'X-Men' rewatch: A serious attempt to find meaning in the strangest superhero franchise

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The X-Men movies are important. They make a lot of money and they helped create Superhero-Era Hollywood and they incepted a certain kind of lucrative career arc in the heads of a generation of young actors. (Do the franchise, take the money, spend a year on greenscreens and the press circuit pretending you understand anything that’s happening, try for the Oscar, repeat.)

And the X-Men movies are important to me. I grew up loving superhero comic books and I grew up loving movies. These two fascinations were not mutually exclusive; but now, more and more, they feel diametrically opposed. There is a school of thought that says that superheroes have been bad for movies — or at least bad for Hollywood movies, leading the American film business into digital excess and brand retreads and assembly-line sagas. And there is another school of thought, smaller but more vocal, that says that movies have been bad for superheroes: Simplifying decades of history into easily-digestible chunks, transforming epic tales of high adventure into advertisements for future sequels.

These issues may not be important to you. You might watch superhero movies and enjoy them kinda. You might read comic books unencumbered by globo-mainstream constrictions: Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye, Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four, everyone’s Daredevil. Or maybe you just watch a lot of TV. But to me, the problem of superhero movies is all-encapsulating, the nexus-point crossover for all the most fascinating questions about movie culture, geek culture, culture culture. Why are superheroes so popular? What is a movie franchise supposed to be? Can a product built to appeal to every demographic say anything interesting? Can you please your fans but also challenge them? What is a movie, anyways?

The X-Men is not the most commercially successful superhero series, nor the most popular, nobody’s favorite and nobody’s worst. 20th Century Fox’s first X-Men movie arrived two years before Sony’s Spider-Man, five years before Warner Bros’ Batman Begins, eight years before Marvel Studios’ Iron Man. Cut to 2014: Marvel has all the post-Avengers money and Warner has the post-Nolan prestige and Sony either has a rapidly expanding empire or a rapidly declining empire, depending on how much you believe in magical thinking.

X-Men is somewhere in the middle of all of that. Conventional wisdom states that there has been one great X-Men movie, a couple good X-Men movies, two flat-out terrible X-Men movies, and whatever you think The Wolverine is.

Days of Future Past will change everything. Or maybe it already has. For the last year, Fox and returning director Bryan Singer have presented Future Past as a kind of one-size-fits-all of franchise nostalgia and next-wave reboot, bringing back everyone’s old favorites in the hopes of creating some new favorites. Future Past is a weird movie. It spoils nothing to say that it requires the moviegoer to simultaneously love and loathe the franchise: The implicit promise is, “This is the X-Men movie you’ve been waiting for, during those other X-Men movies.”

Which means that, in order to understand Future Past, we also have to try and understand X-Men. Not the comic books — though we can do that, too. When I decided last week to watch all six previous X-Men movies in order, I foremost wanted to look at them not as comic book adaptations or as franchise chapter entries, but as movies. The questions begin immediately: Is that even still possible? Is there art within the franchise machinery? What will future generations make of these strange films? We begin:

X-Men (2000)
I have one-day-marathoned three movie franchises: the original Star Wars trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, and the first five Fast & Furiouses. I’m not totally sure I would describe any of those experiences as “fun.” Movies should not be binged. (Try it, and you realize that there is still something about a movie that is bigger than the biggest television show.) But all three of those series are built on fun: Space-faring adventure, fantasy action, adrenalized camp. And notably, none of them begin in a concentration camp.

But that is where we begin with X-Men, after an opening credit sequence that looks like every other credit sequence Hollywood was making after Fight Club. We get a time and place: “Poland, 1944.” We see a young boy, separated from his parents. He cries out; his parents scream; he pulls a metallic gate down with his mind; and a Nazi knocks him out.

