The superhero franchise is and has been king of the blockbuster box office for some time now, and with X-Men: Apocalypse heading our way next week, it's easy to consider it just another comic book adaptation in a sea of comic book adaptations. But in actuality, X-Men is something of a minor miracle of a franchise. Bryan Singer's first film redefined what a superhero movie could be 16 years ago, and now over a decade and a half later and eight films deep, this franchise continues going strong. The longevity of this franchise is wildly impressive, and it's showing no signs of slowing down any time soon.
So with Apocalypse's release imminent, now feels like an appropriate time to go back and revisit the franchise thus far, from X-Men all the way up through this past February's Deadpool. Below, I present to you my ranking of every X-Men movie from worst to best.
8. X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Let's get this out of the way: X-Men Origins: Wolverine is an unmitigated disaster. It wasn't supposed to be a disaster, mind you -- director Gavin Hood had just won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film -- but disputes with the studio during production and an overall lack of vision lead to the garbage fire that we have today. The film is intended to be an origin story, but pretty much drops that aspect after the first act in favor of sprinkling in as many mutants as possible before finally melding together a hodgepodge of comics characters -- both figuratively and literally -- into the embarrassment that is this movie's Weapon XI/Deadpool. It makes no sense, but little of this movie does.
The emotional through line of the film (ie. Lynn Collins' Kayla) is also dropped at the end of the first act before magically reappearing at the end for no good reason, and then there's Liev Schreiber's Victor Creed -- Wolverine's brother. There's a fascinating brother story in here somewhere, but X-Men Origins fails to find it, instead opting to use Victor as a plot device serving another plot device, which would be Danny Huston's Major William Stryker.
The film's action is embarrassingly lackluster, the visual effects are sloppy and roughshod, and the storytelling is an absolute disaster. Pretty much the only non-terrible thing about the movie is Hugh Jackman, but even he has trouble selling some of the silliness this script calls dialogue. Oh yeah, this is also the X-Men movie where they let will.i.am. from the Black Eyed Peas play a mutant. Days of Future Past erased this film from the official canon, and it's best to just continue pretending like it never existed at all.
7. X-Men: The Last Stand
2006 is where things started to go south. X-Men: The Last Stand begins well enough, once again showing the team working together while introducing a new outside threat, but signs of the glut and monotony of the picture start seeping in just as Magneto begins forming his Brotherhood of Mutants. The Last Stand has two plot devices too many, as the film simultaneously tries to juggle the Dark Phoenix storyline, the prospect of a mutant cure, and the formation of the Brotherhood of Mutants. Had the filmmakers settled on just one of these and focused on fleshing that out from a character perspective, we could've been in for something more in line with the previous two features. But as it stands -- and under Brett Ratner's direction -- the film is bloated and, frankly, pretty boring.
Granted, this is a movie that was racing towards a release date without a director. After Bryan Singer left the director's chair, eventual First Class helmer Matthew Vaughn stepped in. But after developing the picture for a few months, Vaughn departed to attend to personal matters, and Ratner hopped into the driver's seat of a fast-moving train. There was little room to hone the film to Ratner's sensibilities, but that didn't seem to matter as the filmmaker's lack of sophistication is nevertheless plenty prevalent throughout the movie, as each new mutant seems to be crafted with an air of silliness rather than the grounded nature of Singer's previous films.
The picture culminates in a forgettable and very expensive-looking finale, but the real drag is that from a story point of view, The Last Stand is one of the most significant films in the franchise -- it kills off Cyclops, Professor X, and Jean Grey, three of the key characters of the series. That it does so with such flippancy is all the more frustrating, and luckily screenwriter Simon Kinberg would undo his own mistakes with the ending of Days of Future Past. Still, The Last Stand marks the moment where this series started getting really shaky, and it took a few movies until the ship could be righted.
The effect of 2000s X-Men on the blockbuster landscape cannot be understated. Director Bryan Singer literally defined what a superhero movie could do by grounding the film with real emotions and real characters rather than approaching the whole thing as a disposable popcorn movie. I mean, the movie opens with Auschwitz during World War II -- that takes gusto. And while in retrospect the scale of X-Men feels quaint, its impact is still felt to this day, and as a standalone film it actually holds up pretty well.
X-Men's greatest asset is Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, and it was a stroke of genius for Singer to hinge the whole movie on this character whose entire lack of familiarity with the mutant world mimics the vast majority of audiences. He's our "in", and Jackman plays it perfectly while also setting up a tremendous dynamic with Anna Paquin's Rogue, the emotional center of the film. Rogue epitomizes the fear and self-loathing that comes with being categorized as "different" and/or "dangerous," and Singer doesn't shy away from the real-world parallels of the marginalization of this particular group of individuals.
