Fewer film franchises have lasted as long as the X-Men films. Over the course of nine movies, they have thrilled children and adults alike, made superheroes relevant again, and offered thought provoking commentary on society.
On a personal level, I have been watching these films since they first came out. Growing up with the 90s cartoon series on Fox Kids, X-Men has always been something important to me.
On the eve of the franchise's tenth entry, Logan, and with several more films waiting on the horizon, it becomes necessary to look back on the franchise. Some X-Men films range in quality, from miraculous to dreadful, so a marathon of this franchise will force you to confront the best and worst superhero films ever made.
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Confession: I have enjoyed every single X-Men film made except this one. Even after over ten years, this film stands as my the biggest cinematic disappointment. Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) took Bryan Singer's place as director, and wasted all the potential Singer built over his first two X-Men films.
People often give X3 a pass. "Oh, but that scene where Magneto moves the Golden Gate Bridge--that's pretty cool, right?" Or "Kelsey Grammar as Hank McCoy is perfect casting." Or "Well, Hugh Jackman is always good, right?"
Yes, but these positive qualities occur in spite of the film, not because of it.
Why does this film suck? Oh, let me count the ways.
For starters, it has no emotional gravity. Mutants are accepted now in society, so Magneto's whole crusade loses the gravity it possesses in every other film. When characters die, you feel nothing other than "Oh... wait, what?" With one exception, none of the deaths are treated with any appropriate gravity... and that death is "fixed" in the after-credits scene, so even that scene loses its gravity.
The film wastes tons of potential. Magneto goes from a well-intentioned extremist to just a generic, bland villain. Juggernaut goes from the comic's indestructible force to just the dumb muscle who Wolverine and Shadowcat can stand up to (okay, another positive-- Ellen Page is good as Kitty Pryde, who is one of my personal favorite X-Men).
Ratner combines two spectacular comic stories, and screwed them both up.
Joss Whedon (yes, the same guy who directed The Avengers) wrote the Mutant Cure storyline in his run on Astonishing X-Men. It renewed tons of interest in the comics after a few years of weird, convoluted story arcs. It offered tons of potential... and, here, it's implications are glossed over, as is its impact on mutant culture. It serves to motivate Magneto to war, and nothing more.
But that wasted potential pales in comparison to how they ruin the Phoenix.
Jean Grey's arc had been built up over two prior films. Here, she is almost an afterthought. Though the idea that Professor X locked this darker personality inside of her is cool (an idea that Apocalypse would later play with), for most of the film Jean Grey is just Magneto's asset. Gone is the glory demonstrated even in X2. Now, all we have is generic zombie lady--
I need to stop ranting. Suffice to say that this film was so bad that later films (The Wolverine, Days of Future Past, and Apocalypse) exist just to wash the bad taste of this one out.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
This movie is not very good, but it is very fun.
Let's start with the negatives first. Yes, this film is wasted potential. X2 and Apocalypse present the Weapon X process as a nightmare, while this film turns it into an action piece. Many characters, such as Gambit and Wade Wilson, are wastes of potential (though both Taylor Kitsch and Ryan Reynolds bring in good performances). That Amnesia Bullet thing is pretty goofy.
And yes. Deadpool. That Weapon XI thing is not Deadpool. It is an abomination of studio meddling.
But people forget the positives of this film. While the themes of prejudice and persecution are almost forgotten in it, the movie has a lot of fun action scenes. McG, the director, clearly wanted to make the superhero equivalent of Commando, with its silly action pieces and goofy, devil-may-care attitude.
Everyone praises Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, but Liev Schreiber steals the show as Sabretooth. This character remains even years later one of the best villains in the X-Men film series--and this is a series full of damn good villains. Liev Schreiber is simultaneously in love with bloodshed and violence. He is Wolverine if Logan completely gave into his berserker side.
The film also has very good scenes. That scene with Wolverine and the farmers who take him in? That's actually kinda emotional in its own way. And that opening montage featuring Wolverine and Sabretooth fighting throughout history is better than any single thing in X3.
But is the film good? No. But is it a fun guilty pleasure? I'd say so. When marathoning the X-Men films, I have to admit I look forward to seeing it.
This one hurt to put here, because I honestly do love this film.
X-Men was a huge deal when it came out, since it really brought superhero films back after the disastrous release of Batman and Robin. I remember thinking this was the coolest film to come out ever back when I was a kid.
Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and Ian McKellen are perfectly cast--some of the best casting in superhero cinema. Each of them bring gravitas and intensity to their roles. Every time, they brought their A Game.
The theme of prejudice is prevalent in this film. It permeates the whole story, which, for a high concept series like X-Men, is vital. It grounds the conflict first and foremost, and introduces us to the world.
This film is a perfect introductory chapter for this series. But it is just that: an introduction. Proof of concept that would be fully realized in the later chapters.
I am happy to say that the only reason this film is not higher is because the franchise did not peak after its first entry, like so many, but just got better over time.
