The X-Men came into existence thanks to another gaggle of superheroes. “Fantastic Four had sold so well,” co-creator Stan Lee once recalled. “And we figured, my publisher and I, figured why not do another group? My problem was, what powers would I give them? … Then, once I figured out what powers they’d have, I had to figure, how did they get their powers? And they were all separate people that weren’t connected to each other, so I knew that would be a helluva job. And I took the cowardly way out, and I figured, hey, the easiest thing in the world: They were born that way. They were mutants.”
Making their comics debut in 1963, those mutants wouldn’t hit the big screen until 2000, when Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer teamed up with screenwriter David Hayter to bring the story of Professor X, Magneto, Jean Grey, and Wolverine to moviegoers. Since then, the X-Men have had sequels, prequels, and spin-offs, but what has remained constant is audiences’ fascination with these characters’ otherness. Lee’s “cowardly” decision to make them mutants has, in fact, been the secret to their enduring appeal. No matter the era, the X-Men resonate with viewers who feel like outsiders, connecting with fans either because of their nerdy love of comic books, their sexual orientation, their racial heritage, or another marker of social “otherness.” Superheroes are often thought of as invincible, but the X-Men, despite their fabulous powers, always come across as underdogs: misunderstood, outnumbered, fighting to be accepted for who they are. It’s so much easier to relate to them than to Tony Stark.
Unfortunately, Hollywood hasn’t always done right by the X-Men. Even the franchise’s best movies failed to capture the zeitgeist the way the later Marvel Cinematic Universe movies did, and as magnetic of a presence as Hugh Jackman was, those standalone Wolverine movies can be pretty rough. (One of the chief reasons Ryan Reynolds’s Deadpool films are so good is that they take aim at the many X-Men cinematic lowlights.) With Dark Phoenix about to hit theaters amidst months of bad buzz, we wanted to spend a moment celebrating the series’ peaks — and lamenting the false steps and terrible creative decisions that stalled the mutants’ momentum. Here’s every X-Men movie, ranked from worst to best.
12. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Most well-known now for how terrible its version of Ryan Reynolds’s Deadpool is, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is pretty terrible in plenty of other ways, too. The attempt to tell the origin story of Wolverine doesn’t provide any insight into the character — if anything, it trivializes his backstory; by filling in the gaps, it takes away much of his mystery — and it strains under the pressure of trying to tie into a larger X-Men universe. (By the way, this is not a problem unique to this film, but one it in particular struggles with.) The movie was a fiasco for Fox as well, thanks to an early print of the film leaking to the internet, and the poor response led the studio to reboot not just Wolverine but the whole franchise, ending a planned “Origins” series and shifting to the “First Class” idea.
11. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Yes, Virginia: At one point, they let Brett Ratner direct an X-Men movie. (Considering the actions of both Ratner and X-Men founding director Bryan Singer, this franchise hasn’t had the best luck courting model citizens to helm its films.) This was Ratner serving as studio hack after both Singer and Matthew Vaughn left the project, and the film suffers greatly from Ratner’s total inability to add in any sort of relevant subtext. The movie, perhaps not surprisingly, is irritatingly cheesecake when it comes to the female characters, which fits with Ratner’s M.O. But the movie may end up being known mostly for the way Ratner treated Ellen Page on set; the actress wrote that he told a woman that she needed to “fuck [Page] to make her realize she’s gay.” The movie is as meat-headed as you’d expect, and in many ways doesn’t feel like an X-Men movie at all.
10. Dark Phoenix (2019)
Famously plagued by bad test screenings and reshoots, the “final” X-men movie with this cast is less a historic disaster than it is a droning, repetitive bore, hitting the same beats we’ve seen over and over, in a perfunctory fashion that feels obligatory and exhausted. (At one point, Michael Fassbender’s Magneto, right when James McAvoy’s Professor Xavier is about to launch into another speech about Who We Are and What They Think Of Us, essentially rolls his eyes to the camera.) Jessica Chastain’s villain has no discernible personality or motivation, the movie seems to be missing whole chunks of exposition, and most of the actors have the emotional investment of people who would much rather be doing something else with their time. At one point, a major character dies, and the response is not to be sad, but to instead be happy for the actor for finally finishing off that onerous contract. You’ll have the same sense: Gratefulness that it’s at last over.
9. The Wolverine (2013)
Trying to get the Wolverine character back on track after the Origins fiasco, this was originally going to be directed by Darren Aronofsky, and boy wouldn’t that have been something? James Mangold took over and made a film that transports Wolverine to Japan, giving the story a different setting and a different feel but not quite enough of a makeover to be the revamp the studio hoped it was getting. Jackman is as sturdy as always, and the movie benefits from finally making him less than immortal, but The Wolverine still feels more like a corporate exercise than a creative one.
8. X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
Forever remembered as the blockbuster that took the hottest, most charismatic actor on the planet in Oscar Isaac and buried him under CGI and blue makeup, Apocalypse isn’t without its charms; this remains an incredible cast, albeit one that may be more a credit to long-term contracts than to dedication on the part of the assembled. (Jennifer Lawrence, also often blue, looks very over these movies.) Most of the best stuff feels repeated from the far superior X-Men: Days of Future Past, and the movie can never quite recover from the silliness of its villain, who feels more and more, as the years pass, like Lame Thanos. LEARNING:
7. Deadpool 2 (2018)
Once you’ve become a sensation by thumbing your nose at the big boys, how do you not get co-opted for the follow-up? That’s the dilemma hovering over Deadpool 2: The scruffy original film proudly lampooned Marvel and the X-Men, but the sequel had to accept that it was a high-profile piece of studio project like all those other big-budget superhero movies. Deadpool 2 mostly gets around the problem by being funnier and more graphic than Part One. Also, the sequel sports a killer supporting cast. Josh Brolin is a very good bad guy — and very different than he is as Thanos — but Deadpool 2’s secret weapon is Zazie Beetz. She plays Domino, who brazenly claims that her superpower is being lucky. That’s not a superpower, is it? Beetz’s sleek, sly performance will convince you it very much is.
