X-Men Core Series: A Retrospective

Homo Superior. In September 1963, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee used these two words to launch a new comic book featuring a cast of misfit mutants fighting to save the very people who feared them. Steeped in themes from the Civil Rights Movement (the March on Washington had taken place but a month earlier), the comic delved into racism, tolerance, and what it meant to be different. 37 years later, 20th Century Fox would bring the comic book life in a blockbuster film that, for better or worse, started the comic book movie craze that still grips us today. Let’s take a look back at Wolverine, Storm, Magneto, and the rest of the mutant many who changed summer box office blockbusters’ future forever.

X-Men (2000)

Plot: A loner (Hugh Jackman) and a teenage runaway (Anna Paquin) join forces with Professor Xavier’s X-Men to battle a mutant terrorist group bent on making every human on Earth a mutant.

Review: Back when it came out in Summer 2000, X-Men was a big deal. I remember vividly watching it on the big screen and being blown away with Wolverine, Professor X, Storm, and Cyclops finally being realized in live-action.  I really enjoyed the film and even re-watched it on a plane home from California that year.

20 years later, the movie doesn’t really hold up. The cast is still outstanding, with Jackman, of course, being the most notable as the salty renegade Wolverine. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen bring a class to the proceedings, and it’s still neat to see such Toronto locales as Roy Thomson Hall and Casa Loma highlighted as locations in the film.

However, the movie has a very underwhelming feel to it. The action scenes are far too short, and the matchups we get in the climax (Wolverine vs. Sabretooth, Storm vs. Toad) feel almost anti-climatic due to their length. In fact, the only fight that feels like there was any effort put into it was Wolverine vs. Mystique, which is a fair showdown, but it’s hardly the stuff that fans would be pining to see. Likewise, the film gets so bogged down with its concentration on its message of intolerance that over half the cast feels unfinished, with Jean Grey, Storm, Sabretooth, Toad, and especially Cyclops feeling like afterthoughts. The movie lacks the necessary skill to get its large cast to feel relevant, so unless a scene features one of the more prominent characters, you almost wonder why you should care.

Ironically, a movie credited with starting the comic book revolution in Hollywood now feels like it’s been surpassed so often by its successors. X-Men will always hold a special place in comic book movie lore for being one of the first movies to really swing for the fences, but unfortunately, time has not been kind to this film.

X2 (2003)

Plot: The X-Men are forced to team up with Magneto and Mystique to stop Colonel William Stryker (Brian Cox) from using Professor Xavier to kill every mutant on Earth.

Review: While its predecessor has lessened with the march of time, X2 stands up a lot better even today. Part of that was the inclusion of Nightcrawler, played by Alan Cumming. His design is terrific, and Cumming plays the role of the religiously devout teleporter perfectly – Nightcrawler was always one of my favorite comic book characters growing up, and he does the part justice. It was also a wise decision to force Magneto and Mystique into an uneasy alliance with the X-Men – rather than recycle the previous movie’s plot, this gives it a new perspective and some easy tension that plays out well.

The movie also feels somewhat grander on scale. Maybe it’s the big ass dam that gets flooded at the end; perhaps it’s the kick-ass fight between Deathstrike and Wolverine through the abandoned Akali Lake facility. It just seems like more money was poured into this installment of the franchise, and it shows on the big screen. That’s not to say there aren’t hiccups, though. The CGI is hit or miss, with Rogue’s disastrous attempts to fly the X-jet standing out as particularly poor-looking.

I will say, though, that most of the film looks great, Brian Cox does a decent job as the movie’s mutant-hating villain, and Jean Grey’s sacrifice at the end of the film has some emotional weight to it – such a fate would have merely shrug-inducing in the original, so the sequel did try at least to give a character to some of the forgotten performers from the first film. Overall, an entertaining effort that stands out from most of the rest.

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

Plot: Jean Grey returns from the dead and joins Magneto’s forces to attack a pharmaceutical installation offering a “cure” for mutations.

Review: X-Men: The Last Stand is jammed with characters, and as in the case of most movies that try to continue to focus the spotlight on legacy characters from the other films while introducing fan favourites, the story gets muddied, and the characters end up feeling incomplete and disserved.

