Blame 2000’s X-Men for our current glut of comic book movies.
The movie that made Hugh Jackman a star and helped set Marvel on the path to becoming, well, Marvel, lit the spark on how Hollywood can tell big-budget comic book IP with grounded characters and themes. As Dark Phoenix, the last X-Men film to feature this cast, ends the current iteration of the franchise with a whimper instead of a bang at the box office, here’s our ranking of almost 20 years worth of X-Men movies.
12. ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’ (2006)
Suffering a last-minute creative change, with Brett Ratner stepping in for director Matthew Vaughn to make X3‘s release date, The Last Stand hit the ground running with less-than-assured footing and an even more uneven script. The end result is a dirty, ugly adaptation of both the X-Men’s “mutant cure” storyline and the Dark Phoenix saga, with Ratner and a script by Simon Kinberg and Zac Penn failing to service either in a consistent or resonant way.
The movie doesn’t know which story it really wants to or should tell, forcing the two conflicting storylines on each other in ways where the narratives don’t quite shake hands as much as they stumble over each other jockeying for running time. Ratner is the worst director the series has ever seen, as evidenced by his frat-boy sense of humor (“I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!”) and his leather-clad approach to Magneto’s Brotherhood. This is the movie that kills a hero, Cyclops, off-screen, kills Professor X on-screen in an arbitrary way, and turns Jean Grey’s Dark Phoenix arc into Wolverine’s problem to solve. To call this movie bad would be an understatement.
11. ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’ (2009)
Almost unwatchable. Minus the birth of Weapon X scene, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is basically “Studio Fingerprints: The Movie.” With so many forced and distracting mutant cameos, Wolverine feels like a guest star in his own movie. Hugh Jackman’s charisma and likability in the role have to do most of the heavy lifting as the uneven film lurches to a bad CG-fueled conclusion that involves Deadpool with his mouth infamously sewn shut and Sabertooth. This movie killed the Origins franchise before it even began, derailing promising installments like a Magneto origin story from Batman Begins screenwriter David S. Goyer.
10. ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’ (2016)
Bryan Singer’s last X-Men movie as a director is also his most soulless. Apocalypse tries to tell a disaster movie through an X-Men lens and the end result is a plodding, convoluted blockbuster whose impressive ensemble of actors look either bored or wishing they were anywhere else but here. Burying an actor as charismatic as Oscar Issac under that awful make-up as Apocalypse does the movie no favors, either.
The closest thing to a high point the movie comes close to barely achieving? Hugh Jackman’s cameo as Wolverine/Weapon X during Jean Grey (Sophie Turner)’s rushed set-piece through the facility that gave birth to the clawed anti-hero.
9. ‘X-Men: Dark Phoenix’ (2019)
Dark Phoenix isn’t terrible. It’s just stillborn. Inert. Dull. Which is worse.
Simon Kinberg’s feature directorial debut is a $200 million mulligan to get right what X3 got wrong with the iconic Dark Phoenix storyline. The best Dark Phoenix can achieve with this retelling is being not as bad as the previous attempt — or as bad as the worst movies in the franchise. Audiences have known Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey for only two movies, and the limited run time we’ve spent with her makes it difficult to invest emotionally in her or her plight. Kinberg’s script seems ignorant to this inherent problem, acting as if we have spent more time with this character — and her romance with Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) — than we really have. The movie doesn’t earn this relationship or the stakes necessary to tackle the Dark Phoenix story.
Worse, the actors phone it in or find themselves playing versions of their characters (like James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier) that feel confusingly inconsistent with their characterizations from the previous entries. That, coupled with the movie proceeding with the energy of how one feels from just waking up from a nap, makes it extra disappointing that this is how nearly 20 years of X-Men movies ends before Marvel Studios re-inherits the property. The cast, fans, and the franchise deserved so much better than a movie that at least doesn’t suck as much as X3.
8. ‘Deadpool 2’ (2018)
Louder and bigger seem to be the operational themes of Deadpool 2, the sequel to the Merc With a Mouth’s surprise 2016 mega-hit. Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) finds himself fighting — then teaming up with — Josh Brolin’s Cable in a fourth-wall breaking mission to stop a mutant teen from growing up to become a very, very bad man.
The plot and set pieces lurch together in a way where you can feel all the various stakeholders’ creative input working out their differences in real-time. Ryan Reynolds is still compulsively watchable as Deadpool and Josh Brolin kills it as Cable. But, unlike the first Deadpool, where Fox largely left the filmmakers alone, this sequel fills like it was made by a committee that had nothing but the best of intentions but they got muddled under the weight of needing to match the success of the first film as opposed to committing themselves to telling the best story. Hard to do the latter when driven by the pressure of the former.
