Considering that time travel has been a major factor in recent X-Men films, imagine what would happen if someone traveled back in time and stopped the first entry in the series from being made?
Without the original X-Men in 2000, arguably the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it would not exist. Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman might never have happened. Ryan Reynolds would no longer publicly repent over being in The Green Lantern because it wouldn’t have been made in the first place.
That’s how influential X-Men turned out to be; nothing less than a total recalibration of the modern superhero genre’s possibilities. By mere virtue of being the kind of movie that opens with a scene set in Auschwitz of all places, X-Men gave comic book movies permission to treat their subject matter seriously and not pander to young audiences, paving the way for a future in which Black Panther becomes an Oscar contender.
And now, the series that kicked off our current era of superhero hits comes to a close with Dark Phoenix, in theaters June 7.
Opening on Friday, June 7, Dark Phoenix surely won’t be the final X-Men film ever. (Deadpool is connected to the X-iverse, for one thing, and The New Mutants is due next year.) It’s the last one, however, before Disney officially absorbs Fox, which has been home to the series since it launched 19 years ago, and it’s the last with the current crop of stars. The new film focuses on chaotic-good telekinetic Jean Grey (Game of Thrones’s Sophie Turner), who makes something of a heel-turn here, and adds Jessica Chastain as a mysterious, body-snatching alien to its impressive roster of X-Men actors. One need not have seen all 11 of the other X-Men and X-Men-adjacent films to fully enjoy what happens, though. All you need to do is read this casual fan’s guide for jumping right into the franchise for its finale.
1. Who are the X-Men and what are their powers?
In this corner of the Marvel realm, mutants exist as metaphors for persecuted minorities. They have special powers, but their differences make most people afraid of them. The X-Men are a group of do-gooder mutants masterminded by Professor Charles Xavier, who literally puts the ‘x’ in X-Men, while Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto, leads an ideologically opposite group, the anarchic Brotherhood of Mutants. After the original trilogy of X-Men films, concluding with 2006’s The Last Stand, the series started spinning off prequels and side stories, splitting the cast into older and younger versions of the repertory players. Here are the ones you should know for Dark Phoenix:
Charles Xavier (originally Patrick Stewart, currently James McAvoy): His power is telepathy and being a genius.
Jean Grey/Phoenix (originally Famke Janssen, currently Sophie Turner): Her power is telepathy and telekinesis (gotta love a hyphenate), but she also has a hidden strength known as Phoenix Force that we only got a glimpse of in the previous film, Apocalypse.
Cyclops/Scott Summer (originally James Marsden, currently Tye Sheridan): He shoots energy rays from his eyes, which are often covered with protective glasses. You wouldn’t want to get hit by those rays.
Beast/Hank McCoy (originally Kelsey Grammer, currently Nicholas Hoult): He is smart but also quite strong, animalistic and, well, blue.
Mystique/Raven Darkhölme (originally Rebecca Romijn, currently Jennifer Lawrence): She’s a shapeshifter. Also blue.
Storm/Ororo Munroe (originally Halle Berry, currently Alexandra Shipp): She controls the weather, but mostly not in a fun way.
Quicksilver/Peter Maximoff (Evan Peters): He can move extremely, ridiculously fast. He’s also Magneto’s son, but that doesn’t seem to matter much.
Nightcrawler/Kurt Wagner (originally Alan Cumming, currently Kodi Smit-McPhee): He can perform quick, concentrated bursts of teleportation.
Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (originally Ian McKellen, currently Michael Fassbender): He has the power to magnetically manipulate any metal.
2. Which movies have come before this one?
X-Men: The groundbreaking original, in which Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Rogue (Anna Paquin) are folded into Charles Xavier’s team as Magneto plots to turn the world’s leaders into mutants.
X2: An assault on Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, where future X-Men are groomed, leads to the crew teaming up with Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants to save all of mutant-kind from an existential threat.
X-Men 3: The Last Stand: Mutantkind once again faces an existential threat, due to a mutant “cure” that can render X-Men powerless. There’s also a B-story, to be detailed further below.
X-Men: First Class: This prequel is set in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, while Xavier and Magneto begin heading down their separate paths. Here is where we see that meeting Mystique/Raven made Xavier feel less alone, which is why he took her into his family as a foster sister. This connection means that their relationship is deeper than it appeared in the original trilogy, something to keep in mind for Dark Phoenix.
X-Men: Origins–Wolverine: Left out of First Class, since audiences already knew that Wolverine doesn’t join the group until much later, it is here that we learn more about where Wolfie actually came from.
X-Men: Days of Future Past: The original cast and the First Class gang come together through time travel, mostly in 1973, to thwart the existential threat of the Sentinels (mutant-hunting killer robots) from ever being created.
The Wolverine: A Japan-set solo Wolfie movie, which takes place in the aftermath of The Last Stand.
Deadpool: The naughty, fourth-wall-puncturing, R-rated mega-hit that Ryan Reynolds fought to get made. This unkillable rascal is nominally connected to the X-Men mythology, but only the B-squad X-ers Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead appear.
X-Men: Apocalypse: The return of an ancient villain, En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), leads the mutants in 1983 to thwart an existential threat against not just all mutant-kind but all mankind as well.
Logan: An R-rated superhero film, like Deadpool, although not at all like Deadpool tonally. Logan is an action-packed but somber torch passing, which very likely marks the final appearance of Hugh Jackman’s incarnation of the character.
Deadpool 2: The equally meta sequel includes a cheeky cameo by the entire First Class cast, but no real plot overlap.
3. Who is romantically involved with whom?
Mystique and Beast shared a kiss in First Class, but their budding romance was ultimately paused by potentially world-ending calamity. (Notably, the actors who played these characters, Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult, were also reportedly in a relationship from 2010 to 2014, if you care about that sort of thing.) Although the subsequent films never explored their relationship much further, some residual feelings are implied. At the same time, Mystique also had an emotional affair–and almost a physical one–with the metal-twisting Magneto, who encourages her to embrace all the dark potential for her powers. (Foster brother Charles Xavier encourages her to only do what’s necessary.) By Days of Future Past, Mystique and Magneto are enemies, but their shared history has resonance in their interactions throughout the series. Cyclops and Jean Grey begin dating in Apocalypse, after meeting as new students in the School for Gifted Youngsters.
4. Where did we last leave everybody?
After having a nightmare vision of a world on fire, Jean Grey used her Phoenix Force to help defeat Apocalypse, foreshadowing what is to come in the next film. Magneto, who more than flirted with darkness and kind of embodied it, has mellowed out. He and Charles Xavier have reached a détente (Magneto even helped rebuild Xavier’s previously destroyed school). Xavier has a romantic relationship with a CIA agent who has a keen interest in mutants, which likely helps him develop a direct line into the U.S. government. Mystique, who has flirted with darkness in the past, has become a leader around the School for Gifted Youngsters. She and Beast work together to train the now assembled X-Men team of Jean, Cyclops, Storm, Quicksilver, and Nightcrawler.
5. What, historically, is Dark Phoenix?
The Dark Phoenix Saga is among the most popular comic book runs of all time. Created in the mid-’70s, this series involves Jean Grey coming into contact with . . . let’s just say something, which amplifies her already prodigious powers into unwieldy outer limits that are dangerous for the world. Her powers and what she ends up doing with them creates fractious strife within the X-Men team. The 2006 X-Men entry, The Last Stand, crammed Dark Phoenix in as a B-story, but the fan consensus was that it deserved better, more careful treatment. Whether those famously fickle comic superfans are satisfied by this new version, we will soon find out.