With X-Men: Days of Future Past opening this week, it’s time to look back at the films that kicked off the first big superhero franchise. There are countless top ten lists that could be made from the myriad of X-Men images, characters, and set pieces that have come to define the superhero genre and reshape what we know about a comic book that has endured for decades. This list tries best to objectively quantify ten great scenes from five of the six theatrically released films, ordering them in terms of iconography and emotionality, but also according to the fundamentals of what makes a film scene work and why this behemoth franchise is so enduring. SPOILERS herein.
“Count to three.”
Despite tonal unevenness and haphazard pacing, Matthew Vaughn’s singular X-Men prequel delivers a zippy and colorful adventure. Less brooding than any franchise entry, the movie gets by on brand energy alone until its one true moment of darkness. Erik Lehnsherr, out for blood against Sebastian Shaw (the Nazi bastard who murdered his mother), finds himself aboard the vile mutant’s beached submarine. Facing off in the sub’s hidden nuclear reactor, Erik is able to subdue Shaw with the help of Charles Xavier’s mind powers, which freeze the villain in his tracks. Yet once Erik gets a hold of his nemesis’ telepathy blocking helmet, against his friend’s admonition he is able to exact his delicious revenge: sending a Nazi coin in one end of Shaw’s skull and out the other. It’s a viscerally inventive demise and the final crack in Erik’s humanity. He has become Magneto.
Bryan Singer’s departure from the third franchise entry may have left fans in the lifeless hands of Hollywood hack Brett Ratner, but his workmanlike approach to action actually becomes a plus. For the film’s climactic battle on Alcatraz, the pyrotechnics pay off when Logan must take on his true love, Jean Grey. Having succumbed to the Phoenix–her uninhibited dark side–Jean goes about laying waste to the island, disintegrating every living thing in her path in a nifty bit of FX magic. It’s up to Logan to put an end to the madness by braving her powers (check out the cool visual of his adamantium skeleton through his ripped flesh). Finally declaring his love and plunging his claws into her, the scene is like a pulp romance cover come to life with the shirtless muscle-bound hero holding his slain beloved in his arms. It’s broad, larger than life grandiosity that ends the picture on a high note.
8.X2: X-Men United (2003)
Superhero movies are often plot heavy extravaganzas hindered by fan service. So many try to have it both ways and so few pull it off. Magneto’s escape from his plastic prison in X2 manages to use fan service to yank the character from his narrative dead end. He senses something off about his cantankerous prison guard, something biological it seems–too much iron in his blood, courtesy of an injection from Mystique (nevermind that fact that one would be fatal in real life). Magneto fatally extricates the metal, molds it into three ball bearings and then shatters his holding cell to a million pieces. Ian McKellan always has a devilish good time as the character, but in this scene, demonstrating the subtle yet lethal extent of his power, he knows how badass he looks.
7. X-Men (2000)
Professor X and Magneto Standoff
X-Men has always been defined by dichotomies: love vs. fear, normal vs. abnormal, peace vs. force. At the heart of these are Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, two men on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum who share one common virtue: the survival of the mutant race. In one of the first film’s finest set pieces, Magneto attacks a train station to kidnap Rogue, whose powers of absorption will help him achieve mutant superiority. Amid his escape, he is greeted by a swarm of police officers. Barely batting an eyelash, he trashes four of their cruisers and turns their firearms against them. That is until Xavier confronts him telepathically via his henchman. The conflict couldn’t be starker: one man empowered by his mind to enact peace and the other emboldened by his control over mankind’s most dangerous weapons. Beautiful anamorphic compositions give Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan’s duel the punch it deserves, but it’s the actors themselves that bring to life the most inimitable foils of the comic book series.
6. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
The Last Stand is a blot on the franchise for many (at least until X-Men Origins: Wolverine was released) but those scoffing at its inconsistencies with comic book canon and general lack of imagination miss out on its more basic virtues: fun superhero entertainment. The X-Men movies contain surprisingly very few set pieces, but the skirmish at Jean Grey’s childhood home ranks among the best. Professor X joins Magneto in confronting the newly resurrected Jean about her unfettered power (one to control it, the other to embrace it) before she unleashes mutant fury upon all of them. Crosscutting between Wolverine and Storm battling it out with Magneto’s goons, and Professor X attempting in vain to calm Jean’s telekinetic whirlwind, the scene gives the movie the jolt it’s been searching for. John Powell’s score (a franchise best) goes all out, delivering operatic pathos. And the CGI actually enhances the mayhem on screen.
