The X-Men Films: Best to Worst

Today marks the end of an era. Nineteen years ago on July 14th, 2000 the first X-Men film was released by 20th Century Fox. This was only the second Marvel property to be adapted to movie screens after 1998’s Blade, and it would go on to inspire a whole industry of comic book films that are still being made today. Since that first movie, Fox has continually come back to the well putting out more installments in the X-Men franchise as well as better and more successful spin-offs with the characters of Wolverine and Deadpool. With Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox, it’s become inevitable that these mutant characters are going to be reintroduced as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What that means is that today’s release of Dark Phoenix will be the last Fox X-Men movie. I decided to present my list of best to worst X-Men movies to mark this moment. I will not include the Wolverine or Deadpool pictures because I want to focus solely on the X-Men as a team.

The Best
X-Men: First Class (2011, dir. Matthew Vaughn)
Of all the films, this is the one with the least “big name” characters, which allows the story to be focused on Charles Xavier and Eric Lehnsherr (Professor X and Magneto, respectively). After three movies and a dreadful Wolverine origin picture, it was decided to do a soft reboot of the franchise via an origin story. Attempting to keep the timeline of the original movies somewhat intact (that didn’t last long), First Class is set in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Eric, a Holocaust survivor, is tracking down the men responsible for the deaths of his parents, sights set on Klaus Schmidt, a Nazi scientist who wanted to harness mutant powers for himself. Since the War ended, Schmidt has taken on the new identity of Sebastian Shaw and leads a secret society known as the Hellfire Club. Shaw uses his position to manipulate world events leading to the tense nuclear showdown in the film’s conclusion.
Meanwhile, Charles Xavier is recruited by the CIA to help train mutants to help deal with the national security threat of Shaw and the Hellfire Club as covertly as possible. Through the film, we see how Xavier came to be in a wheelchair and how his relationship with Eric, once productive and cooperative, deteriorated as Eric began to reveal his true colors. The best X-Men we’ve gotten so far and the only one of two movies on this list not directed by notorious sexual assaulter of underage boys Bryan Singer, speaking of…

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014, dir. Bryan Singer)
Bryan Singer never felt like an excellent fit for the X-Men franchise. If you revisit the original film, it just doesn’t feel like it is made with an ounce of passion. Matthew Vaughn was set to return for this follow up to First Class but due to scheduling ended up helming The Kingsmen instead. Singer, who was already producing, jumped on board to direct again and gave us this loose adaptation of a classic X-Men time travel story. The premise finds us nine years in the future where things have gotten dystopian with mutants imprisoned in concentration camps. Those who aren’t locked up are consistently pursued by the Sentinels, robots designed to hunt down and either capture or kill mutants. Professor X brings those allies he can find to a Chinese mountain temple where they will attempt to send Wolverine back to stop an assassination that causes the whole horrible timeline to come about. The time travel element allows both versions of Professor X and Magento to show up in the film and we even get introduced to Quicksilver, the apparent estranged son of Magento. What I enjoyed about this one was continuing the historical settings though this one doesn’t do as great of a job getting the 1970s aesthetic across as First Class did with the 1960s. Time travel is often a tricky element to include in a movie, but here it works. None of the historical events like Vietnam or the American Civil Rights movement are explored in any meaningful sense, but the story is very engaging and feels like it has consequences to the franchise.

X2: X-Men United (2002, dir. Bryan Singer)
This sequel to the original X-Men film marked director Bryan Singer’s departure from the franchise for twelve years. After the overwhelming success of the first movie, the budget was boosted, allowing for some more elaborate set pieces and a more populated mutant world. Now, we have moments with students at Xavier’s school that help the movie feel part of something more substantial. However, there are only three new additions to the mutant roster: Nightcrawler, Pyro, and Lady Deathstrike. Deathstrike is a near-mute role, and she’s only a passive henchman, wasting an otherwise potential rich character. Pyro is reverted to a moody teen foil for Iceman. Nightcrawler is almost perfect; Alan Cumming does a spectacular job playing him, they lean too heavily on the Catholic/faith angle. Practically every scene he’s in involves Nightcrawler referencing being Catholic which gets pretty old fast. The villain in this outing is William Stryker, reimagined from being an evil televangelist from the graphic novel God Loves; Man Kills to the military commander responsible for creating Wolverine. There are many flaws with this movie, but it improved on the bad elements of the first film which puts it just above average.