Even 16 years later, the themes of X-Men are just as prescient, and it's a testament to Singer's handle on the film that it holds up in this regard. The action sequences are admittedly dated, but the rapport between the characters is the foundation of the movie, and this ensemble works terrifically off of one another -- well aside from Halle Berry's Storm, who maybe speaks 10 words in the entire movie. And the dynamic between Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as a parallel of the Martin Luther King Jr./Malcolm X relationship is yet another one of Singer's touches that made this film such a landmark achievement in its day.
While pretty much all involved would improve upon the foundation that was built with X-Men in future installments, it remains an effective and refreshingly (in hindsight) intimate superhero tale all the same.
5. X-Men: Days of Future Past
In many ways, X-Men: Days of Future Past is the ultimate X-Men movie. It marked director Bryan Singer's triumphant return to the series after departing following X2, and it finally melded together the old and new cast into one massive, All-Star ensemble. And for the most part, Days of Future Past really works. The future-set sequences are wonderfully dynamic, and showcase various new mutant powers with the added bonus of killing characters over and over again thanks to the introduction of time travel. And the scorched earth setting is a terrifically unique touch that brings new shades to X-Men lore, giving fans a glimpse into a more sci-fi-leaning X-Men movie.
But the bulk of the film takes place in the 70s, and that's where it shines thanks once again to tremendous performances from Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, James McAvoy and Nicholas Hoult. McAvoy in particular gets the chance to stretch here as we're introduced to a barely recognizable Charles Xavier, one riddled with guilt, shame, and exhaustion. Throwing Hugh Jackman's Wolverine into the mix was a stroke of genius, and he serves as a perfect go-between for the young and new cast. And then there's Evan Peters' Quicksilver, who steals the entire film with one jaw-dropping sequence and proves that judgment based on marketing materials can sometimes be way, way off base.
The film does start to drag a bit towards the end and Peter Dinklage is wasted as Bolivar Trask, and it's not as visually arresting as its predecessor First Class. But for the most part Days of Future Past is a compelling and entertaining watch, with the slightly lengthier but more cohesive Rogue Cut actually turning out to be a smidge better than the theatrical version.
The movie that Fox was so hesitant to greenlight turned out being the highest grossing X-Men movie yet. Granted, Deadpool is leagues different than any X-Men film thus far, and the first to be R-rated, but director Tim Miller's foul-mouthed adaptation struck a major chord with audiences. And it's a fun movie! Ryan Reynolds was pretty much born to play this character, and he injects Wade Wilson with the humanity necessary to emotionally ground the film. Deadpool's strongest aspect is its progressive romantic relationship, as Morena Baccarin not only plays a fine foil for Wilson, but the depiction of their relationship is refreshingly confident and rejects the traditional gender dynamics found in most Hollywood blockbusters. And while getting Vanessa back ultimately serves as the driving plot point of the film, the character reacts to Wilson's selfish actions appropriately.
Miller does a solid job of crafting a genuine superhero movie on a very tight budget, and while the scale of the film does indeed feel small, Miller excels with action -- especially in the final set piece. But the juvenile nature of the humor tends to get a little monotonous, and the comedic dynamic between Deadpool and his blind roommate is one heavily relied-upon gag that simply doesn't land. Nevertheless, the movie works more often than it doesn't, and the violent and humorously antiheroic nature of Wilson provides a delightful change of pace for the X-Men universe.
Upon release, X2 was heralded as a superior sequel and potentially genre-defining superhero film. And indeed, the film is quite good, but on a recent re-watch it doesn't quite hold up as the new classic some claimed it would be. There's a sluggishness to the middle of the film, and its 133-minute runtime is surely felt as movie drones on. But it builds to a terrifically bittersweet finale, with director Bryan Singer teeing up the Dark Phoenix saga perfectly (only to see it come crashing down in The Last Stand) and also wrapping up the film's political themes quite nicely.
Singer proves adept at juggling even more mutants this time around without the film ever feeling overcrowded, and indeed Hugh Jackman's Wolverine and Famke Janssen's Jean Grey in particular get the most TLC, while Halle Berry actually gets a story arc this time around as she's closely tied with Alan Cumming's impressive turn as Nightcrawler. Jackman is the backbone of this franchise, and as Wolverine anchored the first X-Men, it's only fitting that he continues to drive the story in X2. But what's impressive about the sequel is that Singer manages to continue this thread while also fleshing out the supporting characters around him, with Brian Cox's William Stryker serving as the franchise's best non-mutant villain thus far.
