20th Century Fox’s Marvel Films

Given the genre’s popularity today, it’s easy to forget that at the beginning of the century, superhero films were rarely taken seriously. Sure, DC Comics had successfully transplanted Superman and Batman into their own respective series, but both series fizzled out hard by the end of their runs. In 2000, the most notable recent superhero film was 1997’s Batman and Robin, the film that halted Batman for the better part of a decade.

But at least DC had some success. Their closest competitor, Marvel Comics, had licensed many of their characters to different studios over the years, and the film output consisted of barely-seen bombs. 1998, though, saw the release of Blade, which debuted to mixed critical reception but the first positive box office pull for a property licensed by Marvel. But that was nothing compared to what happened next. In 2000, 20th Century Fox released X-Men, based on the popular Marvel title. Under the direction of Bryan Singer, X-Men introduced a take on superhero films that kept things serious, with a quality rarely seen in superhero films before. And the film was a hit.

Sixteen years later, Marvel has pulled many of their characters’ film rights back into their own company, and through the creation of Marvel Studios, they’ve released some of the biggest films of the decade. Still, some of the company’s biggest and most historic characters have their film rights held by other companies. The biggest single character, Spider-Man, and his related heroes and villains are still owned by Sony, though that character’s latest reboot will find the character integrated into Marvel Studios’ Marvel Cinematic Universe. At this point, though, two of Marvel’s three big teams – the X-Men and the Fantastic Four – are still under 20th Century Fox, and the studio has no plans to give up these characters. In fact, they’re now taking steps to create a distinctive cinematic universe of their own, made up of the wide range of X-Men characters. That’s meant bringing the original series cast into contact with a newer series set in the past. It also means some of the more distinctive characters in the X-Men universe are striking out with their own solo films, including Deadpool.

With the release of Logan, and Hugh Jackman’s final time in the role, Fox has 14 Marvel titles in its catalog (including nine featuring an appearance from Jackman). In this edition of Out Ranked, we’re taking a look back at Fox’s Marvel films.

15. Fantastic Four (2005)

If one of the biggest problems facing comic book adaptations in the mid-2000s was a belief that they took their concepts too seriously, Fantastic Four is proof that simply going in the opposite direction wasn’t the solution. As the series that essentially made Marvel into the long-sustaining company that it is today, the Fantastic Four are an essential part of the comic book realm. They’re also decidedly silly in their origins in retrospect, and that’s what this film series banks on. The result here is something that feels lightweight. Too lightweight.

14. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

In spite of the critical barbs thrown at it, Fantastic Four was a box office success. So for the sequel, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, the filmmakers essentially doubled down on the first film. While this film at least doesn’t have to carry the origin story that was mishandled in the first film, it’s not really an improvement over its predecessor. It just holds tighter to the dumb comedy that defined the first one, and that confidence (dumb as it might be) is what just barely pushes it over Fantastic Four.

13. Elektra

Daredevil may have been a critical dud, but it did well enough at the box office to warrant a sequel. And yet, what Fox delivered instead was an undercooked spinoff for Jennifer Garner’s Elektra. Now personally, I found Elektra as a character to be more interesting than Ben Affleck’s Matt Murdock, and Garner had shown through her hit series Alias that she could hold her own as a lead. But with an undeniably weak story and uninspired direction, no amount of fan service (including making Elektra’s costume more in line with her comic book appearance, red and all) could save Elektra. And unfortunately, its disastrous box office performance is still cited as a reason we haven’t had a female-led superhero film since.

12. X-Men Origins: Wolverine

There’s one thing, and one thing only, that saves X-Men Origins: Wolverine from landing at the bottom of this list: Hugh Jackman’s dedication to the Wolverine role, even in a disaster like this. The story is a mess, which makes some sense since the script was being written as the film was being shot. The visual effects are also glaringly bad, with the film’s CGI being several steps below what was shown in previous X-Men films. Even the promotional materials for Deadpool are more than willing to skewer this film and the studio for the way it treated Deadpool in this film.

11. Daredevil

There are plenty of problems with Daredevil, and it’s telling that the film improves significantly with its Director’s Cut, which adds on an extra half hour and is rated R. Just taking the theatrical cut into account, though, Daredevil is a mess. Affleck is woefully miscast as Daredevil, and the character’s backstory is too heavily concentrated at the beginning of the film. The character is also one who more or less requires a dark story, and the decisions made to keep it inside the PG-13 bounds just don’t work with the characters.

10. X-Men: The Last Stand

The original X-Men trilogy came to a screeching halt with The Last Stand, which finds director Brett Ratner replacing original series director Bryan Singer’s focus on character development with an increase in action. And mutants. There are way too many mutants introduced in the film, with some of the series’ most notable characters finding themselves reduced to little more than cameos. In particular, the film could use more time focusing on the rise of Jean Grey’s other personality, Phoenix, who’s made the most compelling part of the film as it is solely through Famke Janssen’s performance. It’s telling that the subsequent X-Men films, First Class and Days of Future Past, went with Singer’s original replacement here, Matthew Vaughn, before returning to Singer himself.

9. Fantastic Four (2015)

Josh Trank doesn’t quite fix the Fantastic Four franchise with his reboot, but there are some promising elements still in play. The film’s focus on establishing the characters of Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Johnny Storm, Ben Grimm and Victor Von Doom prior to the incident that turns them into their superpowered incarnations is effective enough, and the initial scenes where the core four find themselves with these new powers are far more believable in their horror. Unfortunately, the film jumps forward in time after that point and rushes through its ending, replacing a solid science fiction story with some half-hearted gestures to the superhero genre.

