Harrison Abbott ranks Fox’s X-Men franchise from worst to best…
With X-Men: Dark Phoenix bringing the curtain down on the franchise, now feels like an appropriate time to look back on everything that Fox’s X-Men series gave us over the past two decades.
Granted, there have been peaks and troughs. However, I maintain that the good has always outweighed the bad, with the studio doing some really brave and innovative things. I would even go so far as to argue that – when they’ve been firing on all cylinders – their movies have managed to surpass their MCU counterparts, often transcending the superhero genre in the process.
So let’s celebrate the ups (and the downs) of this turbulent franchise, by ranking every single instalement in the canon. It’s been a bumpy ride, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world…
11) X-Men: The Last Stand
If you look up the word ‘’anticlimactic’’ in the dictionary, do you know what you’ll find? The definition of the word ‘’anticlimactic’’, which is what X-Men: The Last Stand is.
The first entry in the franchise to have no direct input from Bryan Singer (he was busy making Superman Returns), this ill-fated threequel was originally going to be helmed by Matthew Vaughn. Having just made his directorial debut with the sleek and stylish Layer Cake, the British filmmaker was proving himself to be a promising new talent behind the camera and Fox were keen to snap him up for their big climax. However, the rushed development window and notoriously tight production ended up deterring Vaughn from the project.
So instead we got Brett Fucking Ratner, one of least distinctive voices in Hollywood. The end result was every bit as flavourless as you would expect, with The Last Stand marking the first time that the series truly dropped the ball. Hampered by inconsistent character work (Ice Man is suddenly an insensitive dickhead, while Magneto doesn’t react to his best friend’s death), unsatisfying plot resolutions and dumbed down political commentary, it’s a pale imitation of its forebears. Like a lame final season to an otherwise great TV Show.
10) X-Men Origins: Wolverine
In stark contrast to The Last Stand, Wolverine’s first solo outing was at least an interesting failure. Don’t get me wrong, they’re both cinematic car crashes. The difference is just that one of them is a minor, low-speed collision, causing only superficial damage to those involved. Whereas the other one is like the inciting incident from a Final Destination film, with roaring flames, totalled vehicles and horrific mutilations. It’s simply more attention-grabbing in its dreadfulness.
The David Benioff and Skip Woods penned script is built upon a smorgasbord of poorly conceived ideas. We’ve got a nonsensical plot that doesn’t hold up under the slightest scrutiny (the bad guys decide to make Wolverine invulnerable and then provoke him?). There are bewildering continuity errors that make absolutely no sense in the context of the other movies (why doesn’t Sabertooth ever acknowledge that he knows, nay grew up with, Logan) and certain characters are handled with borderline contempt. Oh, and there’s amnesia too. Who doesn’t love that old chestnut?
Worst of all, the whole thing looks ridiculously cheap despite a $150 million production budget. When adjusted for inflation, that equates to almost $180 million today. For context, that’s more than Dr Strange! Given that extravagant cost, can someone please explain this scene to me?
9) The Wolverine
From here on out things will steadily improve, as there are no BAD entries left to cover. On that note, James Mangold’s The Wolverine is a largely successful, character-driven thriller that exercises a surprising amount of restraint. Rather than giving in to silly bombast, the film takes its time to develop the titular character and injects proceedings with real heart and depth.
It does this by taking its cue from Frank Miller’s acclaimed 1980s run in the comics, which famously sent the gruff mutant to Japan, whereupon he integrated with the local culture and came to appreciate the chivalric virtues of love, honour and duty. Bolstered by tragic storytelling, contemplative writing and several instances of Wolverine fighting Ninjas, it’s a fan-favourite arc and one that Fox desperately needed to bring their A-Game to (No room for memory-wiping bullets here).
Thankfully, the mature narrative is done justice for the majority of The Wolverine’s runtime, even if you can detect some evidence of behind-the-scenes compromise. For example, whilst it does push the PG-13 rating to its very limits, you still get the feeling that the creative team were being held back by the studio. It’s one of those movies that clearly demanded a higher certificate, but had to be watered down due to overly cautious executives. And then there’s the truly naff climax, which undoes a lot of the goodwill that the film had garnered up to that point, by throwing in a dumb cartoony robot and generic CGI action.
All in all, The Wolverine isn’t the terrific, adult-oriented adaptation that it could have been, and you get the impression that the director and studio weren’t quite on the same page… yet. Nevertheless, there’s a reverence for the source material here that makes this a worthwhile watch for comic-book devotees.
8) X-Men: Apocalypse
For reasons I can’t fully discern, people seem to hate this movie. Perhaps I just carried away whenever there’s a cool Quicksilver scene, but I thought this was a damn-good blockbuster. It’s certainly not the massive turkey that everyone else makes it out to be and there are plenty of standout moments.
