Ranking the X-Men movies is a bit of an up-and-down journey for a superhero fan. Fox’s first foray represents, along with Blade/Blade II and Raimi’s Spider-Man a clear “It BEGINS!” moment in successful comic-book-to-movie alchemy. X2 kept the ball rolling—the opening scene of Nightcrawler breaching White House security remains one of the more thrilling examples of a “power primer” moment capturing how cool superpowers can be cinematically. And then X-Men: Final Stand happened, itself a powerful reminder how how tenuous a grasp studio execs and Hollywood creatives had on what makes a superhero film tick. (One through-line after all this time—a failure to recognize that larger multi-issue storylines may just require similar, multi-movie patience to develop on screen.) That sense the studio doesn’t really know what it’s got—beyond the immediate prospect of a monetarily succulent franchise to juice—is a reoccurring issue with the X-films. Sure, Fox got Deadpool right in 2016, but that really comes off as “Ryan Reynolds was finally able to will the correct version into existence,” especially when one considers how completely wrong the studio got the character in 2009’s woeful X-Men Origins: Wolverine. (Maybe that could be the shorthand we use in reference to that film—there’s X2, Logan and, you know, Woeful Wolverine.) Still, as this list shows, over the years there has been plenty to like and some things to love about this particularly tangled universe. Had it ended with Days of Future Past we might even be bemoaning “what could have been?!” had the property not sold to Disney. But nah. Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix likely gave cause for even the most monopoly-averse moviegoer looking at Marvel Studio’s repossession of the rights to shrug, “Yeah, probably for the best.”
The initial prequel/spin-off from the lucrative X-Men franchise is memorable for all the wrong reasons. It has plenty going for it—the most popular character from both movie and comics, played by Hugh Jackman in what was already considered a definitive portrayal, and the introduction of Wade Wilson—Deadpool!—played by Ryan Reynolds. What did it do with this potential? Ah, squandered like only Hollywood can squander. Jackman still delivers a solid performance, but in what has become a classic superhero film blunder, Reynolds’ proto-Deadpool has his power set completely, unnecessarily changed and, worst of all, his mouth sewn shut. The Wolverine and Logan made it official—X-Men Origins: Wolverine represents the nadir of the Wolverine solo films and the Jackman era as a whole. Now, bonus—it’s also clearly the worst of the Fox era X-Man films. —M.B.
If you had asked fans of the X-Men franchise what kind of movie they wanted in 2006, following the greatness of X2 they probably would have drafted one that looked quite a bit like The Last Stand. Which is to say: Fans can’t be trusted to create a film that will actually work and flow. The “Dark Phoenix” saga is one of the most iconic—the most important—X-Men stories ever, and in The Last Stand it just doesn’t quite come together like it was supposed to. The film often feels way overstuffed, with characters such as the Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones) simply shoehorned in as henchmen, when in the comics they’re often the subject of whole story arcs. Angel (Ben Foster), for instance, was heavily used in the promotion of the film, but has only a few minutes of largely inconsequential screen time. The Last Stand, though, does manage to pack some raw, often satisfying emotionality into the already-packed run-time, from the destruction of Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) physical form to the loss of Mystique’s (Rebecca Romijn) mutant powers and subsequent rejection by Magneto (Ian McKellan) and his mutant brotherhood. Ultimately, The Last Stand suffers from a surplus of ambition and ideas more than anything else. Perhaps in a parallel universe, it could have reached the same highs as the rest of the core X-Men film franchise. —Jim Vorel
The character of Apocalypse is no easy task to work into a film adaptation, and considering that X-Men: Apocalypse is really all about the villain, it stacked the deck against the feasibility of a truly great film from the start. He suffers from the issues of many ultra-powerful, omnipotent superhero film villains: He’s capable of seemingly anything, at any given moment, which robs him on some level of personality. Even the talents of Oscar Isaac struggled to fully flesh out the character in a way that could compare to say, Magneto (Michael Fassbender), whose lifetime of suffering is so much more relatable. Still, Apocalypse the film manages a more than ample entertainment factor, leaning on its now burly ensemble cast to carry each scene, even if the result feels somewhat inconsequential. There was all-too-much internet furor leading up to its release that the film would be “all about Mystique/Raven,” and that Jennifer Lawrence’s star had eclipsed the series, but any objective viewer would call those assertions unfounded. In reality, Mystique’s story is perhaps only the third or fourth most prominent, following those of Professor X (James McAvoy), Magneto and even the young versions of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan). It’s a fair question to ask how much more potential lies in the X-Men universe at this point before a studio burns the whole thing down and starts fresh, but Apocalypse at least provided an action-packed bridge between the era that began with First Class and eventually ends up at the first Bryan Singer films. —Jim Vorel
