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Welcome to Fan Service, a guide to engaging with gargantuan, lore-heavy franchises. In each volume, we'll recommend a watch/read order to approach the given series with and dissect our argument for it. Today: The original "Marvel Cinematic Universe" — 20th Century Fox's X-Men movies.

The X-Men movies are the patient-zero franchise of our modern superhero movie sickness. Yes, they were preceded in theaters by Marvel's "Blade" (and by "Howard the Duck," don't forget) and the classic Batman and Superman franchises. Yes, the original "X-Men" was quickly followed by the Tobey Maguire "Spider-Man" movies and Christopher Nolan's noir-ish reimagining of Batman.

Still, without 2000's "X-Men" and the longevity of its sequels, Hugh Jackman's tenure as Wolverine wouldn't have paved the way for the career-making (or reviving) roles like Thor and Tony Stark.

Without "X-Men" you don't get the auspicious origin story of producer Kevin Feige, and without Feige's persistence you don't get the framework for the.

Without "X-Men" you don't have a blueprint for making hero-packed films like "The Avengers" and work (okay, maybe the latter didn't really work).

My point is, every superhero movie made today owes a lot to the nearly 20-year-old X-Men film franchise, in so far as every mega-popular success from "Avengers: Infinity War" to "Wonder Woman" to the X-Men franchise's own self-parodying "Deadpool" has learned valuable lessons from what Fox has and hasn't gotten right with "X-Men." Among those lessons are gems like "don't be afraid to cast unknowns as your lead character" and "maybe don't fracture your already hard-to-follow timeline." While the franchise is taking uncertain steps into the future (a future that might mean a total reboot under the MCU), its past forms the foundation for all of today's sprawling superhero franchises.

In this installment of "Fan Service," we'll trace the arc of Fox's X-Men movies from the original smash hit of summer 2000 to it's first numbered side-story sequel in "Deadpool 2." Ready to learn all about mutant-kind, bub?

Xavier's Watch Order For Confusing Plotting

Alright, I'm going to break something of a personal "Fan Service" rule here with the following watch order. 9 times out of 10 I recommend watching film franchises in the order they were made, since lessons learned in the making and reception of each film are rolled forward to the next. With the X-Men series I'm breaking that rule because, the canonical timeline is just too damn screwy — it's much easier to break it up into little "sub-series" chunks.

  • X-Men (2000)
  • X2 (2003)
  • X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
  • X-Men: First Class (2011)
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
  • X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
  • X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
  • The Wolverine (2013)
  • Logan (2017)
  • Deadpool (2016)
  • Deadpool 2 (2018)

The order here takes you through the initial trilogy first, since those movies have a defined arc and serve as the best introductions to characters who return in later sequels and prequels. Then comes the "retro" trilogy beginning with the flashback/origin story "X-Men: First Class." Any timeline oddities raised by that film were further complicated by 2014's "Days of Future Past," which features time travel shenanigans involving the "old" and "new" X-Men casts. Next up are the first two Wolverine spin-offs, neither of which are all that special nor matter too much to the arcs of the other films in the series including 2017's "Logan," which is well worth your time. Finally there are the "Deadpool" films, which you might as well watch last anyway since their place in the timeline is practically irrelevant and you'll get way more of the in-jokes if you've seen the rest blue of the films first.

"Wait," you're saying, "what about the X-Men television shows that are related to the movies?" Glad you asked. I'm halfway tempted to start telling people who ask me about the television series that they straight-up don't matter to the timeline of the movies (seriously, what are the chances we ever see a season of "Jessica Jones" or "Luke Cage" that grapples with the you-know-what at the end of "Infinity War?"), and both "Legion" and "The Runaways" are even more tangential to the stories of the X-Men movies than the MCU shows are to their cinema siblings. By all means, check out "Legion" and "The Runaways" after you've seen some or all of the movies in the X-Men franchise, but don't hold your breath waiting for a strong enough narrative link between them to justify a hybrid watch order that's worth your time.

Does Anyone Want To Buy The Rights To Our Heroes? Anyone?

I know it's hard, but try to think back to a time 20 years ago when movies featuring Marvel characters weren't box office record-smashing, tentpole blockbusters. In the '90s, Marvel Comics licensed the movie rights to many of their characters out to various movie companies. Sony swooped in to grab Spider-Man, Artisan Entertainment toyed with Thor and Captain America, Universal snatched up Hulk and Iron Man, New Line Cinema saw potential in Blade's cool sunglasses and 20th Century Fox got the Fantastic Four along with the sweetest prize of all Marvel's heroes, the X-Men.

If you had told 7-year-old me that Marvel was hard up on cash in the '90s — and gently explained the basics of the entertainment business to me — I would've pointed at all the "X-Men" stuff saturating the '90s and asked you how that was possible. Prior to Pokémania, the animated "X-Men" show was the Saturday morning cartoon to watch. Still, a fun cartoon (and some damn good Capcom fighting games) do not constitute a business empire, and a mid-'90s threatened to pull Marvel under, and so the movie rights deals helped keep the company afloat.

