The X-Men movies exist in a weird place in pop culture where they’re just entertaining and iconic enough to be worthy of attention and respect, yet has only produced a few legitimately good movies with the rest generally considered to be passable at best. And yet, they not only endure but are the currently the cornerstone of Fox’s superhero lineup. It’s become so popular that its spin off movie broke box office records and its most popular character got a feature-length retirement film. But one of the major problems with the X-Men franchise was a wildly inconsistent casting, and not just between the different timelines of the films.
The series introduced the global film market to a new wave of great actors and reintroduced legendary actors to a new generation of viewers. Unfortunately, it also pushed young actors into the limelight before they were ready, forced big name leads to either overplay or underplay their performances, and even halted the momentum of some rising stars. However, with news breaking that Disney is looking into buying the Fox media empire and potentially folding the X-Men into the MCU, it seemed important to review the best and worst casting choices of the franchise to identify both red flags and green lights.
15 GOT IT WRONG: OSCAR ISAAC
Oscar Isaac was a critically praised actor from a few indie flicks, theater stages, and a Coen Brothers movie until he became one of the breakout stars from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, making his ace pilot character stand out amongst other incredible performances. After critics were falling over each other to congratulate him for successfully transitioning to the blockbuster scene, there was an unspoken question as to what Isaac would be doing until Star Wars VIII.
Then it was announced he’d be playing the titular villain in X-Men: Age of Apocalypse and praise dwindled. Apocalypse was supposed to be a grand, flamboyant villain who delivered eloquent speeches on genetic superiority and world domination, basically Hitler if he was a mutant god. And they chose an actor known for his subtlety, nuance, and for turning small roles into big ones with his charismatic presence. Not a smart pick, guys.
14 GOT IT RIGHT: JAMES MARSDEN
A lot of the good X-Men casting choices were beloved because they were near-lateral transitions from the original comic book characters. But an example of this that largely goes undiscussed is James Marsden as Cyclops in the original trilogy. This is probably because Cyclops is such a passive character in every movie he’s in, even when he’s not being played by Marsden. But Cyclops can be and always could be described in one word: Boring.
He was such a milquetoast character in the comics that the most relevant thing that writers could do was turn him evil. And if you want a stoic, emotionless, and overall boring actor, you call up James Marsden. This is no criticism of Marsden as a star, he’s proven time and again that he’s got incredible comedic timing. It’s just that he’s so good at being boring that he really was the logical choice here.
13 GOT IT WRONG: ANNA PAQUIN
Rogue is one of the most beloved characters in the X-Men’s roster. The tragedy of her powers, her ongoing struggle to contain them, and her insistent optimism at having an active social life endeared her to readers for decades. So when they were casting her part, they really needed to look for someone with a larger-than-life personality, a ton of energy, and a palpable screen presence.
Instead, they decided to go with Anna Paquin, who back in 2000 was a largely unknown young actress with a visibly limited range and a stunted personality. Her southern accent slipped every other scene and was dropped in subsequent movies. She had zero chemistry with any of her co-stars. She didn’t have to be the southern belle everyone was familiar with, but she at least had to be a good actor.
12 GOT IT RIGHT: HUGH JACKMAN
The greatest find of the X-Men franchise was hands-down Hugh Jackman. It must have sounded crazy in 2000 to take a little-known Australian actor whose sole credits were a few brief arcs on television shows and whose specialty was musical theater and present him comics’ ultimate symbol of unwavering masculinity, but against all odds it not only worked, it reinvented the Hollywood image of an anti-hero. Jackman didn’t just fit the role like a glove, he became the glove entirely.
His viciousness, gruff ferocity, and cold humor were all completely natural. Not for a second did viewers see Jackman, all they saw was Wolverine, the cigar-chomping, memory-losing bub they’d read about for years. Not only that, but Jackman’s stellar performance didn’t lessen with time. His ultimate bow out from the series was one of the best films in the series. Kudos, Mr. Jackman, kudos.
