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The release of last week’s (fairly terrible) X-Men: Apocalypse has got me thinking: which is the best X-Men film? Alternately, which is the worst? Which ones are ok, just lying smack dab in the middle of the order? I’ve been a fan of the X-Men film franchise since its inception in 2000. I remember when the film was originally due for release in 1999 and was to star Dougray Scott and Zod himself, Terrence Stamp, in the roles of Wolverine and Magneto. We all know how that went – Hugh Jackman and Ian McKellen would never have to work another day in their lives if they chose not too after successfully appearing multiple times and starring in multiple X-Men features. So again, with the release of last week’s X-Men: Apocalypse, I’ve decided to try and rank all 97 X-Men movies now available for viewing. Let’s see how this goes…
Many people shit on this movie because it was directed by Brett Ratner, but Ratner is not the problem here. Ratner’s direction, obviously modeled after Bryan Singer’s work in the first two, is just fine. In fact, some of the action sequences are downright inspired and good. The problem here is with the script, first and foremost. Fox wanted to rush The Last Stand into production, which shooed away both Singer (who was angling to direct a new Superman movie with Warner Bros.) and Matthew Vaughn (a hot property after 2004’s excellent Layer Cake). The script had to incorporate the Dark Phoenix saga and the Joss Whedon-penned “cure” storyline while also integrating elements of the previous films into the new one. It was no small task, and long-time series vet Simon Kinberg’s script just isn’t very good. Brett Ratner is a fine studio director who gets an obscene amount of hate online, but again this wasn’t really his fault. The most disappointing thing about The Last Stand is that it completely wasted the goodwill generated by the first two X-Men films. And even still, The Last Stand is not the worst third entry in a superhero series by far. That dishonor still goes to the shitshow that was Spider-Man 3.
The issues with Apocalypse are many, and are detailed in my review, found here. In short, Apocalypse is a bad villain with dumb motivations, Kinberg’s script leaves a lot to be desired, the film doesn’t make good use of its 1980s setting, Jackman’s cameo as Wolverine is silly and unnecessary, Magneto is getting boring as a character (and completely self-contradictory), it’s obvious Jennifer Lawrence is just here for the paycheck, and James McAvoy is too cool for school by leaps and bounds. The film barely focuses on its new, supposedly important characters. Nightcrawler is used for comedic effect and not much else. Angel and Psylocke are barely characters at all. Storm gets the best treatment but is still under-developed. Tye Sheridan and Sophie Turner have zero on-screen chemistry as Cyclops and Jean Grey. This film is a misfire all around. I might honestly like The Last Stand better, but I put Apocalypse at #8 for now because the special effects are better and because it’s newer, so it at least has a pretty sheen to it. I don’t care if that’s fair or not.
Directed by Gavin Hood (who spent a long time in director’s jail after this film’s critical failure), X-Men Origins: Wolverine served as the opening summer flick of 2009. Grossing 85 million in its first weekend, it quickly petered out with less than 200 million at the domestic box office against a massive 150 million dollar budget (none of which went to making Wolverine’s claws look good apparently), making it less successful than X2: X-Men United and the previous film in the franchise, X-Men: The Last Stand. Origins suffers from some similar problems to The Last Stand. It has a completely overstuffed plot, shoe-horning in characters who just didn’t need to be there. Gambit and Deadpool are completely wasted, for example. The most interesting characters in the film, the Weapon X team up, is over just as quickly as it gets started unfortunately. If the film was anything like that first 20 minutes, it might have been awesome. There are things to like about Origins, however, such as Jackman and Liev Schreiber’s chemistry. Schreiber makes a great addition to the cast as the villainous Sabretooth, and his action sequences with Jackman’s Wolverine are fantastic. The film has a definite “so bad it’s good” vibe. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the online leak of this film a good six weeks or so before release. An unfinished workprint of the film was released online, which undoubtedly lead to bad press and affected the box office numbers negatively almost certainly.
The film that kicked off the supposed R-rated renaissance (we’ll see how that goes), Deadpool finally got made after years of very public begging and pleading from Hollywood actor Ryan Reynolds. Low budget and straightforward in its plot, Deadpool is nevertheless a lot of fun. Reynolds shines as the titular hero, who breaks the fourth wall and exacts righteous vengeance upon nameless thugs worthy of the film’s R-rating. Shocking in its brutality and humor, it’s easy to see why Deadpool caught on with the movie-going public. The film is, believe it or not, the highest grossing X-Men film domestically. I like what the Deadpool does with its ancillary characters, especially Colossus, who is done better here than in any of his previous appearances in the film franchise, and Negasonic Teenage Warhead, who captures the “don’t give a fuck, leave me alone” attitude of the typical brooding teen. T.J. Miller is also hilarious as Deadpool’s sidekick/whatever. I like Deadpool quite a bit for what it is, even if I have to criticize certain aspects of it, like the basic plot and rote love story. But still, Reynolds is winning in the main role, his charisma easily making up for a lack of budget. I could see this film either becoming a definitive film franchise on its own or wearing out its welcome quite quickly. For now, I’m going to stay positive and hope for the best.