6. Logan (2017)
Generally considered one of the very best X-Men movies — a film that honored Wolverine’s iconic standing by placing him in a serious, R-rated setting with the grandeur and scope of a Western — Logan allowed Hugh Jackman the chance to give a proper send-off to the character who helped make him a star. And with all that said … we will confess that we find this dour, self-important drama a little too pleased with its own gravitas. That’s to take nothing away from Jackman, who’s terrific as the aging, mournful superhero who has one last big mission in him before riding off into the sunset. With Patrick Stewart as an equally fading Charles Xavier, Logan is a film consumed by mortality and, therefore, obsessed with sticking the landing. This is easily the best of the standalone Wolverine movies, but it also equates glumness with profundity. Still, give Logan credit for ambition and vision — something the movies ranked lower on this list so clearly lack.
5. X-Men: First Class (2011)
A reboot that goes back in time, First Class gives comic-book fans the origin story for their favorite X-Men characters, long before Charles (James McAvoy) and Erik (Michael Fassbender) became mortal enemies. Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn tamped down his more outrageous action tendencies to deliver a period thriller that’s as much a character piece as it is a traditional superhero movie. Naturally, it’s hard to watch First Class and not compare and contrast these iterations of the X-Men to the ones we met about a decade prior, but the new ensemble largely holds its own, with McAvoy channeling Stewart’s brainy calm and Fassbender exuding Ian McKellen-like superiority. It’s reasonable to complain that First Class merely sets the table for bigger installments to come, but there’s also a fair amount of pathos here as this group of mutants finds themselves divided into two factions, determined to destroy each other while humans conspire to wipe them all out.
4. Deadpool (2016)
Ryan Reynolds’s umpteenth stab at upper-tier superstardom neatly coincided with a necessary superhero course-correction: By 2016, the blandly virtuous, cookie-cutter aesthetic of comic-book movies had become wearying. None of us realized, however, that a foul-mouthed dude in a full-body suit was who we’d been waiting for. Deadpool wasn’t the first R-rated superhero film, nor was it the first to mock the genre’s conventions and clichés. But it was certainly the most fun — and the most insanely, wonderfully violent. As the salty Wade Wilson — who, shhh, is actually a softie at heart — Reynolds got to apply his smart-ass persona to an indelible character while showing off his sensitive side, which would sometimes pop up in underrated indies like Mississippi Grind. Deadpool came out when the X-Men franchise was creatively circling the drain, so this spin-off (along with the following year’s Logan) felt like a welcome kiss-off to everything that had come before. Truth is, Deadpool really is too cool to hang out with those mutant nerds.
3. X-Men (2000)
Forget 2002’s Spider-Man, 2005’s Batman Begins, or 2008’s Iron Man: This film is probably the true starting point for our current superhero-movie mania. Released a mere three years after Batman & Robin, which served as the death knell for a certain type of comic-book flick, X-Men gave us a collection of powerful, noble, sometimes insecure mutants waging war against their evil cohorts. Everything that’s great about these Marvel characters was evident in the very first installment: Professor X’s unfussy heroism, Magneto’s snide villainy, Wolverine’s charisma, and the notion that the X-Men represented society’s marginalized and imperiled communities. Funny and rousing, X-Men is refreshingly free of the expectations that have visited just about every superhero movie since — it’s able to be its own thing, blissfully unaware of the Hollywood comic-book gold rush it was about to help usher in.
2. X2: X-Men United (2003)
In the proud tradition of Superman II and The Dark Knight, X-Men United tops the original, deepening the first film’s themes and broadening its scope. This time around, a mysterious government official (Brian Cox) is targeting Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, forcing our gallant mutants to forge a tentative truce with Magneto and his legions. If X-Men created a template for the modern superhero movie, X2 more accurately feels like what we’ve become accustomed to over the last decade: This is a brawny, action-packed spectacular with big set pieces and also big ideas about the very nature of heroes. Plus, it amps up the series’ romantic triangle between Wolverine, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), and Cyclops (James Marsden), which would become the film’s emotional linchpin. By Avengers: Endgame standards, X2 might seem downright small-scale, but this film was an epic when it came out.
1. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
What was initially conceived as a clever way to reboot the series with younger actors while still honoring the original run — have Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen travel back in time to meet their younger selves, played by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender — ends up becoming a terrific standalone story that’s thrilling, funny, and even charming. We not only get to see what made these characters who they are, we get to see how they affected world history; this is definitely the only X-Men movie with a scene at the Paris Peace Accords. Singer, in his return to the franchise, skillfully balances scenes in both the past and the future, and the movie somehow finds new twists on time travel, which we would have thought impossible. (Pumping up Jennifer Lawrence’s role helps a lot, too.) This is a series that is sometimes silly and sometimes reaching for gravitas beyond its reach, but here it hit the sweet spot: muscular enough to matter, but light enough on its feet to keep moving.