Dark Phoenix is the latest, and likely the last, installment in the X-Men franchise, at least for now. X-Men arguably kicked off the superhero boom at the movies when it premiered in 2000. For 19 years, two different casts of characters (and one impressively ageless Hugh Jackman) have portrayed a host of mutants who struggle with both discrimination and the reach of their own powers. Not all of the X-Men movies were good, but they at least aspired to answer higher questions about tolerance, responsibility and morality. That’s more than can be said for many superhero films.
Disney acquired Fox, the studio behind the X-men franchise, and will likely reboot the X-men saga and incorporate it into its Avengers universe sometime in the next few years. So as we bid adieu to this particular version of the franchise, let’s rank the X-Men movies, from worst to best.
12. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
This movie commits so many cinematic sins: chief among them, casting Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool, the Merc with the Mouth, only to sew the character’s mouth shut for the second half of the movie. That decision pretty much embodies this film’s approach to humor and dialogue — it’s not interested in either. Its chief occupation seems to be tying Wolverine’s past to the other X-Men movies, which is rather dull. Fox had a whole series of origin stories for X-Men characters planned before this movie was so poorly received that the studio scrapped an entire franchise and decided to make X-Men: First Class instead.
11. X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
Why, oh why, would you hire one of the greatest actors of his generation, Oscar Isaac, to play arguably the most powerful villain in the X-Men universe, Apocalypse, only to render him unrecognizable in what one can only assume is a rejected Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costume? There is a scene in this movie in which Apocalypse, who has been buried in the sand for centuries, stares at a TV screen and croaks out, “leeeeeeaaaarrrrnnnniiiing” as he comprehends modernity. How dare the creators make this amazing cast stoop so low. No wonder Jennifer Lawrence looks like she’s constantly seeking out the nearest escape route.
10. X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)
Simon Kinberg, who wrote many of the X-Men movies, including Last Stand, offered Dark Phoenix as a corrective to that much-maligned third X-Men movie. (More on that disaster below.) This version of the Dark Phoenix saga, in which Jean Grey struggles to control her immense power and kills some good guys in the process, is certainly more empowering to its central character. But the script leans lazily on the assumption that audiences will care about Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey, a mere supporting player in X-Men: Apocalypse, because of Famke Janssen’s portrayal of that character more than a decade ago. And the film shies away from answering basic questions — why haven’t Michael Fassbender’s Magneto and James McAvoy’s Xavier aged between the ’60s-set First Class and this ’90s-set movie? — and more complex ones, like whether Charles Xavier messing with Jean’s brain was an act of care or one of misogynistic gaslighting. In the end, the movie simply does not justify its existence.
9. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
There are a lot of problems with this movie, which is more noise than substance. It’s hard to divorce those issues from the many allegations of harassment and assault later levied against its director Brett Ratner. (Ratner has denied the allegations.) The Dark Phoenix saga is one of the most iconic plot lines from the X-Men comics. And yet it is sidelined in this movie as a B-plot to another story about a fight over a “cure” for mutations. Jean’s turn to Dark Phoenix is problematically illustrated by a seduction scene with Wolverine. (She also later dons a very unnecessary sex-pot corset.) For most of the film, she’s less a character struggling with the emotional ramifications of her new power than a MacGuffin who must be destroyed. Despite these many flaws, there are a few worthwhile performances in the movie, particularly from Ian McKellan as Magneto.
8. The Wolverine (2013)
This movie actually isn’t that bad? It’s at least better than Origins. It’s hard to argue with Hugh Jackman as a compelling presence onscreen. He’s starred in nine of these movies for a reason. The story takes away Wolverine’s immortality for a bit, which raises the stakes. That makes for an interesting character-driven story — until a bizarre corporate conspiracy plot takes over the latter half of the movie. Most of the film is also set in Japan and arguably plays into the tiresome “journey east” trope that Batman Begins, Daredevil and Doctor Strange are all guilty of abusing.
7. Deadpool 2 (2018)
Deadpool’s self-aware schtick can get wearisome, and by the middle of the sequel, it doesn’t feel particularly fun anymore. The movie is plagued by an inherent conflict: Deadpool has become exactly what he mocks, a bankable superhero. An impressive supporting cast, including Josh Brolin as yet another superhero baddie and Atlanta‘s Zazie Beetz as a superhero with the puzzling superpower of always being lucky, can’t save Deadpool from himself. (The end of Deadpool also grants Deadpool a franchise-breaking bit of power that we will likely never see paid off in the main X-Men films.)