In this particular case, we see Angel, Shadowcat, Juggernaut, Multiple Man, and Beast all brought to the forefront, where before they were either mentioned, cameoed, or not mentioned at all. None of these characters feel like justice was done for them – Angel, Shadowcat, and Beast just wander in and out of the narrative without rhyme or reason. Juggernaut is a pale imitation of his comic self, and Multiple Man might as well not even be in the movie.

Likewise, previous characters meet unceremonious ends that tears down all the emotions you may have associated with their past incarnations. Rogue, Professor X, Mystique, and Cyclops all meet their end (either to their powers or their lives) with zero fanfare.  Most of their screen time is dumped on Phoenix, but all she does is mostly stand around and watch the goings-on with indifference. It’s a hum-drum, soulless entry in the franchise and the catalyst for all the problems that have to be fixed in Days of Future Past. If you’re a fan of X-Men, or movies in general, only watch this film to see what NOT to do with a blockbuster franchise.

X-Men: First Class (2011)

Plot: Set in the 60s, a vengeful Magneto (Michael Fassbender) joins forces with an optimistic Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) to stop Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) from initiating a nuclear holocaust.

Review: To be clear, I disliked this movie a lot when I first saw it in the theatres. Maybe it was X-Men fatigue, perhaps it was irritation at the logic problems I had with the movie, but I just did not care for it. No seeing it almost ten years later, I don’t have the same sour opinion of it.

That’s not to say that there aren’t problems. The fact that Magneto doesn’t just kill Shaw at the start when he murders his mother makes no sense to me. I understand that it would have meant there was no movie as the entire point of the plot is to stop Shaw from killing everyone. Still, really, it’s such a stupid way to have Magneto enter the movie; he seems like a halfwit destroying everything EXCEPT the asshole who just murdered his mom right in front of his face. Also, as diamonds are the hardest substance on Earth, I doubt a brass bedpost around Emma Frost’s neck would crack her skin when in diamond form. Just saying.

That being said, I like most of the cast, and they seem to bring some spirit to their characters – for the most part (there are still folks in there who seem to be present just because – I’m looking at you, Riptide, Azazel, Angel, and Darwin). The climax is one of the best scenes in any of the movies, well-conceived and executed. There’s a brightness to the story and the cast, almost like a new beginning, which is the entire point of the exercise. Also noteworthy is the score, which may be the best music in any of these movies – it’s very memorable and distinct.

I won’t say that I still don’t have problems with the movie, but overall, I think it achieves precisely what it sets out to do, which is entertain and give us a new perspective on these characters that we’ve gotten to know through the other films. 

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

Plot: Wolverine is sent back in time to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), which spurns the manufacturing of the mutant-hunting Sentinels.

Review: When I first saw this movie in the theatre, I thought it was pretty decent. It addressed some of the problems with the series and straightened things out while giving us a pretty solid story with spectacular touches.

Watching it now, I appreciate that this, in fact, a very flawed film. Part of the problem is how it just outright ignores things from the previous movies – such as Wolverine losing his adamantium claws in The Wolverine, or even how Wolverine got to the future in the first place – when he met up with Xavier and Magneto at the end of The Wolverine, they were still in the distinguishable present. How did Rogue get her powers back? Why is Professor X alive? If X-Men: The Last Stand is to be ignored, why does Kelsey Grammer return in the end as Beast? The ending, too, makes absolutely no sense – how would the cessation of the Sentinels’ creation allow Scott Summers and Jean Grey to return when their demises had nothing to do with the Sentinels in the first place? For all the gaps it purports to close, it seems to do a pretty lousy job of doing so.

Then there’s the whole question about the decision to stop manufacturing the Sentinels. Why? Because Mystique ends up saving Trask’s life? Really? Didn’t Magneto just drop a frickin’ stadium around the White House and then pull the safe room out of it? Wouldn’t that be indicative that, to the contrary, there is a need to build more Sentinels to protect humans, not less?

