As the “will they, won’t they?” saga of the X-Men’s migration into the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues following Disney’s takeover of Fox, the mutant franchise returns for what could be the final go-around in its current iteration with Dark Phoenix.
This is the fourth entry in the current series since 2011 reboot First Class, with the likes of James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult all returning. So too do several other younger versions of original trilogy characters including, most crucially this time, Sophie Turner as Jean Grey. Anticipation may be understandably subdued though, as it’s already the second attempt at nailing the Dark Phoenix comic book storyline, after it was botched in 2006’s The Last Stand, and immediately follows the disappointing Apocalypse.
It’s also fair to say the X-Men timeline has become pretty confusing, and arguably totally nonsensical, with a quartet of decade-hopping prequels adding to the first three films. And, let’s not forget – how could we? – the much-maligned prequel-cum-spinoff X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Put it all together and you’ve got seven films so far released in the canon since 2000 with that all important ‘X’ in the title (we won’t count the other, more standalone, Wolverine or Deadpool movies here). These films are of undeniably varying quality so, as Dark Phoenix hits cinemas, what better time to rank all those that have come before? Hold onto your spandex suit.
7. X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
Surprised not to see X-Men Origins: Wolverine in last place? Don’t worry, it’s not far away – but while that film had a Hugh Jackman lead performance to just about redeem it, this ’80s-set First Class threequel had nothing close. In fact, Apocalypse is guilty of almost all the clichés, tropes and lazy screenwriting that the superhero genre can offer.
Firstly, we get a rote villain in Apocalypse himself, the ancient Egyptian mutant En Sabah Nur, whose motivation to remould the world because humanity’s lost its way has been done both before and since, and much more effectively. Oscar Isaac’s also criminally wasted in the role, plastered in blue prosthetics and barely able to move his head, let alone imbue the antagonist with any real charisma. On top of this, it gives us a soulless CGI sky-beam finale, it’s overlong, and it has a(nother) shoehorned Wolverine cameo. The script even has the audacity to include a joke about the third film in a series being the worst one. Well, that backfired.
6. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Here we are! That version of Deadpool is the biggest sin of this ill-thought-through spinoff, but certainly not the only one. Let it also be noted that Origins managed to ruin one of the coolest X-Men, Gambit. Plus, Will.i.am is in it. The litany of flaws in this first big-screen solo outing for Wolverine/Logan/James Howlett go on.
The plot and script are messy at best, and some of the visual effects are below par. One of its biggest problems though is the set of bland, forgettable new characters surrounding Logan – especially Team X, who just feel like a low-rent X-Men. Jackman’s obvious star power and the potential for a deeper character study are both neglected as a result. That said, Jackman is, unsurprisingly, great as ever considering what he had to work with, while some scenes, like the montage of the ageless Logan and Sabretooth fighting in various wars through the decades, are undoubtedly effective.
5. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Former footballer Vinnie Jones yelling “I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!” is almost enough on its own to justify the third X-Men outing’s place so low down this list, but it’s just one of a myriad problems with The Last Stand. As mentioned before, there’s an effort at doing the Dark Phoenix arc which failed to light up fans’ imaginations, and generally the production feels rushed and hindered by the troubled search for a director.
After Bryan Singer left the franchise, Joss Whedon, Zack Snyder and even Darren Aronofsky were approached, and Matthew Vaughn signed on, before Brett Ratner eventually ended up in the chair. The result was the messiest, most cumbersome and least fun X-Men adventure of the opening trilogy, which also proceeded to kill off Cyclops, Jean and Professor X. (Well, sort of.) Not awful, but definitely a dud.
4. X-Men: First Class (2011)
This prequel/reboot served to reinvigorate the somewhat flailing X-franchise, taking audiences back to 1962 and exploring the early relationship between Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto. With Matthew Vaughn now belatedly behind the camera, and McAvoy and Fassbender superbly fitting the bill as younger versions of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen’s characters, First Class really was a breath of fresh air for the series.
As well as showing the origins of the X-Men themselves, complete with comic-accurate yellow costumes, it also provided a satisfying foray into Charles and Erik’s complex fluctuation between partners and adversaries.
3. X-Men (2000)
It’s easy now, in this MCU-dominated film landscape, to forget how big a gamble a comic-book movie was two decades ago. After the Supermans of the ’70s and ’80s, and the Batmans of the ’90s, the genre was out of vogue. But, following on from successful Marvel adaptation Blade two years earlier, Bryan Singer’s X-Men was another smash – raking in double its relatively modest $75 million dollar budget.
The recipe? A hot young cast including Jackman, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin and Famke Janssen, all exuding chemistry together, and playing off against experienced older heads Stewart and McKellen; a grittier, more grounded approach which still kept some of the fun of the comics and cartoons; a winning mix of practical costumes and effects and CGI; and a simple, captivating story centring on the humanity of the protagonists rather than their mutant nature.
2. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
Singer’s return to the franchise, riding on the momentum gained by Vaughn’s First Class, was a triumphant one. Taking the seminal Chris Claremont and John Byrne comics run of the same name as its starting point, Days of Future Past remoulds the story into something which works as both an extension of the original film trilogy and a sequel to First Class.
Ingeniously, it combines both casts – in a plot alternating between 1973 and 2023 – in a way which is dramatically effective and surprisingly coherent. Promoting Wolverine to be the time-travelling bridge between the two eras, instead of Kitty Pryde, is an obvious but effective change, putting Jackman’s ever-watchable Logan front and centre. Seeing him confront a jaded young Xavier, mirroring the Professor’s usual help for him, is just one of the joys – while Quicksilver’s slo-mo jail-break is one of the best set pieces in the entire series. In a fan-pleasing ending, doubling as a V-sign to Ratner, an altered timeline also effectively retcons the events of Last Stand.
1. X2 (2003)
Or X-Men 2, or X-Men United. The marketers seemingly couldn’t settle on a title for this one, but the filmmakers were far more certain of themselves with this superior sequel. The plot is simple enough: Colonel William Stryker (a terrifically hissable Brian Cox) sets out to destroy mutantkind, forcing the X-Men into a reluctant alliance with Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants.
Yet this allows for some of the most stimulating, emotionally engaging storytelling, doubling down on the main themes of the series: why do we humans fear what is different, and seek to destroy it rather than embrace it?; do you confront those who make you their enemy with love and compassion or hate and violence? It’s also the best delve into Wolverine’s mysterious past and dealings with Stryker. Add in more great performances, action, and that opening sequence featuring Nightcrawler, and you’ve got yourself a bonafide superhero genre classic.
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