Back in the ancient days of the 1990s, it seemed like no one could ever make a decent movie based on a Marvel Comic Book.Frankly, it seemed impossible to make a superhero movie based on any comic book that wasn’t named Batman or Superman, and even those franchises had devolved into steaming garbage piles. It was a dark time for comic book folk. The closest experience we had to watching decent superhero movies was reading about imagined productions in Wizard Magazine and pretending that they were real. It was tough. It was really tough. In fact, when the first X-Men movie was announced, it was hard to feel anything other than dread. Thank god things worked out.
For the last 16 years X-Men has been the longest running superhero franchise. There have been ups and downs and casting changes and screener leaks and reboots and rumours, but the franchise just keeps kicking. Something about the concept of mutants and all of the action scenes and allegory that provides never grows tiring for audiences or filmmakers. It’s a hell of a franchise and one that will never die, if only because Disney/Marvel Studios will buy up the series if it ever fully falls apart at Fox.
This week, the latest X-flick X-men: Apocalypse premieres, technically the second entry in the ever-growing franchise this year following the surprise success of Deadpool. To celebrate, we thought we’d go ahead and rank all of entries of X-Men series from worst to watchable to best. There are some real stinkers and brilliant entries here. So join us in the mockery and celebration, will you?
Whew! Now here’s a rough one, and easily one of the most loathed and controversial superhero movies ever made. Intended as a gritty rendition of the classic Weapon X Wolverine origin tale along with a reinvention of Sabretooth (Liev Schreiber, in theory a huge improvement). Well, that was the plan anyways. What actually came out was a completely convoluted and idiotic mess made by people who barely seemed to care about the material and was likely rewritten/reshot to death. It was infamously leaked online before its release date, ensuring that fanboy bile was spilled all over this thing before it even hit theatres. As a result, the movie has become a joke even within the X-Men cinematic universe, mocked mercilessly in Deadpool, even though it theoretically introduced Ryan Reynolds to this universe as that character. Yep, this is one that everyone involved in the X-Men franchise would like to pretend doesn’t exists. It’s important that we remember though, it must never be allowed to happen again.
Back in the mid-2000s, the X-Men franchise was envisioned as a closed trilogy, since that was super popular following the Star Wars prequels, The Matrix, and Lord Of The Rings. Brian Singer had planned to conclude his series as such, but then he went off to make a Superman movie instead and the franchise that he’d created with craft and care was passed off to Matthew Vaughn. Then, when Vaughn felt it was impossible to meet the studio’s assigned released date, he quit and Brett “even worse than Michael Bay” Ratner was brought on to finish off the X-Men trilogy. There are a handful of decent scenes in X-Men: The Last Stand due to the work of Singer and Vaughn, but for the most part the indistinguishable, stupid, and awkward style of the piece is pure hackwork from the brain of Ratner. Somehow the movie ruined two of the all time great X-Men stories “The Dark Phoenix Saga” and “The Cure” at once. Iconic characters were killed willy-nilly, logic flew out the window, and pretty well everything great about the franchise disappeared in favour of cheap thrills. Thankfully, Ratner has never been allowed near the X-Men or another superhero franchise again. Unfortunately, he’s still allowed to make movies. Can’t win em’ all, I guess.
Loosely based on Frank Miller’s character defining Wolverine mini-series from the 80s, this unwanted sequel was essentially designed as a feature length apology for X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It’s a standalone Wolverine romp set in Japan with Hugh Jackman carrying the character with class and James Mangold delivering one of the greatest action scenes in the whole franchise with a stunning bullet train chase. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much all that I can remember about The Wolverine. It’s an entertaining enough action movie, just nothing particularly special. I suppose if you feel like Wolverine and nothing else, you could do worse. Yet, given that the character is a part of every other X-Men flick other than one (and even that movie namechecks and mocks him pretty liberally), it’s not like good ol’ adamantium claws is tough to find. Still, you could do worse. So, that’s something.
The latest entry in this never-ending mutant series falls squarely in the middle in terms of quality. The scale is certainly bigger than any X-Men movie to date, with Bryan Singer showing off some massive set pieces that he was barely able to dream of back in the 2000s. The trouble is that it’s also a movie uncertain of its identity. After Days Of Future Past had fun juggling the pre-existing X-timelines, Apocalypse plays like a greatest hits reel piling on popular scenes and characters from previous movies hoping that brand loyalty and nostalgia will make the movie fly. Unfortunately, the plot amounts to very little, there’s an overwhelming sense of déjà vu, and there are way too many characters to juggle. Singer’s insistence on getting all dark n’ brooding feels a bit overwhelming at times and Jennifer Lawrence’s understandable insistence on wearing less body make up as Mystique is getting damn distracting. Still, for those who grew up on the X-Men comics and cartoon, it’s nice simply to see an X-Men movie on the scale these stories have always been. Oscar Isaac is an intriguing (if blue) villain and the 80s costumes bring back iconic X-Men visuals that have been gone for far too long. It ain’t perfect, but if you’d shown this blockbuster to 90s Marvel nerds, minds would have been blown. We’ve been spoiled to the point that this feels average.
