Since kicking off in 2000, the X-Men cinematic universe draws to a close as Dark Phoenix arrives in cinemas. The series includes some all-time classics, says Travis Johnson, but also some bona fide stinkers.
Almost 20 years after it began, Fox’s X-Men cinematic universe is drawing to a close as X-Men: Dark Phoenix swoops into cinemas and red-headed stepchild New Mutants cools its heels in limbo, its eventual release strategy uncertain (the smart money is on a Disney+ debut).
But we come here not to bury Xavier’s Gifted Youngsters, but to praise them. In 2019 we’re practically drowning in big budget superhero spectacle, with Avengers: Endgame almost instantly staking out its place at the top end of the box office record list, and the omnipresent Marvel Cinematic Universe. But in the year 2000 the world was a different place, and a big (well, biggish – $75m) budget superhero movie was seen as a risky prospect. The current cinema landscape is due in large part to the success of that first X-Men flick, which led to a string of sequels and spin-offs.
To somewhat mixed results, it must be said. Marvel’s merry mutant movie marathon has given us some all-time classics, it’s true, but also some bona fide stinkers, along with a fair whack of product that hovers around the median. Here, then, is the whole megillah of filmic X-Men X-cursions, ranked from best to worst.
Director James Mangold gave the X-Men’s clawed berserker Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) the Unforgiven treatment, positing him as an ageing warrior nursing both his regrets and a senile Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) in a grim near future, until the evitable One Last Mission sees him caring for a hauntingly familiar young mutant on the run (Dafne Keane). An elegiac yet hyperviolent neo-Western, Logan marked Jackman’s last and best turn as the iconic character. It’s the best film of the X-Men stable by a long chalk.
If X-Men was somewhat hobbled by the need to set the scene, the first sequel honoured that sacrifice by delivering a non-stop barrage of story and action. After a failed mutant assassination attempt on the President, a government crackdown sees the X-Men on the run and forced to team up with old enemy Magneto (Ian McKellan). Comics fans were treated to a look at the Weapon X program, while the death of Jean Grey set up the first adaptation of the Dark Phoenix Saga. We also get the big screen debut of Nightcrawler, Magneto stopping an entire crashing plane with his powers, Wolverine going berserk on a platoon of hapless black ops mooks, and the best dramatisation of Professor X and Magneto’s ideological battle yet committed to screen.
After Last Stand’s poor reception, the franchise was retooled. Director Matthew Vaughn took us back to the swinging ‘60s for a look at the dawn of the Xavier/Magneto frenmity, casting James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as the younger mutant leaders and sending them on an adventure combining superhero action with ‘60s superspy style (fun fact: James Bond made his big screen debut in Dr. No the same year that the first issue of the X-Men comic came out). Future Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence debuts as the young mystique, while future J.R.R. Tolkien is the young Beast, and Kevin Bacon expands his pop culture footprint with a turn as the villainous Sebastian Shaw.
After sitting out the last two installments, original X-Men director Bryan Singer returned to the fold for this time travel thriller, which saw a Wolverine from an apocalyptic future (in which mutants were all but extinct) sent back in time to the mid-70s to stop an assassination that would send the world careening down a dark path. Days of Future Past juggles big sci-fi concepts, well-executed action and pathos with impressive dexterity, even if it does mark the exact point where X-Men continuity stopped making any kind of sense. Still, you do get Peter Dinklage as Bolivar Trask, inventor of the mutant-hunting Sentinel robots, and Evan Peters stealing the show as the super-fast Quicksilver, which counts for a lot.
John Wick co-director David Leitch ups the action quota for the Merc with a Mouth, along the way introducing comic book mainstays Cable (Josh Brolin), a time-traveling cyborg soldier, and Domino (Zazie Beetz), whose mutant power of super-luck has huge cinematic potential only hinted at here. Along the way many blue jokes are cracked, much blood is spilled, a whole cohort of expendable secondary characters are slaughtered in one bravura skydiving scene, and Ryan Reynolds reaffirms his death-grip on the character he was born to play. Oh, and Julian Dennison from Hunt for the Wilderpeople is on sidekick duties. Choice.
