Seventeen years ago saw the dawn of a millennium and a reboot of the superhero genre. Many consider the first X-Men film the most important superhero film ever made, and everyone is saying that Logan is the best in the franchise. I agree with both assessments. Here’s how I rank the franchise.
1. Logan, James Mangold. 2017. 5 stars. This is one of two superhero films I award a 5-star rating, the other being The Dark Knight. Which is obviously a way of saying that I’m not the biggest superhero fan, because these are “anti-superhero” films for adults. (Deadpool also falls into this realm of adult cinema but in a satirical way: a potty-mouthed anti-hero attracts pretty much the usual audience of nerdy guys.) The year is 2029, and Logan is now trying to live a normal life in Mexico as a limo driver while taking care of Charles Xavier. Then a young girl shows up brandishing adamantium claws, evidently created to be a soldier like he was. She’s being hunted and Logan naturally wants no part of her until his heart wins out. (Heavy shades of Leon the Professional here.) The two of them proceed to slice and dice the baddies on a level of ultra-violence which has never been seen before in a superhero film. Logan is an undeniable masterpiece that fuses a trilogy of genres — superhero, western, and post-apocalyptic — much in the same indie vein as The Wolverine (also directed by Mangold), but three times as good, and the perfect farewell to this iconic X-Men character.
2. X-Men: Days of Future Past, Bryan Singer. 2014. 4 ½ stars. It’s difficult choosing between this one and United for the second and third slots. As a film United is more polished and objectively better. But I go with Days of Future Past for the emotional power and high stakes. From the start, the X-Men series has been pointing to an all-out war between mutants and humanity, and we finally get that. The time travel plot is handled well and without cheap resets, and so we have our cake and eat it as X-Men die but live to fight another day. The time warping also bridges the cast of the first three films with their younger versions from the First Class prequel. Things are so dire that Magneto teams up with Xavier, but as in the second film it’s a fragile alliance. The Catch-22’s are exploited for maximum effect: Magneto was right all along that humanity would eventually commit genocide on the mutants; but that’s only because of his own aggressive policies, which caused Mystique to set the genocidal plan in motion; Xavier is paralyzed in both the past and present, ashamed that Magneto was right, ineffectual to do much about it, even as he clings to an altruistic morality. I remain annoyed, however, that we never find out how Xavier came back to life after being killed by Jean Grey in The Last Stand.
3. X-Men: United, Bryan Singer. 2003. 4 ½ stars. It was overshadowed by The Return of the King, but in that year X-Men: United emerged as the best superhero film ever made. It was The Dark Knight of its day. It took the dark themes of the first X-Men film and expanded the scope with confidence. Xavier and Magneto join forces to stop a military colonel intent on wiping out all mutants from the planet, though of course Magneto has his own counter-agenda to reverse the colonel’s purpose and wipe out all human beings instead. The White House assassination attempt is still one of the best opening sequences of any superhero film, and an adrenaline-rush no matter how many times you see it. Magneto’s escape from his plastic prison (above image) is pure genius, as he sucks the iron out the guard’s bursting skin, and fashions it into levitating plates and bullets. Jean Grey’s death is a noble sacrifice, and the final act in the Oval Office may well be my favorite conclusion to a superhero film, as Xavier, backed by his fellow mutants, schools the president on accepting others in a civilized nation.
4. X-Men: First Class, Matthew Vaughn. 2011. 4 ½ stars. Many consider this the best X-Men film, and I can understand why. It’s superbly acted and exploits the historical event of the Cuban missile crisis to nail-biting effect. The missing ingredient is the dark brooding feel which is the point of the X-Men franchise. Matthew Vaughn was having a blast at the expense of Singer’s subversive tone. Critic Darren Finch has noted that First Class comes off as a “dude movie” against its own grain. Mystique has to choose between two handsome men — the young swaggering versions of Xavier and Magneto — and she’s now played by Jennifer Lawrence, who looks like a classic all-American blonde. Singer portrayed unambiguously weird kids, but with Vaughn they come off as “cool kids with problems”. First Class is a great film but it’s not very good at being an X-Men film. What it misses in mood, it more than makes up for in emotional power. We see Charles and Erik in the days of their friendship, and that Erik is the one who crippled Charles; and how Mystique began with Charles and grew up for many years with him before joining Erik.
5. The Wolverine, James Mangold. 2013. 4 stars. This is how you focus on a single X-Men character. Not by going back to his origins, but by moving forward to another level. The Wolverine feels less like a superhero film and more like indie martial arts. If you like dark films suffused with existential turmoil (as I do) and if you love honor dramas set in Japan which are upended by an intruding western “barbarian” (as I do), then chances are this one will work for you. Logan has left the X-Men and rejected his Wolverine identity after being forced to kill Jean Grey (the Phoenix) in The Last Stand. It turns out he also has baggage from being a POW in Nagasaki when the bombs dropped. He’s not up against the high-stakes threats of political bigotry or rogue mutants. Now he’s in exile embroiled in a family feud. Ultimately this film is about death — Logan wanting to die to escape his guilt, his Japanese “friend” wanting to conquer death but at Logan’s expense, Jean Grey speaking from the grave in his nightmares. I’m not surprised that Mangold returned to focus on Wolverine again in Logan, which is hailed by everyone and their mother as the best film in the franchise.
