Ranking the Films of the XCU

 

x-men table
Aggregate ratings for all nine X-Men films released in theaters to date. Data points in red indicate the lowest rating for a film on that rating scale. Data points in green indicate the highest rating for a film on that rating scale.  All ratings data was pulled on June 1, 2016.

X-Men: Apocalypse, the ninth installment of the 16-year old X-Men Cinematic Universe (XCU) recently bamfed into theaters. With its release, the XCU has reached a milestone about 20 film franchises have achieved, bested only in total number of entries by the likes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Trek, and James Bond franchises. Because the last thing Fox wants is to have the property rights revert back to Marvel, we know more X-films are on the way. With that kind of hefty history, now’s as good a time as any to do a quick retrospective on the franchise to date.

Here’s my personal ranking of the XCU films, from the worst to the best.


9. X-Men Origins: Wolverine

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According to the comics, Wolverine is “the best he is at what he does, and what he does isn’t very nice.” Ironically, Logan’s mantra suits X-Men Origins: Wolverine too. The image above should tell you everything you need to understand why this movie is dead last on this list. Seriously, whatever marketing synergist had the bright idea to hire will.i.am in an X-Men movie really needs to rethink his/her priorities. To be fair, he’s only in the movie for 5 minutes, at most, and his character isn’t given much to do in that time. He’s not even the worst actor in the movie. That honor goes to Taylor Kitsch’s Gambit BY A MILE. It’s just that will.i.am’s presence is so darn distracting… Apologies. I’m digressing.

If The Last Stand marks the moment where the franchise starts to go off the rails (public opinion, not mine), then Origins left the station without a conductor. Indefensible in almost every way, Origins at long last (he said with sarcasm) reveals how Jimmy James Howlett became metal man Logan. Hint: it involves a lot of screaming at the sky and Victor Creed going full “douche mode”. In case you need a reminder about all the reasons why this movie stinks worse than a newborn’s diaper in the Sahara, allow me to recap a few highlights: Logan and Fred Dukes (a.k.a. The Blob) box each other because Dukes mishears “bub” as “blob”, Gambit shows up because he and Wolvie were 70s contemporaries and they have a downright comical back alley fight scene (?), a young Scott Summers shows up with a half-powered Emma Frost for some reason, Silver Fox orders striker “to walk until your feet bleed, then keep walking” but I’m pretty sure they’re on an island (???), and in one of the ultimate acts of comic book sacrilege they sew Deadpool’s mouth shut. X-Men Origins: Wolverine ladies and gentlemen!

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Despite its flaws, I will never speak ill of Jackman. He never disappoints and is one of the few shining lights the film has to offer. That includes the rear nudity — the second time he’s been generous enough to provide it in an X-Men film. Aside from him, the only other redeeming qualities about Origins are as follows: 1) Liev Schriber makes a passable and mildly interesting Sabretooth (although Tyler Mane’s “man of few words” version had more intrigue if you ask me), 2) the opening credits provide an intriguing look into Logan and Victor’s travails throughout history, and 3) this film helped give the world the Deadpool movie it so rightfully deserved in 2016.

That’s. About. It.


8. The Wolverine

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Look… I feel bad placing The Wolverine this close to its lesser 2009 counterpart. I really do.  Just know that I see a HUGE gap between the #9 and #8 positions.

This film takes place after the events of X-Men: The Last Stand and comes very close to creating the full-blown Wolverine film I think most fans were hoping to see the first time. Loosely based on the 1982 limited series, this movie begins with Logan still mourning the loss of Jean Grey. Before long, he finds himself summoned to Japan in order to repay a life debt to an old wartime acquaintance. He strips of Logan of his healing factor and chaos ensues. We even get a halfway interesting Logan vs. 100 ninjas battle sequence.