The movie that started it all might not be the best by a longshot, but it holds up surprisingly well. Bryan Singer faced a nearly impossible task in bringing this movie to life. Introducing an entire group of characters, setting up conflicts to last through sequels, toying with the discrimination allegory, delivering a style of superhero movie that had never been seen, and doing it all with a barely adequate budget since the studio didn’t quite believe in the project. The guy had never even really made a blockbuster before this one, but he essentially kicked off the entire Marvel movie revolution when he was finished. The cast was great, the first hour was fantastically entertaining, and superheroes were finally taken seriously. Sure the last act is a mess because the team didn’t have the money or experience to pull off a proper climax, but still, it’s good. There’s a reason why they haven’t stopped making these things.
The first time Deadpool appeared in a movie for X-Men fans, it was through a profoundly disappointing leaked screener of X-Men Origins: Wolverine that ruined the character with a miscast Ryan Reynolds. The second time fans saw the character was through a leaked effects test featuring a perfectly cast Ryan Reynolds. The next thing you knew, the Deadpool movie that had been delayed for 7 years was in production and fans were getting the self-aware, R-rated Deadpool flick that they wanted and deserved. Sure it’s not perfect, and a little too arch and stupid for it’s own good, but still, there’s a reason why Deadpool ended up being such a giant hit. Tim Miller, Reynolds and co. nailed the source material like few superhero movies ever had. For better or worse, this flick will influence the next few years of comic book adaptations and blockbusters. Hopefully at least a few of them can nail a balance of filth, snark, and sincerity this well.
Combining the old and new X-Men cinematic universes through a loose adaptation of one of the most famous comic book storylines of the franchise, Days Of Future Past is a movie that any 90s comic nerd that would never have even dared to dreamed possible. Goofily entertaining with a subtle swell of social consciousness, the flick was an X-Men epic for The Avengers era that did so damn well it revived Fox’s interest in plugging all of their resources into building their own Marvel cinematic universe. It’s a blast of a movie while still serving up the moody n’ meaningful style Bryan Singer pioneered over a decade earlier. Until the franchise inevitably gets a reboot, this will likely be the biggest and boldest entry X-Men effort, if not quite the best.
Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men reboot wasn’t quite as massive a hit as Fox was hoping for, but it might be the most purely enjoyable entry in the series to date. The oddly underappreciated Vaughn delivered what is possibly the most faithful ode the original comics tone to date, while still delivering a vision very much his own. The mixture of brightly goofy camp and discrimination politics served up candy coloured entertainment with a brain. The new casting was excellent (especially Michael Fassbender’s conflicted Nazi hunter version of Magneto), the visuals were stunning, and the 60s setting offered a perfect means to tap into the civil rights movement and Bond movie visuals that inspired Stan Lee and Steve Diko in the first place. While it was nice that’s Vaughn’s fingerprints remained on Days Of Future Past, it’s a shame that the director wasn’t able to take over the series from Bryan Singer as planned because he clearly had a distinct vision and was only getting started.
But since Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men tenure was cut short, the finest X-flick belongs to Bryan Singer. After proving the crazy concept that a Marvel Comic could be a blockbuster, the director finally got the time and resources to deliver a proper X-Men film. The movie features some of the finest set pieces of the franchise (especially the stunner Nightcrawler White House opening and Wolverine’s first true berserker attack), but resonated most deeply because of how cleverly the filmmakers embraced the outsider and bigotry subtexts of the X-Men mythology. In particular, the mutant “coming out” sequence remains the most potent and memorable moment in the entire franchise to date. The movie juggles a dozen characters with ease, cleverly mixes spectacle and subtext until they become indistinguishable, and perfectly sets up an epic Phoenix Saga finale that would never be. X2 might feel a little small in scale by contemporary standards, but it remains one of the greatest superhero blockbusters to date. Inevitably, there will be an X-flick that tops X2 someday now that the genre is the most successful and ubiquitous in Hollywood, but until then, this is a worthy high point for what is probably the most intelligent and ambitious Marvel franchise around.