For instance, there’s the devastating bit where Magneto loses his family, the ultra-violent Weapon X rampage, the insane prologue in Ancient Egypt and, of course, the aforementioned Quicksilver set-piece. I can think of several (beloved) MCU movies that have far less going for them, yet Apocalypse has been inexplicably lumped in with dreck like Suicide Squad and Fan4stic. This might not be the X-Men’s finest hour, and it is a tad hollow when compared to its immediate predecessors, but that’s not enough to warrant such a poor reputation.
Often credited (or blamed) with kick-starting the superhero mania of the 21st century, the first instalment in the X-Men franchise deserves far more recognition than it gets. Not only is it competently put-together from a technical standpoint, which was remarkable enough back then, but it also has a sense of artistic integrity that distinguishes it to this day.
Laudably rooting its fantastical premise in mature character drama and heady themes, the trailblazer proved that comic-book movies needn’t be corny, badly-written schlock, at a time when their cultural worth was about on par with video-game adaptations. Indeed, when compared to the likes of Spawn or *shudder* Tank Girl – it was clear that this blockbuster had genuine ambition and was unwilling to settle for the ‘’brainless fun’’ label. The team obviously wanted to make something with a touch of class, going so far as to include a civil rights allegory and recruiting esteemed thespians Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart.
It was a ballsy move, one that could have easily backfired and made the whole affair look rather silly. It’s a testament to Fox’s commitment then, as well as their forward-thinking, that this bold direction paid off, delivering a compelling story, likeable characters and a thoroughly believable world.
There’s no arguing that this was a true watershed moment for blockbuster cinema, marking the exact juncture at which Hollywood started to take this superhero malarkey seriously. The genre has admittedly progressed a little since then and, in retrospect, some cracks are starting to show (the pacing is uneven, the action dated and the climax lame). Regardless, this is still an enticing introduction to the mutant universe, one that made everything else possible.
6) Deadpool 2
More so than any other film in this list, I had a tough time picking the right spot for Deadpool 2. On one hand, I didn’t notice any huge dips in quality when it came to the sequel and I actually enjoyed it quite a bit on its own terms. The standard of humour was more or less maintained, Ryan Reynolds was still a perfect fit for the role and the action was beefed up significantly.
Yet, at the same time, I don’t feel as much affection for it. Perhaps that’s because it plays it too safe, recycling many of the same meta gags and ideas from before. Or maybe it’s because I felt less relief this time around, as I was more confident that it was going to work. Either way, Deadpool 2 didn’t give me the same exhilarating jolt as its predecessor. You could say that it’s suffering from a very minor case of sequelitis.
That being said, the movie is still a giddily entertaining romp that has plenty of laugh-out-loud jokes. The debut of X-Force alone is enough to recommend it.
5) X-Men: Days of Future Past
Days of Future Past has one hell of a gimmick propping it up. Utilising a time-travel hook that weaves together the original X-Men trilogy and the later reboot, it dared to do something that no one had ever attempted before. Throw in some giant killer robots for good measure and it was as close to a sure thing as you can get. The filmmakers could almost be forgiven for resting on their laurels and letting this crossover appeal do all of the hard work for them.
Instead, they admirably channelled their efforts into crafting a fulfilling journey that explored the emotional fallout of First Class, whilst also giving a fitting send-off to the old guard. There was so much that could have gone wrong here, but any pitfalls are gracefully side-stepped by the intelligent screenplay. For a start, they wisely zeroed-in on just a handful of heroes, in order to prevent the story from feeling cluttered and overstuffed. Meanwhile, they came up with coherent rules for their time travel premise, so that everything makes sense within the internal logic of the movie.
Most importantly of all, they never lost sight of the character growth, which is where this franchise has always excelled. Both Magneto and Raven get far more development than your typical Blockbuster would allow for, whilst Professor X is given one of the most powerful arcs in any superhero movie. Speaking of which, James McAvoy takes full advantage of his enhanced role, sinking his teeth into some quite powerful scenes. A notable highlight being the part where a disillusioned Xavier gets an inspiring pep-talk from his future self.
In many ways, this is one of the most impressive movies to come out of Fox slate, because it had so many plates to spin. The fact that it wasn’t a disaster is kind of astonishing. The fact that it turned out this good, is nothing short of a miracle.
Ever since X-Men Origins’ curious handling of the Merc with a Mouth, audiences were hungry for a more authentic depiction of the character, preferably in his own solo vehicle. Unfortunately, Fox were reluctant to greenlight such a project, unless it made certain concessions for the sake of mainstream appeal. Namely, they wanted a version that reigned in all the absurdist comedy and toned down the adult content. You know, the stuff that defines Deadpool as a fan favourite.
Anyway, this heavily neutered interpretation remained trapped in development hell for years upon years and we gradually resigned ourselves to the notion that it was never going to see the light of day. That was until 2014, when encouraging test footage leaked online, showcasing a brand new Deadpool with all the gory bloodshed, outrageous meta-gags and profanity-laced dialogue kept firmly intact. It was a stroke of genius on the part of the filmmakers, one that revitalised demand for a Wade Wilson spin-off. Production commenced shortly thereafter and, as you would expect, the hype levels quickly ballooned out of control.