So why does this movie rank so low for me? First, in the grand scheme of the franchise The Wolverine is practically a standalone film. Besides Jean’s death and the end credits scene, nothing in this movie really has anything to do with the rest of the franchise. That isn’t always a bad thing (see: Deadpool), but the X-Men films have made moviegoers accustomed to certain recurring themes and imagery. The Wolverine lacks a lot of that, and as a result, feels distant from every other event in the XCU. The other problem: Silver Samurai. The film’s main villain turns out to be nothing more than the evil robot equivalent of Thor’s final boss, The Destroyer.

Side note: This was easily the coolest end credits scene at the time (the promise of sentinels and a resurrected Xavier was too awesome to turn down). However, it does immediately provoke a lot of questions given how X-Men: The Last Stand ended, and I don’t always do well with logic holes.

Ultimately, I think I have a sore spot with The Wolverine because I know we came THIS close to getting Logan in his classic costume and the studio chickened out…


7. X-Men

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It pains me to rank the original X-Men so low on this list because it has a lot going for it. The simple truth is that the film simply hasn’t aged well in the 16 years since its release.

Certain aspects of the film still work well: Logan’s cage fighting debut, the spot on beginnings to the Scott/Jean/Logan love triangle, the depiction of Magneto’s tragic Holocaust backstory, and the chess game between Magneto and Xavier to name a few. In these moments, the film succeeds because it gets the essences and motivations of the core characters right.

The rest of the film, however, doesn’t work as well and here’s why: studio willies. 1998’s Blade may have been the first movie of the modern comic book era to bring Marvel characters to the big screen, but X-Men was the first true litmus test of the general audience’s interest in it. Not only did X-Men help kickstart the current wave of comic book films alongside Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, it also gave us a grounded, serious take on the X-Men characters, for better or for worse. Do you remember why we got such a grounded take on the XCU in the first place when such a strong portion of the fanbase at the time was arguably more familiar with the colorful Animated Series version of the characters? I do… Batman & fucking Robin. These days, folks have learned to appreciate Batman & Robin for its dutch-angle, pun-filled nonsense, but in 1997 the film was a bonafide franchise killer. It was so universally derided that the film forced future comic book adaptations to take the most realistic and gritty approach as possible in the hopes of being taken seriously by the public. X-Men was the first major comic book adaptation to hit theaters in three years and you better believe that Fox wasn’t going to test audience’s willingness to see yellow spandex on screen. What we got as a result was a leather clad take on the franchise where even the characters crack jokes about how silly bright costumes are. This approach continues to haunt the XCU. Until recently, it seemed like XCU was never going to take itself less seriously, but more on that later.

Moreover, the final conflict of the film is incredibly small scale compared to what audiences have come to expect from comic book films these days. In a way, X-Men’s final battle is almost quaint by comparison. It certainly doesn’t do any favors to fan favorites like Storm, Jean Grey, and Cyclops. Seriously, in what universe does Toad… TOAD…best Cyclops AND Storm on the same day?!?!

Thankfully, it’s 2016 now. A lot of comic book movies have come and gone since the original X-Men. We are lucky enough to get more faithful takes on comic book properties, right down to the tones and colorful imagery. If you’ve seen X-Men Apocalypse then you know the XCU is finally coming around to this idea.


6. X-Men: First Class

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Just when you were ready to give up on the X-Men (I know I was), here comes Matthew Vaughn with a stylish 60s take on the beloved mutant team. Like the name suggests, this time around we learn how the X-Men first came together. We even get Beast, Angel (not the one you’re thinking of), Darwin, Havok, Banshee, and Mystique. All your favorites! I kid of course. It’s not the classic team you know, but you roll with it because this franchise needed a big change up at the time. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender arrive as Xavier and Magneto respectively, and they’re fantastic. McAvoy is a particular favorite. He plays the telepath with such charismatic gusto that you almost forget about Patrick Stewart’s version…. ALMOST. I’m not crazy; Stewart was born to play Charles Xavier.

