I was 10 when the original X-Men came out in cinemas. Going to the now-closed Douglas Cinema, I was told to lie to the ticket guy and say I was 12 because the film was 12s. Lining up with my cousin, the lad asks what our age is. I pause and hesitate.
“Mom, what age am I?!”
He still let me into the film, probably too busy busting his hole laughing to stop me really. I’ve learned a lot in the ensuing years. Now I just don’t tell them my age when I go to a grown up movie! They just let me in, getting away with it for years.
The point being this film series has been in my life for quite a while now. The spin-off New Mutants was the last X-Men film to be commissioned before Fox properties were acquiesced by Disney last year, with its comic and rightly mocked staggered release date becoming such a demented self-fulfilling prophecy I still can’t believe I was staring at it in my cinema listings!
With delays so stupid the cast openly mocked them, reshoots to fit the tone of a trailer commissioned and then canceled due to the chaos of the reshuffle, being dumped amidst a terrifying pandemic people were rightfully not up for seeing it on the big screen and an overall critical panning, it’s kind of a sad crumbling out of what was an incredibly important and influential film series. And it’s been marred both by a lot of misfires which has it limping to the finish line, both in terms of quality and stagnation, as well as a lot of rather awful crimes early progenitors of the series have been accused of.
And let’s make it clear here: the Fox X-Men universe is ending. Feige has stated the only element crossing over will be Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool. And keep in mind this is the right decision-the X-Men as their universe was built does not fit into the MCU at all, with cast members either severely burnt out or bored of the franchise. The exception being Reynolds, whose character’s self-awareness and burgeoning franchise potential will keep him as a strong bridging point.
Still, with 20 years, 13 movies and (rough estimate) lots of money in its wake, what does the X-Men franchise leave behind that we can truly take from? Quite a lot, really. I think it’s hard to reflect on just how massive the success the first X-Men movie was. I mean it’s kind of cheesy and dated now, a product of its time, and it definitely suffered from future revelations about a certain person, but in terms of bringing comic book movies as fans wanted them, it was a giant leap forward.
And I mean it easy to look back and make fun of the muted colour palette with the costumes and weird, stilted lighting and the complete lack of any real interesting visual locations except for the Statue of Liberty climax and the floating plastic prison at the end, but I don’t think people get that X-Men would have been a hard sell in the jaded, extreme 90s. You look at something like Batman, and even with how silly the Schumacher films got, his mythos has some, some, grounding in reality. They’re basically detective noir with lads in silly suits. Blade, which came out two years beforehand, it also an easy sell because people just get vampires instinctively. Also modern day sexy vampires were in at the time.
Mutants, though? Especially with the fact that they’re human looking except some aren’t and it’s just a random genetic trait (also sidenote the muted costume colours really makes it stand out how blue most of the X-Men cast are)? Anyway, not an easy sell to a not-privy comic book audience. And keep in mind, the X-Men concept comes with pretty big baggage: prejudice. It wasn’t some secret society or in a slightly hyperreal version of our own world, or an Adonis that was the refugee of another planet, etc. No, the world of the X-Men all knew who Mutants are and have opinions. They fear them, they pass legislature to persecute them. They’re looked down, demeaned, etc. What I’m saying is it takes a considerable amount more world building than just “Insert super character into our world, also villains”. And that’s ignoring how massive the cast is.
And look, I’ve never really loved Singer’s own take on the characters; the super serious moral dilemma of a potential advancement in humanity and how the world reacts to that is not exactly one I find gets the most out of their personalities or the dynamics in their powers. The movies also hyperfocus on Wolverine, Xavier, Magneto, and for the first few films Rogue at the expense of every other character, and this persists throughout the franchise. It undermines this being a team movie entirely. The X-Men is a glorified soap opera with guys in tights beating the shit out of each other, and I always felt this more grounded and poe-faced approach never unlocked the potential this franchise really had. Or, when it reached it, it was too few and far between.
There’s also something the MCU definitely avoided, and that was mitigate failure. While it rarely happens, if an MCU movie underperforms or is not critically well-received, that backlash rarely hits the other films because they’re so distinctive in style and genre. The X-Men franchise, even when they spin-off, doesn’t have that luxury. The one-two knockout punch of Last Stand and Wolverine: Origins hurt their credibility so bad they nuked them from the timeline. And their latest stream of films has shown people tend to not view them as their own thing. New Mutants is technically a spin-off, and yet people will hold it against the failings of the last few X-Movies.