11 GOT IT WRONG: SHAWN ASHMORE
In the comics, Bobby Drake, aka Iceman, was the heart and soul of the original team, a brash young jokester still coming to terms with his god-like powers. Now, changes do have to be made during adaptations, and if the writers of the X-Men franchise wanted Iceman to be boring instead, then more power to them. But then Shawn Ashmore was hired and boring became super boring.
Not only did Ashmore have zero chemistry with his fellow actors and no charisma to speak of, but he ruined arguably the most important scene in the entire franchise. The scene in X2: X-Men United where Iceman reveals himself as a mutant to his family solidified the gay rights metaphor that had only lurked in the first movie and established that there was a deeper message hidden between the lines of the script. And Ashmore is monotonous through the entire thing. For shame.
10 GOT IT RIGHT: PATRICK STEWART
Of all the roles that Fox absolutely had to cast right, Professor X was at the top of the list. If they were to accurately represent the Marvel Comics staple character of the X-Men, they would have to find someone just as iconic, someone who’s acting chops would let him disappear into the role but would always approach things with the exact right balance of levity and depth. They needed a paternal actor who could be more like a cool, woke uncle than an authority figure but would clearly be the most disciplined character in the film.
They needed someone who constantly exuded sheer presence and ultimate power while being confined to a wheelchair for the entirety of the film. Enter Sir Patrick Stewart. Still the space-faring Captain Picard in the minds of many older viewers, Stewart was a rare example of a perfect actor for a perfect part.
9 GOT IT WRONG: KELSEY GRAMMER
Kelsey Grammer is a terrific actor with a long and storied filmography to brag about. The Cheers and Frasier actor has been charming audiences for the better part of four decades and has rarely given an out and out bad performance. And in his defense, his poor showing as Beast in X-Men: The Last Stand wasn’t entirely his fault. For the role, he had to act through thick makeup, prosthetic and facial wigs.
It was clear that, though he was trying to give an honest performance, Grammer was struggling to emote through the face paint. He also didn’t have quite enough physical energy to believably sell his action sequences and his attempts to appear feral were closer to comical. Again, he deserves all the credit in the world for trying, but he definitely wasn’t the right pick for a character that would have benefited from a younger, more physical actor.
8 GOT IT RIGHT: IAN MCKELLEN
It’s hard to believe there was really a world where the delightful Sir Ian McKellen wasn’t a household name. For decades, McKellen flitted around small television and film circles, but was most widely known as a brilliant Shakespearean actor who had completely mastered Hamlet, Macbeth, and Richard III. He had a few smaller roles in blockbusters, but didn’t blow up on screens until 2000 when he crushed it as the villainous but sympathetic Magneto and 2001 when he crushed it equally hard as the wizened sage Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
McKellen found the razor thin balance between keeping his character despicably evil and uncomfortably relatable. Magneto was always going to be a tough mantle to carry, but McKellen did it while skipping and whistling. He’s been a reliably terrific actor ever since and his continued performances as Magneto have even put Michael Fassbender on notice.
7 GOT IT WRONG: KEVIN BACON
On paper, casting Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw in X-Men: First Class seems almost logical. A big name actor known for having a hammy style would be perfect to play a little-known villain with a comically evil personality. And in Bacon’s defense he does give a good, if a little over-the-top, performance. The problem lies with the rest of the movie. The rest of the cast uses a demur acting style, with bigger expressions and reactions usually relegated to action sequences or comic gags.
Surrounded by subtlety and coiffured performances, Bacon sticks out like a sore thumb. His performance is like a cartoon character was abruptly dropped in a western movie, out of place, illusion-breaking, and completely unnecessary. Again, Bacon is a good actor and gives a good performance, it’s just not in line with the rest of the movie, something that the casting agents probably should have foreseen.
6 GOT IT RIGHT: LIEV SCHREIBER
There aren’t a lot of positive things can be said about X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but one of the only good aspects of the film was the inspired casting of Liev Schreiber as Wolverine’s brother and rival, Sabertooth. Schreiber played Sabertooth as a duality, sometimes a quiet and conniving sadist who took silent pleasure in torturing his victim, sometimes a loud and roaring beast who could viably fling himself into battle against an actor as ferocious as Hugh Jackman.
