When the turn of the century happened, and a new millennium began, the world of superhero movies weren’t looking too great. Hot off the back of Batman & Robin, and the last couple of Superman movies still stuck in peoples brains, audiences needed something fresh. The X-Men had been beloved characters in Marvel comics for some time and dominated the ’90s commercially when it came to the comics. Fox had the rights to the characters, and due to the popularity, the timing, and a little luck, the first X-Men movie was released in the year 2000 to critical acclaim. Since then the quality of these movies have waxed and waned; but generally speaking, the good ones are very well remembered and regarded as some of the greatest comic book movies to date. For nearly 20 years, these movies have become, together, the longest running superhero franchise (no matter how convoluted). With Dark Phoenix being released this year, and New Mutants coming out at some point, this marks the end of an era.
To many people these are beloved movies, and there is a lot of good in them. They were the benchmark for many of the early superhero movies at the time, and largely led to how the MCU turned out (with Kevin Feige coming straight out working on the X-Men films to help with Iron Man and subsequent films). These movies, though flawed at times, did so much for comic book movies in the early formative years of the genre. To commemorate these, lets take a look at what they did that was great, and what filmmakers could do differently as the X-Men are folded into a new continuity of film.
When this movie was released in the year 2000, it was received fairly positively by critics. It was a comic accurate story with an amazing cast, Bryan Singer directing, and a well written plot and script. It did an amazing job of telling the story of these mutants living in what was ostensibly the real world at the time. And the black leather suits, though kind of dumb, worked for audiences who just came out of the technicolor nightmare of Schumacher era Batman. Hopefully though, whenever the X-Men make their way into the MCU we’ll have not only a comic accurate story, but a comic accurate cast and costume design. All in all, the lesson to be learned in this movie is clear:
Stick to the comics!
X2: X-Men United
Bryan Singer returns for X2, which did what any good sequel should do; It built upon the previous movie, but spread it’s wings to become a new and fresh film that audiences and critics enjoyed. In this movie, the plot thickens, the world becomes a little more comic book-y, and we delve more into the psyche of Wolverine (being the most popular character, played by Hugh Jackman). There is some solid action, great tension, and more commentary regarding the growing “public menace” that is mutants. By the end of the movie everything looked like it was in gear for another solid sequel to finish off the trilogy. What X2 excels in is how it adds layers of complexity to it’s existing characters, while introducing newer characters in a tight narrative. An astonishing sequel.
Use “If:Then” Storytelling
X-Men: The Last Stand
This one is where things took a bit of a dive, starting the ebb and flow that is the X-Men franchise. Bryan Singer went off to do Superman Returns and, after a bit of a shuffle, the studio ended up with Brett Ratner. X-Men: The Last Stand did not do well critically, yet it did great commercially (as the end of any acclaimed trilogy would). There is a lot to unpack in this movie. With a multitude of classic X-Men stories to draw from, they decided to just do them all. We see the Mutant Cure, a war between the X-Men and the Brotherhood of evil, the origins of Angel, introduction of Beast (well cast), and the “Dark Phoenix” saga. These are all major events in the X-Men mythos, and by doing them all here, you make it difficult for new stories down the line to be told; which is why we got basically the same story in Dark Phoenix again. There are great moments in this movie, but it’s bogged down by the needlessly packed plot. This was a common trope of superhero movies for a bit: lets have 2-5 villains, and pack in all the sad events of a characters life in a few movies (see: Sam Raimi Spider-Man films). Whichever way you look at The Last Stand, the lesson to be learned here is pretty simple:
Remember the K.I.S.S. Model (Keep It Simple, Stupid)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Many would argue that this is the dumbest and worst addition to the franchise. It’s not great. Hugh Jackman returns and plays Wolverine as good as you’d expect. The idea with this movie was that we’d get X-Men Origins: Wolverine, then later down the line we’d get an X-Men Origins: Magneto, and so on. But that never happened. In this movie we get a lot more characters shoehorned into the movie and a lot of them are done a disservice to (Deadpool being the most egregious of these). The plot isn’t super interesting, and it treads a lot of the same ground that X2 did. It’s isn’t written particularly well, and the dialogue is laughable. The opening montage is pretty great, and it’s not NOT fun to watch. But overall, it’s mostly not good. Perhaps the moral of this story is to focus on characters thoughts, motivations, and relationships more.
Give Your Characters Depth
X-Men: First Class
Finally, some flair to the costumes! X-Men: First Class was to be the start of a trilogy directed by Matthew Vaughn, and it kicks off with a great film; First Class is an origin story of Professor X and Magneto along with characters like Beast and Mystique. It appeared to be a pseudo-reboot since we see characters like Emma Frost appearing here in the ’60s, even though we had seen her Origins: Wolverine much later (one of the first, of many, broken shards of continuity in this universe). Regardless of that, this movie has a great look and a great script. Genuinely good character moments and it feels like an important event in the lives of Charles and Erik. It lays a lot of ground work for the X-Men lore and could easily work as a prequel despite some continuity errors. A lot of the missteps this franchise has seems to be due to Fox interfering with the work of it’s directors too much.
