With Disney’s buyout of 20th Century Fox officially complete, it’s time for a postmortem on one of the studio’s biggest properties.
Fox acquired the film rights to Marvel’s X-Men characters during a period when the comic giant was facing financial hardship. Around this time Marvel’s Spider-Man rights were sold to Columbia, and rights to the Incredible Hulk were scooped up by Universal (fitting, since Hulk is right at home alongside Frankenstein, Wolfman, Dracula, and other monsters the studio was famous for). No one wanted Captain America or Iron Man, because what good are those properties, amirite?
With X-Men, Fox bought the rights to the most culturally relevant superheroes in the Marvel roster, and second-most popular franchise after Spider-Man. What they did with it was…a mixed bag. Let’s look back on the dirty dozen movies released under the X-Men banner, splitting them between the highs and lows of Fox’s ownership.
For a change of pace let’s start with what worked, and despite the bad taste the studio left the franchise in with Dark Phoenix, the fact is there were more good X-Men movies than there were bad ones. Case in point…
X-Men (the first one)
What it is in one sentence: The first X-Men movie proved that comic book films did not have to live and die on the shoulders of Batman.
Quick review: The first X-Men movie should only be judged against the quality of comic book movies produced in its era. This was before the days of comic book movies being the Hollywood cash-cow. Fox produced this tentpole movie for a paltry $90 million. Brian Singer got the nod to direct, fresh off Apt Pupil (starring Ian McKellen) and, most notably, the brilliant Oscar-favorite The Usual Suspects. Singer’s tone was serious at times without being too melodramatic, whimsical at times without being too campy. It was a great balancing act, one which later MCU films recreated and perfected. While the dull, black suits were a marked departure from the color of the mid-90’s cartoon show (and future comic book movies of the next generation), it fit the late-90’s aesthetic just fine.
Stand-out moment: Wolverine’s cage fight early in act one.
Why it Worked: The cast was on point, with hardly a single poor choice to be found, but of course, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine was a revelation. The was the first top-tier comic book movie to have a serious tone since Batman 89 a decade earlier. Fans were hungry for it, and Fox delivered.
X2 (the second one)
What it is in one sentence: X2 was, at the time of its 2003 release, hailed as one of the greatest comic book movies of all time.
Quick review: Today, sixteen years later, after so many (sooo many) more comic book movies have come along, it’s easy to forget about X2, or judge it too harshly simply because of what it wasn’t. The Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies (at least the first two) have the same problem. That being said, watch X2 again if you haven’t seen it in a while. Not only does the movie “hold up” (which is damning with faint praise), it remains today what it was then; one of the greatest comic book movies of all time.
Stand-out moment: There are so many great moments in this movie, and most would probably point to Logan going ham while babysitting, but I’m going to pick Nightcrawler’s White House attack, which was such a visceral and electric scene to see on opening night. The crowd gave it a standing ovation when it ended.
Why it worked: Bigger isn’t always better in a sequel; better is better. Strive to be better and the rest will take care of itself. X2 built off the backs of an already good first movie, to offer a better cast of characters, a better plot, better drama, better humor, better set pieces, and a better finale.
X-Men: First Class (the fifth one)
What it is in one sentence: First Class is a soft-reboot of the franchise after the failure of X-Men 3.
Quick review: Jumping back to the 1960s made a lot of sense for the franchise. The first movie began with much of the team already in operation, and with the backstory of Charles and Eric already established (and left ambiguous on the details). Starting over in the decade of the comic book’s origin gave everyone a chance to reset and get back to what worked about X-Men movies: Fun plots, diverse characters, and a little civil rights drama for flavor. First Class had it all.
Stand-out moment: Eric and Charles try and fail to recruit Logan into the team.
Why it worked: The casting and chemistry of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender was incredible. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen were a home-run duo as Charles and Eric; to land a perfect casting duo twice-over is unheard of. The movie would have failed out of the gate without those two working; they worked exceptionally.
X-Men: Days of Future Past (the seventh one)
What it is in one (run-on) sentence: An X-Men movie that perfectly blends old and new with a trippy time-travel/save the world plot that never loses focus on the character-moments that made the series great.
Quick review: Days of Future past was really the first one to come out in the aftermath of the comic book movie boom. It released in 2013, a year after Avengers blew the roof off the place. The movie responded to the MCU’s success, not by trying to become a pale imitation (and in many ways, 2011’s First Class felt very much like an MCU film), but by going back to basics. That means a heavy dose of Wolverine. This time, the mutant Canuck is paired up with the First Class version of Eric and Charles, while the OG old duo struggle against a dystopian, robot-ruled future. Old and new balance perfectly, making this the best X-Men movie since X2.