Overall, X-Men: First Class is an otherwise stellar outing for the XCU that suffers because of recent studio and filmmaker decisions. I loved this movie to death when it first came out. Not only did Vaughn re-infuse some semblance of style into the X-Men universe, he also helped audiences look forward to what was coming next. Could anyone say they really felt that way after Origins or The Last Stand (again, popular opinion, not mine). Then along came X-Men: Days of Future Past. If it weren’t for DOFP and the decision to make this new set of films part of the original continuity, First Class would probably rank higher. However, Fox unified the films via a Star Trek-esque alternate reality maneuver, and now the timeline makes ZERO sense. Not one lick of sense! I don’t have the energy to point out all the inconsistencies. That’s what makes this next ranking so frustrating.


5. X-Men: Days of Future Past

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I wanted to rank this lower for personal reasons. I really did. But the more I thought about it, any position outside the top 5 is nearly impossible to justify. X-Men: Days of Future Past deserves a high position in any list because it succeeds in so many areas where it could have failed. Case in point, this film:

  • Unites and repairs the disjointed timelines of the XCU (frankly, this annoys me the more I think about it but I appreciate the ambition behind the decision)
  • Tackles and adapts one of the most iconic storylines in X-Men history
  • Brings back the original director of the X-Men films, Bryan Singer
  • Pulls a “Heath Ledger” by making the Internet collectively eat their words the second Quicksilver shows up onscreen
  • Delivers a sprawling cast that combines the familiar faces of the XCU old guard with the new blood of First Class.
  • Gives us honest-to-goodness sentinels
  • Makes the brilliant move of hiring national treasure Peter Dinklage as the film’s primary villain and sentinel creator Bolivar Trask. Dinklage doesn’t get much to do with the role, but he’s serviceable enough and I’ll be damned if you expect me to berate that kind of casting progress on a multi-million dollar tentpole film.

I refuse to give this movie points for much else.


4. X-Men: The Last Stand


Here is where my pain points with the XCU start to decline.

I recognize this choice is controversial, but hear me out before you revoke my nerd card. At the time of its release, X-Men: The Last Stand was almost universally pegged as the death knell to the once flourishing XCU, that is, until X-Men Origins: Wolverine usurped that throne by proving to everyone just how low the films could sink when they didn’t give a damn. Critics disliked The Last Stand because they claimed it sacrificed character depth for silliness.  They aren’t wrong (see: Vinnie Jones’  leather daddy, viral video inspired take on classic villain Juggernaut or Ben Foster’s deus ex machina excuse for Angel if you want proof). Fans despised it because it “botched” the classic Dark Phoenix story and killed multiple fan favorite X-Men in the process, mine included. Plus, there’s the Brett Ratner factor. Me? I never saw what they were talking about. I even rewatched it again to test my initial feelings. I’ve changed my opinions on movies before; maybe it would happen again with The Last Stand

ambrose nope

I still enjoy this movie a great deal and there’s one simple reason why: it plays like a live-action version of the 90s X-Men cartoon. Kelsey Grammer is pitch-perfectly cast as Beast, right down to the character introduction that mirrors his first moments in the animated series. He’s also the best part of the movie. Don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise. We got to see Storm square off with Morlock leader Callisto (sans the cool eye patch, but I can make due). The scenes that take place at Jean’s childhood home echo those episodes from the Dark Phoenix Saga. We even got a goddamn fastball special!

Why should I be butthurt that the movie didn’t happen in space? Singer already screwed the pooch on that with his setup in X2. In fact, the only thing that really bugs me about the movie is the almost immediate the death of Cyclops. That character never got his fair due until X-Men: Apocalypse.

Speaking of Apocalypse, if you’ve been counting you might have problems where I rank that one too…


3. Deadpool

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Break out the chimichangas for the little movie that could!

I should just fill this section with movie quotes because that is all the proof required to justify Deadpool’s #3 ranking. For example:

Yeah, it’s me, Deadpool, and I got an offer that you can’t refuse. I’m gonna wait out here, okay? It’s a big house. It’s funny that I only ever see two of you. It’s almost like the studio couldn’t afford another X-Man.