6. Deadpool, Tim Miller. 2016. 4 stars. Immensely entertaining, yes, but it needs saying that Deadpool isn’t quite as anarchistic as it thinks it is. Super is a more transgressive and better film that remains woefully underrated. Nonetheless, this standalone X-Men piece is very good. The hero-villain we cheer is a potty-mouthed contract killer whose black-market treatment for cancer has made him into a super-powered mutant. He’s hunting the guy responsible for his facial ruin, and he has graphic flashbacks to a failed relationship with a prostitute. You would think that ceaseless swearing and redundant violence would soon wear out its welcome, but Deadpool remains enjoyable from start to finish. For an adolescent fantasy about torture and sick revenge, that turns out to be precisely its strength — a purposeful shallowness that would be diminished by any toned down supplements. The character made his first appearance in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but as I say in that entry below, you should avoid seeing that film at all costs. This film works perfectly fine on its own.
7. X-Men: The Last Stand, Brett Ratner. 2006. 3 ½ stars. For reasons that escape me, this one gets a lot of hate, and some lists rank it below even Wolverine’s Origins. That’s just wrong. It’s true that Ratner is a commercial director given to flash and dazzle and lame dialogue, and when he gets things right it’s more by accident. But the fact is that The Last Stand does do a lot of things right — things I wish more superhero films would have the balls to do. The glaring one is the point that pissed off so many fans: the death of Professor Xavier. Ratner killed off the most important character of the franchise, as well as Cyclops, both in the first half of the story. Frankly, I think the entire Jean Grey/Phoenix story arc pays off wonderfully. The tender Jean has returned to life as a hideous killer, and it’s downright tragic when she begs Logan to kill her in the end. I also like the film’s premise involving a medical cure which some mutants want and others are naturally offended by. Rogue for example chooses the cure for understandable reasons (she can’t even kiss a boyfriend without harming him), while Mystique becomes human against her will, and is shockingly rejected by Magneto whom she saved. There’s good payoff all around in the character arcs, even if the central plot is hollow.
8. X-Men, Bryan Singer. 2000. 3 stars. It’s difficult to rank the first X-Men film objectively. On the one hand, I consider it the most important superhero film ever made. It rebooted the genre and saved it from probable extinction. Batman & Robin made people embarrassed to express any interest in superheroes, but even aside from the ’90s travesties, most comic-book films that predate 2000 look lame and horribly dated. Bryan Singer found a way to connect with nerdy material in a serious way, offering darker and morally complex heroes, and playing up to social commentary (civil and gay rights) without being preachy. X-Men marked a huge step forward. But in retrospect it’s just not a hugely impressive film. It was finding its way as the first of its kind; the budget was modest; the action scenes show their age; green-screen backgrounds are a bit obvious (this was 2000, but still a year before the Lord of the Rings revolution); the plot not terribly ambitious. If I were grading this in the year 2000, I’d give it 4 stars unreservedly, but today it’s competing with too much advancement in the genre. It’s still decent and enjoyable, but feels like an extended prologue to the rest of the franchise.
9. X-Men: Apocalypse, Bryan Singer. 2016. 2 ½ stars. There’s no polite way of saying for all its ambition and great ideas, X-Men: Apocalypse is an artificial bloated mess. It’s too many stories crammed into an overarching plot that doesn’t feel anchored in any conviction. And it’s too bad, because this really could have been as good as Days of Future Past. The scale is just as huge and the stakes as high. The lead villain is the world’s first mutant, En Sabah Nur, ruler of ancient Egypt who was sealed in his pyramid tomb and has now risen in 1983 to ravage the planet and rule in a new age of mutants. To do so, he has rounded up his Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, one of whom (as we’d expect) is Magneto, the others being Storm (whom I certainly did not expect), Archangel, and Psylocke. A solid premise, but it’s just window-dressing for a mess that takes its first hour to set up loads of new characters who are never used well. Sophie Turner as the young Jean Grey, for example, is a brilliant casting choice but her moment of truth in the end doesn’t pay off well because of the story’s deficiencies. I give Apocalypse A for its ideas and ambition, a D for the results, which lands the 2 ½ star rating.
10. X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Gavin Hood. 2009. 1 star. Most everyone agrees this is the worst X-Men film, and some even say it’s the worst superhero film ever made. I’m not confident that it’s worse than Superman III and Batman & Robin, but you get the point: it’s really, really bad. The script is atrocious, the direction worse than amateur, and the acting so dreadful… it’s as if Gavin Hood was trying to make the worst film conceivable. The idea of exploring a single mutant’s origins was a good one but went to waste. This is a film I would urge not seeing under any circumstances, even if you’re a die-hard X-Men fan. Not only because it makes you laugh (or cry) at every ridiculous thing that happens next, but for the continuity problems it creates: it’s supposed to lead up to the events of the first X-Men movie, and while it lamely explains why Wolverine won’t remember any of the X-Men when he meets them “for the first time”, it certainly doesn’t explain why they won’t remember him.
These are the rankings by Rotten Tomatoes scores. They coincide pretty closely with my rankings.
1. Logan: 92%
2. X-Men: Days of Future Past: 91%
3. X-Men: United: 86%
4. X-Men: First Class: 86%
5. Deadpool: 84%
6. X-Men: 81%
7. The Wolverine: 69%
8. X-Men: The Last Stand: 58%
9. X-Men: Apocalypse: 48%
10. X-Men Origins: Wolverine: 38%
This is the best viewing order of the franchise (ignoring Wolverine Origins which shouldn’t be seen at all, and Deadpool which is self-standing):
The first series:
X-Men: United (2003)
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
The Wolverine (2013)
The “prequel” series:
X-Men: First Class (2011)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)