X-Men (2000, dir. Bryan Singer)
Let’s talk about Bryan Singer, shall we? In 1997, Singer was brought to court when a 14-year old extra on the set of Apt Pupil charged that he and other underage young men were asked to film a nude shower scene on the set. The boys said this was not part of the film, but something Singer wanted to record on the side, but because of insufficient evidence the charges were dropped. In 2014, just before Days of Future Past’s release, a man filed a civil lawsuit claiming that during a party in the late 1990s he was drugged and subsequently raped by the director. Another young man, this one British, came forward under the terms of remaining anonymous to say that he too was used for sexual pleasure against his will by Singer and producer Gary Goddard while the men were in England filming Superman Returns. Singer was able to show evidence to the court that he was not in that location at the time the victim from the 1990s claimed and the British accuser withdrew his claim without comment. So many dismissed claims and withdrawn cases may lead you to believe that Singer is just the unlucky victim of greedy ne’er-do-wells. In 2017, the dam broke, and another man came forward to say that Singer drugged and raped him when he was seventeen. In 2019, four more men came forward to say they too were assaulted by the filmmaker when they were underage. Singer is good friends with another accused abuser of young men, Kevin Spacey and both men eye-rollingly used their sexuality as a potential defense against the accusations. If you research the over twenty-year history of Singer’s connection to and involvement in parties hosted by actual convicted sexual assaulters, then it becomes clear that either Singer has done these things or he has an awful sense for picking friends. Oh yeah, X-Men is total okay, not spectacular, not amazing.

The Worst
X-Men: Apocalypse (2016, dir. Bryan Singer)
Apocalypse is one of the villains in X-Men comics I want to love, but he hasn’t entirely been used in a way that hooks me, yet. In Rick Remender’s run on X-Force, he takes the elements that surround the character and repurposes them into something profoundly interesting, just with Apocalypse not really there. When I saw the first images and trailer for this movie, I knew something had gone wrong. Oscar Isaac was cast as the titular villain, and the make-up choices were not the best. I was reminded of fan cosplay, something not awful but definitely below my expectations of a big budget Hollywood movie. Sadly, the whole picture failed to live up to any promise of being good. There were way too many characters introduced with little no development so that by the time we get to the finale, I didn’t care because I had no emotional ties to anyone on screen. While being set in the 1980s, there are almost zero references to that fact which was an even further disappointment. Just an all around waste of new characters (Psylocke, Archangel) and reintroduced classic ones (Nightcrawler, Cyclops, Storm). This was the first sign that Fox’s X-Men were not going to hack in it a landscape controlled by Marvel and Keven Fiege.

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006, dir. Brett Ratner)
I remember seeing this and just being aghast at how astronomically bad it was in almost every way. There are some cool yet brief moments, Magneto moving and twisting the entire Golden Gate Bridge is an excellent display of power. However, so many characters are miswritten and misunderstood by the filmmakers, I couldn’t help but feel embarrassed through the total runtime. Cyclops is quickly killed off so James Marsden could co-star in Superman Returns which means the Dark Phoenix storyline hinges on the romantic feelings between Wolverine and Jean Grey. Maybe one day we will get a fun adaptation of the cosmic comic book Dark Phoenix Saga complete with the Sh’iar and Imperial Guard, but with the release of the redo of this story, they have opted for the same mundane, annoying crap. The Last Stand also gives us our first and to date the only glimpse of Juggernaut on film, and it is…oh boy. One character that maybe thankfully doesn’t get mentioned much the villainous take on Jamie Madrox, the Multiple Man, one of my favorite Marvel mutants of all-time. Also of note, this movie’s director Brett Ratner has been accused of outing Ellen Page on the set of this movie to the cast which was against her wishes and almost a dozen women have forward to state that Ratner did everything from sexually assaulting them to in one case raping one of them. Here’s hoping that with a fresh MCU reboot the X-Men franchise can do better on picking the people who make these movies.

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