For years, comic book movies have played fast and loose with the source material. Until Marvel Studios homogenized its decades of lore to create palatable versions of its superhero pantheon with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, most film adaptations cherry-picked details to cobble together a close proximity of what fans were familiar with. Not all of these page-to-screen shifts appeased fans, but they were more often than not close enough to what they loved to lure them into theaters. The biggest splash, which spearheaded the onslaught of comic book movies we’ve seen for nearly two decades, was 2000's X-Men.
Despite the massive popularity of Marvel's X-Men comics in the 1980s and early ‘90s, many fans never dreamed of seeing their favorite band of altruistic mutants on the big screen. The X-Men mythos is dense and winding; their stories are filled with interstellar adventures, time travel, aliens and heavy social commentary. The notion of distilling those elements, not to mention an enormous cast of characters, into a two-hour film never should have worked. But, here was are, 18 years and nearly a dozen films later, and the X-Men have been a staple of Hollywood for a generation. And while most modern cinematic universes, most notably the MCU, have gone to great lengths to forge connective tissue between entries, to make them feel like one sweeping story, the X-Men films throw caution to the wind, for better or worse.
Gonna Go Back in Time
The first three X-Men films, released between 2000 and 2006, more or less act as a solid trilogy, with a through line that ultimately makes sense. Time moves at a reasonable pace, and plot beats set up in one film find resolution in later entries, even if some of those arcs are painfully dumb. The first two films in particular are solid when watched back to back in a vacuum. What was great about the first film, X-Men, was expanded upon in X2: X-Men United (yes, it's a silly title). Things begin to get a bit shaky in the third chapter, X-Men: The Last Stand, however.
It’s easy to chalk that up to the film being produced by a new creative team, and it does lose a lot of the franchise’s tone and aesthetic, but The Last Stand crams too much story and way too many characters. And as if the movie were rebelling against its predecessors, it kills off three of the main characters, which led to the franchise painting itself into a corner. So how does a series bounce back from that? Easy: prequels.