The X-Men films have had some really strong performances featuring some of the best actors alive. However those very same actors have also delivered the weakest, hammiest performances of their career in the infamously up-and-down series. As such, ranking the best performances in the series….was not as easy as I initially expected? I don’t know. It was fun though. Enjoy the photos!
10. Kevin Bacon
After a trilogy that featured a “villain” who was fighting systemic violence with interpersonal violence, it was a huge shock to the system for the “new” (it was REALLY unclear at the time) villain to be a James Bond end-of-the-world-bad-guy. It just was not consistent with the world that existed as we knew it.
Thankfully, Bacon dove all the way in and made sure to play it completely on the level. His performance stands out even more in retrospect as a fresh change of pace in a long running franchise that veered close to being overly repetitive.
Best Performance: First Class
Worst Performance: n/a
9. Rebecca Romijn
The art of being the “true believer evil sidekick” is tragically an overlooked quality in acting. The roles get taken for granted all the time in films as the characters usually get less screen time and their arcs are essentially completed before the film even starts. They get fewer “ACTING~!” scenes because their characterization requires no change or much in the way of nuance so praise for their work is mostly non-existent. That is all to say Romijn kicks fucking ass as Mystique and her work deserves more praise!
8. Alan Cumming
The portrayal of Cumming’s Nightcrawler in X2 provided the template for how these types of movies could provide satisfying arcs for supporting characters. Besides being the focus of one of the best action scenes (and only real notable one until 2014) of the franchise, Cumming got multiple opportunities to display the grief and hope that brought some needed pathos to the flick.
He also got the perfect amount to do in this to make his mini-arc satisfying in the moment while leaving plenty left to do in future films (which of course never happened lol).
Best Performance: X2
Worst Performance: n/a
7. Brian Cox
In what was by far the best turn as a one-off villain in the franchise, Cox got to play the True Believer bad guy. In his mind, the world is safer without mutants so anything he does to ensure that is justified. When you add in the personal history/trauma he had with his mutant son, you have the makings of a strong foundation.
Cox’s turn as anti-mutant zealot followed in the footsteps of Stewart and McKellen in that he treated the material with the gravity it deserved and thus he felt not one bit out of place. His mutant power was “belief” and that made him just as dangerous as any mutant and someone who seemed like a genuine threat.
Best Performance: X2
Worst Performance: n/a
6. Hugh Jackman
If you isolate Jackman’s best work in the series (X1, X2, DOFP, Logan), he would have a strong case for #1-2. Jackman is far from the most talented cast member of the franchise, but he was given enough to work with in those films to turn out some damn fine stuff.
The problem is… those were not his only times portraying Wolverine. In The Last Stand and Origins, he is genuinely bad. He’s not the only cast member to have that happen (see below), but given that his highs are not as high he gets stuck at the #6 slot.
5. Ian McKellen
In a lot of ways, Ian McKellen had one of the most critical roles in establishing the credibility and tone of the X-Men world on screen. In the hands of a lesser (or less interested) performer, Magneto could have come off as ludicrous and thus the whole movie would have seemed stupid. McKellen gave everything weight though and kicked off everything quite well. He and the script writers displayed variety too and wisely weaved him in and out of the X2 story as needed so that he could play a vital role that the film did not need to revolve around.
Things unraveled a bit from there as his performance was hammy in The Last Stand (though again, pretty much *everyone* is bad in that flick), and he never really got any big scenes in DOFP since that was much more a Charles story than one for Erik.
Still though, McKellen was excellent at the most critical points in the series and deserves as much credit as anyone for getting things going.
4. James Marsden
Admittedly, this is a bit of a stretch in some ways. The movies have just always been reluctant to dive in to Cyclops as a character, and that takes some juice out of the memory of Marsden’s performance.
It’s clear that things were set up for the non-existent version of X-Men 3 to be a big film for the character, but bullshit got in the way and that movie largely erased him in a nondescript manner.
BEFORE that though, the handling of Cyclops and the performance by Marsden was rather brilliantly done. For starters, the degree of difficulty of having to emote when you’ve got the stupid visor on is high enough, but it’s even harder given that the writers seemed to lean in to the idea that Scott Summers is perpetually stoic.
The slow burn paid off though in the final sequences of X2 as Scott desperately tries to save everyone including his beloved. His frantic attempts to keep Jean alive are some of the most heartbreaking moments in the franchise, which was all the more amazing given how little screen time was actually devoted to the couple.
James Marsden, as always, you deserve better.
3. Michael Fassbender
Fassbender would probably get the #2 slot here if not for the exceptionally embarrassing beats he’s asked to play to Apocalypse when his family dies and then again when he learns of Raven’s death in Dark Phoenix. In their own bubble, they are pretty miserably played especially given that the actor doing them is Actually Good, but they rang especially hollow since Erik dealing with the death of loved ones just felt trite and repetitive when done so many times (and done so cheaply as in Apocalypse).
With that out of the way, Fassbender in First Class arguably gives the best performance in any X-Men film, as the young and wounded Erik slowly becoming Magneto was just a wonderful beat to play.
They rush the arc a little bit, as Erik becoming a leader of a cause rang a bit false by that point in his journey, but that in no way took away from Fassbender’s work.
2. Patrick Stewart
Much like McKellen, Stewart delivered one of the worst performances of his career in the wretched third entry of the series, but he thankfully got plenty of great stuff to do at the beginning and end of his run.
In the first two films he had to anchor the world while Singer established the defining conflict of how the series handled Charles: He was simply too powerful to exist in this setting without rendering all possible villains as moot.
Stewart always made the most of what he had and eventually got rewarded with work that allowed him to be more vulnerable on screen.
1. James McAvoy
McAvoy, much like Fassbender, had the unenviable task of having to take on a character previously played by a legend. Also like Fassbender though, the films largely gave McAvoy a lot more to do instead of just largely leveraging the actor’s presence and status.
McAvoy’s most memorable work was of course in DoFP, but his work in Dark Phoenix should not be overlooked. His desperation as he tries to scratch and claw to salvage what is left of his family that did not die as a result of his inevitably false concept of a Better World is excellent.