X-Men Apocalypse (2016)
Many critics bashed this film, and, to this day, I don't understand why. Sure, the film has problems, but, on Rotten Tomatoes, this ranks below every X-Men film but X-Men Origins. Even below X3.
The negatives first. Yes, it is not as good as First Class or Days of Future Past. Yes, it is a little disconcerting how Mystique becomes Katniss from The Hunger Games. Yes, because the cast is so huge, some of the newer characters don't get developed enough.
But that is hardly a concern when everything else is so good.
The film really establishes how the timeline has changed since Days of Future Past. Characters have seemingly changed for the better as a result of what happened. This is clear with Mystique, yes, but more obvious with Magneto, whose arc is the most emotionally resonate throughout the whole film.
But not every change made to the timeline improved the universe. Apocalypse's cult materializes thanks to the time traveling antics of the last movie, and their actions release En Sabbah Nur upon the world. The last timeline never had Apocalypse wreak havoc.
A lot of people hated Apocalypse, but, while not the series's best villain, he is pretty cool. Here we have a mutant who lived in a time with few others of his kind, and, accordingly, believed himself to be a God. Oscar Issac plays him as soft spoken and almost benevolent... but then displays a subdued wrath when pushed. He has a lot of potential, and I hope he returns for an Age of Apocalypse storyline in a future film.
The new actors are great in their roles--and I would argue a few of them surpass the original actors. Oh, and Nightcrawler--Nightcrawler makes everything better.
Oh, I can feel the controversy boiling right now.
Deadpool is an alright movie with a fantastic main character. There is nothing particularly remarkable about the main villain here. The conflict is alright. The supporting characters do their job well enough (Colossus especially is a joy to watch as a long-time X-Men fan).
If you removed Wade Wilson from the film, it would be an alright action film.
But Deadpool himself raises his film from mediocrity to something amazing. Ryan Reynolds as Wade Wilson--perfect casting. Some of the best since Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. He clearly is having a blast playing this character who, in lesser hands, would come across as dumb or annoying. Instead, he becomes perfection.
All the humor is grounded by some inherent tragedy in the film. Some pretty horrible stuff happens to Deadpool in this film, and the humor really is balanced by some intense drama.
But while this film reaches some of the greatest heights in the franchise, the film is not a sum of its parts. It's definitely a great film, but it isn't the greatest.
Deadpool 2 and X-Force are gonna be amazing, though.
The Wolverine (2013)
Many people say The Wolverine is too slow or that the third arc is too over-the-top. These are valid criticisms, but they pale in comparison to the positives of this film.
This is the first film to really emphasize Wolverine's sense of age. Yes, X-Men Origins shows us how old Wolverine is, but this film makes us feel that age.
It manages to bring weight to X3. That... matters.
The film focuses on the burdens of immortality. Because Wolverine is really the only main mutant in the film, the film can expand on humanity's reaction to mutants. The best X-Men films focus on this. We see another side to humanity's prejudice toward mutants. Some see themselves as superior to mutants. Others envy them. This dynamic really has yet to be explored in the rest of the series.
The supporting cast really shines, too. Tao Okamoto and Rila Fukushima don't steal the show as Mariko and Yukio, but they are memorable in their roles. Hiroyuki Sanada (The Last Samurai, Ringu) plays Shingen, a patriarchal figure who arguably outshines the main villain, the Silver Samurai, in terms of being just a loathsome yet nuanced character.
The action in this film is brutal. The funeral fight. The bullet train sequence. The fight between Shingen and Wolverine. Even the Silver Samurai scene--all of it is intense and almost beautiful.
Yes, the last act is over-the-top. Yes, Viper is out of place. But these are minor blemishes in an otherwise spectacular film. James Mangold proved he had the talent to make Wolverine relevant again.
X-Men First Class (2011)
People forget that the franchise almost died after X-Men Origins.
No one took First Class seriously when it was first announced. The franchise had floundered after the last two entries. The Marvel Cinematic Universe had just kicked off, and The Dark Knight had revolutionized the genre. X-Men was just a dying franchise. A relic of an older time...
And then this film came out. And it made X-Men great again.
James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender fill the very large shoes left by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. Their Xavier and Erik are intimate companions with contrasting ideologies and mutual respect. Each are incredibly human. You want them to just get along and work together--and can see how they can save the world if they work alongside one another--but you know that their friendship is destined to fail. It's tragic.
Less discussed but equally impressive are Nicholas Hoult and Jennifer Lawrence as Beast and Mystique. The two characters before First Class were just other characters in a large cast. Memorable, yes, but particularly great? Not really. These two brought tons of richness to the roles, elevating them from just characters to core figures in the lore.
But you can't talk about this film without talking about Kevin Bacon's Sebastian Shaw. The head of the Hellfire Club is one of the best villains in the franchise. He presents a far more personal threat to the characters. While he is out to destroy the world, that's not why you want his ass to get kicked. He killed Magneto's mom! It's telling how Magneto agrees with his philosophies, but still wants to put the guy down.
The whole scene on the beach in Cuba is one of the highlights of the entire franchise. It hits so many highs--so many crazy visuals--so much emotional intensity--the whole sequence is perfect.