Despite taking a backseat to Stryker in the story, Schreiber was clearly the most intimidating villain in the film, which, despite the bar being lowered considerably by mute Ryan Reynolds, still made him an incredible screen presence and a perfect pick for the role. So much so that nobody remembers who played Sabertooth in the first X-Men movie. It was Tyler Mane, by the way.
5 GOT IT WRONG: WILL.I.AM
With exactly three exceptions, being Ice Cube, Will Smith, and Donald Glover, rappers shouldn’t act. Vanilla Ice couldn’t do it, RZA turned out to be a pretty good director but couldn’t hack it as an actor, and Black Eyed Peas frontman Will.I.Am certainly couldn’t pull it off as John Wraith in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
It was the pop star’s first film role and his inexperience was blatant onscreen, especially when sharing scenes with the likes of Hugh Jackman, Leiv Shreiber, and Danny Huston. Being paired up with veteran actors only emphasized how stiff, wooden, and emotionless Will.I.Am was. His powers were done with CGI, which at the very least spared him from having to do his own action sequences, but the wild miscasting of this role is still head-scratching to this day.
4 GOT IT RIGHT: RYAN REYNOLDS
Ryan Reynolds is living proof that giving people a second chance can work out wonderfully. First appearing as Wade Wilson in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Reynolds used his impeccable comic timing and boundless energy to an innately doomed role which was tarnished by a terrible story and character arc. Fortunately, Reynolds got the chance to revisit the character years later in one of the most critically acclaimed superhero movies of all times.
Deadpool was not only a hilarious deconstruction of the genre, but Reynolds was a revelation as the titular lead, completely erasing any remaining penance he had yet to pay for Origins. The best part of the entire situation was how dead-set Reynolds was to redeeming himself and honoring the character. His devotion and perseverance are commendable and the passion he brought to the project was a large part of why it was so amazing.
3 GOT IT WRONG: TAYLOR KITSCH
Taylor Kitsch should not be in movies. He was decent on Friday Night Lights, but he was terrible in John Carter, he was somehow worse in Battleship, and he was an absolute black hole of enjoyment in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, completely butchering one of the most iconic X-Men characters of all time in one of the worst films in the franchise.
To be fair, nobody could have taken the bland, uninteresting character in the script and turned it into Gambit, the ragin’ Cajun of the X-Men. He had so little resemblance to anything remotely relatable that the fact he had so little screen time and almost no bearing on the story was a blessing in disguise. Kitsch showed up on screen, left, showed up again, and left again and nobody could have possibly cared.
2 GOT IT RIGHT: DAFNE KEEN
As a generalization, child actors are usually pretty terrible, relying on cuteness and likability over actual talent. The rare exceptions are often revered as prodigies and celebrated as young stars. Dafne Keen, at only 12 years old, was a complete revelation in Logan as Laura, Logan’s clone daughter and mutant refugee. Her piercing stare and unadulterated intensity let her not only keep up with the seasoned actors she was sharing screen time with, but at times even surpass them.
Her fight scenes were nothing short of professional. Her delivery was believable and completely character-driven, traits typically associated with actors at least three times her age. Overall, she was just as much a find as Hugh Jackman was in the original movie, if not more so since she has an entire life and career ahead of her.
1 GOT IT WRONG: JANUARY JONES
January Jones had been jumping from screen to screen for almost twenty years before becoming a household name thanks to her role on Mad Men. So what did she do with the sudden influx of audience good will that she’d suddenly accumulated? She signed on to play an iconic character in one of the best X-Men movies to date. Should have been a good move, right? And while she’s clearly having fun with the role of Emma Frost in X-Men: First Class, she’s completely despondent with the other actors.
Plus, her whole involvement upends the script, which clearly intended for Frost to be a smaller role but was forced to expand the part when a big-name actress was signed on. Jones’ presence is not only disruptive to the film, but is an active albatross to the film’s quality.
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