Before there was the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its DC Comics counterpart, there was the sprawling, often unwieldy X-Men series. Ostensibly featuring characters and storylines that belong somewhere inside the MCU — there are some complicated rights issues that keep the mutants of the MCU firmly in the clutches of Fox — the X-Men universe remains its own outlier, one rich with long-time lore, hard-core fans, colorful characters and an appetite for social commentary. Even when they don’t work, these are some of the quirkier, and at times quite daring, superhero movies made by Hollywood in the new 21st century.
Initially set into motion as a superhero franchise back in 2000 with Bryan Singer’s “X-Men,” the series eventually expanded in all kinds of off-kilter ways, from spinoffs for favorite characters to a large-scale prequel franchise that basically recast its entire talent stable as their younger, hotter versions of themselves. While the series cycled through a handful of other directors, it’s now firmly back in Singer’s hands, with the series’ originator picking up directorial duties on both this week’s latest entry, “X-Men: Apocalypse,” and its predecessor, “X-Men: Days of Future Past.”
The X-Men series, like the characters its contains, is unique and a little bit weird, complete with its own big wins and major stumbles. So what’s the best version of a series still trying to find its signature? And when does it fail? From worst to best, we rank the films of the superhero world’s most distinctive franchise.
“X-Men: The Last Stand”
Let’s start with that misleading title. “The Last Stand” was far from the final showdown between a whole bunch of mutants so much as it was a simplification of their appeal. From the ridiculous decision to kill off Professor X to director Brett Ratner’s willingness to indulge in distracting meta-references that showed a blatant disregard for the material (“I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!”), this third entry in a trilogy that was off to a powerful start with Bryan Singer quickly lost all of its appeal and became something closer to fan fiction. Terrible, on-the-nose fan fiction. Every movie since then has been cleaning up the mess. —Eric Kohn
“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”
The first spinoff of the “X-Men” franchise (and somehow not the last), “Origins” is best remembered for being the first major Hollywood movie that was leaked well in advance of its release date — shame on anyone who illegally downloaded this thing, but the real crime was releasing it into theaters and asking unsuspecting audiences to pay for the experience. Wasting all of its creative energy on the phenomenal opening title sequence that zips through all of the famous battles that the seemingly immortal Wolverine (née, James Howlett) and Victor Creed (Liev Schreiber) were able to survive, the rest of the film is devoid of the personality and purpose that made “X-Men” and “X2” so exciting. Densely packed with some of the worst villains in recent movie history (one of whom is played by will.i.am, one of the worst villains in recent music history) and highlighted by that famously terrible shot of Hugh Jackman flinging himself at a helicopter, “Origins” adds nothing at all constructive to the Wolverine mythos. —David Ehrlich
You can almost hear the pitch now: “But what if we just ignored that other Wolverine film and gave this standalone thing another scratch?” Although the so-called Weapon X got his own spinoff/prequel (spin-quel?) in the form of Gavin Hood’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” the film didn’t really hit with audiences, and even Jackman himself has confessed to not being too pleased with the final product. James Mangold’s 2013 followup didn’t try to reinvent the wheel — or pile yet another origin story on its audience — but it did move the action to a brand new location (yes, the X-Mansion is great, but damn if this franchise didn’t need a break from setting so much of its action inside its hallowed walls) and it introduced a series of brand new characters, allowing ol’ Logan to look and feel fresh in the face of one of his life’s most upsetting instances. If you’re going to make a standalone feature, “The Wolverine” illustrates the best way to do just that. Entertaining on its own, exciting when considered as part of a whole, a compelling look at a character we already know so well. Plus, bone claws! —Kate Erbland
Unquestionably the strangest entry in the X-Men cinematic canon, this spin-off is also the most outrageous superhero movie of the modern era, a cynical farce that sends up some of the most absurd clichés of the genre while indulging them at the same time. Ryan Reynolds has never been better as the vulgar and violent anti-hero whose loud-mouthed proclamations (and spot-on Hugh Jackman impersonations) never cease to amuse. But is that what we want from an X-Men movie? No matter how much fun it offers up, “Deadpool” is probably the most disposable entry in this series. —EK