In Dark Phoenix, Simon Kinberg again attempts—having co-penned Ratner’s 2006 garbage fire with Zac Penn, which first cast Famke Janssen as the hero in crisis—to adapt the 1980 comic book saga by Chris Claremont and John Byrne into a single film with little to no emotional scaffolding assembled by previous entries. Though ultra-uncanny teen telepath Jean Gray (Sophie Turner, fifth-billed as the titular character) disintegrated Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) back in the ’80s, now in 1992, Jean’s powers are still largely unquantifiable, meaning that over the 10 years between films, Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) hasn’t made significant strides in helping his star pupil get her shit together. Granted, that’s a long process, anyone coming to terms with their metaphorical puberty, but for a franchise concerned with time travel and alternate timelines and merging the initial films with the post-First Classcast in a post-MCUcinematic world, Dark Phoenix fails spectacularly to grasp anything chronological. But then again Dark Phoenix was always destined to fail. Limiting the sprawling story to one main arc severely debilitates the original’s emotional resonance, but avoiding Apocalypse’s swollen plot and stakes-less character narratives means reigning in an essentially big saga and cutting all of its awe down to some rote CGI. To make this work in one movie is to deny the essence of the source text. Kinberg may have a knack, better than Singer’s even, for knowing how to transform an otherwise obligatory action scene into something that seriously connects to whatever scant emotional weight these characters are supposed to be shouldering. (Watching Nightcrawler [Kodi Smit-McPhee], especially, is a spectacle the film nails.) Michael Fassbender may be acting his beautiful face off. But there was no way Dark Phoenix could have been good, and it’s not (though it is better than Apocalypse and Last Stand). It’s X-actly what any of us should have X-pected. (See full review.) —Dom Sinacola
Deadpool 2 never stops leaping around and jumping for your attention, in a way that’s more winning and affable than it probably should be. A lot of this is Ryan Reynolds, but the expanded cast brings plenty to the table as well. Zazie Beetz of Atlanta is certainly the standout of the X-Force crew, as a mutant whose talent is “being lucky,” which doesn’t sound like a superpower but certainly feels like one when you see it in action. (It might actually be the best superpower.) Rob Delaney has a delightful small role as the least gifted but most relatable member of X-Force. And Brolin gives the film an added gravitas that it doesn’t necessarily need but certainly doesn’t hurt. But this is Reynolds’ show: He is grandmaster and main event of this circus, all by himself. Ultimately, Deadpool 2 is a film that works best when it’s entirely irreverent about its own irreverence, when it is constantly riffing on its increasingly large place in the comic book movie canon. (It even notes that it’s the reason Logan existed.) It’s tough to create a universe like that, and it’s that, not the love story or Deadpool’s journey, that sets these films apart. I don’t remember the last time I enjoyed a post-credits sequence. But I didn’t want Deadpool’s to end. It’s all disposable, but in this franchise’s case, that’s a happy feature, not a bug. (See full review.) —Will Leitch
Loosely based—very loosely—on an early story arc from Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s eponymous comic, The Wolverine has several advantages going for it: one of Marvel’s most popular and enduring mutants, the return of Hugh Jackman for a sixth time in a role he owns, and one of the richer story arcs tied to the character’s many decades of adventures from the page panels. (Plus, it couldn’t possibly be worse than X-Men Origins: Wolverine.) But as much as director James Mangold’s cinematic interpretation has going for it, it only seldom succeeds. Taken as a whole, The Wolverine is nearly as hit-and-miss as the rest of Mangold’s filmography: it ain’t Cop Land or his first-rate remake of 3:10 to Yuma, but nor is it Knight and Day or Kate & Leopold. However, given the enviable headstart this movie had at its greenlight, viewers may be disappointed they couldn’t do better than two steps forward, one step back. (See full review.) —Scott Wold
2002’s Spider-Man may have been the impetus of the current superhero blockbuster, but it was Bryan Singer’s X-Men that gave birth to the “modern superhero film” in 2000. In that sense, you might call it one of the most influential films on the list—or even the most influential. Keep in mind, this is only three years removed from the likes of Batman & Robin, when it would be safe to say the genre was at an all-time low in terms of mass appeal. X-Men helped bridge that gap, presenting a semi-serious take on the classic Marvel mutant team, anchored of course by the indispensable Patrick Stewart as Professor X, who lends much-needed gravitas. In terms of plot … well, that’s not the strongest facet of X-Men, as we see a fairly generic story about Magneto trying to mutate the entire world. What the film did well was bring together a colorful cast of characters upon which a budding franchise could lean, including Ian McKellen as Magneto, Halle Berry as Storm, Famke Janssen as Jean Grey and of course Hugh Jackman as breakout character Wolverine, whose popularity threatened to overshadow the entire series. Watching it in 2016, the result is rather cheesy (Storm and her “toad struck by lightning” line?), but X-Men is like a cinematic proof of concept: Big-budget, major studio superhero movies could become the new tentpoles. Meanwhile the sequel, X2, would go on to improve upon that foundation in almost every way. —Jim Vorel
