The Uncanny X-Men

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There are three major events in popular culture that formed my generation’s childhood. The first was Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), followed by the publication of X-Men #1 in 1991, and then concluding with the release of Jurassic Park (1993). Each of these events was accompanied by commercial tie-ins, action figures, board games, video games, and an infinite amount of other merchandise and apparel. These events dominated the landscape of childhood. Everywhere you looked there was Batman or Wolverine or a T-Rex.

X-Men wasn’t a movie though, that didn’t come till 2000. All through the nineties one would hear rumors and whispers that an X-Men film was in development. So when the first film came out right around my birthday it was one of the greatest gifts of fate in my life. I remember wearing my Sabretooth t-shirt to opening day, munching on popcorn and generally geeking out hardcore with my little brother and father.

X-Men was the first of the modern superhero films, establishing the conventions that would come to be the cookie cutter fashion in which films of this genre are made today. And, just like Batman and Jurassic Park, a franchise was launched that would be relatively hit or miss in terms of quality. Some of these sequels are so terrible that I couldn’t even imagine sitting through every X-Men and X-Men related movie on consecutive nights. Somehow, perhaps another twist of fate, the best films in the X-Men franchise all seem to go together.

First off, one has to begin with X-Men. This film establishes the world and the characters, even if it isn’t a particularly good superhero film. Then one moves onto X2: X-Men United (2003) which is a very literal follow-up to the first film and explores the relationship between Magneto and Xavier at greater depth while also establishing Stryker and giving us more background about Wolverine. Wolverine, the most popular Mutant of the nineties, gives us the arc for the next two entries in this informal watching order.

After Jean Grey dies and the X-Men have their impromptu summit meeting with the president at the end of X2, one jumps ahead to X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014). Here the original cast has to alter the past, dispatching Wolverine through time to effect changes in a world populated by the cast introduced in X-Men: First Class (2011). Xavier, Magneto and Wolverine are once again the stars, wrapping up Magneto’s arc and cemented Stryker’s role in the narrative. The preferred version of Days Of Future Past to watch is, of course, The Rogue Cut. This version is slightly longer and, with the inclusion of Anna Paquin’s Rogue, better connects the film with X2.

Suffice it to say that Wolverine saves the future at the end of Days Of Future Past, but for how long? This is where Logan (2017) comes in. Taking place some ten years after the “future” of Days Of Future Past, Logan offers us a different kind of nightmare. Logan is the most humanistic entry in this line up, providing a hauntingly real conclusion to the Wolverine and Xavier arcs that initially launched the franchise. After Logan comes The New Mutants (2020) which, using footage from Logan, places that film in the distant past. In The New Mutants a new group of Mutants is developing their powers and coping with adolescence. The New Mutants ends on a hopeful note while also bringing us back to square one with a narrative about discovering Mutant powers and self-identity.

Cutting the franchise down to five films omits a number of entries but at very little expense. These five films, watched back to back, come close to capturing the essence of Chris Claremont’s definitive sixteen year run on Uncanny X-Men; it was Claremont who made X-Men a cultural phenomenon in the first place. His run on Uncanny X-Men was all about the people behind the masks and codenames. Beneath all of the multi-book tie-ins, space adventures, evil mutants, and demons over New York, X-Men was a book about people learning to work together and accept one another.

It isn’t very likely that anything Marvel and Disney do with the property is going to come close to being as good as these five films. They will want to fold X-Men into their wider cinematic universe and shoot it in their abominable house style. This leaves us, the Mutant lovers, with artifacts of the past; five superhero movies that actually feel like movies.