Let Your Director Carry Out a Singular Vision
This is the Wolverine movie that fans wanted at the time. James Mangold directs the tale of Wolverine finding his way to Japan, and tangles with the likes of The Silver Samurai and Viper. It feels like a very uniform and succinctly told story, and a great chapter to see in Wolverines journey. There is some tense action, including the fight on the train; all showcasing the beautiful scenery and culture of Japan (something Wolverine in the comics seems to always be coming back to). Even though the end slightly falls into lunacy, this is a really great entry into the X-Men franchise and teases bigger things to come at the end of the film. It’s a comic book accurate film, but still accessible to fans of the films. It’s just a really solid Wolverine story, which paved the way for more down the road.We have a character that we like, and it delved more into who that character was and what the story meant to him.
Bigger Is Not Always Better
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Matthew Vaughn initially wanted this movie to be at the end of his trilogy, with X-Men Apocalypse placed in the middle, building up to this one. With the return of the older cast and the continuation of the new cast, this would have been a fitting end to the trilogy. Instead, Fox wanted to jump straight to this, and Matthew Vaughn was out. Bryan Singer took the reigns once again and delivered a commercial and critical success. Just like everyone thought, the old meeting the new did very well. Wolverine is sent back into the 1970s to alter the flow of time so that the future of humanity is no longer threatened. Not exactly the plot of the iconic comic it’s based off of, but it’s very entertaining to see Wolverine, thrown into his past self and then go interact with James McAvoy’s Professor X. There’s also a real sense of tension in this movie and a hurried nature that has us rooting even more for our heroes to fix the past so that the future is secure. This movie was also meant to fix all the continuity errors, to no avail. The thing about this movie is that they jumped the gun, leaving a rocky trail for the next movie.
Don’t Rush Through Your Story
One of the biggest events in the X-Men comics is the Age of Apocalypse storyline. And this movie, though full to the brim with action, definitely does not feel as important as it’s comic book predecessor; especially since we know everyone involved will survive, since we saw them all alive at the end of Days of Future Past (turns out none of that mattered). Bryan Singer returns, and doesn’t really payoff this trilogy that was being built. All the old characters like Cyclops and Jean Grey return as younger versions of themselves. Once again they are kind of just shoehorned into this ’80s backdrop movie. Apocalypse, the first mutant, returns and gathers four horsemen to help him dominate the earth. What culminates is Magneto making a big metal storm, and the X-Men just running around shooting lasers and trying to land some punches. It’s just a lot of flashing lights and noise. It’s not really all that bad of a movie, but it feels like nothing; which is a prevailing aspect that I had begun to notice with the stories told in this time period of X-Men. Once again, if this movie had come after First Class, and then we got Days of Future Past as the ending to this trilogy, I don’t think this would have been as bad. The characters could have been built more upon by the time Wolverine showed back up from the future. This whole situation would be like if we received Avengers: Infinity War, then Endgame, and then Age of Ultron. Just a letdown. But certainly not the biggest.
This could be considered the true ending to this era of X-Men films. A fitting sendoff to these beloved X-Men before we get new ones in the MCU. Logan is based loosely off the comic Old Man Logan, which tells the tale of an old retired Wolverine forced back into the game, on a cross-country road trip. Hugh Jackman returns with Patrick Stewart, and James Mangold directs once again to deliver a grim, gritty, and poignant tale of the Wolverine. This movie was critically acclaimed, and did very well commercially for an R rated movie (something Fox has exceeded at with the Deadpool movies). It has a unique style and tone, evoking the sense of a western film with a superhero twist. It subverts the tropes of the genre and brings us this swan song that feels earned. A farewell to arms for the character who Hugh Jackman had owned for the past 17 years.
Give Your Heroes Fitting Ends
Here at the end of this story is the retelling of the “Dark Phoenix” saga, again. Though New Mutants technically lies within this universe, this movie is the end of the familiar characters found in the very first X-Men (even though they look nothing like them). This movie takes place in the ’90s, which makes me wonder why Magneto, the holocaust survivor, looks nothing like Ian McKellen by this time. Despite these kinds of continuity errors, the movie still feels like a meander. Basically, Jean Grey gets infested with a space cloud, becomes ultra powerful, and cannot control her powers. It doesn’t feel important. There is a sense of tension about when Jean Grey might blow up again, but there is never really a good pay off. I kept waiting for a great X-Men-esque action sequence, but never really got one. Actors like James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Nicholas Hoult do a good job. But the rest of the cast seem phoned-in and lackluster. Honestly, it’s sad to see such a longstanding franchise fizzle out like this. It dismays me not only because the story told in this broken continuity is over, but that is ended like this.
Avoid Repeating Yourself
Now that the rights for these characters are back at Marvel Studios, and Kevin Feige confirming that we will indeed see these characters sometime in the future, one cannot help but wonder how it can be done. You have characters that have become as iconic as Batman and Superman; so much so that recasting these characters will no doubt spark some controversy (just look at when Affleck was cast, and Robert Pattinson now). There are big shoes to fill. But I look forward to the liberties that Marvel can take with these characters. I’d love to see Wolverine interact with Spider-Man. I’d love to see the villains that come with these characters (Dr. Doom and Galactus). I maintain high hopes for these characters because of Marvels good track record. Though I look forward to the next versions we see of these beloved characters, I cannot help but look back nostalgically at the movies that permeated my childhood on into adulthood.