For years, I have followed the X-Men in their various incarnations. From the animated show to the current block of films, I have always enjoyed the stories of this team of mutants. Unfortunately, they have not always had the best representation, resulting in a few missteps along the way. So let’s take a look at Part 1 of the good, the bad, and the ugly of the X-Men film franchise.
I feel like I grew up at a perfect time for superheroes. Throughout the mid-to-late ‘90s, a flurry of animated superhero shows hit the air. I watched so many of them regularly: Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Batman: The Animated Series, Iron Man, Superman, and X-Men. Through these shows, I was introduced to a wide array of superheroes and villains and their stories. For better or worse, a vast majority of my comic book knowledge comes from those cartoons I watched as a kid, even though I know they are not wholly accurate to the comics.
Without a doubt, X-Men was one of my favorite cartoons. I watched it every Saturday morning while it aired from the very first episode all the way until the last, only missing a few episodes here and there. The weekly adventures of Professor Charles Xavier, Wolverine, Cyclops, Jean Grey, Storm, Gambit, Rogue, Jubilee, and Beast were fun, engaging, and memorable. The Phoenix Saga, Apocalypse, Bishop, the Sentinels- so many story lines and guest characters still rattle around in my brain as obscure memories from my childhood. These are episodes I have only seen a single time 20+ years ago and yet, they still remain engraved in my memory.
Then in the year 2000, a glorious thing happened - X-Men became a big-budget live-action film for the first time. Not only was it turned into a movie, but it was actually good. Only three years prior it felt like the comic book movie genre was dead, the final blow coming from the dreadful Batman & Robin. Even though X-Men was not the first good comic book movie after that box office bomb, it is undeniable that it helped forge the comic book movie as we know it today. It ditched the campy, exaggerated world that was shown to us in the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher Batman films, and instead gave us a world grounded in reality. Well, as much as it could be when dealing with super-powered mutants.
It should be stated I am not a stickler for source material replication. I think that a movie is its own entity. Some things that work in writing or illustration don’t always work for a live-action movie that is typically trying to tell a complete story in two hours. We cannot expect that everything from the source material will be duplicated on the big screen. It is simply impossible in making a successful, engaging live-action film adaptation. For instance, I once read an X-Men comic in which Magneto was able to control people’s minds because there is naturally a small amount of iron within our blood that he can manipulate. So if we wanted 100% comic book accuracy, he’d be able to do that in all of the movies. But he doesn’t, because that’s a terrible idea.
When it comes to the X-Men, there is also the cartoon, which tells some of its own stories and takes certain liberties with the source material. What is the most accurate? What do you adapt? If you faithfully recreate one graphic novel, it could contradict the cartoon, and so I feel it is necessary to allow the writers and directors of these films a little bit of creative freedom while still working within the blueprints of these characters and the universe they live in.
The story of the X-Men movie followed Professor X and his band of mutants, including new recruits Rogue and Wolverine, as they work to stop Magneto from enacting his attack on the human race. This film included not only the aforementioned characters, but also Cyclops, Jean Grey, Storm, Sabertooth, Mystique, and Toad in significant roles, with Bobby “Iceman” Drake taking on a smaller supporting role. This gave us some of the key characters from the comics while not overburdening the audience with too many characters to keep track of.
X-Men ditched the traditional comic book costume colors, instead opting for the sleeker black leather look. It gave us humor, but not enough to take away from the serious events happening in the movie. We had dramatic moments, but it wasn’t too heavy or dark. This was certainly not a perfect movie, and it even took its own liberties with some of the characters, but it was a welcome change of pace and a heck of a lot of fun. Additionally, the casting was mostly spot on. Hugh Jackman is Wolverine, Patrick Stewart is Professor X, Ian McKellen is Magneto. I can’t imagine anyone else in these roles. They brought life to these characters I fell in love with years prior, and started a whole new franchise of films.
It is not surprising that following the success of the first film, a second movie was made. Released in 2003, X2: X-Men United finds mutant-kind being framed for attempting to kill the President of the United States, which leads to a general fear of mutants and allows Colonel William Stryker to lead an attack against the X-Mansion (aka Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters). The few that were able to escape must work together with the newly freed Magneto in order stop Stryker and save their fellow mutants.
The sequel kept much of the same cast, though a couple of the characters were ditched and a few others were added. There was no more Toad or Sabertooth, instead we received Nightcrawler, Pyro, Lady Deathstrike, Stryker, and a more expanded role for Iceman. Additionally, a few characters received glorified cameos, such as Kitty Pryde and Colossus. In my opinion, this film improved upon what came before it. I loved the first film. It served to reinforce my X-Men fandom and make me crave more. X2 did not disappoint. The action was fun, the story engaging, and the character moments were on point. Things looked great for the future of the X-Men franchise…and then it all went to shit.