SMASH CUT TO: “Meridian, Mississippi: The Not-Too-Distant-Future.” Anna Paquin, 18 years old but looking about 14, is upstairs all alone with her randy boyfriend. The iconography reads Loss Of Virginity…until Paquin kisses her boyfriend and he starts convulsing. SMASH CUT TO: The Capitol Building, where a U.S. Senator declaims: “I have here a list of names of identified mutants.” We meet Magneto and Professor X; Magneto explicitly compares the U.S. Senate to the Nazis. SMASH CUT TO: Canada, where a shirtless cagefighter with mutton chops gets into a barfight.

Serious Question: What the hell kind of movie is this? In the span of ten minutes, X-Men skips from WWII melodrama to teen-suburban coming-of-age drama to body horror to McCarthyism to beefcake brawling; Schindler’s List to Sixteen Candles to Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Seven Days in May to Bloodsport. Easy answer: We’re watching a superhero movie. More complicated answer: We are watching a fascinating attempt to adapt decades of comic book ensemble history into one coherent single story.

It doesn’t really work, but credit Singer for trying. The first X-Men is the cheapest: $75 million, about a third what Future Past cost. The edges are rough. Magneto’s HQ looks like a cave leftover from a mid-’80s fantasy show, and Sabretooth looks like a renegade from Conan the Destroyer. You can hear Jackman’s accent slip. You can also hear Halle Berry occasionally attempt some kind of African accent. (When she talks, which is never.)

There are problems that define the franchise, and they all start here. The early scenes between Wolverine and Rogue are great, and you might think that the movie will focus on them. Then they get to the X-Mansion, and the movie defaults to exposition-mode for most of Act 2. Professor X shows Wolverine the school, a building filled entirely with fan service. “Bye Kitty,” says the Professor. CUT TO: A quick shot of a girl running through walls, a girl who is probably Kitty Pryde and is definitely not Ellen Page.

Times like that, the movie that X-Men most resembles is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, one of the first Feature-Film Pilot Episodes. At other times, it’s just lazy. There are too many people in comas. There’s this. There’s the moment when you realize that half the dialogue appears to be people saying names and codenames. Actual dialogue: “Ah, Logan. I’d like you to meet Ororo Monroe, also called Storm. This is Scott Summers, also called Cyclops.”

But then there are the other moments, dark and weird and scuzzy in a way that few $100 million-plus blockbusters ever dare. Wolverine has a nightmare; Rogue walks in to comfort him; he stabs her in the midsection. (Fun Fact: Wolverine stabs or almost stabs every single woman in his life, usually while having a nightmare.) Then Rogue touches Wolverine, absorbs his healing powers, makes his skin crawl, knocks him into a coma. A semiotics student would have a field day here: A slasher attacking a helpless teen girl, a succubus attacking a symbol of raw masculinity. The other students look on, horrified.

There is horror in X-Men 1. Bodies are fluid, protean. Senator Kelly gets transformed into a slithery mutant; he doesn’t die, he liquefies. And there is Mystique, T-1000 with blue body paint and Y2k-trendy martial arts, her shapeshifting instantly becoming the most overrused superpower in the franchise next to Wolverine’s claws.

I don’t think X-Men has aged well. Movie series have the same problem as videogame franchises: Iterative improvement can retroactively make earlier entries look primitive. It’s the moment when you try playing Grand Theft Auto 3 and realize your character can’t swim; it’s the moment when the final battle of X-Men takes place on a Statue of Liberty surrounded by obvious greenscreen.

But there’s a legitimate pulpiness to the first movie, an up-with-the-outsiders appeal. And pain, too. No disrespect to Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellen, but Jackman’s the one guy who knows exactly what he’s doing, turning Wolverine into the audience-surrogate everyguy and a wry action hero. There’s a bit of John McClane in Wolverine’s first outing: You live for his gruff reactions. But there’s also a no-bull sadness, which was still mildly unusual for an action hero two years pre-Bourne. Rogue asks him if it hurts when his claws come out. Jackman responds: “Every time.” Superpowers-as-Masochism: That’s every Dark Knight movie in one line.

