As part of our weeklong run-up to this Friday’s release of X-Men: Days of Future Past, we’re looking back at the nearly 15 years of mutant-mad X-Men films, in which the mutants did battle separately and together. But today, we pit Charles Xavier’s protégés against themselves by ranking, in reverse order, all the previous six X-Men films (including the two Wolverine ones). We don’t yet have the time-travel technology that can tell us where Days of Future Past will stand in the canon, but we’ll teleport back here Monday to put it in its place:
6. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
The most ambitious entry in the X-Men series is also the weakest. Director Brett Ratner’s foray into the franchise is laden with expensive, astonishingly inert action sequences and a host of unimpressive mutant cameos: Who can forget model Omahyra as Arclight or Ken Leung as Spike-Faced Guy? (Answer: Everyone.) While the film’s premise is a sound extension of the X-Men mythos — Xavier’s disciples and Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants face off over an inoculation against genetic mutation that threatens their kind — the plot is heavy with melodrama surrounding Jean Grey’s transformation into Phoenix. Throughout, the always-polarizing Ratner struggles with ways to convincingly depict Phoenix’s growing power, culminating in a tedious free-for-all battle on Alcatraz Island.
5. The Wolverine (2013)
The second Wolverine film was a stunning diversion from the series in both style and substance, delving into the clawed superhero’s past and introducing deeper conflicts and darker villains. The Wolverine also wisely relocates the character to an unfamiliar and exotic new locale (Tokyo), and sets the stage for a scene-stealing new ally, the mysterious Yukio (Rila Fukushima), culminating in a balletic fight sequence rooted in samurai swordsmanship. But Logan’s inner turmoil — prompted by a brush with mortality — feels like a mutant version of Superman II, and fails to match the impact of The Wolverine's alluring visuals.
4. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Origins comes close to being the great solo Wolverine story fans had been hoping for. The film traces Logan’s orneriness back to childhood, presenting some fine ass-whuppings along the way (the beat-down of Will.i.am — playing the teleporting John Wraith — will be particularly satisfying for anyone who’s been forced to listen to “I Gotta Feeling” for the last five years). But the film’s secret weapon is Liev Schreiber, who plays Logan’s half-brother Victor Creed, aka Sabretooth. Schreiber’s portrayal of the deliciously sinister yet sympathetic mutant is a welcome counterweight to Hugh Jackman’s by-now tiresome brooding and scowling.
3. X-Men (2000)
From Storm’s slippery “African” accent to Toad’s less-than-astonishing powers (a supertongue?), the first X-Men film was filled with clunky scenes that have not aged well. That said, it is also the film that turned Hugh Jackman into an international star, introduced the world to a host of flawed superhumans, and kicked off the very lucrative milieu that has come to be known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (The first Spider-Man movie would arrive two years later.) X-Men also thoroughly established the correlation between the plight of the mutants and real-world prejudice that makes the franchise so relatable (and thereby timeless). While the PG-friendly flirtations between Rogue and ice guy Bobby Drake were forgettable aim-for-all-four-quadrants filler, the air crackled whenever Wolverine and Jean Grey were in the room together. (Poor Cyclops!) It also helped that Wolverine and his backstory hadn’t yet been flogged silly by subsequent films.
2. X-Men: First Class (2011)
Since the franchise ostensibly revolves around the graduates of a school for gifted children, it only makes sense that X-Men would occasionally reorient with a younger cast. But few people could have anticipated the giddy kinetic energy created by casting then-rising star Michael Fassbender as the tortured, misguided Magneto. Fassbender internalized Magneto’s tragic backstory and radiated a barely suppressed, vindictive rage, nearly eclipsing fine performances from James McAvoy (as a young Xavier) and Jennifer Lawrence (as a lithesome Raven/Mystique). Granted, some of the minor characters were a bit flimsy — particularly the villains. But who needs proper bad guys when you have Fassbender’s iron-like resolve as he slowly “pushes” a coin deep into Kevin Bacon’s forehead?
1. X2: X-Men United (2003)
X2 is not only the best of the X-Men franchise thus far, but it is also among the greatest comic-book films ever made. Nightcrawler bamfs! into the White House. Stryker’s men invade Xavier’s school (only to run headlong into Wolverine’s claws). Magneto dispatches a guard in a particularly gruesome fashion and escapes a glass prison. Anchored by three or four amazing set pieces and populated by top-shelf, fan-favorite characters (finally) flexing true mutant muscle, X2 strikes an ideal balance between action and story. Sure, there was more Logan origin stuff to unearth, but at least he had to fight his way past the lovely Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu) to get to it. Though over a decade old, X2 still marks the spot.
Photo credits: © Everett Collection