"X-Men: Days of Future Past" arrives in theaters today and is already the seventh installment in a cinematic superhero saga that began in 2000. Mutant pacifist Charles Xavier and mutant aggressor Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto, struggle against each other and with the world as they try to find acceptance for their kind, which includes the self-healing strongman with metal claws named Wolverine.
The X-Men series has the potential for greatness with its socially relevant themes and incredible cast, but it has only flirted with it. Here's where I'd rank the six films that preceded this week's theatrical behemoth:
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1. "X2: X-Men United" (directed by Bryan Singer, 2003) -- The second film in the series expands the saga's scope, introduces new, likable characters and firmly plants the X-Men in the real world. The film begins with blue-skinned, fork-tailed teleporter Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) storming the White House armed with a knife, and ends with Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and his pals showing up unannounced in the Oval Office.
In between we meet evil mutant hunter William Stryker (Brian Cox), see Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) put his claws to good use against Stryker's squadron, and watch the burgeoning romance between Rogue (Anna Paquin) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore). Oh, and Storm (Halle Berry) thankfully loses the terrible accent she had in the first film.
The highlight of the film: Magneto (Ian McKellen) escaping his plastic prison by manipulating the iron in his guard's bloodstream.
2. "X-Men: First Class" (d. Matthew Vaughn, 2011) -- This prequel set in the swinging '60s injected new life into the franchise and benefited from casting two actors on the verge of becoming superstars.
Michael Fassbender steals the show as the younger Magneto. We revisit his beginnings in a concentration camp as seen in the first X-Men film to set up this film's villain -- former Nazi scientist Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) -- and to set up an early sequence that feels like a superhero version of "Inglourious Basterds."
The other casting coup: Jennifer Lawrence takes over from Rebecca Romijn as shape-shifter Mystique, who goes by her even more ridiculous "real" name, Raven Darkholme, in this film. Her relationships with the younger Charles (James McAvoy) and beastly mutant Hank McCoy (J-Law's real-life boyfriend Nicholas Hoult) provide the heart in a film full of flash.
3. "X-Men" (d. Bryan Singer, 2000) -- This first film feels almost quaint now, with Wolverine and Sabretooth (Tyler Mane) jumping around the Canadian wilderness and friendly character-actor Bruce Davison attempting to be a villainous senator, but what still sets this film apart is its central character. It's not Wolvie or Professor X or Magneto, but the very young, very vulnerable Rogue, who absorbs the life (or the mutant powers) of anyone she touches. Paquin, who was 17 when the film was shot, is the audience's emotional connection to a bigger-than-life story that comes close to being terminally silly.
How silly? Let us not forget the clunker Storm delivers after electrocuting nimble baddie Toad (Ray Park): "Do you know what happens to a toad when it's struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else." I don't think writer Joss Whedon is proud of that one.
4. "The Wolverine" (d. James Mangold, 2013) -- In this age of the superhero movie, "The Wolverine" is notable because of what's not at stake. Namely, the world. Wolverine travels to Japan to reconnect with a man he saved from a POW camp near Nagasaki, and winds up fighting the Yakuza, ninjas, a snaky doctor with terribly dubbed dialogue and a giant Samurai robot. It's most notable, though, for pushing the boundaries of the PG-13 rating; a whole lot of people get stabbed, impaled, sliced, diced and obliterated in this movie.
5. "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" (d. Gavin Hood, 2009) -- This is not the franchise's lowest moment -- a cool credits sequence showing us Wolvie's long history and a prologue with Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) provide some excitement -- but it's certainly low-rent. The practical and digital visual effects are generally not up to Hollywood standards, and one shot of Wolverine admiring his claws in the mirror inexplicably looks as if it was animated by hand. But hey, at least it's not ...
6. "X-Men: The Last Stand" (d. Brett Ratner, 2006) -- A film that wastes one of the most beloved storylines from the comic books (The "Dark Phoenix" saga), a subplot that could have been a poignant allegory for homophobia in America, wonderful actors like Shohreh Aghdashloo and Ben Foster who were new to the franchise, and our precious time. Oh, and it kills off one beloved character who gets a nonsensical resurrection in the post-credits sequence, and resurrects another beloved character who, later, gets killed off again.
And don't get me started on the crude line of dialogue Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones) screams at Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page).
All six films are available on DVD, Blu-ray and digital VOD services. (Sorry, Netflix and Amazon Prime subscribers!)
• Sean Stangland is a Daily Herald copy editor and a tireless consumer of pop culture. You can follow him on Twitter at @SeanStanglandDH.