Thought Experiment: If X-Men had flopped, and superhero movies never happened, how do you think people would remember that first movie? How would you remember it? It doesn’t really look anything like the comic books: Singer purposefully dressed the X-people in jet-black leather, presumably to avoid scaring people away with lots of colorful costumes. (There is always something grunge about the first X trilogy, even when Brett Ratner tries to turn it into rap-rock.) I wonder what fans would think about X-Men if there had been no sequels. I wonder if we can even imagine a world like that; to the extent that Twitter trending topics imply anything about our global hive-mind, we are all X-Men fans now.

X2: X-Men United (2003)
X1 begins in a concentration camp and ends at the Statue of Liberty. X2 begins in the White House with somebody quoting Abraham Lincoln and ends with Professor X asking his students if they’ve ever read T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. Heavy stuff: You think of Christopher Nolan going Full Dickens in The Dark Knight Rises. Except that X2 is light on its feet, filled with exciting little details. This is the movie where Singer figured out that the most interesting thing about superpowers is what people do when they’re not doing superhero stuff. Wolverine stubs out a lit cigar on his hand. Iceman chills a warm Dr. Pepper. Lady Deathstrike, of all people, gets one of the franchise’s best introductions: Cracking her metal knuckles, the chunky-iron sound effects resembling ten steel girders copulating.

I’m going to maybe-controversially argue that X2 doesn’t quite live up to its reputation. The White House action scene is great, and the Mansion Attack action scene is great, and the Magneto Window Prison Escape Scene is one of the best Window Prison Escape Scenes in a decade filled with Window Prison Escapes, and the moment when Rogue flies out of the Blackbird and falls through the air until Nightcrawler suddenly BAMFs her to safety might be the most thrilling single moment in the whole series. But you watch it now, and you can see the problems of The Last Stand in utero. Cyclops is a non-character. Halle Berry won an Oscar between movies, and Storm still registers less than Pyro. Remember when Anna Paquin was the most important character in the first twenty minutes of X1? In X2 she’s baggage.

Bryan Singer has worked on four X-Men movies now; he may work on many more yet. When you factor in the global box office, it’s possible that Bryan Singer’s notion of the “X-Men” is the most popular in history — that his particular vision has reached more people than Chris Claremont and Grant Morrison and Rob Liefeld combined. So it’s interesting to remember that Singer was not a fan of the comic books. By some accounts, he wasn’t even aware of the characters until the movie offer came up.

There’s an angle on X2 where you begin to notice the weird grab-bag of characters — Pyro? Lady Deathstrike? — and you realize that these are characters who were chosen purely because of their powers, and not because of any particular character trait. Alan Cumming is kind of sad and kind of funny as Nightcrawler, but he is only in the movie so there can be a really cool teleportation action scene. This, more than anything, is probably why Cyclops spends X2 in character purgatory. On the page, he’s a great character; in the movie, he’s just the guy who fires red stuff out of his eyes. Meanwhile, Mystique is the reason why half the movie happens: A better codename for her would be Cheat Code.

The back half of X2 devolves in every direction. It becomes Subterranean Corridor: The Movie. It requires Professor X, world’s most powerful telepath, to get mind-controlled. It requires the scientific possibility that Cerebro has a setting for “Kill All Mutants,” and that if Magneto moves around a few panels inside of Cerebro, that setting changes to “Kill All Humans.” With one exception, there’s none of the visual inventiveness of the film’s first half: All the characters are just punching each other or shooting energy at each other. (The exception is Lady Deathstrike, pumped full of adamantium, falling to the bottom of a pool of water, her skull THUNKing against the bottom.)

I ended X2 thinking that the movie had aged poorly. But it least it has “aging poorly” as an excuse.