Having said that, however, I think this franchise did a lot to pave the way for where superheroes are now, for better or for worse. The most obvious example is Kevin Feige. I’m sure his influence that the X-Men franchise has even that small facsimile of comic book fealty. The characters that mattered to them stayed relatively in character and you could see them as their comic book counterparts. Again, peaks and valleys here, but it’s something.
Mostly, it moulded how comic book movies were considered, packaged, and absorbed by the public, and honestly it took risks! It had the greater liberty to take its tone, settings and characters to places other franchises could never really reach, because a strict adherence to continuity was never the play here. It didn’t always work-in fact it rarely ever worked-but when it did it produced some of the best the comic book movies the world had really seen, and I don’t really see that spark of madness recreated under Disney. So, for better or for worse, for how bad this franchise got, I salute the FoX-Men movies. 2000-2020. May they be remembered, in infamy or in respect.
Okay, ranking time! I’ll try not to bog down this down with a pithy or overlong reasons because this is long enough as is, but no promises. Let’s go!
13 X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Yep, even after all this time, even with the absolute dreck that came out in the last few years of X-Men movies, this is still my most hated of their films. Absolutely nothing works here-Jackman’s trying, but a character I felt already neutered by film adaptation is zapped completely of interesting edge, everything’s overblown to an obnoxious degree, there’s no emotional resonance in anything going on, the plot’s a load of ass, it’s got painful tonal whiplash and has some truly baffling decisions. This is the comic book movie those who hate comic book movies picture when complaining about the genre.
12 The New Mutants
I didn’t wanna be a bandwagon jumper here, and there are…okay one thing, the main romance actually works somewhat decently here. It’s a pity nothing else is fleshed out all that well. Most of the powers don’t make a lot of sense if you don’t know the source material, the first hour is painfully slow with nothing happening and most of the character work either feeling repetitive or doing everything it can to not give these characters any dimensions. I couldn’t tell you if Cannonball actually does anything! I do not know how they manage to have only 6 characters-total!-and still not develop one of them. And that’s before we get to the hilariously shit climax. A risible, dismal end to a battered and very done franchise.
11 Dark Phoenix
Honestly the only thing that saves this from just etching over New Mutants is that the climax is better and other movies doing the groundwork for these characters at least allows me to give a little bit of a shit about them, but that’s about it. It’s surreal to me that the studio were just okay with Kinberg writing a more streamlined and less out there version of The Last Stand, but also that they let him sit in the directors chair with no experience of shooting a full length feature film. And it shows, from the opening scene onwards, there is no momentum, interesting build-up, well done character beats, anything. Just seeing how done everybody is and how a lot of the cast took any opportunity to opt out really displays what a misfire the whole thing was.
10 X-Men Apocalypse
Apocalypse is a really…out there villain, whose existence kind of soft retconned the entire premise of mutants in the Marvel universe. Bringing him into the self-serious Fox movies was kind of a big ask, so what they did was give him the exact same villain plot of X2 but way less interesting. This was Singer at his most threading rope with the series, hitting on so many note he had already before and not finding any interesting direction to take this series or these characters. As wasted as Apocalypse is here, it’s Mystique who suffers the most, taking her more complex turn as an anti-villain in the last few movies and just making her a generic good guy and Lawrence could not be more bored .
9 X-Men: The Last Stand
So we’re moving on from “Shite” tier and getting into “Meh” tier, and yes this one crossed that threshold. One of the most infamous disastrous sequel and denouements to a trilogy ever conceived and I am…mostly ambivalent to it. I can’t really say there’s anything good about it-attaching Gifted to the Dark Phoenix Saga works about as well as attaching a life support machine to a skeleton, how the cast are culled is incredibly insulting, and it’s largely generic and wastes the great buildup of the last two movies. But, I mean, Magneto lifting the bridge was cool? So was the most perfect casting of Kelsey Grammar as Beast. Overall a mess, but a really inoffensive one to me.