Luckily the final product was a true passion-project, overflowing with creativity and warmth. You could tell that Ryan Reynolds cared deeply about nailing the zany anti-hero, as he fully threw himself into the rapid-fire ad libs and the lively physical comedy. Likewise, Zombieland screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick put a lot of effort into translating the comics’ signature wit to the big-screen, whilst also offering a surprising love-story to anchor the movie. The final part of the puzzle was director Tim Miller, who worked hard to ensure that the style was up to snuff too, with crazy visual flourishes like the now-iconic opening credits and the eye-popping action sequences.
Funny, charming and unexpectedly sweet, Deadpool delivered upon everything it promised and showed just what Fox were capable of when they were willing to take chances. Let’s just hope that Disney and Marvel don’t shy away from taking similar risks.
3) X2: X-Men United
Mystifying title aside, this is an exemplary follow-up that builds upon everything the original did well, earning its place in the pantheon of great sequels. The action is shaper, the plot is more nuanced, and the returning players are given ample opportunity to show-off their acting chops. Meanwhile, there’s a whole host of interesting newcomers (most notably the dexterous Nightcrawler and the hateful Stryker) who all make a strong first impression and help to round out the diverse cast.
As with Apocalypse, we’re also treated to a healthy supply of invigorating set-pieces – from the opening salvo at the White House, to the assault on the X-Mansion, to Magneto’s prison break, right through to Pyro’s fiery altercation with the police. Yet it’s the more intimate moments that really hit home, such as Iceman’s ‘’coming out’’ scene and Logan’s attempts to wrestle with his traumatic past.
This all contributes to the feeling that X2 is a meaningful expansion of the universe, as opposed to just an obligatory cash-in. After all, they don’t lazily rehash narrative-beats and instead come up with a fresh story that would be absorbing with-or-without the superpowers. In fact, you could remove all of the sci-fi elements here and you would still have a gripping thriller. In that sense, X2 can comfortably stand alongside The Dark Knight as not just a great comic-book movie, but a great film.
2) X-Men: First Class
After the double whammy that was The Last Stand and Origins, our favourite mutants were in dire straits at the beginning of the 2010s. Previously hailed as one of the major players in the comic-book arena, the franchise seemed to have lost its lustre and was at risk of becoming irrelevant. To make matters worse, the MCU was starting to make waves in the lead up to The Avengers and Fox’s output just looked obsolete by comparison.
Apparently the night is darkest just before the dawn though, as what came next was the series’ most electrifying release to date. First Class revitalised the entire series by putting a groovy 60s spin on the material and focussing more intensely on the core relationship between Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr. It had a fun retro-style, a clever script, a top-notch cast and the best character development out of the bunch.
Honestly, there’s a lot going in the movie – as it chronicles the formation of the original team, gives us a glimpse of Magneto’s (badass) Nazi-hunting days, and even throws in a bit of intrigue surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis – but it never feels weighed down by all these plot threads. On the contrary, it deftly weaves them all together into a fully satisfying whole that has a bit of everything. Excitement, emotion, humour, scrumptious visuals: it’s all here in one handsomely mounted package.
Matthew Vaughn, who finally got to dip his toes into this universe after The Last Stand debacle, is one of the most consistently entertaining directors working today and with this one he truly knocked it out of the park. It’s one of the best blockbusters of the decade and I’m honestly shocked that it’s not my number 1.
Remember when I said that the decision-makers on The Wolverine didn’t seem to be operating on the same wavelength as each other? Remember when I said that it had great potential but most of it was squandered on blatant compromise?
Well Logan is everything that movie should have been and then some. Summarising its brilliance is a tall order and it’s tempting to just reel off a list of everything that it does well. Which is exactly what I’m going to do, because I’m a lazy asshole and can’t think of a way to finish this bloody article! So without further delay, here are my reasons for why Logan kicks major ass:
- The Oscar-nominated screenplay pulls no punches and the hard-nosed dialogue is note-perfect
- James Mangold’s visceral direction ensures that the fights have palpable jeopardy and consequences
- Hugh Jackman gives a career-best performance
- The Neo-Western tint gives the film a unique, melancholic flavour
- Although dealing with dark subject-matter, the movie avoids the trap of becoming exhaustingly grim.
- There are instances of levity and tenderness scattered throughout, that only serve to make the inevitable tragedy all the more effective
- Over the course of the movie, you start to care for these characters in a way that you never have done before
- The action is firmly rooted in reality (Just look at the bit where they try to drive through the fence)
- The icing on the cake: it goes to town its hard-R rating.
Frankly, I don’t think we’ll get another X-Men movie of this calibre under Disney and Marvel. I can’t envision them supporting a project this daring and unconventional, without feeling the need to lighten it up. Which is a shame, because I sincerely believe that Logan is a full-on masterpiece.
How would you rank Fox’s X-Men franchise? Let us know in the comments or on our social channels @FlickeringMyth…