The first "X-Men" movie went through the typical rite of passage for superhero movies: years of development hell. You could make an interesting movie about the list of writers who worked on various drafts of the script, including, Pulitzer-winner Michael Chabon, Ed Solomon ("Bill & Ted's" "Men In Black"), Christopher McQuarrie ("The Usual Suspects") and the eventually-credited writer David Hayter (best known as the voice actor for Solid Snake in the "Metal Gear Solid" series). Kevin Feige got roped in as an associate producer by his boss Lauren Shuler Donner. Before Fox signed Bryan Singer to direct the film they considered Brett Ratner (who later directed the third "X-Men") and Robert Rodriguez. Famously, a still-green Hugh Jackman wasn't even cast as Wolverine until the last-second, replacing actor Dougray Scott, who Singer originally wanted to fill the role.

 Image: 20th Century Fox / Illustration: Christen Smith

With so many bumpy spots in the production timeline, the first "X-Men" ultimately came together and performed well at the box office. With an inspired cast (particularly in Patrick Stewart, Halle Berry and Ian McKellen) and a strong-but-not overbearing focus on the, "X-Men" even — well, some.

Moviegoers' enthusiastic response to "X-Men" and later to Sam Raimi's "Spider-Man" (2002) set Marvel down the path of reclaiming what characters it could to start building out its own film franchises while Fox continued with the X-Men according to good-old sequel logic. "X2" (yeah, that was really the name they settled on) draws inspiration from popular arcs in the "X-Men" comics while fleshing out the backstory for Wolverine with Brian Cox's memorable turn as the villain William Stryker.

"X-Men: The Last Stand," the capper to the original "X-Men" trilogy, well… it doesn't meet the high bar set by the first two films. Written by Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn ("Ready Player One," story credit on "The Avengers"), "The Last Stand" is a very loose adaptation of the "Dark Phoenix" saga from the comics. At least it gave us?

Well, We've Gotta Make More Of These, Right?

Stuck in an odd spot after the climactic end of "The Last Stand" and entering the new era of superhero films started by "Iron Man," the "X-Men" franchise's next outing was something of a misstep. "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," a prequel filling in more of Wolverine/James Howlett/Logan's backstory, was intended to launch a series of "X-Men Origins" movies. The next installment was supposed to depict Magneto's time as a child captive at Auschwitz (given how his backstory, maybe it's better they didn't). The standalone Wolverine picture didn't do well with critics or fans — particularly "Deadpool" fans, who were excited to see Ryan Reynolds take on the role only to discover that the "Origins" version of the character was a lame reimagining.

After the first "Origins" film performed poorly and the Magneto follow-up was scrapped, Fox shifted its efforts to "X-Men: First Class," a film based (again, quite loosely) on the comics arc of the same. Set in the 1960s and depicting the founding of both Professor Xavier's school and Magneto's Brotherhood of Mutants, younger actors were cast in the principle roles from the first trilogy: James McAvoy took Patrick Stewart's place as Xavier, Michael Fassbender became Magneto (formerly Ian McKellen), Jennifer Lawrence became Mystique (formerly Rebecca Romijn) and Nicholas Hoult became Beast (sorry, Kelsey). In the lead-up to First Class there was a lot of confusion over whether it was, but a quick cameo by Jackman as Wolverine implies it isn't… or at least, wasn't supposed to be at the time.

 Image: 20th Century Fox / Illustration: Christen Smith

The first post-"Avengers" (and post-"Man of Steel"/) X-Men movie is James Mangold's "The Wolverine," a follow-up to both the previous solo-Wolverine outing and to the events of "X-Men: The Last Stand." Mangold, who directed the Johnny Cash biopic "Walk The Line" and the 2007 remake of "3:10 to Yuma," turned out to be a good fit for the character, even if adapting Jackman's personal favorite Japan-set Wolverine arc and twisting it into a CG-addled brawl was.

Now joining the "we're never gonna stop making these" fun, "The Wolverine" includes a post-credits scene that teased the events of 2014's "X-Men: Days of Future Past." With Bryan Singer returning to direct his first "X-Men" film since "X2," "Days of Future Past" unites the "classic" X-Men cast from the original trilogy with the younger cast from "First Class" by way of a pretty confusing yet entertaining time travel plot. Some of the cast members from the original movies get pretty short shrift (hey, remember how Halle Berry and Ellen Page were in these?) while younger recasts and brand-new additions get more of a chance to put their stamp on the series. One of those new additions, Evan Peters' Quicksilver, caused a good deal of comic fan consternation since different versions of the character appear in the "X-Men" series and Marvel Cinematic Universes — but whatever, it's easy enough to remember who's who and Peters gets in the film.

Maybe We'll Try Not Being Like The Marvel Movies

The other significant "X-Men" film franchise release of 2014 was, let's say… unofficial. A few months after the release of "Days of Future Past," test footage for a standalone "Deadpool" film leaked online. Ryan Reynolds had been attached to the project since before the release of "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," and first-time director Tim Miller signed on in 2011. 