But the film has downsides. It creates a lot of plot holes in the franchise and Emma Frost is basically wasted in the film as Shaw's lackey. Still, it's a great entry the franchise needed.
The newest X-Men film is, at the present time, the most critically acclaimed film. It is perhaps the best written, best directed, and most intense of the entire series.
Yet it isn't number one this list.
Undeniably, it is a beautiful film. The Western aesthetic is reminiscent of Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven and James Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma (Mangold, it turns out, also directed Logan and The Wolverine). The film feels stark. Uncompromising. Cynical.
Broken, in a word.
Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart are in peak form with this one, perfectly capturing the "I'm done with life" attitude this film embodies. The unspoken conflict between the two is powerful. Despite the violence depicted, in many ways the unspoken horror is even more impactful (we never see what happened to the X-Men at Westchester, and that is far more horrific than if we see everything).
Young actress Dafne Keen steals the show as Laura, who... well, the less said the better.
Yet Logan is not number one on this list.
Despite being a superb movie, and despite capturing the Wolverine in all his berserker glory, this film is hard to watch. It's not just the gore and violence. This film is bleak. It is a hopeless odyssey that leaves you feeling exhausted.
While it is to date the best X-Men movie from a critical standpoint, it is not the kind of film you can pop in and watch. I placed X-Men Origins over X3 because, while X3 may be a better-written film, it is so infuriating and disappointing it cannot rank above the dumb-fun of Origins. It's the same way with Logan and the next two entries. The top films here are all excellent movies. Logan may be the best among them, but you cannot watch it without mentally preparing yourself for the trip.
It is the ideal finale to Hugh Jackman's Logan. It deserves to be critically acclaimed, and is among the best X-Men films ever made. But it isn't my favorite.
X-Men Days of Future Past (2014)
This may be the most epic X-Men film ever made.
This film balances an incredible cast of characters from throughout the franchise. Old cast. New cast. Everyone--especially in the superior Rogue Cut--gets a chance to shine. Hugh Jackman in particular demonstrates how his character has matured over the series, going from a feral wild man to a mentor to his mentor.
The film feels like an event. We see the dark future the prior films led to. Every prior film led up to this moment, to a climax that only now can be avoided.
Everyone shines. Across the board, everyone is incredible. The film focuses less on spectacular action scenes, and more on intense emotional resonance. There are action scenes, of course, and they are glorious, but they aren't the focus. The focus is on the morality of the characters, on the ability to choose, and how the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Jennifer Lawrence is a little controversial as Mystique, but she shines this time. This is the best portrayal of the character in film. Period.
Oh, and then there's Tyrion Lannister himself. Peter Dinklage may not play the best X-Men villain, but his Bolivar Trask is a great example of a human villain posing the greatest threat to mutantkind.
That Quicksilver scene... that's incredible, too.
The whole film is incredible!
X2: X-Men United (2003)
But this film is better.
The best X-Men films focus on mankind's prejudice against mutants, and how they hate and fear them. We see Magneto's wrath against humanity, but this is the film that really justifies his hatred. We get it after the cruelty presented in this film.
I have neglected to mention William Stryker up until this point. Aside from Magneto and Mystique, he threatens our heroes in more films than any other X-Men villain. In this, Brian Cox portrays Stryker as an old man whose hatred has carried him through life. In later films, he is shown experimenting on mutants in cruel, evil fashions... but here he just wants to kill them all.
And he almost succeeds.
Alan Cumming is perfect as Nightcrawler. One of the reasons I like Apocalypse so much is because they brought this guy back. In one movie, Nightcrawler became one of the most incredible characters in the film franchise. He's oppressed and used as a weapon, yet is so full of hope. He looks like a demon, yet is a devout Christian. Undeniably, he is the best portrayal of a religious character in science fiction cinema. Period.
This film has only a couple action sequences, but they are incredible. Nightcrawler's pursuit through the White House--the raid on the Mansion--Lady Deathstrike vs Wolverine? All incredible. But the film doesn't need violence to be compelling. The drama is psychological. And it's potent. It's proof you don't need huge explosions to make a superhero film intense.
Wolverine's arc throughout this film is really great. This is the first film you really see Wolverine go full-berserker. But, more than that, he is forced to be a mentor to the younger characters--shades of his character that become more relevant by the time Days of Future Past comes along. The flashbacks to his origin remain more disturbing and shocking than anything in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and really relay the sort of horror Wolverine went through thanks to Stryker.
But the best scene in this movie--the scene that really demonstrates why I love this franchise so much--is one that a lot of people sort of forget about.
There's a scene halfway through the movie where Iceman is forced to return home to his family. He has to explain to them that he's a mutant. The awkwardness in that room speaks volumes about prejudice--more than almost anything else in this whole franchise.
Because, after all, the X-Men films aren't great because they feature superheroes doing cool things. They're great stories about humanity's prejudice against that which they don't understand. In a world torn apart by prejudice, these films are more important than ever before.