When the first X-Men movie dropped into theaters back in 2000, with a modest budget and few stars, few could have predicted the unbelievable cultural impact that the film would have. Back then a sequel wasn’t a sure thing, but Bryan Singer’s little mutant sci-fi film paved the way for superhero cinema as we know it today. Since then, Fox has released nine more movies in the X-Men universe, culminating in Logan — a tense, heartbreaking finale to the X-Men as we know them, finally bringing the series full circle. Throughout these films, the series has weaved together a complex continuity, with characters that grow old, change, die, and inspire others.
There have certainly been continuity errors throughout the X-Men series. Unlike the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the X-Men films weren’t planned out in advance, so mistakes were made along the way. But in the long road from X-Men to Logan, a fascinating, mutant-influenced alternate history has been developed, full of intriguing divergences from our own version of history — along with similarities that call attention to our greatest societal mistakes. The X-Men’s mutant conflicts have always been used as a political allegory for real life issues, and the movies have taken this to the next level, through the use of prequels, back stories, and peeks into the future, with major events tied to specific dates.
But this raises an interesting question: if one lived in the X-Men movie universe, and was sitting in Logan’s history class as a student of Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, what sort of lessons would they be learning?
Alternative History Lessons
Since the X-Men movies were not made in chronological order, it requires some work to put the X-Men history book together. And their history, of course, isn’t over: while we now have a definite endpoint in the future of 2029, there’s plenty of still unknown time between then and the 1990s, when the next X-Men sequel will come out. But since Logan tells the story of a day when the X-Men are no more, and thus gives us a conclusion, we can now look over the entire alternate history of this movie universe from the beginning until now.
All of the best alternate history theories pivot around a single change, and how that one change impacts everything. You know, the butterfly effect. What would happen if the Nazis won WWII? How would today’s music scene be different if Kurt Cobain hadn’t committed suicide? The key is to start with one change, drop that single stone into the river, and watch the ripples spread.
In the X-Men universe, that single change to the timeline is easy to pinpoint: the existence of mutants.
Lesson #1: Ancient Egypt & Apocalypse
So, how would history students study Apocalypse?- what would the textbooks say? In the pre-Days of Future Past timeline, he never rose up again, so he would likely be viewed as a mythological god, discussed in the same chapter as Ra, Anubis, and Set.
Really, there’s no way that En Sabah Nur wouldn’t be a major mythological figure that history students would write papers on. After all, the guy singlehandedly constructed the pyramids with his powerful telekinetic abilities. His fearsome appearance would likely be depicted in countless relics, murals, statues, scrolls, and so on. In X-Men: Apocalypse, Moira MacTaggert even proposed the notion that the biblical “Four Horseman of the Apocalypse” were named after his horseman, not the other way around.
But in the X-Men universe, contemporary historians probably don’t think that En Sabah Nur was a mutant. In fact, they probably don’t believe he actually existed in real life. There would be some historians who would propose the “Maybe Apocalypse was a mutant?” theory, but these ones are outliers, most likely mocked by the scholarly community. Even in the post-Days of Future Past timeline, the general public wouldn’t have any reason to associate the big blue mutant overlord with the historical En Sabah Nur.
Lesson #2: Magneto Studies
After Apocalypse, the timeline wasn’t much influenced by mutant activity (at least, not that we know of) until the mid-20th century, when mutants began to emerge more frequently. When WWII came along, it played a key role in shaping the single most controversial mutant of the 20th century -a figure who would certainly be discussed in history classes for decades to come, and who would the singular focus of millions of magazine articles, research papers, and books.
That man, of course, is Erik Lehnsherr.
Lehnsherr’s story began when his family was murdered in the Holocaust, decades before mutant powers become public knowledge. This event scarred Lehnsherr for life, and eventually led to him becoming Magneto, who in the X-Men universe would certainly be seen by authorities and the news media in the same context as Osama Bin Laden. Unlike the universally reviled Bin Laden, however, there would probably also be studies and news analysis pieces debating whether there were merits to Lehnsherr’s argument, and whether perhapshis cause was justified, if not his methods. Some would argue that he was a terrorist, others would say he was a freedom fighter.
If there were a college course devoted to the subject of “Magneto Studies,” it would certainly begin with the Holocaust, at which point the next important point in history would be the Cuban Missile Crisis. In X-Men: First Class, the incident itself was actually manipulated into happening by Sebastian Shaw, the leader of the Hellfire Club. But the point where history started really diverging from our timeline was in that single moment where Magneto took control of all of the missiles, turned them around, and got ready to make his first massive strike on human society. Even though this bloodbath was halted, this was the first time in history where mutantkind was truly unveiled to the world’s governments, and Magneto didn’t set the best first impression.
Only one year later, Magneto was implicated in the murder of John F. Kennedy Jr., his metal-controlling powers offering the best explanation ever for the oft-disputed “magic bullet” theory. Based on Charles and Hank’s discussion of Erik’s imprisonment in Days of Future Past, it can be reasonably assumed that Erik Lehnsherr’s supposed guilt in the assassination was common knowledge, even if his mutant powers were not (yet).
Lesson #3: Anti-Mutant Prejudice Begins
Once we get to 1973, when Days of Future Past takes place, the history book gets complicated. Due to time travel interference, the entire course of history was changed. Because the new X-Men movies are taking place on the altered timeline, much of history from 1973 onward is unknown to us. For that reason, when studying a hypothetical X-Men history book, it’s necessary to continue on with the original timeline. Also, for the sake of argument, it’s conceivable that Xavier may want to teach his students about the original timeline, so that they could know what to watch out for.