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
A Purely Theoretical But Entirely Accurate Conversation Between The Executives Of Twentieth Century Fox and Brett Ratner, Circa 2005
FOX EXECUTIVES: “Brett, thank you so much for agreeing to direct the third X movie. We’ve been in tight spot ever since Singer jumped ship to Superman.”
BRETT RATNER: “Don’t worry about it, bro. I really dig the X-Men. Wolfman!”
FOX EXECUTIVES: “Right, so, we really want you to make this movie your own. There’s just a few things that we’d like you to include.”
BRETT RATNER: “Shoot.”
FOX EXECUTIVES: “You have to make it about the Dark Phoenix. The kids love that Dark Phoenix.”
BRETT RATNER: “Crazy ginger chick with fire powers. Check.”
FOX EXECUTIVES: “But the kids also love that Future Past stuff. So maybe include an action scene that looks like Future Past, for no reason.”
BRETT RATNER: “I love it. It’s like putting a pizza on a hamburger.”
FOX EXECUTIVES: “But you also have to include a completely different A-plot about a mutant cure. We need something that’ll get a lot of mutants fighting a lot of other mutants.”
BRETT RATNER: “I love it. It’s like putting a cookie-cake on a pizza-burger.”
FOX EXECUTIVES: “Now, we need to add in Beast, because kids love Beast. But that’s too many blue people. People really dug Nightcrawler in X2, so we were thinking…”
BRETT RATNER: “Is Nightcrawler the hot blue chick? We’re keeping the hot blue chick or I walk.”
FOX EXECUTIVES: “She’s in! Also, we’re thinking of doing a Wolverine spinoff, so do a lot of stuff with Wolverine. And Halle is huge now, huge, so we’re gonna need a lot of scenes where Storm is really important. Maybe Patrick Stewart could say something like ‘You’ve always been really important, Storm.’”
BRETT RATNER: “You guys remember that part of The Matrix where that one dude spins in the air, and it’s really badass? Let’s do that with Storm. That makes sense for her powers, right? She’s the one with the brain stuff?”
FOX EXECUTIVES: “Sure. Now, this is the last movie in the trilogy, so we need you to really give it that Finale vibe. You gotta kill some people.”
BRETT RATNER: “Cool. Let’s kill everybody.”
FOX EXECUTIVES: “But we might want to do a cheaper sequel. So we need you to set up a spinoff with the younger actors.”
BRETT RATNER: “Cool. Let’s just kill the old people.”
FOX EXECUTIVES: “But we might also want to do a sequel with the older actors.”
BRETT RATNER: “Cool. Let’s just kill Marsden.”
FOX EXECUTIVES: “Also, here is a list of twenty other mutants you need to fit in somewhere.”
BRETT RATNER: “Let me get this straight. You want me, Brett Ratner, director of the best Rush Hour movie and the fourth-best Hannibal Lecter movie, to make a film that ends this trilogy but also leaves open a sequel possibility, that sets up a Wolverine spinoff and a Young X-Men spinoff, that turns the tenth-most-important character into the leader of the X-Men, and that gives more screen time to a Human Porcupine than to Cyclops?”
FOX EXECUTIVES: “And Alcatraz! Did we mention Alcatraz?”
BRETT RATNER: [thoughtfully munches on a shrimp cocktail] “Boys: Let’s make some history”

To play devil’s advocate for a moment: The Last Stand is actually better than its reputation. There’s the scene where the government captures Mystique and calls her “Raven,” and Rebecca Romijn declares: “I don’t answer to my slave name.” There’s the single best Storm scene in the franchise: She’s feeling troubled, and the weather around the school gets bad, and for once Storm’s powers are more interesting than just “shooting things with electricity.” Kelsey Grammer as Beast is incredible, a note-perfect performance in a movie filled with tone-deaf declamations.

Cyclops is killed off with zero fanfare, but it’s not like James Marsden and Famke Janssen had sparkling chemistry — and Cyclops’ death means that Wolverine and Jean can actually have a weird, dark, uncomfortable romance. In the climax, Jean fires her Phoenix power at Wolverine, eating away his skin; briefly herself again, she begs him to kill her, and he does. It’s the one moment in an X-Men movie that really captures the cosmic-opera goofy-gravitas of the Claremont era: The sense that you’re watching Days of Our Lives rewritten by Ray Bradbury.

