There is a moment about halfway through X-Men: Days of Future Past when the shit really hits the fan, narratively speaking.
In 1973, the film’s unlikely trio of protagonists, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) have rescued Magneto (Michael Fassbender) from the Pentagon to help them convince Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) not to assassinate anti-mutant weapons developer Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). Trask’s death at Mystique’s hand will trigger a chain of events that eventually lead to a post-apocalyptic future wherein mutants are hunted. In this future, an older Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) will decide to stop the assassination by sending the consciousness of Wolverine (still Hugh Jackman) back in time fifty years to 1973.
Still following? Good.
Our heroes arrive in time to foil the assassination, but things take a turn when Magneto decides the only way to prevent Wolverine’s future is to kill Mystique, upon whom the whole sequence of events will turn. The only person in a position to stop either of them is Wolverine, but he’s confronted by a soldier trying to protect Trask. This man, a young William Stryker (Josh Helman), is a man at whose hands Wolverine will eventually suffer unimaginable torture. Seeing Stryker triggers a kind of post-traumatic stress incident in Wolverine — recalling something that technically hasn’t happened yet — that threatens to snap his consciousness back to the future and ruin everything. For me, nothing has come as close to capturing the thrill that continuity brings to reading comics as much as watching this scene, the moment where I realized why Wolverine reacts to seeing Stryker.
The film isn’t much help in explaining what’s going on. A brief shot of Stryker’s name triggers a few seconds of blurry footage ripped from the second X-Men film (X2), but for me it was enough. My attention to the moment collided with my knowledge of the X-Men universe to grant the scene the particular kind of gravitas, perhaps undeserved, that can only come from continuity.
Continuity isn’t unique to comic books, but it’s hard to argue it’s a bigger part of any other medium. In mainstream American superhero comics, most popular characters share their universes with other well-known characters. Captain America is friends with Wolverine. Superman fights crime with Batman. Nothing in fiction is quote like the thrill of seeing Spider-Man show up in my Iron Man comic, or hearing Green Lantern mention the most recent disaster to befall The Flash. Since 2008, this trend of continuity been happening on the big screen.
Ever since the surprise appearance by Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) in Iron Man‘s famous post-credits scene, Marvel Studios has been carefully crafting its “cinematic universe”. Featuring iconic characters from Marvel Comics including Captain America, Thor, and the Hulk, the studio’s crown jewel of continuity comes in the form of the Joss Whedon-helmed The Avengers, which sees characters from each preceding film in the cinematic universe unite in what became both a critical success and the third-highest-grossing film of all time. Fans pore over the films’ continuity Easter eggs and quiver in anticipation of each new post-credits sequence, sure to reveal something about the next installment in the cinematic universe.
This endeavour has been hampered somewhat, at least in the minds of diehard Marvel fans, by the studio’s inability to use characters from two of Marvel’s biggest franchises: Spider-Man and X-Men. The web-slinger’s arguably mediocre outings — at least, those following director Sam Raimi’s fantastic Spider-Man 2 — are currently licensed to Sony, while Fox holds the rights to the X-Men. Nevertheless, the Marvel Cinematic Universe remains an unqualified success, and bringing continuity, that most comic book of elements, to the table has been a key part of that success.
However, while Marvel’s approach to continuity has been one of careful curatorship across production and marketing, I would argue the results pale in comparison to what X-Men: Days of Future Past achieves in just one film, something far closer to comic book continuity at its best than anything produced by Marvel Studios.
The key to understanding comic book continuity lies in its messiness. There have been concerted efforts to control and unify comic book continuity, notably, DC Comics’ recent “New 52” reboot of their entire universe, which saw commercial success but faced not-so-favorable critical notices. In most cases, the richness of these worlds comes from their decades-long history. They have grown organically.
For proof of their emergent properties (and of their ripeness for analysis by social science nerds), a few years ago some Spanish researchers at the University of the Balearic Islands on Majorca spent a lot of time noting down every time a given pair of characters appeared in the same Marvel comic book; for example, Spider-Man and Captain America. Each appearance constituted a “social link”, with stronger links emerging from more frequent pairings. Surprisingly, the researchers found the resulting network of links resembled real world social networks, at least to some extent. A degree of order had emerged from the chaos of decades of comic book history.
While Fox’s X-Men film franchise can’t boast over half a century of continuity, it can certainly lay claim to being a bit of a mess. Now totalling seven films with more on the way, the X-Men first hit the big screen in 2000 with an eponymous outing directed by Bryan Singer. After two more films and a spin-off starring everyone’s favourite Canadian (Wolverine) the studio decided to try something different: a reboot.
The reboot is another peculiarity of continuity—we throw out everything that has gone before and start again. The past is erased. Distinct from long-standing Hollywood tradition of the remake, the reboot marks not just a retelling, but the beginning of an entirely new history. Over the past few years it has seeped into the mainstream beyond just superhero films, with Casino Royale rebooting the James Bond series and J.J. Abrams doing the same for a place no man has gone before in Star Trek.
For X-Men, the reboot arrived in 2011 with X-Men: First Class, which tells the story of Professor X and Magneto meeting for the first time in 1962. Playing out against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film is a resounding success. However, after the film’s release, it became unclear whether the next X-Men film would be a sequel to First Class or to the third film of the original trilogy.
In an audacious decision, Days of Future Past became both: it would tie every previous film in the series together into one big messy bundle of continuity. Everything would be true.
We can see in the film’s genesis the delightful and often arbitrary chaos of continuity-building. From the perspective of a comic book fan, one of the most interesting aspects of Days of Future Past is the narrative prominence of Mystique. While the shape-shifting mutant is a very important character in the lore of the comics, she is rarely a prominent figure. Were it not for the past three years marking the spectacular rise of Jennifer Lawrence, it’s hard to imagine she would have played such a key role in the new film.
This collision of fantasy and reality has comic book analogues. Previously minor comic book characters will often shoot to popularity under the authorship of a particular writer. Now one of the biggest names in the Marvel Universe (even if he’s little-known outside it), no one knew who Luke Cage was until writer Brian Michael Bendis made him a key member of the Avengers during his best-selling tenure on the title.
Even the contrivances of death and resurrection that come together in Days of Future Past’s final, exhilarating, and spoiler-filled scene are a staple of comic book continuity. Death rarely sticks in comics. Still, it is a surprise and a thrill to see some familiar faces reappear before the credits. Continuity means both that everything is true and that the truth changes over time.
Despite what one might imagine, I don’t tend to get giddy about the next big superhero movie. Instead, I go into the next installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe assuming whatever piece of continuity there might have been will have been debated, planned, and carefully inserted. But I’m excited about the next X-Men film, which is set for release sometime in 2016. Following the precedent set by Days of Future Past, who knows what the hell the movie could be? If everything is true, anything can happen.
For another examination of continuity in X-Men: Days of Future Past, see Andrew Doscas’ “Crisis and Continuity: Reliving the Superhero Flicks of 2014”.