 The leaked test footage compared to the sequence from the final "Deadpool" movie.

2011 also happened to be the year Reynolds' universally-panned "Green Lantern" movie was released. Miller, the head of animation and visual effects studio Blur, set to work with his studio in 2012 to make a fleshed-out looking "Deadpool" scene to convince 20th Century Fox to move forward with the movie. The production stalled for 2 years until someone — okay, it was leaked the footage online in July 2014. The effusive praise the test footage garnered was the shot in the arm the production needed, and two months later Fox announced an early 2016 release date for "Deadpool."

 Image: 20th Century Fox / Illustration: Christen Smith

Meanwhile, work was already under way on two more "X-Men" films. One, "X-Men: Apocalypse," was set to be a straightforward sequel to "Days of Future Past." The other film was "Logan," the third standalone Wolverine film. "Deadpool" was slated to hit theatres before both, and in hindsight the "X-Men" franchise might've looked very different if it hadn't.

Since "Deadpool" had the benefit of testing the waters with the leaked footage, Miller and company succeeding in getting the studio on-board. That meant the on-screen Deadpool could capture the same foul-mouthed fourth-wall-breaking irreverence of the original comic book character. The move paid off when "Deadpool" debuted to widespread acclaim and became the not long after.

Now 20th Century Fox had a clear path to distinguishing itself from its Marvel Cinematic Universe competitors: just take the risks Disney won't. With the release of "Apocalypse" only a few months away that movie had already taken shape — unfortunately, it was too late to save the film from its so-so reception or to get Oscar Isaac out of that horrible costume for reshoots — but moving ahead on a "Deadpool" sequel and an "X-Force" spin-off were no-brainers, as was letting James Mangold take "Logan" to an R-rating as well.

"Logan," much-hyped as Hugh Jackman's last appearance as Wolverine, went full-on revisionist western in its style (to the point of maybe belaboring its ties to George Stevens' "Shane") and got to be as gory as an R-rating combined with sharp adamantium claws will allow. The film got the Adapted Screenplay nomination for a superhero movie at the Oscars, further reinforcing the newfound strength of the "X-Men" franchise: being different. Funny how the franchise about outcast mutants took a while to get there.

 Image: 20th Century Fox / Illustration: Christen Smith

The Future

And now the mutants might not stay so different from the MCU after all. Last December that they intend to acquire all of 21st Century Fox's film and television entertainment studios, which will transfer the film rights to the "X-Men" back to Marvel. That means that, if the deal goes through, it's only a matter of time until Marvel decides on a way to incorporate the X-Men into the MCU. If rumors are to be believed, that might even be enough to pull Hugh Jackman out of retirement.

In the meantime, however, both Marvel and Fox have roadmaps for their series that they can't just abandon to rush an Avengers/X-Men team-up/battle into existence. "Deadpool 2" was supposed to be the second of two X-Men franchise films this year after "The New Mutants," but that film got pushed back to 2019 after the studio decided to let director Josh Boone ("The Fault In Our Stars") in order to make it more of an outright horror movie (there's those "Deadpool" and "Logan" lessons at work.

Also slated for 2019 is franchise screenwriter Simon Kinberg's directorial debut for "Dark Phoenix," a sequel to "X-Men: Apocalypse" that has been promised will be more faithful to the comics' Dark Phoenix arc than "X-Men: The Last Stand." Perhaps it's best to take that with a grain of salt, considering that Kinberg co-wrote "The Last Stand" and has also said the movie will be which might be the most contradictory phrases uttered about a film in history. Oh, there's a  with Channing Tatum attached to star that's about to start filming too, so that makes at least three "X-Men" franchise movies that are almost assuredly too far along in development to get spiked by Disney.

Then there are the aforementioned plans for Deadpool and the X-Force, which Disney's Bob Iger has been. Then again, apparently the writers had to from "Deadpool 2" for fear of pissing off their potential new corporate overlords, so it might take a whole lot of box office moolah to secure their future.

If there's any sign that the X-Men might not get totally consumed by the Marvel machine as a result of the acquisition, it's that Fox that Tim Miller of the first "Deadpool" is developing a Kitty Pryde movie. No word on if Ellen Page will reprise the role, but a month after the initial announcement Fox to write the film. If Fox is full-steam ahead on developing yet another standalone picture for one of the X-Men mutants, maybe they've got a future in film that isn't lumped in with the rest of Marvel's heroes…

… or maybe Kitty's phasing ability will go haywire and open a passage between the "X-Men" film universe and the MCU. Or maybe Cable's time travel equipment will get a dimension-hopping upgrade. Or, or maybe Scott Lang, a.k.a. Ant-Man, will traverse the Quantum Realm and see Hugh Jackman's Wolverine waving at him through a tessellated reality window. OR, or… or I'll just get a headache trying to keep all these timelines and realities straight.​

Mathew Olson is an Associate Editor at Digg.

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