8 Deadpool 2
I couldn’t vibe with this, sorry. I know a lot of people really liked it when it came out, and as much time as I have for the original, its fresh take on the superhero formula which needed a good ribbing was more welcoming than not even 2 years later. And I mean it’s not all bad-I like the new cast, pity the returning characters are just crammed in there even if they don’t serve a purpose. There are only one or two jokes which I saw as elevating the humour and stakes from the original, and it opens on an annoying trope that I don’t care how much they lampshade. Was pretty disappointed in this, hopefully we’ll get something fresher whenever we get a third movie.
7 The Wolverine
Oh man, now we’re in the “Movies I think are generally solid except for some major flaws”….tier? And yeah it’s the third act, won’t keep you in suspense. And it’s a shame because the rest is really, really good. It feels like a genuine well thought out Wolverine side-story, with appropriate stakes and exploration of his character’s past and deeper thematic threads. Him losing his powers is a little convenient, but I dig his chemistry with Mariko and especially Yukio, Hugh Jackman is as charming as always and the train scene is one of the best action set pieces in the entire franchises. It’s just…goddamn, that third act, man. Jesus.
This one has definitely aged the most, and while most, if not all, the films have this general tone and aesthetic, this one started it and it’s where its most pronounced. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, far from it-it just doesn’t have the story presence or strength in subtlety and character the rest of the franchise would develop more of. The cast knock it out of the park straight away and I get why it was so popular when it was first released, but it has some awkward cringey moments and lines and it truly is a relic of this late 90s/early 00s period of “Cool, black leather, cold styling” aesthetic.
Ryan Reynolds was absolutely born to play this part, and I just think this film captures the laissez-faire whackiness of the character and the absurdist nature of his self-awareness. It’s funny and it’s refreshing seeing the usually self-serious X-Men franchise get some punches in on itself for once, yet manages to find its grounding in a surprisingly heartfelt story. This is almost at the movie’s detriment as it’s not allowed to be too crazy, likely owing to its limited budget comparative to the rest of the series, but it’s hilarious and breezy and definitely one to throw on after a tough day.
4 X-Men: First Class
Even making it into the top 5 this may be a controversial placing, and while I really dig this movie it has a few things that bug me. I really feel most of the X-Men team are underserved, and the pacing is odd and sluggish leading to the climax feeling way too busy. It’s also got some weird tonal issues. Beyond that, though, it’s the only one of these “Past-Men” films to use the period setting effectively, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are perfect as their younger counterparts and their dynamic completely leads this film. I can certainly see why people go for bat for this one, and it’s worth checking out.
3 X-Men: Days of Future Past
Bryan Singer manages to be both the best and worst thing in this franchise creatively (though only the worst personally). While his general aesthetic and tonal motifs stuck to the franchise like a bad smell all the way up to its most recent iteration, given the right script and motivation he honestly gives us some of the best movies. This is one of them-an excellent use of the double casting leading to one of the most emotionally powerful moments in the series (this uses time travel way more effectively than Endgame fight me). It’s got baller pacing, the tension never lets up and while it has some annoyances that come part and parcel with Singer’s films it’s emotionally gratifying storytelling and feels like a true capper to the X-Men series. A shame it wasn’t.
X2 is the best Singer’s vision had to offer. Great worldbuilding, a dynamic cast all on their A-game, a really compelling and dark storyline that isn’t too bogged down in its bleakness to not make it entertaining. The set pieces are all tight, they all work. Finding out Logan’s origins is fascinating throughout, and it shows what the FoX-Men can be with a strong script in this world. It’s almost too good-like this franchise kind of peaked early and never left this mould so they could, for lack of better terms, evolve into something more. Still a solid ride, and best use of Nightcrawler.
Yeah, this wasn’t surprising. I don’t just think this is the best X-Men movie, this is one of the best superhero movies ever made. Using the weight and history of the character to tell something profound and moving, as well as bleak and unsettling. This is Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart’s best performances of their characters, I love the inclusion of X-23, there’s some potent and subtle criticisms of real world events and advancing technologies. It’s a dystopia with weight to it as well as a wonderful character journey of a lone cowboy reaching his end. The culmination of this franchise for me, I hope they can reach these heights again.