The X-Men movie franchise has existed for most of my life. I’ve grown up watching these movies, I have a lot of appreciation for them and looking back on them very fondly, and I think it’s important that we credit them for reviving comic book movies and allowing them to be big budget successes. And yet, when I think about them critically and objectively, I find it very hard to give a simple answer to the question, “Are the X-Men movies any good?”
Part of that, of course, goes back to the fact that they’re adaptations of comic books. The X-Men have existed for decades. There are a lot of different versions of the characters, and everyone has a different way of interpreting them. It’s impossible to please everyone. But in addition to that, there were a lot of other issues that made them a poor and unsatisfactory adaptation, at least to me. Some of the dialogue, in the original trilogy especially, is stilted. The costume design was boring. A lot of parts felt forced. There were a lot of plotholes.
What I’ve always found the most important part of the X-Men is that they’re a team. They’re a close knit family, bound together, and determined to protect both their kind and a world that hates and fears them. The movies rejected that notion. Instead of showing them as a team, they focused on Wolverine, Professor X, and Magneto and sacrificed everyone else in the process.
I hated having to watch everyone else’s important storylines just given to Logan. He essentially took Scott’s place as the main hero and romantic lead during the Dark Phoenix arc when Scott was unceremoniously killed off by Jean in the first half hour of the movie. He took Kitty’s place in Days of Future Past, resulting in Kitty getting a new power that made absolutely no sense and pretty much just sitting still for the entire movie. Logan may not have been the main character of Days of Future Past – that distinction goes to Charles – but he was the heart and the character whose perspective the story was told from. It apparently wasn’t enough that Logan got three solo movies while no one else even got one – he had to get all of everyone’s storylines as well. The X-Men movies weren’t about the X-Men, they were just Wolverine and Friends.
I appreciate the changes made to Xavier’s character. The movies made him more of a hero. In the comics, he was deeply manipulative, essentially a trainer for child soldiers, and did very little to actually further the mutant cause while still being hailed as the best of them. Here, he’s legitimately heroic. I love manipulative characters that are willing to use other people as pawns to achieve their goals, but the narrative has to point that out, not gloss over it to pretend those characters are perfect heroes. Would it have been cool to see comics Xavier, with attention being drawn to his myriad of character flaws? Sure. But I’m totally fine with the version of the character that’s far less flawed and is doing the best he can to create a better world.
A lot of the performances were fabulous. Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan – they managed to demonstrate to the audience that their characters had a long history and a complicated relationship without ever needing flashbacks or a lot of expository dialogue. For all my issues with Logan’s character, I’ll still admit that Hugh Jackman is a great actor. But a lot of the actors were also wasted – James Marsden and Famke Janssen come to mind.
My favourite X-Man has always been Scott. I’ve talked about that before. The adult version of the character has never really had a solo title, but he’s been absolutely crucial to the X-Men as a team – he’s essentially the main character of the entire X-Men mythos. More than Xavier. More than Magneto. That’s how important he is. But if your X-Men knowledge comes from the films and not the comics, you end up seeing Logan as the main character, Logan as the hero and team leader, not Scott, because in the movies, he doesn’t get to do anything. He’s an adaptational wimp that never gets to be a leader or use his brilliant tactical skills and ability to beat people up with his eyes closed. He never gets to be seen as the important pillar of the school, the teacher. There’s less focus on his relationship with his love interest than there is on Logan’s relationship with her. He doesn’t even get to grieve for his fiancée’s death. James Marsden was an excellent casting choice, but he was cast to the side.
Famke Janssen is a superb actress that completely owned her role, but she got very little to work with. The Dark Phoenix saga from the comics is highly acclaimed. It was a beautifully done story, and it was about Jean loving the world, her family, Scott. It was about her choosing death over hurting them. But The Last Stand took away her choices and her agency. It didn’t pay any attention to Jean and who she was, just what she was to Logan.
Somehow, the films made the Jean Logan relationship, something I hate in the comics, an even worse concept. The directors, writers, whoever – they tried to make the audience take Logan’s creepy obsession with Jean seriously, make us view it as a tragic, romantic love story, but he knew her for a week. He knew nothing about her as a person. He thought she was hot and had an image of what she was like and decided he was somehow in love with her, but he didn’t know her. She was engaged to Scott the whole time, and the two of them were in a long term, happy relationship! Logan’s behaviour was borderline harassment at best that we were supposed to believe was love.
I’ve seen most people agree that The Last Stand wasn’t a good movie, that the first two were much better. I think it could have been great, and that in fact, a lot of the action sequences were well done, but a lot of the rest of it fell flat. X-Men United was really good, and I wanted the follow-up movie to deal with the events that happened. The story I wanted was one of grief and pushing through it. I wanted Scott missing Jean, who was his best friend and teammate in addition to being his girlfriend, but working through his grief because his team and the school still needed him. Instead, his adoptive father asked someone else to take over the school instead of bothering to talk to him about his loss and how to start moving on; he got killed off half an hour into the movie; and no one really even mourned his death.