Though all continuity’s out with the baby and bathwater by this time, when Matthew Vaughn, Bryan Singer and company decided to go back in time to show the founding of the X-Men, something equally indulgent happened. Placing the mutants in the era from which they originated, Vaughn got to play with the popular cinema touchstones of the time: First Class incorporates a distinctly 007 vibe. Apart from a horribly miscast January Jones as Emma Frost, and the handful of Marvel characters nobody but the diehardiest of Marvel diehards could possibly could give a crap about, it’s an excellent jumping off point for extending a franchise. X-Men: Days of Future Past agrees. (See full review.) —Scott Wold
What Logan is defies easy categorization. I struggle to even call it a “superhero movie,” or an “X-Men movie.” If it is one, then it’s quite easily the most uniquely disparate X-Men movie ever made, and it asks you to quickly cast away any expectations you might be harboring of how an X-Men movie might look, sound and feel. Yes, one might call it a “superhero movie” in the sense that it, you know, has superheroes in it, but it would be similar to describing Saving Private Ryan as “that movie where Tom Hanks plays an English teacher.” In short, this is quite the departure for Marvel’s first family of mutants; a film that occasionally feels aimed more squarely at the film critics sitting in preview screenings than the popcorn-munching multiplex crowd. Ultimately, Logan’s ambition is to present itself with a weight of gravitas that isn’t entirely earned, considering the history of the character. It will doubtlessly frustrate some of the Everyman cinema-goers who perceive its middle chapters as slow, or who criticize the 135-minute run-time, but I expect patient viewers will appreciate the way it allows its characters to breathe and wallow in moments of vulnerability. It’s not a film calculated to be a people-pleaser, but it is an appropriately intense end to a character defined by the tenacity and ferocity of a wolverine. (See full review.) —Jim Vorel
After Deadpool grossed nearly $800 million worldwide, you’d have to feel pretty stupid if you were one of the studio bigwigs who Ryan Reynolds fought tooth and nail to get the film made. Huge credit must go to Reynolds himself, who displayed superhuman resolve in continuously pushing for this film and for the chance to play the wisecracking Deadpool, who he sensed for years was a kindred spirit, but it still took a piece of leaked test footage going viral for Fox to greenlight it. Even after the abortive mess of the character’s pseudo-appearance in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Reynolds and co. knew that the character of Deadpool was exactly what the now-rote superhero film genre desperately needed—someone who could step back from the conventions of the genre to critique (and lewdly skewer) it all. Deadpool overdelivers on crass, raunchy humor, providing exactly what paying audiences wanted to see. Perhaps its most significant accomplishment, though, was proving that a B-tier superhero (in terms of audience recognition) could be hugely marketable, given the right script and casting. The success of Deadpool is a seed that will hopefully bear fruit as studios take a gamble on new comics properties detached from the MCU or DCU. (See full review.) —Jim Vorel
Bryan Singer’s ambitious blockbuster clears the deck of questionable dramatic (not to mention fan-enraging) choices made in the inferior efforts following X2: X-Men United. It also functions as compelling evidence that Singer’s DNA may just house a special mutant power of its own. And it’s needed—given the sheer volume of both character and plot, Days of Future Past could easily have proved an incomprehensible slog even for Marvel True Believers. Happily, much as with prior Singer-helmed X-Men films, the director seems to instinctively know exactly when to pull back on the exhilarating action set pieces, and push in on his absurdly over-qualified actors as they espouse the film’s central themes of second chances and choosing to tread the more difficult path of righteousness as opposed to self-righteousness.
At 131 minutes, Days of Future Past is filled to near bursting as its enormous cast scrambles through the vagaries of its time travel paradox-rich design, and Singer threads the needle with such apparent effortlessness in stitching it all together, the seams are practically invisible. It may not be as showy as telekinesis or plasma-laser eyes, but his is an uncanny gift nevertheless. (See full review.) —Scott Wold
One can count on one hand the number of superhero films potentially superior to Bryan Singer’s 2003 sequel to his 2000’s X-Men, and still end up with fingers left over. From its incomparably stunning opening sequence, demonstrating the full power of the best reasons for humans to fear mutants, to its ending grace note of bittersweet victory, X2 represented a full step forward to legitimizing comic books as a valid source of drama and excitement on the silver screen. The returning cast, including Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian Mckellen and—of course—Hugh Jackman’s iconic portrayal of Marvel favorite, Wolverine, are complemented beautifully by Alan Cumming’s haunted Catholic teleporter, Nightcrawler, and Brian Cox’s brilliantly villainous turn as the mutant-hating military scientist, Col. Stryker. Even with so many beloved characters to juggle, Singer never loses focus on which one works in any given scene to propel the thrills and emotional center of the story. It’s an awesome ensemble action movie. It’s a movie about a marginalized but powerful population of people struggling to take the high road in the face of bigotry. It’s both, and it rocks. —Scott Wold