Ranked: The X-Men Franchise

Considering this is the 17th year of X-Men films, it’s kind of astounding there are only 9 films in the franchise so far (by comparison, we’ve gotten 5 Batman movies in the same timespan, and 14 Marvel Cinematic Universe films in less than 10 years). And with this week’s release of Logan marking the 9th (and final?) appearance of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, it seemed an appropriate time to revisit and rank the entire franchise. This was a surprisingly difficult list in the middle, with the third through sixth spots shifting several times during writing.

9. X-Men: Origins Wolverine (dir. Gavin Hood, 2009)

I hate this movie. It’s worse than Green Lantern; It’s worse than Daredevil. There is no story, the effects look terrible, and it manages to throw in Deadpool, Gambit, and other characters for no reason. It also adds nothing to our understanding of the titular character. This movie is total creative bankruptcy.

The only part of this disaster worth watching is the opening credits.

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8. X-Men: Apocalypse (dir. Bryan Singer, 2016)

This one is only slightly better than X-Men: Origins Wolverine. A quick rundown of the crimes this movie commits: Gives Magneto a happy life and then immediately throws it away, features new characters who show up in the final fight for no reason, wastes James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, and Nicholas Holt, and most egregiously, slathers perfect human Oscar Isaac in blue paint and has him deliver an essentially monotone performance. He doesn’t act adorable with a robot or play a guitar even once! And we can’t see his gorgeous face! Bryan Singer’s design aesthetic continues to dominate this universe, and each piece added feels predictable (and therefore boring) rather than a bold new direction.

But there are some redeeming qualities. I generally enjoyed the scenes featuring Sophie Turner and Tye Sheridan as young Jean Grey and Cyclops. Actually, that’s pretty much it.

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7. Deadpool (dir. Tim Miller, 2016)

I honestly don’t get why people like Deadpool so much. It’s entertaining enough, Ryan Reynolds is made for the role, but there’s nothing else that feels special about this movie. We’ve gotten plenty of other superhero films with metahumor, and it doesn’t push as many boundaries as it thinks it does. The best part of the film is the opening action sequence on the highway. I would have loved a 30 minute version of this one. More thoughts here.

6. X-Men: The Last Stand (dir. Brett Ratner, 2006)

There’s a version of this film that would have been lauded as the apex of the series. Sadly, the version we got is not that film, but it’s the most unfairly maligned film in the franchise. Yes, it makes a lot of bad choices (like killing off Cyclops and Xavier early on), but it also makes some good ones like adding Kelsey Grammar and Ellen Page. Ratner lacks the gravitas to properly do the Dark Phoenix storyline any justice whatsoever, and the characters are wildly inconsistent with the first two films, so the The Last Stand lacks the emotional punch it should have. But the action scenes, especially the final battle, are some of the better ones in the whole franchise.

5. X-Men (dir. Bryan Singer, 2000)

Until revisiting it for this list, I thought of this one as ‘the boring one,’ since there isn’t much action, and the plot is pretty thin. I think that’s because it would be easy to dismiss the film from our 2017 vantage point. But up until this movie, the only films that convincingly showed powered comic book superheroes on screen before this was the Donner Superman films, as well as the first Blade. And the fact that this is the first successful superhero team film is also very impressive. It’s a taut script with clear characters, and doesn’t attempt to be overly ambitious. Time has been kind to this one.

4. The Wolverine (dir. James Mangold, 2013)

One of the great things about Wolverine’s powers is that he’s really old, and therefore he can be inserted into basically any historical moment of the last 150 years as setup for a story told in the present day. James Mangold’s first crack at a Wolverine story is inspired by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s classic 1982 miniseries, borrowing its setting, as well as Wolverine’s love interest Mariko (Tao Okamoto).

The film excels at giving us better insight into who Logan is and who he aspires to be, especially after the events of The Last Stand. But it also works as a standalone film, just bringing in the character notes from continuity without making the whole film about that continuity. The only thing that keeps it from being higher on the list is the lack of a strong antagonist and a weak action climax.

3. X-Men: Days of Future Past (dir. Bryan Singer, 2014)

The biggest, most ambitious film in the franchise to date, this film acts as a sequel to both The Last Stand and First Class. Jumping ahead from the 1960s to the 70s brings a darker, less optimistic tone, and anchoring it to the 1973 Paris Peace Accords is an inspired choice, as is using Wolverine to time travel via his future mind taking over his body in the past. It’s so much fun seeing him alongside James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, as well as the returning Ellen Page and Halle Berry (this is her best performance in an X-Men film).

We also get the promise of seeing a ton of mutant powers, as well as evil robot Sentinels! This hits all of the nerd buttons while managing to tell a good story, but only in the 1973 timeline. The future stuff is fun, but mostly trades on nostalgia, which is totally fine for this kind of film.

2. X2 (dir. Bryan Singer, 2003)

First of all, that opening! Nightcrawler leaping and teleporting through the White House clearly shows that everyone had seen The Matrix, and that scene is a great example of a sequence that is heavily influenced by the Wachowski’s without using “Bullet Time” directly. It’s truly pushing the comic book movie forward as a clever mix of film technique and superpowers. And then we get the excellent scene where Stryker invades the school.

The film is clever about how it puts the X-Men on the defensive, as well as teaming up with Magneto rather than using him as the villain again (this team-up feels fresh even 14 years later with so many heroes fighting heroes last year). Since the characters are all established, with the exceptions of Nightcrawler and the antagonists, X2 is able to just let them bounce off each other and put them in new situations.

And while most of my criticisms of the film feel like nitpicks, having the X-Men (and Magneto) abandon Jason Stryker, an innocent, to the destruction at Alkali Lake seems like a misstep, even though I fully acknowledge most people don’t even give it a second thought. But this is what happens when you watch a movie as many times as I’ve seen X2.

1. X-Men: First Class (dir. Matthew Vaughn, 2011)

If there’s one thing about Bryan Singer’s X-Men films that wears thin, it’s the self-seriousness and silver/gray color palette. So here comes Matthew Vaughn. The film is one of the best prequels ever for a few reasons, chief among them is its grounding of the film in the real history of 1962. Vaughn uses the time period to inform the rest of the film, including the music, uniforms that pop with yellow and blue, and some of the best jackets this side of Star Wars. It all coalesces to make First Class stand apart from the rest of the franchise. It has a ton more energy than any of Singer’s entries, and doesn’t get as bogged down in repeatedly hammering the X-Men’s message. Yes, being a persecuted minority is inseparable from who the X-Men are as characters, but too often these films grind to a halt to repeat the same scene in every film. Setting this film prior to the public knowledge of mutants helps to free it from that constraint and focus on the characters discovering who (and what) they are.

None of this would work if First Class didn’t also have perfect casting. Michael Fassbender as a Nazi-hunting Magneto is one of the best casting choices in a superhero movie ever, and proves once and for all that the Master of Magnetism is by far the franchise’s most interesting character. Fassbender is the best part of each X-film that he shows up in, but he has by far the most to do in this first outing. James McAvoy as a cocky, yet self-doubting Xavier is a much more interesting choice than we might have gotten in a lesser film, since Xavier is usually depicted in the films as pretty saintly. McAvoy has the chops to pull off the complexities of the character and also not make the telepathy look silly. And building the film around these two as friends makes their eventual disagreement that much more powerful.

 

First Class is the high point of the franchise so far, as it just gets everything right.

Author: Ryan Silberstein

Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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