5. The Wolverine (2013)
James Mangold’s stand alone entry in the X-Men mythos is a handsomely made pulp thriller disguised as a superhero flick. Our favorite clawed antihero finds himself in the Land of the Rising Sun at the behest of Yashida, a dying billionaire whose life he saved during the bombing of Nagasaki. Logan is reluctantly tasked with protecting Yashida’s granddaughter, the delicate Mariko. After the pair escapes the deadly clutches of the Yakuza, Logan and Mariko retreat to her coastal home for safety, where they share an intimate encounter. In the rain soaked moonlight, Mariko recalls her father’s tales of the Kuzuri, the beast that saved his life and who would watch over young Mariko as she slept. The scene is one of small details: the pattering rain on the soundtrack, Mariko stroking Logan’s metal blades unafraid, and Logan finally confessing his killing of Jean Grey. Before the superhero overtakes the pulp, The Wolverine plays like a full bodied film about a man overcoming grief–a man with claws–but a man nonetheless.
4. X-Men (2000)
A friendly game of chess
X-Men was the first comic book film to score a coup in casting. Let’s be honest here. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan are better than this fantastical material, but their commitment (and seemingly effortless gravitas) elevates the often inaccessible pop art page to enjoyable popcorn movie pulp. The first film gives the Shakespearian thespians enough to chew on that their final scene–a literal chess match among enemies–feels like the close of an off Broadway play about mutants. Xavier hasn’t given up hope for mankind, while Magneto vows to fight the impending war “by any means necessary.” “I will always be there…old friend,” X assures him. And with that, superheroes no longer belonged to the B-movie stars.
3. X2: X-Men United (2003)
In X2, Logan’s search for the truth about his mysterious past runs concurrent with the struggle to stop William Stryker’s vicious plan…until the two plots converge. Deep within the ruined base of Alkali Lake, Logan discovers a defunct laboratory housing x-rays, an operating table, and a sink of liquid adamantium. The memories flood back: needles going into his skin, four star generals patting themselves on the back, Logan awakening from the experiment and slicing his way free. He runs out of the lab covered in blood and screaming in agony, reborn as a killing machine. Show, don’t tell is the motto for great storytelling. Wolverine’s origin is captured in one silent and haunting sequence, pretty much negating the entirety of the redundant X-Men Origins: Wolverine six years later.
2. X-Men (2000)
Has any mainstream superhero film ever started its series so dramatically? Bryan Singer opens his film in 1944 Poland where a young Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto as we will later learn) and his family are being herded into a concentration camp. The boy gets separated from his mother and father, prompting a deep emotional response that triggers a biological change. As the guards pull him away, his outstretched hand–grasping desperately for his loved ones–appears to bend and contort the barbed wire fence. It’s a wordless sequence save for the cries of a mother and son, as wrenching strings rise on the soundtrack courtesy of Michael Kamen. In effect, Singer frontloads the movie with emotional power such that everything following it (no matter how seriously handled) lacks any real world gravity. What does resonate is the comingling of history with comic book fantasy. What great tragedies could have been averted by a few mutants with superpowers?
1. X-Men (2000)
“Does it hurt?”
The saturation of the superhero film has blown up each new film within the genre, such that many forget how calm if not subtle those films were allowed to be in the early days. The first X-Men is not a bombastic affair, but what it lacks in action set pieces, it makes up for in little character moments. Rogue, having run away from home, has a chance encounter with Logan, introduced as a nomadic bare-knuckle fighter dubbed the Wolverine. Having hitched a ride with the clawed Canadian, Rogue explains her mutant condition–the inability to touch another human being without absorbing his or her energy. She then turns the tables on her road companion. “Does it hurt?” she asks about the knives that unsheathe from his fists. “Every time,” Logan replies with the full weight of a man who has learned to literally live with pain. In one line and with one steely look, Hugh Jackman proves his comic book bonafides. Composer Michael Kamen underplays the strings on the soundtrack. Newton Thomas Seigel’s lighting captures these two lost souls in an isolating blue hue. And director Bryan Singer finds the crux of X-Men: outcasts finding connection among outcasts.
- X-Men– Logan comforts Rogue on the train
- X-Men– Professor X enters Kelly’s mind
- X2: X-Men United– Nightcrawler attacks
- X2: X-Men United– Xavier shows Logan Cerebro
- X2: X-Men United– Wolverine goes berserk
- X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)- Magneto relocates the Golden Gate bridge
- X-Men: First Class– Rage and serenity
- The Wolverine– Bullet train fight
Note: The dearth of many scenes from X2 will surely ignite the ire of X-Men film purists. While X2 as a whole is a more complete film than its predecessor, X-Men contains a greater collection of strong individual scenes.