Although the newest entry into the seemingly boundless franchise isn’t apocalyptic in its execution, it’s easily the weakest link in the latest time-spanning trilogy. Muddled up by repetitive storylines (how many times are we going to be forced to watch Magneto and Professor X bandy back and forth about the nature of good and evil and how they fit inside that dichotomy and what that means for their fraught friendship?), the very talented Oscar Isaac buried underneath scads of bad makeup and worse CGI, wonky timeline trickery and a pack of less-than-frightening baddies, the film is a disappointing last gasp into a mostly very entertaining mini-series. There are, of course, some high points, like the return of Evan Peters’ zippy Quicksilver, the introduction of a mess of mutant youngsters and battles that actually dare to tug at the heartstrings while delivering knockout punches. On its own, “Apocalypse” is a fine enough superhero film, balanced into mediocrity by moderate highs and just-eh lows, but put up against the rest of the franchise and its own outlier trilogy, it’s a unsatisfying offering that should have sent things out with a world-ending (or -rebuilding?) bang. —KE
“X-Men: Days of Future Past”
Perhaps it was inevitable that a trilogy that so happily romps through the past would end up with a major time travel subplot. Bolstered by an original series cast still game to pop up in films and a well-recieved comic book storyline that provided a narrative guide, “Days of Future Past” was a worthy (if not entirely better) followup to “First Class.” Able to balance both the could-be-goofy inclusion of both younger and older versions of the same characters with a storyline that has genuine repercussions for both the past and future, the film smartly moves plot and action forward and manages to be entertaining as hell in the promise. Fold in the introduction of a truly nefarious baddie (Peter Dinklage as Dr. Bolivar Trask) and an all-timer of a newbie in the form of Evan Peters’ Quicksilver, and the recipe is a winner. Although the film builds up to the final entry in this particular franchise (pay attention to just about everything Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique does if you want to stay on track for “Apocalypse”) and builds important bridges between it and “First Class,” it still stands on its own, one of the very best of the franchise as a whole. —KE
“X-Men: First Class”
Matthew Vaughn’s entry in the mutant universe is a whole lot better than its “X-Men Jr.” premise might suggest. Setting the action against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis provides an excuse to rejuvenate the franchise with a sixties-era espionage vibe, while the young faces cast in familiar roles — most significantly James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Professor Xavier and Magneto, respectively — effectively deepen the identities of both existing characters, setting the stage for the even more ambitious (if slightly noisier) merging of timelines in “Days of Future Past.” As with the third entry in George Lucas’ “Star Wars” prequels, “First Class” examines the birth of a good-and-evil schism by deepening its roots; unlike those prequels, it doesn’t waste a lot of time on expositional build-up or cheesy melodrama. In the pantheon of movies that must build up to a climatic battle featuring every single member of the ensemble, “First Class” ranks well by keeping the stakes up even though we know where they’re heading. —EK
More than 16 years after Marvel Comics’ Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas first tapped out a draft for an “X-Men” screenplay (and four years after Bryan Singer signed on to direct it), the world’s most famous mutants finally made their way to the big screen. Small and simple compared to the rash of spandex soap operas that were made possible by its success, “X-Men” laid a killer foundation that’s still paying off today (especially if you’re 20th Century Fox). By current standards, this film doesn’t resemble a superhero movie so much as it does a character-driven drama with some dorky costumes, a naked woman in blue body paint, and a few punctuations of highly evolved action. But this initial scrape between Magneto’s henchmen and Professor Xavier’s gifted youngsters somehow managed to be fun, set the tone for an entire genre, and use the witch hunt at the center of its plot to anticipate the jingoism that exploded across the United States in the the aftermath of 9/11. —DE
From the very first scene, in which Nightcrawler (an ingeniously cast Alan Cumming) poofs into the Oval Office, 2003’s “X2: X-Men United” made it clear that the training wheels had come off. Working with a considerably larger budget than he was afforded the first time around, Bryan Singer returned to the world of mutants with the confidence of someone who knew his way around the joint, and he used this thrillingly well-measured sequel to let the beef between Magneto and Professor Xavier evolve into an all-out war. But while the film contains several of the most fluidly directed action sequences in the history of the genre (the assault on Xavier’s school still stands with the best of them), “X2” remains the high franchise’s high watermark because of how it got all the quiet character moments just right. In a series that’s broadly canvassed with resonant metaphors, nothing in these movies cuts with the heartache of Rogue’s literally touch-and-go relationship with Bobby Drake. The film even made time to tease the franchise’s famous “Phoenix Saga,” and — best of all — introduced the most powerful of all the mutants: the kid who can change television channels just by blinking. —DE