Leave it to Deadpool to give X-Men movie characters a last chance to live. We’re all pretty stoked for the MCU’s first true foray into the Fox-era characters with Deadpool 3. We already know Hugh Jackman will play Wolverine one more time in it (in comics-accurate costumes, no less), and that Jennifer Garner’s Elektra will hop over too. That’s fun! But all this X-nostalgia has made me think once again about the supremely flawed and uneven franchise as it was between 2000 and 2020. Over the course of 13 movies, the series ran the gamut between sublime and stinky. So I’m going to rank them, because I want to!
13. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
The first solo adventure for Hugh Jackman’s Logan came in 2009, and it sure wasn’t good. And look, I know it was fashionable to crap on this movie for its weird pacing, terrible CGI, poor attempts at humor, and nerfing Deadpool, but it’s also accurate. Not a good movie. The one thing it did was prove Hugh Jackman could carry a movie, a thing we already knew by this point. Oh, and don’t get me started on how this movie alone messed up the continuity. Best to just forget this one.
12. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Following the departure of the franchise’s first super problematic director, they hired another super problematic director to helm the third movie. To say it’s messy is an understatement. They tried to put “The Cure” arc alongside “Dark Phoenix Saga,” and those two stories did not gel at all together. You get a lot of characters standing in a line opposite other characters standing in a line. It killed off Cyclops (sidebar: of all the characters done dirty by this franchise, Cyclops is perhaps the most egregious), completely wasted Angel, and nerfed Mystique. It also is unforgivable that it made the “I’m the Juggernaut, b****!” canon in a movie. So terrible.
11. Dark Phoenix (2019)
The second attempt at adapting the most famous X-Men comics arc is just as disappointing as the first. It’s less messy and more boring, but it still completely bypassed all the build up of what made the Phoenix Force interesting, and what makes the ending so tragic. Also, at this point, the timeline breaking down just makes no sense. Let’s hope they never do the Dark Phoenix Saga ever again. (I know they will.)
10. X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
Mercifully, the final X film from a very problematic director indeed. Despite very good films previous, this one—a third in the First Class timeline, more or less—just threw everything at the wall and hoped it stuck. It’s another enormous, messy hodgepodge of different X-characters and storylines. Oscar Isaac does his very best as the titular ancient mutant, and the new batch of Xavier students are okay, but it just turns into gloop. Another waste of Angel/Archangel; a major waste of Storm. And they had to turn Mystique into a main hero thanks to Jennifer Lawrence’s star power. Not even another frenetic Quicksilver sequence can save it.
9. The New Mutants (2020)
Okay, so here’s where I lose some of you. I didn’t see The New Mutants when they dumped it during the pandemic. Pandemic and all. In fact, I didn’t end up watching it until a month or so ago. And you know what? Yes, it’s hacked to all hell. Yes, the third act poops the woods (Demon Bear joke). But I thought it was pretty fun! Creepy vibe, decent characterization, plus it was just nice to see an X-Men movie that didn’t even try to reference Wolverine. Should have gotten more love, and it’s a shame the planned appearance of Jon Hamm as Mr. Sinister never happened.
8. Deadpool 2 (2018)
I’m gonna be real honest here: I was over Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool schtick pretty soon after the first movie came out. So while I was excited to see the sequel, I was wary of how annoying I found the character. The upsides were that the movie brought in a ton more X characters, and it was a joy to see Josh Brolin as Cable and Zazie Beetz as Domino. I could for sure use more of them in future installments. The downside? I’ve never been a big Deadpool guy and, like the character, the movie seems to think its way funnier than it is. But the X-Force skydiving joke is pretty amazing.
7. X-Men (2000)
Here is an example of a movie that is so much more important than it is still good. It definitely set the stage for the modern superhero movie era and finally gave us some live-action mutants. (Sidebar: yes, I remember the 1996 Generation X TV movie. That doesn’t count.) And the casting is, by and large, really great, with Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, and Hugh Jackman all standing out. But for all the good of the first X-Men, there’s always a sense that it’s half-apologizing for comic books being silly. In 2023, it’s just not as revolutionary as it once was.
6. The Wolverine (2013)
After X-Men Origins, I thought there was no way a solo Wolverine movie was going to be good. And then we get director James Mangold. A lot of this movie covers ground in the fan-favorite Frank Miller/Chris Claremont run of Wolverine in the ’80s, with his dealings with the Yakuza in Japan and various romances. I think it almost totally works. The ending is bad, I won’t argue it isn’t, but I think The Wolverine is still upper half of the movies. Jackman rules.
5. Deadpool (2016)
Remember everything I said about the character of Deadpool earlier? That’s still true, but even with that, I cannot deny how good, how funny, how effective, and how fresh the first Deadpool movie felt. After years of development, Ryan Reynolds’ passion project got the go-ahead and made just a ton of money with its heavy violence and foul-mouthed frat humor. This is arguably the best page-to-screen adaptation of any comic book character. And its success is 100% the reason he’s not getting rebooted (really) for the MCU. I won’t hold this movie accountable for the Deadpool-ifying of other superhero movies, though I could.
4. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
The second most famous Uncanny X-Men comics arc (which was only two issues) ended up as one of the very best superhero movies of the era. I love the way this movie utilizes both timelines’ casts and sends the sole superstar character of Wolverine back in time to foil a future where sentinels take over the world. The Quicksilver “Time in a Bottle” sequence is still super great, and the finale where Magneto drops a stadium around Richard Nixon is wild and enormous, but manages to work because the characters are believable. Best use of Mystique in any movie. In my head cannon, this is the end of the franchise (Deadpool and Logan notwithstanding).
3. X2: X-Men United (2003)
I think it’s arguable this and Spider-Man 2 are the reasons superhero movies kept going. They’re not just successful, they’re really good. X2 took what worked about the first movie and focused on it and heightened it. Alan Cumming as Nightcrawler is excellent, Brian Cox as Stryker is really good, and we got maybe McKellen’s best Magneto performance. Wolverine gets center stage here for real and they let him do what he does best (and what he does best isn’t very nice). Just a great example of what the X-Men on screen could be.
2. X-Men: First Class (2011)
Matthew Vaughn’s lone foray into the X-universe really was a fresh start. Not only did it get a whole new cast to portray some of the characters who’ve been around a while, but setting it in the early 1960s, contemporary to when the comics first came out, brought in a new style, a new energy, to the mutants. Young, swaggery Charles Xavier as played by James McAvoy was a great choice to offset Stewart’s austere portrayal. Michael Fassbender’s Magneto was damn cool; could have watched a whole movie of Erik Lensherr, Nazi hunter. Above all, it proved the franchise, which had already gotten a bit stale and silly, could reinvent itself, which proved to be just what it needed to continue for another decade.
1. Logan (2017)
Look, it was never going to be anything else at number one. Logan isn’t just a great X-Men movie. It isn’t just a great comic book movie. It’s a great movie, full stop. What was originally going to be the swansong for both Jackman and Stewart ended up a somber, elegiac reflection on regret and hope as Logan has to tend to a sickly Charles Xavier and try to save young, angry Laura Kinney (Dafne Keen). The action is as brutal as you’d hope with a Wolverine movie, and the story flows to a wonderful, sad conclusion. It’s the superhero movie as western, writ large. Took three goes, but Jackman really did make the best of this franchise.