Ranking Fox’s X-Men Movies: From ‘X-Men’ to ‘Dark Phoenix’

Although we have yet to see what fate ultimately awaits the upcoming release of New Mutants (which, in theory, will hit theaters sometime next year), one thing has been made abundantly clear by now: the X-Men film franchise as we have known it for the last twenty years is officially dead and buried.  It’s been a particularly rocky road for this group of intrepid superheroes, whose films have run the gamut from utterly reviled to unreservedly beloved.

So which ones are actually worth checking out, now that everything’s finally wrapping up?  Which ones can you safely skip without having to waste your time on them?  Which ones were interesting?  Important?  Run-of-the-mill dreck whose biggest crime is being boring?  Take a look back with me at the highs and lows of Fox’s now-defunct X-Men cinematic universe.

12 . Dark Phoenix (2019) — Sadly, the XCU has ended not with a bang, but with a whimper.  The latest outing for the iconic team of mutants — a roughshod retread of the equally reviled X-Men: The Last Stand from more than a decade ago — is also its worst by far.  Rather than learn from their mistake the first time around, they chose the exact same writer to adapt the exact same story, this time promoted to direct the film as well.  Although it squarely centers Jena Grey in the story where she needs to be, the lack of emotional stakes is palpable, and can’t help but feel like a gigantic waste of the expansive, talented and obviously bored-of-their-minds cast time.

11 . X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) — Often justly cited as one of the quintessentially “worst” movies of its genre, The Last Stand hastily spliced together two iconic X-Men storylines from the comic in a desperate bid to make an equally iconic film.  Sadly, this relegates both Joss Whedon’s Gifted and Chris Claremont’s Dark Phoenix Saga as equally pointless B-plots in a forced romance between Jean Grey and Wolverine.  It’s poorly written, poorly directed and poorly visualized, and its only redeeming features are its immensely talented cast trying their damnedest to make this mess of a production work and the surprise inclusion of the memetic line “I’m the Juggernaut, Bitch” into the X-Men canon.

10 . X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) — Going into this movie, the X-franchise was flying higher than it ever had in filmic form.  After a massive stretch of critical and box office failures — including the widely reviled X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and The Wolverine (2013) — the series had finally started to right itself on the strength of Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class (2011), Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), Tim Miller’s Deadpool (2016) and the promise of James Mangold’s then-upcoming Logan (2017).  And, on paper, Apocalypse seemed like a surefire hit that would slot in perfectly beside those films.  Featuring one of the franchise’s all-time best villains, the fresh new cast leftover from First Class and introducing new versions of fan-favorite characters Angel, Storm and Psylocke, it’s genuinely remarkable just how boring the final product ended up being: how tired and familiar everything was starting to feel now that the franchise had jettisoned its most promising talent (director Matthew Vaughn and writer Jane Goldman) and moved back into dime-a-dozen acts of not-so-super heroism.

9 . X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) — I’ll be the first to admit that this film doesn’t quite hold together.  Made during the height of the Hollywood writer’s strike and often shooting without a script as a result, there was surprisingly little of interest for its characters to do most of the time.  The slashed budget took an obvious tole on the straining-for-credibility special effects, the X-characters, like the Avengers, always work so much better when they can bounce off of each others’ larger-than-life personalities and what they did to Deadpool was downright criminal.  But, if I’m being honest here, I do genuinely enjoy this movie.  Jackman is, as ever, an utter joy to watch as this character.  The opening scenes, including an impressive montage of the Howlett brothers fighting in every great war throughout the late-nineteenth and twentieth-centuries, are honestly quite effecting.  The final battle, despite all of its needless bluster, was fun to watch.  Plus they found time to throw Gambit into the mix, so that was fun too.  And really, in the end, that’s what mattered most: this deeply flawed, cheaply-made movie was fun when all things were said and done.

8 . The Wolverine (2013) — Like X-Men Origins, The Wolverine really doesn’t worked.  Based in an outdated 80’s obsession with Japan and giving in to many of the genre’s most eye-rolling impulses, it’s actually kind of impressive how much fun the end-product actually is.  Yes, the villain is conceptually stupid, the action is touch-and-go and the plot mostly doesn’t work, but everything else pops with the same promise and nuance that director James Mangold would eventually bring to vastly superior Logan (2017).

7 . X-Men (2000) — Although you’d be hard-pressed to find a more obsessive fan for the titular X-Men than pint-sized me at the turn of the century, I never quite got into the first movie the same way that many of my peers did.  I loved it, to be sure, but I was never 100% sold on this version of the team and the world they lived in.  Despite pitch-perfect casting — including the discovery of obscure Australian stage actor Hugh Jackman — the writing was only ever on par with the Saturday Morning cartoons I grew up with, the costumes were black leather garbage and furthermore knew it and Bryan Singer was honestly never much of a director to begin with (and that’s before you get into what a genuine creep this guy is as a human being).  Still, the set-up for the future movies is rock-solid here, an amnesiac Wolverine is a phenomenal point-of-view character to assist fan-entry into the strange logic of the film and the movie has some absolute standout moments trapped within it.

