After nearly 20 years, the X-Men franchise as we know it has come to an end with ‘Dark Phoenix’. Believe it or not, these movies used to be some of the biggest in the world. Before The Dark Knight, before Iron Man, and even before Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, there was the legendary team of superpowered mutants led by Charles Xavier battling the evil forces of his nemesis and one-time friend Magneto. We are gathered here today to commemorate the rise and fall of the very first superhero cinematic universe.
X-Men (July 14, 2000) – Professor Charles Xavier and his team of mutant outcasts must stop the evil mutant Magneto from waging war on humanity. There’s a fight on top of the Statue of Liberty; the world is introduced to Aussie song-and-dance man Hugh Jackman as Wolverine; Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are a casting director’s dream come true as Charles Xavier and Magneto. ‘X-Men’ is well received by both critics and audiences. Nowadays, many credit this and 2002’s ‘Spider-Man’ with laying the foundation for Hollywood to go all-in on superhero movies.
X2 (May 2, 2003) – Charles, Wolverine, and the X-men must join forces with Magneto and his violent mutant followers in order to defeat Col. William Stryker, who plans to wipe out all mutants. We learn some things about Wolverine’s mysterious past, but are left with even more questions. Jean Gray, the world’s most powerful psychic and Wolverine’s crush, sacrifices herself to save her friends. It’s an even bigger hit than the first. It seems the future is looking bright for the X-men.
X-Men: The Last Stand (May 26, 2006) – Whoops. Spoke too soon. A “cure” for the mutant gene has been developed. Magneto amasses an army to finally assert mutant dominance over the world. The X-men are forced to fight their own kind alongside the humans in a final standoff between hope and fear. Oh, and Jean Gray is back from the dead. She kills her boyfriend Cyclops, she kills Charles, she’s a bad guy now. Her death awakened an immensely powerful and unstable cosmic entity called the Phoenix Force. Wolverine is forced to kill her. He shouts toward the sky in rage/anguish. Kelsey Grammer is in this one. In the first ever post-credits stinger scene for a Marvel movie, Charles Xavier’s consciousness enters the body of his comatose twin brother, who suddenly exists. He’s back, baby. This is probably too many things for one movie. ‘The Last Stand’ receives a mixed-to-negative response. Some even label it a franchise-killer, marking one of the earlier instances of widespread online fan-outrage. But with a box office haul of $459 million, the X-men aren’t going away any time soon. Maybe they should make a movie about this Wolverine guy?
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (May 1, 2009) – They made a movie about that Wolverine guy. He’s a kid in the 1800s with bone claws who accidentally kills his father. He can heal incredibly fast and grows up to become Hugh Jackman (pretty sweet deal if you ask me). He fights in a bunch of wars with his half-brother Sabretooth, and kills a ton of people. He joins the secret Weapon X program, and kills even more people. In the end he fights something that was supposed to be Deadpool and who was Ryan Reynolds earlier in the movie, but now has wrist swords and no mouth. There’s plenty of screaming to the sky in rage/anguish in this one, it’s kind of Wolverine’s thing. The whole thing is kind of a disaster, and widely panned by both fans and critics. This spin-off was meant to kick off a whole ‘X-Men Origins’ series focusing on the lives of different mutants before the events of the first X-men film. Suffice to say, that plan was quickly scrapped.
After two strikes in a row, the X-men franchise is in trouble. Back to the drawing board. Let’s hope they stay away from this prequel nonsense
X-Men: First Class (May 25, 2011) – Okay, so they do another prequel. In the 1960’s, young and sexy versions of Charles Xavier and Magneto bring together the very first team of X-men. There’s a lot of tension between the two about how mutants should respond to hate and discrimination. They get caught up in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Charles is shot in the spine, paralyzing him from the waist down. It’s pretty damn good. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender bring fresh new takes on Charles and Magneto respectively, and we even see a pre-Hunger Games Jennifer Lawrence covered head-to-toe in blue make-up as Mystique. Though ‘First Class’ is only a moderate success financially, it’s very well-received by critics and audiences grateful to see a return to form for the world’s leading superhero franchise in the year 2011 (before you send me angry tweets, we only had two Iron Men and a Thor at this point). It’s going to be great seeing how everything leads up to that first ‘X-men’ movie.
The Wolverine (July 26, 2013) – But first, let’s fast forward to the present day to check on our old pal Wolverine. He’s not doing so hot. He’s still pretty torn up about killing Jean Gray three X-men movies ago. He goes to Japan to visit an old friend from World War II and gets caught up in some wild shenanigans. He fights on a high-speed train, he fights ninjas, he fights an old man in a samurai mech-suit; he gets in a lot of fights. It’s kind of his thing. ‘The Wolverine’ isn’t universally loved but it’s fun enough, and a big improvement over Wolverine’s last solo outing. It also makes a hefty chunk of change, so we’ll definitely be seeing more Hugh Jackman.