James Mangold’s first bat directing Hugh Jackman’s berserker mutant ronin takes us to the Japanese underworld, where our hero must match wits and blades with an army of yakuza goons and honest-to-god ninja. A marked improvement over the old Canucklehead’s first solo outing, The Wolverine wove several popular elements from the character’s solo comics title into a slick neo-noir. It is only slightly marred by an unearned and special-effects-heavy climactic battle.
Rescuing the fan-favourite character from what we all can agree was a pretty disastrous first big screen appearance in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Deadpool sees Ryan Reynolds go for broke as the wisecracking unkillable, arse-faced mutant mercenary with a heart of gold. It’s really all about charm and attitude here, with director Tim Miller ladling on so much of both that you almost forget that the whole thing is just two fight scenes linked by a flashback, and that Ed Skrein’s villain is a total non-event.
It seems almost quaint now, but the original X-Men gave us so very, very much: a serious does of Marvel mutant mayhem at a time when the thought of such an enterprise dominating the box office was ludicrous. Speaking of Enterprise, the former captain of said starship, Patrick Stewart, is note-perfect casting, as is Ian McKellan as Magneto, and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, the song and dance man no doubt still amazed at the turn his career took. In retrospect, Magneto’s master plan is more than a bit silly, and a lot of the ensemble, including Halle Berry’s Storm and James Marsden’s Cyclops, are given little to do. But it’s worth it for the shot of the X-Jet rising up out of the school basketball court alone.
When original director Bryan Singer bunked off to shoot Superman Returns in Sydney, directorial control passed to Brett Ratner, who gave us this little-loved trilogy-capper. Loosely adapting the Dark Phoenix storyline from the comics, the film makes Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) a supporting player in her own story, playing second fiddle to Magneto as a war rages over the invention of a chemical “cure” for mutants. Cyclops, Professor X and ultimately Jean herself are killed off to little emotional impact. But we do get a perfectly cast Kelsey Grammar as Beast, so count your blessings.
At least we’d had time to grow to love the characters in Last Stand. Telling essentially the same story as Last Stand, Dark Phoenix asks us to invest the same emotional energy into the recast Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Nightcrawler (Kodie Smit-McPhee) and more, even though they’d only been introduced into these roles in the previous film. Still, we do have Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender dutifully on board, although they’re not the emotional crux of the story. You know, the story we’ve already seen? Effectively the final film in the main X-Men franchise, leaving aside spin-offs like Deadpool and the Schrodinger’s Cat that is The New Mutants, Dark Phoenix feels like an exercise in box-ticking and the grudging fulfilment of contractual obligations – which it is.
Having earned no small amount of goodwill with his return to the series in Days of Future Past, Bryan Singer tossed it all away with this lazy, uninspired, ‘80s-set continuation that introduced mega-powerful archvillain Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) along with a youthified cast intended to carry the franchise forward for another generation (Narrator: They didn’t). Haphazard plotting, inconsistent characterisation (just look at what they put poor Magneto through) and a generic but nonsensical save-the-world climax add up to very little. We do get to see Hugh Jackman as Weapon X-era Wolverine, though, which scratches a certain itch.
What should have been a slam dunk was reduced to a weak and compromised muddle after creative clashes between Fox’s Thomas Rothman and director Gavin Hood, making his Hollywood debut here. This highly anticipated prequel traces Wolvie’s evolution from immortal mutant mercenary to black ops assassin to amnesiac wandering hero, alongside his more savage brother, Sabretooth (Live Schreiber). Laughable CGI effects and hokey action sequences left critics unimpressed, while longtime fans were alienated by some baffling liberties taken with the source material. How baffling? This is the movie that introduced Deadpool, the Merc with a Mouth, and then sewed his goddamn mouth shut. X-Men Origins: Wolverine was supposed to launch a whole line of “Origins” movies. Tellingly, it did not.