Stand-out moment: Quicksilver does his thing in that one scene you skipped straight to on the blu ray.
Why it worked: This movie is dense. It’s effectively a sequel to First Class, a sequel to X-Men 3, a post-apocalyptic horror movie, and a time-travel movie, all at once. While not a totally faithful adaptation of the eponymous comic book story (one of the series’ best), it nevertheless adapts the spirit of the story, and—if in some alternate universe—this had been the last main-line X-Men movie, it would have been a perfect capper on the preceding movies and a great send-off to everyone involved.
Deadpool (the eighth one)
What it is in one (and a half) sentence(s): It’s Ryan Reynolds passion project: A foul-mouthed mutant who knows he’s in a comic book movie and won’t shut up about it.
Quick review: This movie is vulgar, irreverent, graphic, lewd, crude and tattooed. In that respect, it’s the perfect Deadpool movie. Right away, from the opening seconds, you feel the tone of the movie. It refuses to take itself seriously, even as its “hero” is slicing and dicing through people. The visuals are in your face just like the one-liners. The soundtrack is playful too (you never would have thought “Angel of the Morning” would fit so well in this kind of a movie, but here we are). Deadpool lives and dies on its central wink-and-nod joke. If you like it five minutes into the movie, you’ll love it after 90 minutes. If you don’t like it after the opening credits roll, best move along.
Stand-out moment: The baby hand.
Why it worked: It was faithful to the comic property, which is something Fox basically struggled with during their entire ownership of X-Men. It was colorful, twisted, sardonic, and exactly what a fan of Deadpool would have wanted going in.
Logan (the tenth one)
What it is in one sentence: The finest comic movie Fox ever made and one of the best ever, anywhere.
Quick review: This is a grown-up movie, filled with bitter people, broken people and deeply flawed people. Unlike in most franchise films, real characters die here. Characters you’ve watched in these roles for almost two decades died. And they don’t die in cheap, pointless, exploitative ways like in X-Men 3. They die in shocking ways. They die in moving ways. They die in final ways: No resurrections. No “gotchas.” No “It’s a comic book, of course they come back.” The dead stay dead, their story finished, their journey ended. It’s the first comic book movie to make me weep.
Stand-out moment: “So that’s what it feels like.”
Why it worked: The moments that make the movie work, and which make it so astonishing, are the character moments: The shot of Logan carrying an aged Xavier to his bed. The shot of the trio gathered around a family’s table, showing us (and our hero) a glimpse of normalcy that this series, by its nature, can never have. The embracing of a surrogate father by his surrogate son, while the father slips away to rest in peace. The funeral that follows, where the “son” finds himself at an utter loss for words. And the symmetry of those two moments to the final two moments of the film, where a daughter embraces her father as he slips away to rest in peace, followed by a funeral where she eulogizes him with a speech cribbed from the old western Shane (which could have been disastrously, unintentionally funny, if it weren’t so perfectly directed). It worked the way almost all movies of this caliber do: It cared about its characters and made you care about them too.
Deadpool 2 (the eleventh one)
What it is in one sentence: It’s more of the first movie, and if you liked the first you won’t complain.
Quick review: The first movie’s emotional center was a love story. Here, as Deadpool will tell you in minute one, the emotional core is “family.” And just like how the first movie took your “no way this movie can make a romance plot work” cynicism and then nailed it, this movie convincingly pulls off a “we need each other/family is important” theme, and it does so with a straight face…as much as Deadpool can do anything with a straight face. Because it has that center, there’s weight to the action and stakes to the plot, giving the jokes an added depth. It just works. It really shouldn’t, but it does.
Stand-out moment: TIE: The baby legs, and the X-Force parachute scene.
Why it worked: The movie works because it took what worked in the first (quips, fourth-wall-breaking, and relentless violence) and did more of it, but didn’t just settle for retreaded jokes or for going bigger for the sake of bigger. It also took what didn’t work in the first (thin “action” plot, and a poorly developed villain) and improved things significantly. The plot is much stronger here. In movie one, the emotional arc (between Wade and Vanessa) was excellent but the stuff driving the action was lacking. Here, the emotional arc and the action plot are intertwined to a much more effective degree, making for a better-paced film overall. It’s still not perfect, as one of the primary characters struggles to carry his part of the film, but everything around the central plot is gold. Deadpool 2 will go down as the last great Fox comic book film.
Next, we’ll look at the worst of X-Men movies. There are only five of them, but they were bad enough to sink the whole ship…