5. The Wolverine (2013, James Mangold)
After the bitter taste left by “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”, it’s glaringly obvious that Jackman and company wanted to make things right and give us a solid solo Wolvie adventure the second time around. Did they succeed? Quite handsomely, at least for the most part.
Adapting Wolverine’s classic Japanese sojourn from the comics, James Mangold’s entry is a dark, atmospheric, and almost noir-like journey into our titular hero’s conflicted nature, all juxtaposed smoothly against the exotic foreign locale.
For the most part, it feels closer to a grounded crime/action film with only small references to superpowers here and there. That is, until the ridiculous clusterfuck of a finale, which feels like a much weaker film hijacked the impressively moody piece of cinema that ran before. Still, regardless of this misstep, they do so much right with the story and titular character that it’s easy to overlook
The R-rated Blu-Ray/DVD release is the way to watch this film, as it was clearly filmed with the former rating in mind; not to mention, the theatrical cut loses one of the films greatest sequences – a gloriously blood-soaked fight between Wolvie on a snow plough and a squad full of ninjas. Isn’t that what action cinema is all about?
4. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014, Bryan Singer)
Good lord, this movie had a lot to pull off, continuing two separate timelines in the X-Men series in parallel, restarting a new alternative timeline while cleaning up the mess “X-Men: The Last Stand” did to the franchise and, of course, successfully adapting the landmark comic “Days of Future Past”. Who thought this would’ve worked at all?
This was Singer’s triumphant return to the franchise he started, after being scorned by 20th Century Fox on “X-Men: The Last Stand” (Fun fact: Singer replaced Matthew Vaughn on this, who also dropped out of the former movie at the last minute). You can tell he’s ecstatic to be back behind the camera, injecting passion and stylish energy into both separate timelines – the grim apocalyptic wasteland of the future and the vibrant retro feel of the 1970s.
Both have the look and aesthetic of two different movies, but the cleverly plotted script intertwines them in an organic manner that never feels tired. Also, the crossover with Wolverine and the First Class cast was an inspired touch that helps bring both worlds together with enjoyable ease.
Still, with this much going on, it can’t all be peaches and cream; the older cast gets a little short shifted, the intriguing future sci-fi world is sadly under-utilized (although not in the recently released “The Rogue Cut” which adds around 20 minutes of that plotline back in), and the resolution with Magneto betraying everyone (AGAIN!!!) is a little groan-worthy.
Regardless, Singer had his hands full with this flick and pulling it off was a tall order. Honestly, it’s amazing we turned out with a half-decent film, let alone the fantastic one we got in the end.
3. Deadpool (2016, Tim Miller)
The making of Deadpool into a X-Men feature film spinoff has been a passion project for Ryan Reynolds for close to a decade. The only problem was that the titular protagonist is a psychopathic, foul-mouthed mercenary that bloodily dismembers people at the drop of a hat. Not exactly PG-rated fun for the whole family looking for their weekend superhero fix.
Surprisingly, Reynolds’s persistence (not to mention a “leaked” promo video that went viral) got this film greenlit and rightfully saddled with the R-rating it so needed, although with a catch – a limited budget and very little expectation from the studio. Who would’ve figured this would end up becoming the highest grossing X-Men related film ever made?
Although not the most versatile actor around, there’s no argument that Reynolds was born to play this role; his peak physicality matched with the wise-ass banter make him the perfect fit for the ‘Merc with the Mouth’. His coupling with director Tim Miller (Blur Studios animation mastermind making his feature debut here) and a spot-on script make all the elements come together perfectly – the action set pieces are fast and furious, the humor is appropriately crass, and the love story is surprisingly involving.
The film does a lot with very little and in an inspired move, all the shortcomings set against it (the one-note villain, the limited scope for an X-Men movie) are all poked fun at by Reynolds breaking the fourth wall.
Conclusively, it’s not going to win any Oscars, but “Deadpool” is exactly what it needed to be – a funny, vulgar, bloody ride that you’ll either love or hate, and for better or for worse, it stands as the most faithful portrayal of a superhero to date.
2. X-Men: First Class (2011, Matthew Vaughn)
After the one-two punch the franchise took to the nuts with “Last Stand” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”, it was clear by 2011 that things were looking pretty dire for this series. Enter Matthew Vaughn (yes, that’s right, he didn’t drop out of this movie at the last minute) who cleverly decided the best way to go forward was to step backwards.
Rewinding the plot and focusing on the genesis of the most fascinating relationships the initial series had on its back burner – Professor Xavier and Magneto’s love/hate bromance – “First Class” was a much-needed breath of fresh air for our favorite mutants, shedding the convoluted mess of continuity and studio mandates that almost killed it, and started fresh.
It also didn’t hurt that those iconic roles were taken by this generation’s most versatile and fascinating leading men – James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender (respectively) – who, as you guessed it, completely make these characters their own.
Set in the groovy 1960s on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vaughn embraced the decade’s nuances and had a blast injecting the era’s genre tropes into a comic book movie (Fassbender’s Nazi revenge plot almost plays like a super-powered Connery era James Bond flick). The whole approach is unique, edgy even, and the director’s enthusiasm for the material is contagious – who knew that political espionage and mutants would blend together so well?
Add to that great turns by Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique and Kevin Bacon as nefarious villain Sebastian Shaw, and you have all the necessary ingredients for a great entry in a franchise that suddenly felt relevant again. Most would even argue it’s as good as the franchise gets, but….
1. X2: X-Men United (2003, Bryan Singer)
Regardless of how awesome “First Class” is, “X2” is still the one to beat. Its opening sequence – a brainwashed Nightcrawler storms the White House in a presidential assassination attempt – eclipsed the first movie in every single aspect, but still stands as the single most impressive set piece the franchise has to date (that’s right Quicksilver, deal with it). The fact that it’s only the tip of the iceberg concerning the film says it all.
The plot’s driving force – a full-blown government sanction hunt-down of all things mutant – was an excellent ploy that took all the brewing underlying tensions from its predecessor and cranked things up to deep-fry. The story grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let up until the final credits. And as usual with X-Men stories, themes of discrimination and genocide are alluded to and examined in thought-provoking fashion.
Personifying the gleefully evil antagonist General Stryker is none other than the always brilliant Brian Cox; the fact that he goes head-to-head with his fellow Shakespearian thespians (not to mention old friends) Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart should be reason alone to salute this movie.
Add to that our first helping of Wolverine’s berserker rage in the barnstorming X-Academy infiltration set piece, the wonderfully vicious Kelly Hu as Cox’s henchwoman Lady Deathstrike, and a tragic ending that filled us all with hope that a Phoenix would one day gloriously rise again (she eventually did, but not gloriously), and conclusively, you have one entertaining film that stands as the definitive X-Men movie. Sure, they went bigger and edgier before, but this one did it all first, and the franchise has yet to best it.