Or perhaps this gem tickles your fancy.

You’re probably thinking, “My boyfriend said this was a superhero movie but that guy in the suit just turned that other guy into a fucking kabab!” Well, I may be super, but I’m no hero. And yeah, technically, this is a murder. But some of the best love stories start with a murder. And that’s exactly what this is, a love story. And to tell it right… I gotta take you back to long before I squeezed this ass into red spandex.

What about this?

[to Colossus] If I ever decide to become a crime-fighting shit swizzler, who rooms with a bunch of other little whiners at Neverland Mansion with some creepy, old, bald, Heaven’s Gate-looking motherfucker… on that day, I’ll send your shiny, happy ass a friend request!

And, of course, my personal favorite.

You big chrome cock-gobbler!

For the sake of argument, I’ll say a few words about Deadpool. Just like Mr. Stewart was born to play Professor Xavier, nobody could play Deadpool like Ryan Reynolds, a.k.a. God’s Favorite Idiot. Daario Nahris shows up as one of the most distracting villains to ever hit the silver screen. Deadpool explains why in the credits, so I will forgo that here. Daario goes by Ajax, but his real name is Francis. FRANCIS! It’s actually a major plot point in the film, and a delightful one at that. Did I mention Colossus is there too in all his CGI-looking, Russian accent speaking glory? Angel even makes an appearance (again, not the one you’re thinking of).

To think, none of this would have been possible without the brilliant minds at Fox who greenlit X-Men Origins: Wolverine. That’s the kind of long con us rubes were too stupid to see coming. It’s quite genius when you think about it:

  • Part 1: Ruin everything great about a cult character in order to make people clamor that much more for him.
  • Part 2: Approve a a standalone movie for the character.
  • Part 3: Stall it for years.
  • Part 4: Have your staff leak test footage of it on the Internet to get the project moving again.
  • Part 5: Launch a clever marketing campaign.
  • Part 6: Rake in all the money.

I guess that’s why you gotta trust those studio execs; they always know what they are doing.


2. X-Men: Apocalypse

Based on the critical reception (and even the fan reception) to X-Men: Apocalypse, I’m clearly out of sync with the majority of folks on this one. If you are the type of individual that agrees with the hive-mind, then Apocalypse is rife with problems: indecipherable ages, the franchises continued mishandling of fan favorites, crazy death tolls that lead to zero repercussions, Alex being Scott’s older brother when it should be the other way around, etc.

I hear you. I hear all of it! It’s just that… none of those things bugged me. They probably should, especially the bass-ackwards Cyclops/Havok thing, but it doesn’t. In fact, almost everything about X-Men: Apocalypse worked for me:

  • They FINALLY do justice to Cyclops
  • Sophie Turner as Jean is infinitely more interesting than Famke Janssen ever was
  • Oscar Issac does a fine job as Apocalypse
  • Olivia Munn plays Psylocke like a bad ass (quick side rant: I’ve read so many reviews complaining about this character’s performance/outfit/screentime that left me baffled. I can only presume the collective feeling is more likely one of disappointment in the character’s treatment (similar to how I felt re: the treatment of Cyclops in previous films) rather than one of dislike for Munn’s take on Psylocke overall becuase she’s not bad in the role.)
  • Alexandra Shipp goes for Storm’s accent, and doesn’t botch it ala Halle Berry
  • The filmmakers make the great choice to have the first two people Apocalypse recruits to his horsemen be strong female characters
  • Kodi Smit-McPhee captures all the grace and humor one should as Nightcrawler
  • The trope of the final villain battle may be overdone in the grand scheme of comic book films, but these sort of one-on-one battles have never been this well done in the XCU
  • Based on the final shot of the movie, we’re finally turning the corner where Fox embraces all the comic book elements of the X-Men, Jim Lee style costumes included
  • Wolverine gets a nice cameo in full Weapon X garb
  • Last but not least, the cast made this little video that warms my heart in more ways than you can imagine:

A moment ago, I said my critiques about the XCU were going to decline once we got to the top 4. By no means is Apocalypse a perfect film, but I do believe it is a better film than people give it credit for. Only three characters are wasted: Jubliee, Angel (this is the Angel you’re thinking of, but not the Ben Foster version; think more… 80s hair band), and Mystique.