In terms of action, Singer doubles down from the get-go with the tremendous Nightcrawler White House sequence. It's a terrifically thrilling sequence that's then followed up by another visually arresting scene in the form of the museum sequence, which may not be an "action set piece" per se but is wonderfully engaging nonetheless. And Singer also continues to flesh out the social parallels between the X-Men franchise and the real world, with Bobby's "coming out" scene remaining a pinnacle scene of the series.
While not quite a top tier superhero movie all these years later, X2 remains a fun and engaging watch by any measure and certainly one of the more thematically ambitious films of the franchise.
2. The Wolverine
Aside from Deadpool, the scale of The Wolverine is the smallest of the X-Men universe films, and yet the stakes of the movie feel so much bigger than the majority of the films in this particular franchise. By zeroing in on one character and anchoring the entire film with the emotional existential crisis of Hugh Jackman's titular mutant, The Wolverine illuminates new shades of the most prolific character in the X-Men universe, and it does so with refreshing grace and sensitivity. Wolverine's past hangs heavy over all of his actions in this particular film, even though he's surrounded by strangers. And that only makes his actions and motivations that much more empathetic, as Jackman turns in his best X-Men performance to date as a lonely, wounded, and world weary Wolverine.
Director James Mangold takes advantage of the Japanese setting fully, never hinging the film on tropes or stereotypes but instead finding new ways to flesh out the film's "stranger in a strange land" themes. The Wolverine is the most visually impressive and dynamic X-Men film to date, and the bullet train sequence alone may stand as the franchise's best action sequence so far. Intimacy is key with this particular film, and it informs everything from the fight scenes to the villain choices. And while the film disappointingly devolves into a more traditional superhero movie in its third act, the majority of its runtime is devoted to revealing new shades of Jackman's iconic character through dialogue and character interactions, with Rila Fukushima's fellow mutant Yukio in particular providing a fantastic companion to The Wolverine.
Brief but key appearances by Famke Janssen's Jean Grey haunt the film and its hero, and indeed The Wolverine in many ways feels like a culmination for the franchise given that Jackman's character was our first introduction to the world of the X-Men. In a less ambitious filmmaker's hands one can imagine the rote and opportunistic version of the Japan-set The Wolverine, which makes Mangold's iteration of the film all the more impressive. He and Jackman have a tall order in trying to top this Western-tinged standalone film for the character, as it remains one of the best X-Men films thus far.
1. X-Men: First Class
By the time X-Men Origins: Wolverine rolled around, the particulars of the X-Men franchise were so muddled that it was not only tough to keep track of who's done what, but it was hard to care. So going back to the beginning via a prequel seemed like a solid enough idea in order to offer new shading to some of these iconic characters, but the masterstroke came in setting Matthew Vaughn to direct and co-write the picture with Jane Goldman. The result, X-Men: First Class, is a delightful and surprisingly emotional 60s romp that offers audiences a chance to be reintroduced to these iconic characters with new -- and spectacular -- interpretations. It's impossible to overstate just how lucky this franchise turned out to be when rising stars Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult soon after became some of the most in-demand performers working today.
Seriously, 50 percent of the brilliance of X-Men: First Class comes down to casting, and Vaughn knocked it out of the park. Fassbender not only brings a sly imposing quality to the character of Erik Lensherr, but he also opens wholly new emotional keys to the character, turning in a downright tremendous performance as Erik's revenge arc forms the emotional center of the movie. But McAvoy is no slouch either, and his suave take on the young Charles Xavier is a downright delight, while Lawrence brings a marvelous complexity to the character of Mystique that makes the character a vital part of the X-Men franchise and not simply Magneto's henchwoman. Hoult gets a somewhat smaller focus here, but his take on the self-conscious Dr. Hank McCoy is impressive nonetheless.
Vaughn has a blast capturing the entire film with nods to classic 60s cinema, though he's careful never to devolve into parody or kitsch. He brings a smooth playfulness to the franchise while maintaining an overall air of sophistication, which is no easy task. It not only injects the series with a revitalized vigor, but also results in the most satisfying film of the bunch thus far. The formation of the team and origins of these central characters are joyful to behold, but beneath it all there's an air of despair and tragedy, foreshadowing the schism to come. Vaughn uses the large ensemble cast to acknowledge the varying ways people handle being different, and it concludes in an appropriately operatic finale that's simultaneously triumphant and heartbreaking. It's this confident handle of tone, phenomenal performances and wildly entertaining story that make X-Men: First Class the best X-Men movie thus far.