervillain.
Date in X-Men Universe: 2029
Release Date: 2017
Plot: That hopeful future at the end of Days of Future Past? Perhaps not so hopeful after all. Director James Mangold confirmed that the film Logan is in the Days of Future Past timeline. But things are bleak. Super bleak. A mysteriously sick Logan (Hugh Jackman, allegedly for a final time) is driving a limo in order to pay for illegal medication for Professor X (Patrick Stewart), who has developed a degenerative brain disease. (That’s really bad news when you’re telepathic and a seizure means you could kill dozens of people around you.)
All the other mutants in the world have died off, which is why Wolverine is surprised to find a mini-me in the form of a young girl with claws. She’s trying to reach a safe haven for mutants she read about in an X-Men comic book. (In a meta conversation, Wolverine picks up a comic and declares, only 25% of this is real!) Professor X and Wolverine become her guardians. There’s a lot of slashing and stabbing: double the Wolverines, double the decapitated heads.