Speaking of Mystique, we need to talk about Jennifer Lawrence for a second. I haven’t done a 180° turn on a character this hard since Tobey Maguire’s attempt at jazz dancing in Spider-Man 3. All the goodwill she built up in DOFP is absolutely squashed here. Thanks to the timeline altering shenanigans of DOFP we know these characters grow up to be their counterparts from the original films. I cannot fathom how this version of Raven Darkholme ever grows up to be Rebecca Romijn. She gives the kind of performance that makes you wonder if she was miscast from the word “go.”

Lawrence aside, the rest is good for me. If Singer relinquishes the director’s chair next time too, I think we will have our best chance an XCU film that comes close to matching the film in the #1 spot.


1. X2: X-Men United

 The gold standard of the XCU franchise and deservedly so. X2 is the rare film that takes everything good about the original and improves upon it in almost every way imaginable. The stakes are higher, the story choices feel organic to the events of the first film, the filmmakers flesh out the characters to a greater degree, we meet new and interesting mutants, AND Berry drops the ridiculous accent. What’s not to like?

X2 picks up a few months after the events at Liberty Island in the first film. In the time since the Brotherhood’s master plan was foiled by the X-Men, we learn of a new enemy who’s out to eradicate the world’s mutant population. His name is William Stryker (played brilliantly by Brian Cox), and he has a connection to a few of our characters. Not only has Stryker been secretly visiting Magneto in prison to gather intel on Cerebro and Xavier’s school, but he’s also the architect behind Logan’s adamantium skeleton. After Stryker tricks the President into approving a raid on the X-Mansion, he gathers the final resources he needs to bring his plan to fruition. With Stryker on the verge of victory, our heroes and villains must join forces to defeat the common threat of Stryker and his shadow organization.

X2 is also rich with great moments. It includes the often discussed allegorical “coming out scene” where Iceman/Bobby tells his parents that he is a mutant for the first time. Interesting enough, Marvel later revealed Iceman as a LGBTQ character in the pages of All New X-Men #40. We get nods to Jean’s forthcoming transformation into the Phoenix (a welcome subtle reveal if you contrast it with the way Singer overtly handles these developments in Apocalypse). And of course, there’s the yet untouchable opening White House security breach scene where audiences meet everyone’s favorite teleporter, Alan Cummings’ Nightcrawler, for the first time. It’s a wonderfully directed action scene that helps you understand Nightcrawler’s unique physicality as a character and the scope of his powers. The only other moment that comes close to matching it in the franchise’s history is Wolverine’s beserker rage moment during the mansion raid.

For the sake of discourse, I’d be remiss if I failed to point out X2’s key flaw: X2 is like the Superman 2 of the X-Men franchise. By that I mean Bryan Singer’s take on the X-Men has influenced every film in the XCU, almost to its own detriment. In a post-X2 world, ask yourself how many times Cerebro has played a focal point for the film’s plot? How many times have the films gone back to the well of William Stryker and Wolverine’s origins? Does every film need Magneto as an offset to Xavier? That’s the kind of crutch reliance only someone like Tiny Tim is used to and all of it can be traced back to X2’s success.

Despite that flaw, X2: X-Men United remains the standard bearer of XCU. Its greatness looms so large that the franchise has struggled to climb out of the film’s shadow ever since. My only hope is that Fox and company will eventually find a way to bring a unique perspective to the X-Men films rather than continue chasing the dragon that is X2.

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