Why Ageless 'X-Men' Movies Remain True to Comics

Shouldn't everyone in 'X-Men: Apocalypse' look a lot older? Maybe not.
Carmine Di Giandomenico/Marvel Entertainment

Something that cannot be avoided when it comes to X-Men: Apocalypse is the apparent lack of aging of the main characters of the franchise. In the 21 years that have elapsed in story-time between 2011's X-Men: First Class and Apocalypse, Charles Xavier, Erik Lehnsherr, Raven Darkholme and Hank McCoy have remained remarkably youthful — it looks like they've aged, say, five years?

At least in Raven's case, there's a simple explanation: if you were a shapeshifter, why would you allow yourself to visibly age? For those seeking an in-story explanation for the other characters' lack of aging, there's an argument to be made for the idea that perhaps mutants simply age slower than regular humans. Admittedly, that argument gets harder to make when you factor in the non-mutant Moira MacTaggert, who has also hardly aged between the fictional 1962 and 1983; at that point, the reality of "nobody wants to recast the franchise, nor look at bad makeup turning the beautiful actors artificially older" starts to come into view.

Though, the question arises: Why insert arbitrary decade gaps between each X-Men movie if there's not going to be an attempt to age the recurring characters? The final answer to that is likely to be complex and unknowable, including references to nostalgia and a gimmick to differentiate the X-Men movies from competition in an increasingly crowded landscape, but here's something that should not be overlooked: The unrealistic, overly complicated timeline of the series is 100 percent in keeping with the comic book source material.

For more than a decade after Stan Lee and Jack Kirby launched what is now known as the Marvel universe with 1961's Fantastic Four No. 1, the comic books essentially took place in something approaching real time: Characters would refer to events that had taken place in issues years before as having taken place years ago, and although there was no specific reference to characters' ages to denote the passage of time, such events as the growth of Reed and Sue Richards' son Franklin made it clear that things were keeping pace with the real world ... until they weren't.

There was no official announcement, no cosmic event that changed things. But somewhere in the late 1970s, Marvel's comic book characters simply stopped aging. On the one hand, it's a practical decision: If that change didn't happen, eventually the characters would age out of their adventures and the company would be left without its flagship characters. On the other, it led to an increasingly confusing mythology for the comic book Marvel Universe, with certain events remaining locked in time, while others became unmoored.

Marvel's comic book universe employs what's often referred to as a "sliding timeline" — an acknowledged, but unspoken concept that everything since Fantastic Four No. 1 has happened in the last decade or so from whatever point the current books are being published. Despite that, events that happened in the real world remain in their real world era, so that the Punisher was originally a Vietnam vet when he debuted in 1974, but has since gone through multiple military campaigns in order to ensure that he's not 65-year-old vigilante meting justice out on the mean streets of New York City.

He's not alone in such revisions; at one point, the Thing had fought in the Second World War, the Fantastic Four wanted to be the first humans on the moon, and Richard Nixon appeared in a number of stories that would make no sense under the current version of the timeline. More recently, stories published in the wake of the 9/11 attacks referencing the Twin Towers would place the Marvel version of those attacks somewhere in the last two years or so.

Some things, however, have remained in place, and this is where the trickiness of the X-Men timeline comes in: The specter of the Auschwitz concentration camp is considered so essential to Magneto's character that it remains in place, despite it meaning that he would be somewhere close to 100 years old by now. (He was, in his defense, de-aged by a cosmic entity and then re-aged by an alien, so maybe there's some wiggle room to be found in the comic book logic.) Similarly, 1982's Uncanny X-Men No. 161 showed adult versions of both Magneto and Charles Xavier active in the years following World War II dealing with Nazi war criminals trying to find hidden caches of Third Reich gold.

In light of such comics, the nonsensical aging process of the X-Men movies seem, if not more reasonable, then at least more understandable. If the source material cares so little about allowing its characters to get older, then why should an adaptation? And really, in a movie where characters can fly, shoot beams out of their face and listen in on each others' thoughts, is it really that important to wonder why they're aging so gracefully?

X-Men: Apocalypse opens May 27.