Now, the flip side: The Last Stand is an absolute mess. Ratner must have spent whole milliseconds trying to figure out how to shoot everything in the least interesting way possible. There are no little moments — no knuckle-cracking, no frozen Dr. Pepper. No character really matters. Angel is important until he isn’t until he is. The new evil mutants look like a frat dude’s idea of goths: Black clothing, ambient piercings, lots of tattoos. (Next to Storm, the new evil mutants are also basically the only non-white people in the movie: A problematic reflection of the weird identity politics at the center of these movies, about which more later.) The Last Stand was the most expensive movie of all time when it came out, and it has all the grandeur of a middling episode of Earth: Final Conflict.

Still, it’s important to be clear about the central problem of The Last Stand. Conventional wisdom says that this is a movie that failed because it departed so wildly from the comics: A common complaint in our era of nerd rage. But the bigger problem with The Last Stand is something I like to call The Machinery: The invisible hand which guides all these franchises, which wedges in fan service and spinoff potential and a whole host of things designed to ruin the sense that this movie is a singular unit.  All superhero movies have The Machinery. Christopher Nolan tried valiantly to defeat it with his Dark Knight trilogy — but even he needed to throw in a Robin reference, a happy ending. The Marvel Studios movies have taken a different tactic, transforming The Machinery into their central operating aesthetic. (This is why no Marvel Studios movie is truly terrible, but also why they’re all vaguely depressing.)

You can almost see a genuine movie behind The Machinery: A film about the X-Men without Professor X, a film about Wolverine and Jean Grey, a film where Storm actually gets something to do besides make a nice speech. But wherever that film is, it gets swallowed whole. The last line of the movie sums it all up: “Way to go, fur ball.”

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
One of the most disappointing aspects of the digital-effects era is that Hollywood doesn’t really make truly terribly awful movies anymore. Yes, there are films with horrible writing, bad acting, aimless stories and obnoxious camerawork; Michael Bay is frequently employed, after all. But digital effects give even the worst film a veneer of professionalism. There’s no Caligula, no Ishtar, no movie that seems constantly in danger of disintegrating in front of your eyes. The worst thing about The Last Stand is that it is shockingly functional.

But then there is X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the worst superhero movie ever made and coincidentally an effective torture device. There’s the opening scene in Canada in 1845, an attempt to boil Wolverine: Origin down into five minutes, which results in the immortal image of Kid Wolverine screaming up at the camera. There is the opening credits sequence showing Wolverine and Sabretooth fighting through every war movie cliché: trenches, D-Day, the helicopter scene from Full Metal Jacket. Suddenly it becomes a Dirty Dozen movie, then suddenly it becomes a revenge movie, and then Gambit and then Three Mile Island. Nothing anyone does makes any sense. There’s a moment towards the end when William Stryker — who, at this point, is practically the Big Bad of the X-Men franchise — decides that he needs to shoot Wolverine in the head. Why? “His brain may heal, but his memories won’t come back.” Oh, of course

The film’s biggest sin, though, is that the title is a lie. This is not a Wolverine movie, because Wolverine isn’t here: Not the man we know, not the sad-but-funny loner that made Hugh Jackman a star. The central character of this film is James Howlett, a man who has lived for over a century without becoming interesting and who desires nothing more than a leisurely life as a lumberjack with a big house in Canada. Jackman was a producer of the movie, and you can spot a bit of star-producer vanity. (When Wolverine walks away from an exploding helicopter in slow motion, X-Men Origins briefly becomes Commando, and you suddenly realize how awful most ’80s action movies would be without the veil of nostalgia.)

But it’s impossible to blame anyone for this, really. It’s The Machinery: A couple scenes with Deadpool, a couple scenes with Gambit, a Cyclops cameo, a White Queen who’s not January Jones. Jesus, this is a movie that builds up to the moment when the protagonist of the movie forgets the entire movie. He’s lucky.

