Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe may be the dominant superhero franchise of the 21st century, but the modern era of comic book films was kick-started by X-Men, which pre-dated the first Iron Man installment by nearly eight years. Released on July 14, 2000, the first film in Fox’s long-running mutant series would set the template for superhero movies in the new millennium, putting them on a new track just three years after Joel Schumacher’s widely-panned Batman & Robin threatened to drive a stake into the heart of the genre.
Directed by Bryan Singer, X-Men opened to generally positive reviews and a powerful $54.47 million at the domestic box office—the highest-ever debut for a superhero film, the highest-ever opening weekend in July and the sixth-highest opening weekend of all time. Completing its run with $157.3 million in North America and $296.34 million worldwide, the film was hailed as a smart and sophisticated entry in a genre that had gone off the rails in the previous decade.
X-Men‘s success meant Singer was granted a substantially increased budget ($110 million) for X2: X-Men United, the follow up which brought back the core cast from the first movie and enjoyed even greater success both critically and commercially. Debuting to a massive $85.56 million domestically over the first weekend of May 2003—the fourth-largest opening ever at the time—X2 went on to a final gross of $214.95 million in North America and $407.71 million worldwide. Combined with the first Spider-Man‘s record-breaking success the previous year, X2 added further momentum to a genre that would soon kick into overdrive.
After Singer opted to depart the X-Men series to direct Superman Returns, the franchise reins were handed over to Brett Ratner, who was hired to direct the mega-budgeted X2 follow up X-Men: The Last Stand. Released on May 26, 2006, The Last Stand shattered the Memorial Day weekend record with $102.75 million over the three-day period and $122.86 over the four-day, though it was less well-received by both critics or fans than the previous two installments. Dropping precipitously in subsequent weekends, the film completed its run with $234.36 million domestically and $460.44 worldwide—a franchise high on both counts, though soured by ill will from fans who felt the film effectively botched the beloved Dark Phoenix storyline from the comics.
The next entry in the franchise, X-Men Origins: Wolverine—a spin-off/prequel centered on the most famous member of the mutant collective—similarly came out of the gate with an impressive opening before plummeting in ensuing frames. Budgeted at $150 million, the Gavin Hood-directed film—which was notably leaked online prior to release in the form of an unfinished workprint—opened with $85.06 million over the first weekend of May 2009 before dropping a staggering 69 percent in its sophomore frame. It finished its run with $179.88 million domestic and $373.06 million global—still a success, albeit diminished by a dismal reception from critics and audiences.
The franchise underwent something of a reboot with the Matthew Vaughn-directed 2011 prequel X-Men: First Class, which was set against the backdrop of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and centered its plot on the team’s early years with a whole new cast. Produced on a budget of $160 million and released over the first weekend of June, First Class opened with the series’ lowest domestic total since the first film ($55.1 million) but performed far better with critics and fans than either The Last Stand or X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It finished its North American run with $146.1 million and a global tally of $352.62 million, which, while far from the series’ best performance, nonetheless put it back on what was widely viewed as a solid foundation for future installments.
Also marketed as a reboot of sorts was 2013’s The Wolverine, which attempted to right the perceived sins of X-Men Origins: Wolverine by bringing on a new director (James Mangold) and tapping the beloved Japan-set storyline introduced by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s 1982 limited comic-book series. Opening on July 26, 2013, the film had the lowest domestic debut of any X-Men installment to date with $53.11 million, but it greatly improved on the critical and fan reception of the previous Wolverine stand-alone film. Though it ended its North American run with $132.56 million—once again, the lowest domestic total of any X-Men movie to date—it more than tripled that amount overseas and finished its global tour with $414.83 million. That notably included $40.57 million in China, marking the first time an X-Men movie broke the double-digit millions in the burgeoning Asian market.
The Wolverine’s international success was built upon by the next year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, which brought back original franchise director Singer for the first time since X2: X-Men United. Singer’s involvement—along with a stacked ensemble that brought together the series’ original cast with the new players introduced in First Class—resulted in an avalanche of hype and a $90.82 million three-day/$110.58 million four-day opening over Memorial Day weekend 2014. The $200 million-budgeted film finished with an excellent $233.92 million in North America but really wowed overseas, where it more than tripled its domestic take thanks to strong performances around the world, including China, where it banked an impressive $116.5 million. Days of Future Past‘s final worldwide gross of $746.05 million was easily the best of the series by far, though it wouldn’t enjoy that distinction for long.
While it is only tangentially related to the X-Men series, 2016’s Deadpool is nonetheless considered an official entry in the franchise—and ironically enough, it’s also the most successful by a long shot. Starring Ryan Reynolds as the wisecracking antihero, whom he first played (albeit in a much different iteration) in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Deadpool arguably became the most hyped entry ever in the X-Men series after leaked test footage shot by director Tim Miller made its way online. Greenlit by 20th Century Fox after a surge in fan demand, the hard-R film was preceded by an ingenious (and inescapable) marketing campaign that leaned into the character’s foul-mouthed, sarcasm-laden persona. Once the late-February opening weekend receipts were counted, Deadpool had grossed $132.43 million over the three-day/$152.19 million four-day and broken a number of records: highest-ever President’s Day weekend, highest R-rated opening of all time, largest February opening, highest debut of the X-Men franchise, and largest opening weekend in the history of 20th Century Fox. Its $363.07 domestic cume and $782.61 million global tally also broke X-Men franchise records— and all off a bargain $58 million budget.
Deadpool’s success was so massive that when the Singer-directed X-Men: Apocalypse debuted over Memorial Day weekend just three months later, its numbers looked positively minuscule by comparison. In North America, Apocalypse’s $65.77 million three-day opening/$79.81 million four-day was considered a disappointment in light of the huge debuts of both Deadpool and Days of Future Past, as was its final domestic tally of $155.44 million. The $178-million budgeted film made up quite a bit of ground overseas—grossing nearly 3.5x its North American tally in international markets and finishing its global run with $543.93 million—but critics and fans came away largely unimpressed.
Ironically, the X-Men series proper would continue paling in comparison to its spin-offs in subsequent years. Released on March 3, 2017, Jackman’s final film as Wolverine—the R-rated Logan—garnered franchise-best reviews, launched with $88.41 million over its opening weekend in North America and completed its run with $226.28 million domestic and $619.02 million worldwide off a $97 million budget. The following May, the $110 million-budgeted Deadpool 2 performed nearly as well as its predecessor, launching with $125.51 million in North America and grossing a total of $324.6 million domestic and $785.8 million worldwide.
When the franchise’s most recent entry, X-Men: Dark Phoenix, debuted in early June 2019, it had the stink of failure all over it. The first X-Men film to be released following Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox, Dark Phoenix had been plagued by numerous release date delays and bad press that cited extensive reshoots (which are, in fact, not uncommon for big-budget tentpoles). Produced on a budget of $200 million, the film stumbled to a franchise-low $32.83 million opening in early June 2019 and crawled to just $65.85 million in North America. Though it managed to nearly quadruple that gross internationally, the critically-reviled film nonetheless finished with just $252.44 million worldwide, incurring untold losses for the studio and effectively ending the main X-Men series on a sour note.
Though there is one more X-Men entry—the long-delayed horror spinoff New Mutants—remaining in the Fox-produced iteration of the franchise, many fans are already looking forward to the series’ next evolution: an expected reboot under the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) umbrella. That said, there’s no denying the original series laid the groundwork for the superhero genre as it exists today.