The filmmakers tried to cram too much into the movie and didn’t do justice to any of it. The concept and morality of a cure would have been a great story to go into. The repulsiveness of the idea of suggesting that a natural part of a segment of the population is a disease to be cured and that something is wrong with that segment of the population. The reminder that it’s a complex issue and that some mutants might want to take it. The weaponization of the cure and forcible administration. I would have loved to see Scott returning from wallowing in his grief to his calm, rational, strategic self to try to deal with this. It could have been the start of a real friendship and trust being forged with Logan. It could have been a solid story that was a great character study as well as an action movie. But they killed Scott and also crammed in the Dark Phoenix arc.
The Dark Phoenix as well could have been a great movie. I’ve heard they’re going to make another one about it, but I can’t be very excited for that, because a) Jean has been involved in far more stories than just the Dark Phoenix and deserves so much better and b) it’ll probably be with Sophie Turner and not Janssen, which disappoints me for a lot of reasons that I won’t go into now. But it, as it was portrayed in The Last Stand, wasn’t really a Dark Phoenix story. It wasn’t about Jean. It was pretty much about her choosing to follow Erik instead of Charles and giving Logan something to angst over. It could have been spectacular. But it wasn’t. The entire movie just left me cold and disappointed.
When we look at the second trilogy, the alternate timeline one, my conflicting feelings deepen. Because First Class was a story about Erik and Days of Future Past was a story about Charles, and I thought both were very interesting movies with a lot of heart. But as an X-Men fan, it felt like a slap in the face for a movie to be called First Class and not include the original X-Men. Scott, Jean, Bobby, Warren – none of them was anywhere in sight. Hank was there, sure, but the rest of those characters? Nowhere. They even decided to stick Scott’s traditionally younger brother on the team in Scott’s place. Very few of those new characters were well developed. They killed off Darwin, their only black character, despite the fact that that makes no sense with his power and that his power would have made much more sense as the lynch pin of the next movie than Raven’s.
Days of Future Past was probably my favourite movie on the franchise as a whole, and that’s only partially because of how it completely undid The Last Stand and brought Scott and Jean back to life. As a movie, I think it was the best one by quite a large margin. It wasn’t necessarily a great adaptation, but it was an exceptional movie. It was a movie about found families and fighting through hard times. It was a movie about doing the right thing. It demonstrated the Erik-Charles dynamic beautifully, showing that they both have very different perspectives that stem from their personal experiences and that are both understandable. It showed how necessary and important the school is. And above all, it ended well. It ended happily and it gave them all a second chance. There were a few plot holes and continuity issues, but on the whole, I can’t really complain about Days of Future Past.
Apocalypse was much more divisive than either First Class or Days of Future Past, but while I had my issues with it, issues that were deeper than mine with Future Past, there were actually a lot of things that I appreciated a lot. The most important of them was that Logan showed up for a couple minutes, then left, and that was it. He didn’t hog the spotlight in this one. We got teenage Scott and Jean and Kurt, which was lovely – finally, some other characters got some screen time – but deeply flawed, as the interpretation of Scott was so different from the classic version of him, he felt like a totally different character that just happened to have the same name. It didn’t really focus on a specific character, so it felt more like an X-Men ensemble movie at long last, even if a lot of the characters were underused and Mystique got more screentime than she probably should have.
But even beyond too much focus on a few characters, and a lack of care being put into the details, and my frustration with them as adaptations, my main problem with the movies is how exhausting they are. There hasn’t been a real happy ending since the very first one. When you’re telling a story about a persecuted minority, of course you need to go into the struggles the people belonging to said minority face. But having all of mutantkind wiped out twice, and not facing the societal and political challenges instead of the dramatics since 2006?
I don’t have a problem with emotional weight and bittersweet endings. It’s why I love the DCEU – the movies might be too heavy for me to watch all the time, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good. It just means that sometimes when I’m exhausted and need something light to cheer me up, I’m going to turn on Legally Blonde instead.
So much of the franchise is excellent and enjoyable and generally well done, but there are still so many flaws that are more and more noticeable with every rewatch, it gets very frustrating and exhausting.
All of my issues with the franchise culminated with Logan. While I enjoyed watching it, after I was done, I was so tired. I was sick of Logan as a character. I was sick of never getting to see other mutants or the X-Men as a team. I was sick of the characters never getting a lasting victory or moving forward in a meaningful way.
Logan was the end of an era. It was the last movie with Hugh Jackman playing Wolverine. It was the last movie with Patrick Stewart playing Professor X. By extension, it’s very probably the last movie with any of the original actors. I’d be delighted to be wrong about that, but I very much doubt we’ll ever again see Marsden Scott, Janssen Jean, or Berry Ororo. Logan was the end of that era, and I think that while the movie may stand well on its own, isolated from the rest of the franchise, it was a weak, unsatisfactory ending.