That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have its high points. Seeing the new cast with some of the old characters is neat. Hugh Jackman is always great as Wolverine. Likewise, the rest of the cast is pretty darned good. The Quicksilver scene is the highlight of the entire movie. So yeah, it’s not a total loss, but let’s not lie to ourselves – the film is a bit of a mess and doesn’t do a great job of clearing up all the inconsistencies already established throughout the series, which I thought was its primary job.

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

Plot: En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac) awakens in 1983 Cairo and schemes to take over the world with his 4 horsemen.

Review: Of all the X-Men characters, Apocalypse was one of the characters I was most looking forward to seeing realized on the big screen. I don’t know why – it wasn’t like I loved the Age of Apocalypse storyline or anything. It’s just, he’s so visually impressive and has such a cool backstory that I thought, if he was done right, it would be an awesomely good time.

The movie starts out well, but I found that, shortly after Apocalypse awakens, the movie starts a gradual downhill run. It’s not Oscar Isaac’s fault – the guy is talented and does his best in the role, and he looks great, but I have no idea what his plan is. He seems to want to unite all mutants, make them worship him, destroy the world, and transfer his consciousness into Xavier’s body, all at the same time. He literally just wanders around, throwing his arms out and yelling a lot, but there’s no cohesion, no focus. He may as well be one of those deranged dudes who preach on street corners about love and Jesus.

The film also has the same problem as most other X-Men movies – it’s stuffed with characters who do nothing. In this case, you have Psylocke, Storm, and Angel following Apocalypse around like lost puppies, while Magneto gnashes his teeth that he can’t have an ordinary existence and creates arcs of metal around himself for no apparent reason.  Jubilee is in the movie as well for some unknown reason. The other young mutants, Jean Grey, Cyclops, and especially Nightcrawler, are at least entertaining or doing something.  Quicksilver has the best sequence in the movie (like Days of Future Past) when he saves most of the school from an explosion. So, there are highlights here and there, but not enough to warrant the baffling plotting that often goes nowhere.

Dark Phoenix (2019)

Plot: After an encounter with a mysterious energy in space, Jean Grey’s (Sophie Turner) powers become unstable and dangerous, and a sinister alien race seeks to gain that power for their own ends.

Review: The first time I saw Dark Phoenix in the theatre, I thought it was okay. Critics and people in general, on the other hand, seem to take a perverse glee in taking a big ole crap all over this movie. Which is interesting considering the other films that are applauded within the series that are as flawed, if not worse, but yet nary a peep. Not that I’m going to mention those movies…*cough*Days of Future Past*cough*.

In the overall series, yes, Dark Phoenix is a problem. If you take all 7 movies as instances that happened before, you have Mystique dying (how does she then appear in X-Men?), you have Charles Xavier quitting from his own school, which is renamed for Jean Grey (and yet he’s head of the school in X-Men?), and the characters in the reboot series seem to age remarkably well considering that the films take place over thirty years. So yes, problems acknowledged. However, all of the movies are problems now because the reboot series seemed to ignore the previous series (all because of The Last Stand), so it is what it is. If you want to crap all over the series because of this, that’s fine, but blaming Dark Phoenix solely is, in my opinion, unfair.

What this is, though, is probably the best of the series. The action bits are well put-together and exciting, the score is pretty good, it’s well-filmed, and for once, holy smokes, the characters actually seem to know what the hell their purpose is in the film; it’s not all imitating the previous cast, the motivations make sense, and the actions make sense. And for that crime, this is called one of the worst of the series. I would take this movie any day of the week and twice on Sunday, the performances of all the characters are spot-on, and this feels like it could take place in the X-Men universe. Of the seven movies in the franchise, this is the one that I would choose to watch again.

In Conclusion

In all honesty, this series could have been better. If the filmmakers had kept with one vision like the MCU or worked harder to connect all the movies, I think it would have come off much more successfully. Instead, you have a series that basically rebooted itself mainstream and then played fast and happy with its own mythology. Like most series that went on for a long time, there are peaks and valleys, and while the overall final composed product just flat-out doesn’t work, there are highlights that can be revisited, as long as you ignore all the numerous problems in the series.