6. X-Men: First Class (2011)
As origins stories go, this is one of the best. The privileged and soft-hearted Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) meets Magneto (Michael Fassbender), a Holocaust survivor who can control metal and spends his spare time hunting down Nazis. The two unite in their belief that mutants can change the world, then part ways over their differing beliefs as to how they should change the world. The establishment of the X-Men, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the dissolution of the X-Men all happen in about a week, which is ludicrous. But both McAvoy and Fassbender do an exceptional job channeling their forebears (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan) in their respective roles. (Though this early show of power by Magneto, who basically single-handedly stops the Cold War from becoming hot, does beg the question: Why didn’t humanity just stop building things out of metal?)
5. X-Men (2000)
The success of X-Men, which preceded Spider-Man (2002), Batman Begins (2005) and Iron Man (2008), kicked off the modern superhero boom and set the template for everything to come. The silliness, camp and black-and-white heroism of past superhero films was gone, replaced by men and women at philosophical loggerheads, taking their frustration out on each other through their various super-heroic powers. It was funny, yet dramatic. A spectacle, yet with more substance that your typical film involving people in spandex pounding on each other. Love ’em or hate ’em, after this movie, superheroes were here to stay.
4. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) travels back in time to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating a senator (Peter Dinklage) in the 1970s, thereby ensuring that the deadly Sentinels constructed in the wake of Mystique’s attack to murder mutants are never created. So, yes, let’s get this out of the way: The time-traveling antics make little sense and render the franchise’s timeline near-incomprehensible. But who cares? The filmmakers found a way to unite the actors who played the younger and older versions of the same character in one film, which is just the sort of wild plotting that makes comic book movies so fun. It helps that the united cast boasts, in addition to the aforementioned actors, McKellan, Stewart, Fassbender, McAvoy, Halle Berry and Ellen Page.
3. Deadpool (2016)
Deadpool arrived just as the main X-Men franchise seemed to be running out of creative ideas and yet continued to contribute to the growing superhero bubble at the box office. Fans flocked to the one man who promised to pop that bubble: Ryan Reynolds. Unlike his counterparts, the Merc With a Mouth knew he was in a movie and offered a refreshing alternative to the old formula: a barrage of meta-jokes about the superhero genre and unbelievable gore. The film played to Reynolds’ smart-aleck strengths. If you stop to think about any of the jokes too long, you might notice that Fox is trying to have its cake and eat it too with both the X-Men and Deadpool franchises — which explains the relentless action, clearly engineered to prevent you from stopping and thinking.
2. X2: X-Men United (2003)
X2 is by far the most important film on this list, and certainly one of the best. The excellent sequel proved that movies could do what comics could not: The iconic opening fight scene in which Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) teleports through the White House proved more arresting than a comic strip trying to depict the same scene ever could. Wisely, the second movie also unites Magneto and Charles Xavier, physically if not philosophically, in the fight against a human named Col. Stryker, who is bent on eradicating the mutants. Their shaky alliance in the face of ungrateful humans begs an intriguing philosophical question: What responsibility do these heroes have to protect a race of people who despise them?
1. Logan (2017)
Is it sacrilege to rank an apocalyptic Western above all three X-Men movies from the original trilogy? Probably. But Logan is the best capital-F film on this list. In some ways, Logan totally diverges from the X-Men formula. Most X-Men movies are overcrowded; Logan focuses on just a few mutants. Most X-Men movies are family affairs; Logan is a violent, R-rated post-apocalyptic tragedy. Most X-Men movie end with happy young mutants running across the grounds of Xavier’s school; Logan ends, well, bittersweetly. But X-Men movies are also at their best when they’re tackling real-world issues through metaphor, and no movie can surpass Logan in that project: The owner of the world’s brightest brain, Charles Xavier, begins to lose his mind in a terrifying parallel to Alzheimer’s; Laura’s journey reflects the terror of an immigrant’s flight to safety; and Logan, like an aging soldier, reckons psychologically with a life full of death. It’s barely a superhero movie, and that’s what makes it great.
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