6 . X2 (2003) — Like Burton’s Batman Returns (1992) and Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 (2004), Bryan Singer’s X2 took the basic framework offered up by the first movie and dialed everything about it — both everything that was good and everything that was bad about it — up to 11.  The LGBT subtext of Mutants as closeted youth (good), the forced love-triangle between Cyclops-Jean-Wolverine (bad), the increasingly cataclysmic clash between the MLK-esque Charles Xavier and the Malcom X-like Magneto (good) and the overly convenient narrative turns imposed on an otherwise sound story (bad) were all taken to their logical extremes here.  Based on the classic X-story God Loves, Man Kills and working off from the send-off from the first movie, the film opens with what is still one of the most impressive action set-pieces the genre has ever produced (Nightcrawler’s attempted assassination of the US President).  In the end, its successes easily outweigh its faults and make for one fine piece of blockbuster entertainment.

5 . Deadpool 2 (2018) — I’m on record saying that Deadpool 2 is just Deadpool 1 with a bigger budget and, as a result, shores up the only real problem that I had with the first movie (seriously, its every shortcoming from a suspiciously small cast to sketchy special effects to an a-characteristically lacking set of locations to move between all stem from a lack of hard-cash to buy them with).  The movie is more tightly-plotted than the first (which overly relied its awkward flash-back framing to deliver its action-packed romcom origin story).  The jokes are just as funny.  They even snuck in an amazing mass-cameo from the mainline X-Men movies.  So why do I rank it lower than the O.G. Deadpool experience?  The greatest joke that first movie had going for it was its mere existence: the surprise factor of Fox actually agreeing to greenlight this raunchy, R-rated comedy under any circumstance (especially after they functionally ruined the title character, as played by the exact same human from, X-Men Origins, which was still freshly burned into our brains in 2016).  No matter how much more polished or well-funded Deadpool 2 was compared to its predecessor, the mere fact that Deadpool (2016) existed invalidated the best thing that it had going for it.

4 . Deadpool (2016) — There’s really not much more to be said about this movie.  Despite the aforementioned shortcomings, everything about it works.  The raunchy comedy was a tremendous change of pace for a genre that was beginning to feel hopelessly stale outside of the MCU’s umbrella.  The jokes all hit their mark, and Nega Sonic Teenage Warhead and Colossus are phenomenal “straight” characters for the madcap Mr. Pool to play off of.  And having worked at a movie theater at the time of this movie’s release, it seriously might just be my favorite post-credit scene of any superhero movie.  Seriously, don’t leave your garbage all lying around, it’s a total dick move (chick-a chick-ahhhhh).

3 . X-Men: First Class (2011) — It’s kind of amazing in retrospect just how willing everybody was to write off the X-Men franchise at the start of the decade.  All it took in that pre-Avengers world was a few lackluster sequels to sink what should have obviously been a hands-over-fist money maker.  With Bryan Singer having moved on to greener(?) pastures (if Superman Returns and Valkyrie count), the proposed X-Men Origins prequels having died with the arrival of Wolverine and lacking any ideas of their own, Fox gave control of their flagship blockbuster franchise to the little-known writer-director duo behind movies like Stardust (2007) and Kick-Ass (2010).  In effect replacing the now-defunct X-Men Origins Magneto, they told a Cold War-set, spy-inspired thriller tracing the origins of Professor X, Magneto and Mystique that recaptured the frenetic spark that was always at the core of this franchise.  It was fun, funny and packed full of memorable action, with a best-of-his-kind villain and an amazing (if somewhat wasted) supporting cast.

2 . X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) — The thesis of the X-Men was always depicting an exaggeration of the real-life struggles of marginalized groups and the civil rights movement.  They were superheroes in a world that both hated and feared them and, more often than not, would always, always, always turn on them.  Days of Future Past, based on the iconic comic story of the same name, took that basic premise to its most logical extreme: showing us a future filled with concentration camps and roving death squads, where the last remnants of Mutantkind were forced to undergo one last, madcap mission to save the world.  Combining the greatest strengths of the time-displaced storylines thus far — that is to say, their casts — with a stellar script by First Class scribe Jane Goldman and a-characteristically good direction from the unfortunately returning Bryan Singer, Days of Future Past softly rebooted the now-on-course series and delivered one of the top-shelf blockbuster events of the 2010s.  And, if not for one final film, this would have marked the perfect send-off for the soon-to-be-Disnified franchise.

1 . Logan (2017) — There’s just no getting around it.  No matter what you might think of Days of Future Past, First Class, Deadpool or even the original X-Men, everything that the franchise ever wanted to be was delivered to us in Logan.  Like Days of Future Past, we are shown the inevitable end-point for the franchise: the final, livelong end-point of hatred, bigotry and human frailty.  Like Deadpool, we get to see our most viscerally satisfying Mutant brawlers cut loose without restraint.  And, with that R-rating came freedom from the typically micromanaging Fox CEOs (since they no longer had to worry about recouping the larger budget that invariably comes with a four-quadrant friendly, PG-13 rating).  Like First Class, it understood what was direly important to the franchise (and, in particular, these rapidly aging-out characters).  And like X-Men, it had the unquestioningly perfect casting of Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman and now Dafne Keene to drive its sorrowful neo-Western narrative home.  I don’t know if I ever cried as hard in any movie as I did in the final moment of Logan.  And, honestly, I don’t know if I ever could again.

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