X-Men: First Class (2011)
First Class begins in the exact same place as X1: Concentration Camp, Screaming Child, Metal Gate Bending. And then everything changes. Cut to Kevin Bacon, twirling his mustache and speaking elaborate German. He brings Kid Magneto into his office. He tells him to move a coin, or he’ll shoot his mother. He shoots Magneto’s mother. Magneto freaks out…and Kevin Bacon starts laughing. “Ja! Wunderbar!” he declares. “You and me, we’re going to have a lot of fun together.”

First Class is fun. It’s the only film in the franchise that doesn’t feel brooding. Even Magneto’s vengeance arc has swagger and style: Michael Fassbender’s soundtrack in this movie is an electric guitar. The first half-hour is only fun. There’s Pre-Professor X, flirting with Oxford coeds. (“It’s a very groovy mutation.”) There’s the Hellfire Club as a swinging ’70s Vegas palace. There’s the War Room, straight out of Dr. Strangelove. There’s Kevin Bacon in an ascot on a cruise ship in Miami. January Jones is legitimately terrible. She’s not Halle Berry or Liev Schreiber, trying hard with thin material; she’s Ursula Andress, quite possible discovering the English language for the first time. There’s Magneto in Argentina.

The Machinery makes an appearance, eventually. First Class was cobbled together from a few different prequel-sequel ideas, and so what should be a Magneto-Professor X thriller becomes another X-Men movie. But Matthew Vaughn has a blast with the C-listers. He introduces the new X-Men in a sassy montage. He lets the young X-people take a break from exposition to just play together. There are great character actors — Ray Wise, Michael Ironside, Oliver Platt — and there is always Kevin Bacon, having a ball with the kind of ripe dialogue villains never get anymore. (“I was thinking that you were the most exquisite thing I have ever seen in my life,” he tells January Jones. “And that this needs ice,” he says, holding up a tumbler of whiskey. And then she gets him ice from the glacier outside.)

Shot-for-shot, this is the best-made movie. Character-for-character, it’s the best-acted. This is the X-Men movie you want to watch again and again. For all these reasons, I maintain that it’s the best movie in the franchise. But there’s a problem with First Class, which is either a very minor problem or a central failure of all the X-Men movies. First Class is a dude movie. Jennifer Lawrence-as-Mystique has to choose which handsome man she’s going to follow. Rose Byrne-as-Moira is devoted to Charles, and for her loyalty she receives a Superman II amnesia kiss. More specifically, this is a white-dude movie. There’s a scene where Kevin Bacon-as-Sebastian Shaw attacks the young X-Men. The mixed-race girl joins the bad guys and the black guy gets killed.

Superhero movies are homogenous and heteronormative: This is not news, unfortunately. But in the context of X-Men mythology, it matters. The central tension of almost every X-Men movie is that it argues in favor of misfits and outsiders and The Other, but The Other usually looks like Hugh Jackman. In First Class, Mystique’s character arc is deciding whether she is going to “pass” as human, or “come out” as mutant. Lots of big ideas there — but does it matter that Mystique as a character has been played by Rebecca Romijn and Jennifer Lawrence, two distinct and lovable flavors of All-American Blonde Girl? Michael Fassbender is an eight-foot-tall blue-eyed uber-man: Is it weird to cast him in the Malcolm X role? Or is it an act of subversion? (This is not to mention how many of these movies are freaked out by female sexuality: Mystique the seductress, Rogue and Phoenix with their killer kisses, traitorous Kayla in Origins.)

First Class is better than X2, but with X2 you could feel that Singer was firmly on the side of the weird kids with weird lizard tongues. First Class is a cool-kids-with-problems movie. I love it, but I’m troubled by it: It’s the best movie in the X-Men franchise, but somehow it’s the worst at being an X-Men movie.

