Over the course of nine films in 17 years from five directors, Hugh Jackman has remained the heart and soul of the X-Men franchise, even when he pops up for a mere cameo or when the script flies off the rails. The third Wolverine movie Logan may indeed be the swan song for the cigar-chomping, Adamantium-clawed mutant, and even though comic-book and movie fans know to never say never when it comes to resurrection, the final beats of Logan are a fitting conclusion for the character.
Quality wise, the three stand-alone Wolverine pictures span the gamut of the X-Men universe, registering, in reverse order, as the best of the series (Logan), the most medium-grade (The Wolverine), and the absolute worst of the lot (X-Men Origins: Wolverine). Sprinkled intermittently among them are the other six X-Men chapters, a trilogy set in “current day” and a “prequel” trilogy that both pre-dates the events of the current day trilogy and, through some time-travel trickery, “resets” the timeline and erases the events of one of the series’ lesser entries.
Confused? Yeah, me too, but there comes a point in any time-skewing saga when one simply goes with the flow and stops trying to reconcile every gaping plot hole and nagging paradox.
Without further ado, my brief encapsulation of Wolverine and the X-Men series, from best to worst.
It’s rare that a trilogy capper surpasses its two predecessors so thoroughly, but the third stand-alone Wolverine movie pulls out all the brutal and gory stops to become the most mature and emotionally resonant entry in the Marvel canon (that includes Disney’s so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe along with the other non-MCU Marvel movies). Logan transcends its dubious roots as a mere “comic book” flick to become a mournful tale of aging and regret, more in the spirit of classic Westerns like True Grit and Unforgiven than anything we’ve seen so far in a superhero adaptation. The gutsy decision to go full-“R” with salty language and shocking graphic violence pays off handsomely. Logan sets the bar so high for the genre it’s hard to imagine where the Marvel universe—or the fledgling DC movie universe, for that matter—can go from here.
X2: X-Men United (2003)
The best of the original trilogy of “current day” X-Men movies, this is the series’ Empire Strikes Back—it’s darker, delves deeper into character dynamics, and ends on a life-or-death cliffhanger for a major player. Though firmly constrained to a “PG-13” rating, we finally get to see Jackman’s Wolvie go totally berserker.
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
The seventh X-Men flick juggles too many characters and focuses way too much on Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique, but original X-Men and X2 director Bryan Singer manages to make sense of the time-hopping future-versus-1970s plotline and delivers the best entry in over a decade.
Hard to believe now that when the original X-Men movie came out, comic book superhero movies were not a sure thing. Heavy on character introductions and world-building exposition but relatively skimpy on plot, the movie feels too short but nonetheless leaves us hungry for more.
The Wolverine (2013)
In light of Logan, director James Mangold’s first dance with Wolverine plays a lot like Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Vol. 1 for its Eastern stylings and Japanese setting; the dusty and Western-tinged Logan, in turn, feels a whole lot like Kill Bill, Vol. 2. Though a great improvement over the first stand-alone Wolverine movie X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the theatrical version of this second solo Wolfie movie is a bit of a slog, and registers smack dab in the middle of the nine-film (thus far) X-Men cycle. (Wait—if we’re counting 2016’s Deadpool then it’s a 10-film cycle.) The extended “unrated” version on home video is a more satisfying ride, pushing the violence and profanity well beyond the comfy confines of a “PG-13” rating.
X-Men: First Class (2011)
Matthew Vaughn, fresh off the kick-ass adaptation of the graphic novel Kick-Ass, brings a lot of style and period detail to this 1962-set prequel. The youthful incarnations of characters we’ve known since the first X-Men movie are likeable enough, but are no match for their future counterparts; it says a whole lot that the single most memorable bit is a three-word cameo by Jackman’s Wolverine.
X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
Jackman pops up again towards the end of the 1980’s-set third chapter of the prequel trilogy, and his berserker-rage escape from the Alkali Lake facility overshadows everything and everybody else in the movie, including its ho-hum villain (Oscar Isaac) and the still-overused Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, again—and hopefully for the final time).
X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
After directing the first X-Men and the sequel X2: X-Men United, Bryan Singer opted to take on Superman Returns instead of finishing out the trilogy; we didn’t know or appreciate the impact of his contributions to the X-Men series until uber-hack Brett Ratner stepped into the director’s chair to make the dullest and least rousing X-movie to date. So devoid of personality and vision that the picture could very well have been made by committee or by computer—or both.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
What seemed like a sure thing—Jackman as Wolverine in his own movie depicting the character’s beginnings—is undermined by a clichéd script full of inconsistencies with the established timeline and—a bizarre wrinkle in light of the 2016 mega-smash Deadpool—a disastrous first attempt to bring the “Merc with a Mouth” (Ryan Reynolds) to the big screen. It’s solely because of Jackman’s star power and the enduring popularity of the mutton-chopped mutant that the series was able to rebound from such a dissatisfying misfire.