8. X-Men: Apocalypse

Fox’s second attempt at an X-Men trilogy ends on a much higher note than its first attempt. That’s not to say it’s perfect. X-Men: Apocalypse attempts to take advantage of the alternate timeline opened up by Days of Future Past to create new takes on characters from the first trilogy, while also trying to give attention to the second trilogy’s core characters: Professor Xavier, Magneto, Mystique and Beast. There’s also the matter of Apocalypse, the villain bringing these characters together. It’s a lot, in other words. And that’s not even including Quicksilver, given a beefed-up role after creating one of the X-Men series’ most iconic moments in the previous film. The result is an interesting mix of old and new elements, with a wider embrace of comic book elements than this particular series has ever shown before. It does also feel a bit conventional, with the apocalyptic ending (surprise, surprise). It’s hard to imagine where the series will go from here, but hey – it’s definitely not at the level of The Last Stand.

7. The Wolverine

Based on a critically acclaimed comic book run from the 80s, The Wolverine serves as a better solo vehicle for Hugh Jackman’s mutant than its predecessor. The Wolverine is a surprisingly distinctive genre picture; set in Japan, the film eschews normal Hollywood conventions by featuring a surprising amount of Japanese characters speaking Japanese. It’s also unafraid to include women, with the two closest characters to Wolverine and one of the two villains all being some of the strongest representations of females in the X-Men series. And the film’s decision to tie in to the ending of The Last Stand provides Wolverine with some strong emotional resonance. With the team behind this film returning for what’s rumored to be Jackman’s final Wolverine performance, the character looks like he’ll continue to be in good hands.

6. X-Men: First Class

The second first X-Men movie had some challenges when it debuted. The previous two X-Men films were critical bombs compared to the first two entries in the series, and rather than picking back up with established characters that audiences loved, First Class gave them origin stories with new actors in some familiar roles. And yet, under the watch of Matthew Vaughn, First Class provided the jolt of energy that the series desperately needed. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender don’t simply mimic Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan; they provide their own takes on youthful incarnations of Professor X and Magneto. And just before her star power exploded, Jennifer Lawrence provided some much-appreciated depth to Mystique, positioning her in between the arguments made by X and Magneto. Plus, the 60s setting brought a new visual energy to the series, which until this point was bathed in early-2000s grays.

5. X-Men

Compared to the films that have followed it, X-Men is a surprisingly small entry in the X-Men series. Sure, the film includes what would be a large team for any other film, but considering the dozens upon dozens of X-Men present in the comics alone, they certainly could have tried to cram more in here (and to be fair, some characters who become more prominent in future films do have small appearances in X-Men). Still, the size was just right for a film that was introducing the characters to a broader audience. The lineup selected for this inaugural outing is solid, and while the film offers some clues to origins for Magneto and Rogue, it’s clear that this isn’t a standard origin story for the major characters, or how the X-Men came together. It just uses the introduction of Wolverine and Rogue into the larger team as a way to introduce audiences to this world. As far as entry points go, it certainly does its job.

4. Deadpool

Against some ridiculous odds, Ryan Reynolds returns to screens as Deadpool – and unlike his last turn in the role, this Deadpool is the foul-mouthed, ultra-violent, fourth-wall-breaking Merc with a Mouth that’s cultivated a rabid fanbase since his debut in the 90s. Deadpool gives the antihero an origin story that’s surprisingly (and thankfully) small-scale, which gives the film more time to let Deadpool go crazy. And “crazy” is the right word. Deadpool pushes its R rating hard, with far more language, violence, graphic nudity and sexual content than the other films on this list combined. While there’s no telling how general audiences will react to the character and his film, fans of the character will absolutely love it.

3. X-Men: Days of Future Past

There may not be a superhero film that approaches the insanity of comic continuity the way X-Men: Days of Future Past does. By bringing back members of the original trilogy’s cast in a distant future, then sending Wolverine back to 1973 to work with the cast from X-Men: First Class, it’s made clear that these characters all belong to the same story. Until they don’t. With the (fair warning: SPOILER) successful fixing of the past, the series finds a way to keep the previous intact in continuity while also letting future films in the series choose to completely ignore them. It also manages to bring in a mammoth number of mutants in small roles without overwhelming the film in the way X-Men: The Last Stand did. And the film, which finally brings X-Men and X2 director Bryan Singer back to the franchise, just works.

2. X2: X-Men United

X-Men was a good start for the series, and X2: X-Men United does what any good sequel should do: it builds on the material of the first film to broaden its world. By forcing Professor X and Magneto to come together for the good of all mutants, the film translates the ever-shifting alliances that take place in the comics routinely and adds some complexity to the villains of the first film. The film also does great work exploring the idea of mutants being outcasts; while the series has hit on this subject regularly, it’s rarely been explored with as much impact as it is here. And with most of the characters having already been introduced and liked by audiences, X2 was able to introduce a handful of new characters to help show how diverse the mutant population is in this world. It is, to date, the best work from Fox’s output of Marvel films.

1. Logan

With the release of Logan, Hugh Jackman completes his nine-film, eighteen-year run as Wolverine (including a few brief film appearances). That passage of time helps inform Jackman’s retirement from the series, as the film incorporates elements of the “Old Man Logan” storyline to show an aging Logan whose body is finally beginning to succumb to injuries and old age. Logan also takes advantage of the unbelievable success of Deadpool to finally have Wolverine on-screen with an R rating, and the film takes full advantage of this without making the upswing in violence and language needlessly gratuitous. Prior to Logan, the best films from 20th Century Fox’s Marvel output ranked among the best superhero films of all time. With Logan, 20th Century Fox has a film that’s great, regardless of genre. That’s one hell of a way to wrap up Jackman’s run.

[NOTE: Originally published August 7, 2015. Most recently updated March 3, 2017.]

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