The Wolverine (2013
A Purely Theoretical But Entirely Accurate Conversation Between The Executives Of Twentieth Century Fox and James Mangold, Circa 2012
FOX EXECUTIVES: “James, we really need this film to feature a cool-looking samurai robot, a big fight scene with a lot of ninjas, a villain who closely resembles the Batman & Robin version of Poison Ivy, and the completely ridiculous assertion that one can absorb Wolverine’s powers by chopping off his claws and sucking out his bone marrow. Oh, and you need to set up a sequel and an unrelated spinoff.”
JAMES MANGOLD: “If I do all of that in the last half hour, can I try to make the rest of the movie into something people might actually enjoy?”
FOX EXECUTIVES: [Whispered Arguments, Angry Yelling, More Whispered Arguments]
JAMES MANGOLD: “I mean, if it makes you feel any better, I’ll put Jackman in a tank top for most of the movie.”
FOX EXECUTIVES: [Whisper Whisper Whisper] “Deal.”

Nine months later, I love The Wolverine. It’s the only X-Men movie that doesn’t have X-Men in the title, but unlike First Class, it doesn’t work because it retreats from the comic books. Far from it. Reimagining the most iconic Wolverine solo-story of all time as an extended epilogue/retroactive apology for The Last Stand, it becomes the best of all possible worlds: A superhero movie that doesn’t need to make a great statement about heroism, a comic book movie that actually feels like a comic book story arc.

The small-scale helps. So does the atmosphere: The mere fact that The Wolverine goes somewhere new and surrounds Wolverine with entirely new people feels positively revolutionary in the Harry Potter franchise era. Most of all, though, the first two acts of The Wolverine have a story to tell. This is a movie about death. It begins with Nagasaki, and even before the bomb lands, we see some Japanese soldiers commit suicide. In the present, Logan has nightmare visions of his dead girlfriend. He finds a dying bear, and mercy-kills it. The whole movie depends on someone offering to mercy-kill him. Logan’s new friend Yukio can see when someone will die. (Actress Rila Fukashima gets more to play with than almost anyone in this franchise.) “Everyone you love dies,” says a dead woman.

Along with all that, you have ninjas and Yakuza and a fight on a bullet train that brings actual physics to the X-Men franchise for the first time. So it’s a bummer when The Machinery takes over and the movie gets Magnificent Amberson‘d into mediocrity. Robo-Samurai; Green Lady: It all leads up to a post-credits scene that suggests that the whole idea of a “franchise” is a virus. You find yourself wishing that franchises worked differently, that there could be two The Wolverines a year; that there could be The Wolverine for Cyclops, for Storm, for Anna Paquin’s Rogue; for Fassbender’s Magneto, certainly. But you also wish that The Wolverine had ended half an hour earlier; that it had cost half as much; that it didn’t feel the weird need to treat Jackman’s actual human body like an anthropomorphized trailer moment.

But instead, The Wolverine ends with a teaser for Days of Future Past. And spoils nothing to say that Future Past is The Machinery-as-Feature: The whole advertising campaign has pitched the movie as an attempt at franchise curation so explicit that it borders on metafiction. The fact that it’s actually pretty good is encouraging, if you are a fan of superhero movies. But if you love superhero comic books, and if you love movies — the two things separate — then The Wolverine is the reason to be optimistic (unless the final act makes you pessimistic.)

None of the X-Men movies are perfect. Two of them are just awful, and even the best ones have characters who don’t talk and mind-numbing plot twists about magical mutant blood. But they are weirder than the Marvel Studios movies, more stylish, less assembly-line plastic. They’re rougher, spikier than the plastic-sheen of the rebooted Sony Spider-Men. And they’re much goofier than Dark Knight and Man of Steel, a goofiness that can be awful but also invigorating. (It’s impossible to imagine the Quicksilver scene from Future Past in any other superhero movie.)

There hasn’t been a great X-Men movie yet. There has been too much of The Machinery. But there is sadness and wit, style and camp, the frequent destruction of national landmarks, wigs, ninjas. It feels like a series in a constant state of evolution and devolution: A mutant unto itself.

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