“Mutation. It is the key to our evolution. It has enabled us to evolve from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet.” Those are the first words we hear in 2000’s X-Men, the first words spoken in 20th Century Fox’s 12-film X-Men franchise overall, coming from the G.O.A.T. chrome-domed thespian Patrick Stewart as Professor Charles Xavier. Now, ol’ Xavier has always been a telepath but he’s not prone to predicting the future, which makes it all the more impressive how prophetic those first words turned out to be. Over the years this motley crew of mutant films has been mutating itself, again and again; from director to director, cast to cast, rating to rating, quality to quality, evolving our idea over 19 years of what is now, indisputably, the most dominant species on the planet. Well, the most dominant species in Hollywood, anyway: The Superhero Movie. With the franchise set to make its biggest leap yet—into the billion-dollar Disney funhouse alongside their avengin’ Marvel brethren—and this iteration flaming out with Dark Phoenix, it’s fascinating to look back on how this ever-changing, wildly inconsistent thing kept on chugging over the years, subtly and occasionally not-so-subtly changing the way we watched caped crusaders do battle on-screen the entire time.
To say X-Men invented the superhero movie would be straight-up wrong. Christopher Reeve was making us believe a man could fly in 1978, and the Burton-to-Schumacher Batman hand-off taught a lesson in tanking a franchise a decade before the Singer-to-Ratner connection* perfected the art. But that 2000 film—based on the Marvel characters created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee—certainly clawed open a massive door with its $296 million box office. Within two years, Sam Raimi‘s Spider-Man trilogy would swing its way into theaters. Just five years after X-Men, Christopher Nolan kicked off his Dark Knight trilogy. Three years after that, Jon Favreau‘s Iron Man blasted its way on to the screen and the rest, as they say, is history.
You’d think that maybe all those cooks in the kitchen might’ve diluted the broth by now, but those early X-Men movies hold up remarkably well. Watch the original—and its superior follow-up X2: X-Men United—and you see the obvious spark that ignited the fire that was fandom’s need for big-screen superheroes. The cast is obviously the key, especially precious skinny baby Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, Famke Janssen elevating the crap out of some thin Jean Grey material, and Stewart and Ian McKellen classing the place up as Professor X and Magneto. (I urge you to fire up X-Men immediately and watch the way McKellen delivers “I thought you lived in a school” to James Marsden‘s Cyclops. It is Oscar-worthy assholery.) But those movies are also just comic-booky as hell, man. Those costumes, those big dopey CGI fights; you knew you were gonna’ get Wolverine walking in, but seeing someone like Toad (Ray Park) tongue his way across the screen? An X-fans dream.
But those movies are also inconsistent, which is kind of the X-Men franchise’s calling card. People like to think of X-Men: The Last Stand as the big initial stumbling block—the first failed Dark Phoenix Saga, if you will—but the thing about these movies is that even the best ones have wonky moments. For example: I truly love the first film, but despite Halle Berry‘s vast talents, “Do you know what happens to a toad that gets struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else” is some of the most first draft-ass writing ever put to film, like writer David Hayter penciled in “Punchline TK” and no one noticed. (For the record, the objectively correct way to end that line is “…they croak.” Thank you, I will accept several million dollars in cash.)
But the franchise persevered, because the same theory works in reverse; even the absolute worst X-Men movies have a charm to them, more thanks to the timeless oddball quality to these characters than to anyone who’s been behind the lens. Director Gavin Hood’s 2009 X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a colossal misfire on such a fundamental level that it took a character nicknamed “The Merc with a Mouth” and sewed his mouth shut. But the opening sequence that sees Jackman’s Wolverine and Liev Schreiber‘s Victor Creed literally battling their way through time is, without any hint of a joke, one of the best 3 minutes in comic book movie history.
Maybe that is the “legacy” of the franchise, just this wonderfully absurd inconsistency that rounds back to being a form of evolution. For my money, the one-two punch of X-Men: First Class (2011) and Days of Future Past (2014) is the peak of the entire run, and that’s because of how hard Fox leaned into change. It was quite literally out with the old and in with the new for First Class, with twin charm-factories James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender taking over the Professor X and Magneto roles, plus a still-tuned-in Jennifer Lawrence giving Mystique an undeniable relatability missing from Rebecca Romijn‘s far-fiercer iteration. Future Past—a time-travel romp event film that premiered five years before Avengers: Endgame, mind you—is just a blast. You chop off that odd Mystique-as-Stryker cliff-hanger and it would’ve been a perfectly satisfying coda to the entire series.
But it was not the end, and maybe the biggest downer of the whole thing is that recency bias will coat the full franchise with the stank left behind by X-Men: Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix. Apocalypse is the real culprit, due to the fact that it’s just straight up a bad film, one that completely misunderstands the appeal of these characters, rendering most of them as voiceless set-piece fodder in favor of big-budget CGI. The best X-Men stories are always about something—identity, discrimination, the almost impossible need to feel at peace with your own body—and Apocalypse commits the #1 sin of being about nothing. (The #2 sin, if you were wondering, is covering Oscar Isaac‘s face.)
Dark Phoenix, helmed by writer/producer Simon Kinberg in his directorial debut, is mostly just unable to bear the weight of being the “last” X-Men movie. (If you made it this far down without hopping into the comments to yell at me, yes I’m aware of New Mutants. Which, come on.) The backstage turmoil of the Fox-Disney merger and hasty third-act re-shoots definitely played their part, and if you want a full rundown on the film’s pros and cons Matt Goldberg’s Collider review is what you’re looking for, but the bottom line is that Dark Phoenix‘s greatest shortcoming is that it barely registers as a story, much less a finale. It’s White Noise: The Movie. Believe me when I tell you that the theater’s fire alarm went off during my screening, and the brief moments in which I thought I might die in a fire were the only genuine emotions I felt over two hours.
Which, frankly, sucks, because the franchise as a whole is not the nothing it’s been in the home stretch. Just three years ago, Deadpool sliced its way to $783 million on a $58 million budget and suddenly Hollywood realized you can spell “money” with the letter R. Just two years ago, Logan—one of my favorite films, superhero or otherwise—became the first comic book movie nominated for a Screenplay Oscar. There might be honestly be more bad than good to the franchise, but the best bits—much like the best parts of the X-Men—were weird outliers. Big leaps. Diversions from the norm. To say the MCU couldn’t take anything away from this version of the X-Men franchise would be a bold statement indeed. The MCU doesn’t really do outliers; it’s freakiest superhumans are all still cool as hell, and they most certainly don’t have any claws.
Really, it all harkens back, again, to that first opening monologue from Professor X. “This process is slow,” he says, “normally taking thousands and thousands of years. But every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward.”
A lot of weird, freaky, occasionally DNA-changing stuff happened over the course of this particular 19-year process. The X-Men’s move to Disney is less an end than it is another leap forward.