7. ‘X-Men’ (2000)
X-Men set the tone for comic book movies to be both action-packed and serious drama by opening with a young Magneto being torn from his parents on their way to a Nazi concentration camp in WWII.
The genre was virtually dead three years prior to this film’s release (thanks to 1997’s Batman & Robin) and X-Men revitalized it with a socially-relevant and grounded take on the mutants. Hugh Jackman became a movie star overnight with his nearly fully-formed take on Wolverine, and Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen’s rivalry as Professor X and Magneto, respectively, comes with significant sparkage thanks to the talented actors’ chemistry. While the low-budget production values don’t quite hold up and make the movie feel like it is a feature-length trailer for a bigger/better one, X-Men succeeds by grounding what spectacle it can afford on the backs of characters audiences can relate to, despite some of them having claws or shapeshifting abilities.
6. ‘The Wolverine’ (2013)
For two-thirds of its running time, director James Mangold’s warm-up to 2017’s Logan is one of the best X-Men movies ever. Wolverine is broken, not sprained, when we first meet him, which adds extra weight to bringing the Marvel character’s classic Japan storyline to the big screen.
The film is deliberately more intimate in scale, grounded by emotionally-driven stakes and a brooding and vulnerable performance from Hugh Jackman. And that incredible fight inside and on top of a bullet train is worth the price of admission alone.
5. ‘Deadpool’ (2016)
Deadpool is the part Ryan Reynolds was born to play. His full-tilt, fourth-wall-breaking performance is as refreshing as the movie’s R-rated, fearless interpretation of the material. The beauty of the first Deadpool was how effortless it felt, how natural. You knew as you watched that it was a labor of love from a team that had intense love for the character and an intimate understanding of what makes fans love him. The sequel lost a bit of that underdog, underground feeling, but we always have this first one. It’s as action packed as it is hilarious, and we can’t wait to see what Marvel Studios does with our favorite foul-mouthed assassin.
4. ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ (2014)
The X-Men take a page out of The Avengers playbook with this epic team-up that literally breaks the laws of physics to bring the First Class mutants together with their original X-Men movie counterparts. The result is a dark and engaging trip through time, with standout performances from Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and James McAvoy.
3. ‘X-Men: First Class’ (2011)
Matthew Vaughn’s first and only X-Men movie as director is one of the most inspired entries in both the franchise and in the genre. First Class is X-Men Begins, taking a more grounded and character-driven approach to this ’60s set prequel that finds Michael Fassbender’s Erik Lehnsherr hunting Nazis before meeting his friend and future enemy, Charles Xavier (McAvoy). The script is inventive and compelling, pushing the characters into edgier territory that borderlines on R-rated, especially scenes involving Magneto’s vendetta against the movie’s big bad, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon).
2. ‘X2: X-Men United’ (2003)
X2‘s ambitious, emotionally-charged story and edge-of-your-seat action scenes make this sequel the Wrath of Khan of X-Men movies. Our second trip to Xavier’s school finds Wolverine and company forced to team up with Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants to stop the villainous Col. Stryker and his genocidal vendetta against mutantkind.
The sequel continues the series’ thematic explorations of prejudice and fear by weaving them through several “holy sh*!” set pieces, like a mid-air battle involving the X-Jet, several military fighter planes, and lots of tornadoes, courtesy of Storm. Nightcrawler’s introduction, teleporting through the White House to assassinate the president, is still one of the best scenes the series (or genre) has ever pulled off. A rare high point for director Bryan Singer, for sure.
1. ‘Logan’ (2017)
James Mangold’s Oscar-nominated swan song to Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine is an R-rated Western hiding out within some of the most successful IP ever. Set years after his last movie, Logan – no longer Wolverine – finds himself on the downslope of whatever life he has left, suffering from adamantium poisoning and retired from the X-Men life in a world where most mutants have been wiped out and it’s been years since a new mutant was born. He’s content taking care of a dementia-suffering Charles Xavier (an Oscar-worthy Patrick Stewart) and nursing his many physical and emotional scars when X-23 (newcomer and scene-stealer Dafne Keen) shows up with mutant-hunting bad guys on her tail.
A moving, tragic adventure unfolds as Logan subverts expectations and the genre at large to deliver the type of movie fans and film students should and will be studying for years.