In any case, 1973 is a pivotal year. In the original timeline, Mystique assassinated Trask and was captured, eventually leading to the development of Sentinels modeled after her powers. Soon after, the world truly learned about mutants, and opinions began to form. The human/mutant conflict erupted.
According to 25 Moments, a cool viral marketing website that Fox released in conjunction with Days of Future Past, by the mid-1970s Professor Charles Xavier was presenting himself before the U.S. House of Representatives, where he pleaded for basic mutant rights. In 1977, Pietro “Peter” Maximoff decided to compete in the Olympics. When Quicksilver broke eight world records, it ignited a massive controversy that resulted in a complete ban from mutants participating in sports.
In the 1980s, the televangelist Bob Bell began an organization called “The Human Majority,” which believed mutants were a curse. The Chernobyl catastrophe caused the spread of new mutant births all over Eastern Europe, included Piotr Rasputin/Colossus. Germany formally adopted anti-mutant policies, and a resulting mutant riot led to more bloodshed; in this universe, the Berlin Wall was never knocked down.
Lesson #4: The New Millennium Begins
Any study in 21st century mutant history would be closely tied in with Magneto Studies. While Charles Xavier was an equally important historical figure, his role was quieter, whereas Magneto was busy mounting violent offensives against the human race. Since the US Government had an anti-mutant agenda, it would have used Magneto’s image as a propaganda tool to fuel anti-mutant sentiment. Holding up Magneto as a symbol of mutantkind would allow politicians to pass controversial policies like the Mutant Registration Act, whereas devoting any attention to Xavier and Jean Grey’s pleas for peace could potentially lead to pro-mutant sympathy.
Thus, Magneto was the single most controversial mutant in history, and the most prominent. And his actions in the 21st century were a big reason why.
First of all, there was the Statue of Liberty incident. This didn’t claim too many lives thanks to the X-Men, but it still would have been a huge deal in the news. Keep in mind, at this point Magneto was a wanted felon – the mutant who murdered JFK. His mutant terrorist group barging into the Statue of Liberty and flashing some weird lights at the top would be scary stuff to people sitting at home. In X2: X-Men United, viewers see the near-extinction of mutants, immediately followed by Magneto causing the near-extinction of humans, but Lehnsherr’s involvement in this would not have been clear to the general public.
The miraculous thing is that after all of this went down, the United States actually started to turn around in its stance on mutants. A pro-mutant president was elected to office, and Hank McCoy was even appointed to the position of Secretary of Mutant Affairs. Things were looking up for the first time in history.
Flashforward to San Francisco, 2006, where it all came crashing back down.
When Worthington Labs announced a mutant “cure,” Magneto sprang back into action. After gathering a massive army of mutants behind him, including the Phoenix, Magneto staged his first true act of war against the human race: he tore the entire Golden Gate Bridge off of its roots, and then unleashed hundreds of bloodthirsty mutants upon the Worthington Labs facility on Alcatraz.
Consider the scale of this for a moment. Forget that the X-Men intervened to save the day, or that Wolverine stopped Jean Grey from blowing up the entire city, because the news media and general public wouldn’t know any of that stuff. What they would know is that the most wanted man on the planet had just destroyed a national landmark in the name of war — most likely killing thousands.
In the X-Men universe, this “Golden Gate Bridge Attack” would have been their 9/11. In this one action, Magneto implicated all of mutantkind as being enemies of the American people. The bomb had finally dropped.
In the X-Men universe there was never any “War on Terror,” because the “War on Mutants” took its place. Mutants were questioned, deported, subjected to police brutality, killed in hate crimes, and thrown into Guantanamo Bay. Every mutant was accused of being a secret agent for Magneto, and forced to register. And sure enough, what did all of this end up leading to?
Lesson #5: The Future That Almost Was, And Then Wasn’t
Days of Future Past paints a pretty clear picture of what happened at this point. The Anti-Mutant movement reached fever pitch, mutants were thrown in concentration camps, the US government commissioned Sentinels from Trask Industries… and oops, there goes the world. After almost all of the mutants have been eliminated, the Sentinels then turned their guns on the humans.
Until the X-Men sent Wolverine back in time. The efforts of Xavier’s team saved the entirety of humanity from themselves. This would be the final history lesson for students at Xavier’s school, at which point they’d be dragged to Professor Beast’s science class so they could learn weird, confusing lessons about time travel.
However, for human students, their lessons would continue all the way to 2029, which we now know as the endpoint. By then, a new question has arisen:
Lesson #6: Where Did All the Mutants Go?
While the future world depicted in Logan isn’t so great, it’s certainly better than the post-apocalyptic scenario featured in Days of Future Past. Logan shows a country where corporate greed, genetically engineered crops, and anti-immigrant nationalism have choked the life out of the economy, easily making it the most political X-Men movie to date. While people in this society are getting by, they’re struggling, and it shows. Mutants, once poised to take over the human race, have mostly died out, and no new mutants are being born, thanks to Zander Rice’s high fructose corn syrup.
But what’s most significant here, as far as the history of the X-Men, is that at this point the context in which mutants are viewed has entirely changed. Now that they’re no longer a “threat” for human survival, people have become nostalgic about mutants, and celebrate their past achievements, or are excited when they run into one of them. The X-Men have become iconic heroes of the past, pop culture icons whose past heroism is never questioned. Comic books are made of them. Parents probably brag to their kids about the time “the X-Men saved me.”
Strange as this might seem, it’s actually quite realistic. Real life heroes and social movements are often controversial in their time — but in later decades, these figures become celebrated as icons. It makes sense that in this universe the X-Men would be treated the same way. Even though the mutant gene was suppressed, and even though the X-Men never lived to see themselves accepted, their legacy will live on… and in the history books, they will be forever memorialized as the heroes that they really were.
Until the next timeline change, that is.