Dark Phoenix done, a definitive ranking of the X-Men series, before it joins the MCU
After Dark Phoenix, here’s our ranking of 20th Century Fox’s genre-defining X-Men, before the characters are introduced into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.Updated: May 21, 2020, 20:07 IST
While it’s fun to see Marvel pat themselves on the back for their massive success - deservedly so - we should never forget that all of this - this Golden Age of Superhero Cinema, and shared universes, and a complete takeover of the global box office - began in 2000, with the release of Bryan Singer’s X-Men.
Singer’s take on these characters - which Marvel had sold off years ago, before the MCU was even a glimmer in Kevin Feige’s eye - wasn’t like anything we’d ever seen in superhero films. Not since Richard Donner’s Superman and Tim Burton’s Batman - which were the most successful superhero movies to that point. To this day, those early X-Men movies occupy a unique sweet spot between comic book fantasy and cinematic realism that even Christopher Nolan couldn’t nail in Batman Begins, which is why he chose to completely revamp his approach in The Dark Knight.
And although it’s undeniably uncomfortable to talk about Singer - the allegations that have been made against him over the years are terrifying, and difficult to ignore - we shall restrict ourselves in our praise for him, and focus instead on the X-Men series and the significant impact that it has had on changing the industry as we know it.
And what better occasion to talk about the 11 films in the X-Men universe than the release of final offering, Dark Phoenix - which deserves its spot on this list, by the way - and the recent, tantalising news of a future in which the MCU and X-Men might unite. So here goes nothing, here’s our ultimate ranking of 20th Century Fox’s X-Men films, in ascending order.
X-Men: Dark Phoenix
X-Men: Dark Phoenix is so inconsiderate of cinematic laws that under different circumstances, it could have passed off as a maverick work. Sadly, as it stands, it is a uniquely bizarre experience; dispassionately performed, ineptly scripted and an absolute disgrace to the legacy of the once formidable X-Men film franchise.
Read the Dark Phoenix review here
X-Men - Origins: Wolverine
Those of you who’ve seen Deadpool 2 would argue that the much hyped first Wolverine solo movie does not even exist anymore - but it’s going to take more than an inspired post credits scene to make us overcome the trauma of watching two fan favourite characters be utterly humiliated for two hours on screen. X-Men Origins wasted years of goodwill, tremendous fan interest, and managed to derail Oscar-winning director Gavin Hood’s career for a few years. Although if there’s one bright spot, it’s the terrific opening credits sequence of the film, which, at the end of the day, works against the rest of the movie because no film can survive after peaking in the first few minutes.
Bryan Singer’s final X-Men movie - gone were the days when Fox courted him to return after he went and made Superman Returns - is also his worst. And by worst I mean not just his worst of the series, but the worst movie he’s made in his career. As with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 3, Apocalypse was an overpopulated and bloated mess, more concerned with setting up future sequels than satisfying fans’ expectations.
Read the X-Men: Apocalypse review here
All things considered, The Wolverine - Hugh Jackman’s attempt at rebooting the character’s solo series after the Origins debacle - isn’t a bad movie at all, and it’s certainly nowhere near as terrible as the three movie we’ve just discussed. It’s just inconsistent. It begins promisingly enough, with director James Mangold offering a more meditative take on the character, and the Japan segments are excellent. It’s just that it disintegrates into a generic CGI slugfest in its third act, which was an unfortunate turn of events, because The Wolverine could have been so much better.
Having understood that the future of the franchise was at stake, with the old X-Men all but retired, and the new ones too rusty to carry a film by themselves, Fox decided that the best way forward was to take the franchise in unexplored directions. Deadpool was a breath of fresh air, if slightly derivative and one-note. Its impact on the franchise, however, in addition to how it managed to single-handedly change Hollywood’s perception of R-rated blockbusters, goes a long way.
Read the Deadpool review here
X-Men: The Last Stand
Now this is a slightly controversial choice. Most people have decided that The Last Stand was the weakest entry in the original X-Men trilogy, and they’re not wrong. But that’s only because it was up against two of the best superhero movies ever made. That doesn’t mean that The Last Stand is a bad film. In its own way, its a super-cheesy (and surprisingly emotional) conclusion to the trilogy, a film that almost (but not quite) manages to do justice to its dozens of characters. The Last Stand had a rushed production, after original director Matthew Vaughn left at the eleventh hour, blaming a lack of time. Rush Hour director Brett Ratner jumped on board with only weeks to go before shooting was supposed to begin.
X-Men: First Class
Matthew Vaughn’s contributions to the X-Men franchise were already significant - he’d cast several roles in The Last Stand before he jumped ship - and he hadn’t even directed a single frame yet. But it would all change when Fox convinced him to reboot the series with a prequel set in the 1960s, and the result, X-Men: First Class, was a blast - a stylish period thriller that retained the character-centric approach that made the franchise so great in the first place, all the while pushing it into fun new areas.
More out of nostalgia than anything else, the first X-Men movie finds a special place on this list. Now, almost two decades later (boy, that makes you feel old, doesn’t it?), a lot of the effects don’t hold up, and Singer’s unfussy direction seems almost alien in a day and age when nothing is impossible thanks to the magic of CGI. But it’s the film that introduced us to these characters, and it’s the film that defined them for years to come. And the individuals behind the team is what the X-Men series has always been about.
The less we think about Deadpool’s internal logic - there’s no two ways about it, it crumbles at the slightest pressure - the more enjoyable these movies become. Who cares if Deadpool knows that he is in a movie, and who cares if it’s distracting to wonder how movies such as Logan and Deadpool can occupy space in the same universe, and crossover characters, despite having nothing in common tonally. Deadpool 2 is everything that the first film promised to be, and more.
Read the Deadpool 2 review here
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Easily the most ambitious film in the series, Singer’s Days of Future Past offered fans a scenario that we’d only ever dreamt of. But thanks mostly to The Avengers, Fox realised that crossing timelines and franchises was not only acceptable, but it was welcome. Sure, Days of Future Past is basically Inception set inside the X-Men universe - their use of temp music is glaringly obvious, especially in the final scene - but watching Patrick Stewart’s Professor X have a chat with James McAvoy’s younger Charles was delightful.
Third time’s the charm, as they say. After the disastrous X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the lukewarm The Wolverine, Hugh Jackman declared that he would attempt yet another soft reboot - his last - because he wanted to go out on a high note after playing the character for 17 years. And on his second go-around, director James Mangold made Logan, one of the best superhero movies ever - a brooding Western with real, personal stakes and an astounding central performance by Jackman.
Read the Logan review here
X-2: X-Men United
With fellow second parts like Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight, X-2 is a seminal superhero film. It’s represents the best tendencies of Singer as a filmmaker, a deeply personal distillation of his Jewish heritage and sexuality. He found ways to address these themes on a grand scale, in a film that had the courage to highlight the allegorical aspects of the X-Men.
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