The film that kicked off the franchise is also recognized (right or wrong) as the comic book movie that started the comic book movie renaissance of the 00s. Though Blade (1998) technically should get at least some of that credit, X-Men is arguably the superior film and also a film made specifically as a blockbuster for a four-quadrant audience, whereas Blade was made for niche audiences (combining horror, action, vampires, and techno into one movie). X-Men doesn’t quite hold up as well as I’d like, particularly due to the obvious budget cuts the film faced. But those cuts caused director Bryan Singer to be creative, focusing on the character drama between comic mainstays Wolverine and Rogue and Xavier and Magneto instead of spectacle. This is something that future comic book tent-pole films would take away from X-Men, for better or worse. We might not have gotten scenes of The Avengers talking about shawarma without Singer’s film having done little dialogue notices first. Ultimately, it is fair to say that X-Men ushered in a new age, and for that it deserves its spot in history. The best work in the film is not done with computers, but with Shakespearean-trained actors Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, and with a previously unknown Australian actor named Hugh Jackman who would become one of the most recognizable movie stars in Holllywood. I have very distinct memories of seeing this film in theaters in summer 2000 and being super blown away that Singer and Fox were able to so adequately pull it off. X-Men was a huge risk at the time, as hard as that is to believe. It paid off and then some.
I like First Class less than most people, but I still like it quite a bit (even though I didn’t like it when I first saw it!). This is the film where the on-screen chemistry between Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy really shines. Matthew Vaughn put a lot of class, no pun intended, back into the franchise with this installment. It is tense and well directed, and anchored by Kevin Bacon’s excellent performance as the villainous Sebastian Shaw. I also like what First Class does with history, blending real events with fictitious ones so eloquently (something that Days of Future Past would take advantage of too). Jennifer Lawrence is great as Mystique here, and it’s easy to see why she would go on to become arguably the biggest female movie star on the planet. There’s a ton of great world building in this film and a lot of great ideas that again Days of Future Past would build on. I don’t much care for some of the new mutants (Havoc is ok, but Banshee and Angel are kind of terrible and Beast still looks incredibly silly). Though the film has its share of cringe-inducing comedy, it is still a really strong effort and a great return to form for the franchise. It did not do well at the box office, but that was probably a result of The Last Stand and Origins not being well-received by audiences. First Class is a really good comic book movie, however.
Perhaps the best way to do a standalone comic book movie, The Wolverine is a really impressive action movie anchored by Jackman at his very best in the role. Clearly trying super hard after the disappointing Origins, Jackman looks focused, ferocious, and intense as the titular character. The film, directed by studio director James Mangold (who consistently does solid, underappreciated work), is a great contemplation on mortality wrapped up in a comic book movie. There are few moments of cheesiness, and they are of the acceptable variety and work perfectly in the context of a comic book film (and are mostly contained until the final act, where they feel more appropriate). Supporting players are also great here, including the welcomed Hiroyuki Sanada (Lost, Sunshine). The film is perhaps a bit long at 126 minutes, but its consistent high quality cancels that out for me. The direction is great, the action sequences consistently high quality, the script decent (it pretty faithfully adapts a famous Frank Miller run of Wolverine), and the setting lovely (the film is beautifully shot). It more than makes up for the faults of Origins, and it has me super excited for the next (and final) installment of Jackman’s Wolverine films. Sadly, The Wolverine didn’t gross that much domestically, as it had to deal with the stink of Origins as well as being released in the summer of 2013, which saw great competition from action films throughout the season (Ironman 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel, World War Z, Elysium, Pacific Rim, etc etc). But don’t let that sway you, as critics were kind to the film and it is very good.
Summer of 2003 kicked off with a huge bang thanks to X2: X-Men United, which doubled down on everything that made the first film a huge success three years earlier. X2 is still highly regarded as one of the best comic book film sequels ever, and with good reason. The plot, the script, the acting, the special effects – Singer really upped his game, as did Fox Studios, increasing the budget and allowing Singer a lot of creative control. Jackman anchors the film as Wolverine, and his X-Mansion rampage is still one of the best action sequences in the entire X-Men filmography. Supporting players like Famke Janssen, Anna Paquin, and Shawn Ashmore are given plenty to do as well. But it is Alan Cumming as Nightcrawler who steals the show. From the opening reel where he attacks the white house, you know you’re in for something special. Ian McKellen’s Magneto actually seems super threatening and badass (his prison escape remains awesome). Everyone in the film is able to get their due time on screen, something that a lot of comic book films screw up. The film also continues to world build magnificently, and even though The Last Stand took some of that shine away, it was really exciting to see this on screen in 2003. Singer took a lot of influence from both Richard Donner’s Superman films as well as the original cast Star Trek films (particularly Wrath of Khan) and this shows on screen as well. Comic book movies just don’t get as good as X2: X-Men United very often. Though it’s a bit dated by 2016 standards, I still really like this film.
One of my favorite blockbuster films of all time, Days of Future Past just does so much right as a comic book movie. Like X2, DoFP doesn’t waste its characters; everyone gets a turn at the helm, and it shows. McAvoy and Fassbender again shine as Xavier and Magneto, Jackman’s performance anchors the film and drives the plot, and new characters like Quicksilver (Evan Peters) are handled very well. Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique particularly shines. She is focused and on point throughout the film, serving as both protagonist and antagonist eloquently. The best thing about the film, however, is how it balances old and new and makes great use of two very distinct settings. The future stuff is excellent, from the design of the Sentinels to the display of on-screen powers. Blink’s teleport is super cool to see on screen, like a live-action movie version of the videogame Portal. Iceman has never looked better, either. In fact, all the minor characters are handled pretty well. But it is Jackman, Stewart, and McKellen who once again lend gravitas to these scenes. Once Jackman is sent back in time, the film becomes a smaller scale adventure to the tune of the earlier X-Men films, and this works extremely well. Singer’s return to the franchise is welcome and heralded, and one of the best things he does is handle the multiple generations of heroes, give everyone their due credit, and attempt to bring the continuity of the series back to something resembling coherence. X-Men: Days of Future Past is just such a good summer blockbuster, and my pick for the best X-Men film thus far.
So, there you have it. Thoughts? Concerns? How would you rank the X-Men films?