The X-Men franchise is one of the properties most responsible for the current boom we are in of comic book movies. 16 years ago we saw the release of the first movie with little hype but immediately saw signs of change. It’s pretty crazy how the franchise has lasted so long while others of the same time period have moved on or died. We’re now on our 3rd Spiderman, 2nd Daredevil and 3rd Punisher in this time. While some characters have been recast, it’s still ostensibly the same series. Even with one of the lowest lows in all comic film, it rebounded and morphed as time went on. Losing series architect Bryan Singer and then getting him back, this is a series that has had a weird history but has kept on kicking. And we are about to get a new entry that aims to enter the newly epic scope comic movies have taken. In a series that’s dealt in time travel, it’s fitting to take a look back and rank these movies. So let’s take a look back at the series that helped change cinema.
8. X-Men Origins: Wolverine
You gotta be a special kind of asshole to be in the running for worst comic book movie ever made, but this movie is that special kind of asshole. It was sadly an inevitability, as Fox’s distaste for the weirdness of the property yet hard on for Wolverine had been obvious for a while. As has their obnoxious tendency to meddle into their movies and force changes. All of which culminated in this clusterfuck of an overcrowded kitchen, filled with plenty of assholes spreading wide over a beloved character and throwing the future of the franchise into jeopardy. After what is an admittedly fantastic opening, showing Wolverine kill his father then fight through a handful of wars and then a siege upon a villains lair, the movie takes a steep plunge into inanity. Wolverine is targeted by Styker for some fucking reason to be turned into an even bigger threat than he is but they screw up so they try to find him but the reason he went to Stryker at first was to avenge his dead wife who isn’t really dead and everything is just wrapped up in such unconvincingly trite melodrama bullshit that it all feels insulting. It tries to be neat and circular, but it comes off as lazy. The action after the opening is bullshit, barely rising above mediocre DTV levels. The effects somehow are worse than the effects in the original movie from 9 years prior. Jackman tries his best, as does Liev Shrieber, but neither’s performances can save what is a beyond terrible movie. While this is a series that does not handle simple things like continuity well, this one can be summed up in it’s most iconic fuck up. Amnesia bullets. Fuck this movie, the only movie in this series I have no interest in ever watching again. There’s not even a Batman movie I feel that way about. This makes The Last Stand look like Spartacus.
7. X-Men: Apocalypse
For an in depth views of this movie, click here.
6. X-Men: The Last Stand
I’ve always felt a little out of place when it comes to this movie, as the general consensus has been pretty negative towards it but I always had a bit of a soft spot for it. It was no doubt a huge step down after the monumental X2, but it wasn’t the garbage fire people want to paint it as. There’s some interesting stuff going on regarding the muddy antagonism that has defined this series. There’s no true blue bad guy, but a cure that splits the mutant community even further apart. It allows Magneto to get even more (rightfully) self righteous as he amps up his game. The phoenix isn’t handled as well as we all like, relegating it to a plot point meant to push Wolverine than test Jean and the group. The action is pretty good too. It loses a lot thanks to the loss of Singer, mainly in the thematic heft department and the visual style. But Ratner does a decent enough job pushing forward to finish the saga Singer started. It’s certainly not the worst 3rd entry in the superhero world.
5. The Wolverine
This is a movie that would be higher up in the list if the ending didn’t feel like a completely different movie than what followed. A movie that shouldn’t rightfully exist thanks to the back alley abortion that is the first Wolverine solo movie, this takes a much more soulful and introspective look at the character. Set specifically after The Last Stand, Wolverine is in a self imposed exile after the loss he had to endure. But when he’s pulled back to the world thanks to a good deed he did back in WWII, he’s thrown into a plot that concerns the safety of a young woman he comes to very much care for. His outward cynicism is yet again tossed asunder to save someone he connects to. James Mangold takes very well to the material here, focusing on the man and allowing him to flourish even when the claws aren’t retracted. But don’t think that he’s a slouch when the claws are out, as the bullet train sequence is one of the best in the franchise. And the stuff before and after is well crafted too, allowing Wolverine’s inherent brutality to come out in a way unseen outside the Mansion siege in X2. But it’s the finale that comes out really short, turning into a mindless CGI spectacle that the movie really wasn’t beforehand. It’s not so offputting as to destroy the movie, but it just leaves you an a less interesting note than you’d like.