Following the continued success of X2, a sequel rumbled forward titled X-Men: The Last Stand, despite losing the franchise's director thus far, Bryan Singer. There were a few other behind-the-scenes complications that influenced some of the creative decisions. Cyclops actor James Marsden followed Singer to his new project Superman Returns, severely reducing his role in Last Stand and resulting in one of the many questionable decisions for this film by (SPOILER ALERT) killing his character off-screen early in the film. Additionally, actress Halle Berry only agreed to come back if her character was given more screen time and development, resulting in Storm taking on the leadership role when Cyclops and (SPOILER ALERT, AGAIN) Professor X are killed early in the film.
The story of this abysmal threequel finds the X-Men once again at odds with Magneto, his Brotherhood, and his newest ally Jean Grey, who was resurrected as the ultra-powerful Phoenix. It sounds like it should be a good story, and a solid movie. One of the most well-known and popular X-Men stories is The Phoenix Saga and with the added bonuses that this film was going to introduce original X-Man Angel and frequent antagonist the Juggernaut, this was a movie I highly anticipated. How could it possibly be bad? Sigh.
For one thing, this film is approximately the same length as the first film in the series, clocking in at 1 hour and 44 minutes, nearly 30 minutes shorter than the second film. Inherently, a shorter film does not mean it is of lesser quality, however when the shorter film is crammed with more characters and given an “epic showdown” type of finale, it all feels a little rushed and ultimately underwhelming. Making things worse is the fact that we aren’t working with the same characters. Sure, we have Wolverine, Storm, Rogue, Magneto, Iceman and Jean Grey as the mainstays throughout the series, but with them killing off not one, but two major characters early in the film, the ranks were filled with relatively new characters to the series who weren’t given enough time to develop.
However, Colossus, Kitty Pride, and Beast, while technically appearing only briefly in the previous film, weren’t given any characterization in X2, so all of that had to be built here, but the film just didn’t dedicate the runtime to do it. With great writing it still could have worked, but they just failed to make us care all that much about the newer additions. The same can be said about series newcomers Angel and the Juggernaut. And on that note, I was supremely disappointed by the Juggernaut.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Vinnie Jones. I have ever since his debut film Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (which I did a review video for HERE) and it’s fine that they didn’t pick a true-to-life big man, even though there are plenty to choose from. The muscle suit they had him wear looked good enough. Hell, I was even okay with the fact that they made him a mutant and of no relation to Professor X, since it cut down on the need for an overabundance of explanation. However, my issue is that he was downgraded to just being a brute thug, with little else to offer in terms of character. He’s The Juggernaut, BITCH!
So for me, this film just didn’t work. With the behind-the-scenes changes influencing the end result, and a few too many characters without enough screen time to care about half of them, this became a weak conclusion to the X-Men trilogy. I wanted to like it, I wanted the trilogy to end on a high note, but that was not to be. So instead of working on a fourth X-Men film, they moved forward with their next plan- a standalone Wolverine movie.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) is easily the lowest point of the entire film franchise. I see why they did it, though. Last Stand wasn’t well-liked. Some people complained there were too many characters so how about we just focus on one character, the fan favorite. Brilliant! I can already see dollar signs. And thus this undeniable stinker was born.
You’ll have to bear with me a little bit for this one. I have only seen the film once and did not like it at all, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to subject myself to it again just for this article, so my recollection might be a bit spotty. For me, the film felt really different from what came before it. Sure, it still featured Hugh Jackman as Wolverine and Patrick Stewart has a cameo as Professor X, but aside from that, nothing about this feels like it belongs.
We have a vastly different Sabretooth, turning him from the giant, menacing monster type in X-Men into the far less intimidating, but more in-depth character in Origins. It is hard to see any part of him being the same in both films, which is further hindered by the incredibly different looking actors used in both films. Past that, the tone, style and general look of the film felt very different from the prior movies, coming off as more cartoony or perhaps comic-booky, which is a funny thing to say, after all, the films are adaptations of comics and cartoons. But the trilogy felt like it belonged in the real world. As in, if our world had mutants in it, those films are quite possibly what it would be like, but not Origins. The effects and the fights all just felt more over-the-top than the prior movies.
And then there was the Deadpool debacle. I’ll admit, I have never been overly familiar with Deadpool. I had picked up some small details about him from comic book browsing or video games (I’m looking at you Marvel: Ultimate Alliance). Regardless, finding out he was going to be in the movie was pretty cool. From what I knew, he seemed like a fun character. And he was, for a minute, until they completely botched the character by turning him into a mute, teleporting Baraka with laser eyes.
After the mess of Last Stand and Origins, the series was at its lowest point. I lost faith in the franchise, believing they had no more stories to tell. It was made even worse by having the spectacular The Dark Knight and Iron Man films the year before Origins, which made that film feel like the next Batman & Robin- the film in the franchise that felt way out of place and went too far with the over-the-top style; the film that could kill potentially a series for nearly 20 years, but I’m glad it didn’t.
Continue reading in Part 2, where I discuss the continuation of the X-Men franchise and Deadpool’s redemption!
Andy Snyder is a writer and regular contributor for Happy Dragon Pictures. He loves video games, films from all over the world, screenwriting and kittens.