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In Movies & TV Commentary

The X-Men are back in the spotlight with "The Wolverine" coming out in theatres on Friday.

The claws are out: The best and worst of the X-Men movies


As the summer dwindles to a close, leaving behind the usual mix of mild amusement and massive disappointment, only one true blockbuster remains on the schedule: "The Wolverine."

While the Avengers and their respective films went on to become Marvel's golden children, the X-Men franchise became the Marvel universe's second most beloved troop of superheroes. It doesn't help that the X-Men rights still belong to 20th Century Fox and aren't under the Disney/Marvel Studios umbrella (an umbrella likely made of $100 bills).

It helps even less that Fox seems to have no interest in working with Marvel's grand Avengers master plan. The two are currently feuding over who gets to use Quicksilver, a mutant who looks like an overexcited Tampa Bay Lightning fan, in their upcoming films.

Anyways, with "The Wolverine" out in a few days and "X-Men: Days of Future Past" causing a stir at Comic-Con this past week, it's X-Men's time in the spotlight (well … at least until more "Avengers: Age of Ultron" news comes out). To celebrate, here's a look back at the franchise's finest, counting down the most gifted films in Professor X's fleet from worst to first.

5. "X-Men Origins: Wolverine"

Nothing quite says "we messed up" like rebooting a character a mere four years after his first solo outing (otherwise known as the Hulk approach). Despite making almost $180 million, most people do not have fond memories of 2009's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." Even the franchise seems to be ignoring it, seeing as "The Wolverine" takes place after "X-Men: The Last Stand" despite the fact the trip to Japan was teased at the end of "X-Men Origins."

To be fair, the film doesn't merit the "worst movie ever" stamp that fanboys seem to be willing to throw on anything before you can say hyperbole. Considering its troubled production (feuds between executives and director Gavin Hood, a leaked copy before release), it's still watchable. Hugh Jackman is still charismatic and a perfect fit for the character, and there's some fun to be had, mainly in the opening bits with Wolverine working with his half-brother Sabretooth (Liev Schreiber) and a few other assassin misfits.

If anything, it's just bland, a routine comic book tale told routinely and with a lack of polish that borders on lazy. I mean, how do you screw up Wolverine's claws – the only thing you really need to do right – turning them into horrible CGI cartoons? It's a glaring sign of an unfinished film. Still, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" is more of a letdown than truly bad.

4. "X-Men: The Last Stand"

Another dubious entry on the long list of "worst movies ever," Brett Ratner's "X-Men: The Last Stand" simply suffers from classic third movie syndrome (and being attached to the undeservingly smug PR nightmare Brett Ratner). There are too many mutants running around, too much fan bait (the Juggernaut's signature line shows why fan input should be kept far away from the writer's desk) and too little to care about.

Despite featuring more mutant powers and having more epic battles, I fell asleep the first two times I attempted to watch "The Last Stand." When I finally got through the whole film on the third screening, I was fairly entertained. Ratner competently blows stuff up, the plot takes some modestly interesting turns and the cast is as game as ever. It was fun enough that I didn't regret watching it. Then again, it wasn't exactly memorable enough to make me regret napping the first two times either.

3. "X-Men"

It's hard to believe there was a time when comic book movies were considered a dangerous idea. But after 1997 – a year that provided the bat-bomb "Batman & Robin" and "Steel," a cinematic Shaq attack to the brain – would you be clamoring to see another superhero take the screen? Didn't think so.

After two years and only two comic book superhero movies ("Blade" and "Mystery Men"), director Bryan Singer brought "X-Men" to the screen and the film genre back to life. Singer collects a fun band of charismatic actors both old (Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart) and new (Jackman in his first major screen role) to play the colorful cast of mutants. Most importantly, however, he and the script give just as much time to the characters and drama as the special effects and action spectacle.

Singer and the script drag a bit trying to introduce all of the characters and give the film the gravity and weight Joel Schumacher seemingly single-handedly sucked out of comic book movies. But "X-Men" still works overall. It's serious and fun, smart and silly, interesting and entertaining. And without it, we may have never gotten Nolan's Batman movies or "The Avengers" (though we also may have avoided "Jonah Hex").

Take its impact on pop culture out of the equation, however, and "X-Men" is still a success.

2. "X-Men: First Class"

Here's one of the best aspects of "X-Men: First Class:" It's 132 minutes long (so about two-and-a-half hours in theatres) but feels so much shorter. In the era of the bloated blockbuster, where you get laughed out of the screening room if your movie doesn't clock in at well over two hours, director Matthew Vaughn ("Kick-Ass") brings a brisk energy and a kind of fun silliness back to the superhero movie. Well, as long as January Jones isn't on screen.

Even more impressive is that "First Class" is a rush to watch while still having the entertaining characters, performances and drama Singer's two entries provided. McAvoy and especially Fassbender prove to be worthy stand-ins for their older counterparts, and the rest of the young cast (Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult) is just as capable. Meanwhile, Vaughn keeps the action thrilling, the drama stirring and the pace light.

The dialogue hits on the nose a bit hard at points (when asked about hiding his mutation, Hoult says, "You didn't ask so I didn't tell." Do you see what they did there?), and sticklers may have continuity issues with the earlier films. For the most part, though, "X-Men: First Class" is first class entertainment.

1. "X2: X-Men United"

"X2: X-Men United" isn't just the best X-Men movie to come out to date. It's one of the best comic book movies to come out period. The second film in the series (of course, the second film always seems to be the best) delivers everything I want in a comic book action movie.

Interesting, fun characters buoyed by solid performances? Check. If "X-Men" was Jackman stepping into the Hollywood spotlight, "X2" shows him really owning it. Ian McKellen gets some of his meatier lines and moments in the sequel, and Brian Cox's militaristic mutant hunter Stryker is one of the more underappreciated comic book movie villains.

Intense, exciting action sequences? Well, that category deserves multiple checks. Most of the series' best moments come from this film, including Nightcrawler's jolting attack on the President, Magneto's prison break out and Stryker's raid on the school. A clever story with drama, humor and weight? Check. Obviously the plot isn't "Citizen Kane," but it's well told and gives enough time to each character so that you really care.

If unusually gifted blockbuster filmmaking was a class at Professor Xavier's School, "X2" would pass with flying colors.

Talkbacks

littletinyfish | July 24, 2013 at 2:16 p.m. (report)

I thought First Class was the most stellar of all the movies, but it completely missed it's own point. The X-Men are supposed to represent the underdogs, the oppressed classes, the different people. But by the end all the women had taken off their clothes and all of the ethnic minorities had either been killed or converted into bad guys. Who came out on top? Only the white men. So much for the message.

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