The movie that started it all, this has not aged as well as we’d like to remember but still has enough charms and high points to make it a standout in the franchise. It’s shaggy as hell, a victim of Fox’s budget slashing and aversion to comic book weirdness. You can tell it’s a movie that isn’t as whole as we’d like. The plot is much more small scale than it thinks it is. The action can’t really rise to any interesting levels, content with just showing off some FX. Looking back now it just feels so much cheaper than we remember. But the stuff that works comes from the direction and the thematics that Singer brings to it. This movie has the three punch combo of Jackman, Stewart, and McKellan as three of the best casting choices in all of superhero cinema. Famke Jansen is real good as Jean Grey, as is James Marsden in the role of Cyclops. Halle Berry makes an appearance in her continued career journey of never being good in anything. Singer turned out to be an ingenious choice for the movie, as he has shown a tendency to lean towards outsiders in his work. Also, being a gay man, he brings something out in the franchise not really explored in the books. The subtext of them being a substitute for homosexuals adds a real weight to the movie that no one expected from a Sci Fi blockbuster. It’ll get more in depth in the sequel, but the idea of making the characters we follow a minority group is fantastic. And the philosophical debate between the mutant MLK (Xavier) and Malcolm X (Magneto) has become the crux of the series, making the battles more about the ideas of oppression than pure villainy, which is where the series can go off track. The rosetta stone for the series and one of the movies that is responsible for the current landscape we’re in now.
3. X-Men: Days of Future Past
Bryan Singers return to the franchise was a fantastic entry, tackling the insane task of fixing the fucked up timeline of this franchise. And it did so quite well, leaving things in a fantastic position to move forward. Just cause Apocalypse doesn’t really work with it doesn’t diminish this entry. It’s got a crazy energy to it, balancing a very hard tone. Going from fun scenes to dense time travel nonsense to tragic to thrilling action. It may not have the fun and highly visual flair of the prior movie, but it’s hard to top Matthew Vaughn in that area. Having the cast of all the movie in one is a thrill. It just goes to show that this series has been pretty great in it’s casting, even in the recasting in some areas. Also shows how weak Halle Berry really is, that she just stands out like such a sore thumb. High octane and dense as shit, this is a hell of an entry that keeps the moral murkiness going and heightens the philosophical debate of the series.
2. X2: X-Men United
If the first one started it all despite a rickety foundations, this one helped to cement the comic book film and make this franchise in particular an important part of it. This is just a great damn movie that gets to realize the potential that the first one had but didn’t deliver. With a budget that allows them to finally go big, Singer and co use it. His work with using the powers of these characters within fights comes out well here and he makes the most of every action scene. The mansion siege is a highlight of the entire series, letting Wolverine go full on berserker and slaughter an entire battalion of soldiers. This one introduces a villain in Stryker, who would become a bit too important in the series, but doesn’t rely too much on him to propel the movie. He manages to unite the mutants in a fight, but still makes them debate the way they go about the fight. There’s still the divide on whether humanity itself is worthy or if Stryker is emblematic of the entire species. The cast is better than ever (Berry excluded) and the new additions are fun as well, the highlight being Nightcrawler who gets his very own iconic setpiece. It’s a massive step up for the franchise that helped show that these movies could be more than just action. They could be thematically rich and emotionally complex, with this one diving further into the philosophical murkiness and the oppressed people worldview. It’s a great movie and one that was very much debated in my heart over whether it should be in the top spot or not. But in the end, a damn close second place is good enough for me and just goes to show what a special movie that the number 1 is.
1. X-Men: First Class
Matthew Vaughn is one of the most talented popcorn directors working in the business today and he is not given enough credit. Every time out he gets better and better, and this movie is just phenomenal. Tasked with making a prequel set in the 60s about Magneto and Xavier that would help to revitalize the franchise, Vaughn takes the seemingly insurmountable task and makes it seem easy. His love of movies and pop culture helps make this movie stand out amongst the ever growing pack of comic book movies, as he takes the 60s setting of the movie and makes it apart of the aesthetic of the movie. It pops like an old spy movie with a good ole heaping of fun and charm. It gets heavy at moments, like the unbelievably great Nazi hunting sequence, but it never loses its sense of fun. The true miracle here might be the recasting of two roles so impeccably played by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan. Getting James MacAvoy and Michael Fassbender to replace those two icons was a real coup, as they weren’t just yet big stars. Fassbender in particular brings the pain and intensity and humanity to Magneto that completely respects the portrayal of McKellan without being mere imitation. Same with MacAvoy. And lest we forget, this movie helped to launch Jennifer Lawrence into the mainstream. This one is also unique in that it has a great villain that helps is a physical threat but also the first sign of the philosophical strain between Magneto and Xavier. The action is great, leading to the best ending in the entire franchise. Which also gives us possibly the best moment in the entire series. Magneto using his powers to stop a barrage of missiles from destroying his team of mutants, on the verge of becoming Magneto, when Xavier tries to reach him. His response is perfect and sums Magneto up perfectly. “I’ve been at the mercy of men following orders. Never again.” It’s a moment that manages to be a summation of our travels with Magneto through all the movies and the perfect end point for his arc in this movie. A thrilling spy action sci movie that plays in an alternate reality of America in a fun way, this movie just works. I wish Vaughn would take a trip back to the series, as his no sequels rule has been broken by Kingsman 2. One of the best comic book movies of all time, this is a truly great movie.