X-Men: Days of Future Past (May 23, 2014) – This is where it starts to get complicated. The year is 2023. Deadly machines known as Sentinels are hunting down and killing mutants in a radically anti-mutant dystopia. The last of the X-Men, including Charles Xavier and Magneto, send Wolverine back in time to 1973. He has to prevent Mystique from assassinating Bolivar Trask, the scientist who originally designed the Sentinels. Trask’s death ignites a new wave of anti-mutant fervor and leads to the advancement of the Sentinel program and the grim future we see at the beginning of the film. Wolverine and the younger X-Men succeed in stopping Mystique, and the Sentinel program is never approved. Wolverine wakes up in 2023 only to find that Jean Gray and Cyclops are alive again due to his time travel antics. At least, I think that’s why. Like I said, this is where it gets complicated. Things were already pretty iffy continuity-wise, but now it’s starting to seem like these new X-Men movies aren’t going to tie-in with that first trilogy anymore. Despite that, ‘Days of Future Past’ does just fine. It gets overwhelmingly positive reviews and is still the highest-grossing X-men film to date. It even out-grosses ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’, proving that the X-Men franchise can still contend with the Marvel Cinematic Universe even in a post-‘Avengers’ world. Surely good things are in store for the X-Men.
X-Men: Apocalypse (May 27, 2016) – Whoops, spoke too soon again. This time, we’re in 1983. A powerful and ancient being named Apocalypse, the first mutant, awakens in Egypt. He sort of looks like if Poe Dameron from Star Wars had sex with Ivan Ooze from the Power Rangers movie. He recruits mutants Strom, Angel, Psylocke, and Magneto as his Four Horseman and sets to remake the world as he sees fit. Charles and the X-Men, along with (sort of) newcomers Cyclops and Jean Gray, thwart Apocalypse’s plan. Jean obliterates him by tapping into a powerful, bird-shaped flame energy of some kind. Wolverine shows up for only a couple of minutes before he sprints naked into a forest and out of the movie. While not a complete disaster, ‘Apocalypse’ is a disappointment critically and financially. It makes over $200 million less than ‘Days of Future Past’, feeling the full effects of the MCU juggernaut and a distinct lack of one
Hugh Jackman. Boy, they really should make another movie about that Wolverine guy, I really feel like they could nail it with a third one.
Logan (March 3, 2017) – Yeah, they nailed it. I could talk about this one forever, so I’ll keep it brief. ‘Logan’ is a smash-hit, with career-best performances from Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart and a revolutionary debut from Dafne Keen. It’s the first superhero movie to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. It’s one of the finest comic book movies ever made, and I cry every time I watch it. My point is, it’s very good.
Dark Phoenix (June 7, 2019) – Alexa, play “It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday” by Boyz II Men. Seeing as Disney has acquired 20th Century Fox and with it the film rights to the X-Men characters, ‘Dark Phoenix’ marks the end of the X-Men franchise that began nearly two decades ago.
During a rescue mission in space, Jean Gray is hit by a strange cosmic energy wave known as the Phoenix Force. It amplifies her already substantial abilities and fights for control over her powerful psychic mind, causing her to violently lash out when threatened. A mysterious alien race seeks to manipulate Jean in order to take her power for themselves. Charles Xavier and his friends clash over how to best help Jean, threatening to tear the X-Men apart.
Originally scheduled for release in November 2018, ‘Dark Phoenix’ was pushed to February 2019 and then to June to accommodate extensive reshoots. Reportedly, the entire third act had to be redone. Saying that the X-Men’s latest feature landed with a dull thud would be an understatement. It opened to just under $33 million in the US, the lowest opening weekend for any entry in the X-men franchise. It’s also received mostly mixed-to-negative reviews.
That’s a real shame, because while ‘Dark Phoenix’ is certainly among the weaker films in the X-Men franchise it’s nowhere near the worst entry. It stands firmly above ‘Apocalypse’, ‘X-Men Origins’, and ‘The Last Stand’. It has four engaging performances from James McAvoy, Sophie Turner, Nicholas Hoult, and Michael Fassbender as well as a few genuine flashes of greatness topped off with a thrilling finale on an armoured train. Unfortunately, a hollow and anonymous villain along with loose and unfocused writing drag ‘Dark Phoenix’ down into mediocrity.
Though there were a few mistakes made along the way and timelines got more than a little confusing towards the end, it’s still hard to see what was once one of the biggest franchises in the world fizzle out like this. We’ll almost certainly be seeing the X-Men on the big screen again someday, but as of right now their future is still unclear.
Let’s be real here, though, they’ll probably be teaming up with Spider-Man in a couple of years.