A film review by Craig J. Koban

X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE jj
½ 

2009, PG-13, 104 mins.

Wolverine: Hugh Jackman / Sabretooth: Liev Schreiber / Kayla Silverfox: Lynn Collins / Gen. Stryker: Danny Huston / Wraith: Will.i.am / Deadpool: Ryan Reynolds

Directed by Gavin Hood / Written by David Benioff and Skip Woods.

There are two main problems with WOLVERINE (or, to quote it’s full and unnecessarily wordy title - X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE).

Firstly, the character – the creation of artist John Romita Sr. and writer Len Wein, which first appeared in Marvel Comics’ The Incredible Hulk# 180 in October of 1974 – has always been more appealing as a largely enigmatic figure; you were never really altogether sure of his mysterious origins, which added a level of tense intrigue to him.  Sometimes, characters are more intrinsically compelling for what we don’t know about them and Wolverine is no exception.  

Secondly, for a massively hyped “origin” film, WOLVERINE tells us astonishingly little about this X-Men member, at least not that much more than what we have already pieced together form the last three X-MEN films. 

When I was in my heyday of comic book collecting and reading (ages 12-18), I always thought that Wolverine (aka Logan, aka Weapon X) was an undeniably cool looking character, which is part of the reason that Empire Magazine recently rated him the 4th Greatest Comic Book Character of all Time (Wizard Magazine, a comic publication, rated him the single best comic book character ever in May of 2008).  I mean, just consider his geeked-out awesomeness: he’s a mutant, he’s 175-years-old, he possesses animal-like senses and a barbaric ferocity in battle, can heal himself from just about any wound, disease, or toxin (hence, his super human lifespan), and, swiftest of all, his skeleton is made of an indestructible metal called adamantium, making him a literal man of steel.  

Oh…I almost forgot…he can retract three sets of mini-machetes from both clenched hands, likes smoking cigars, and has a cheerful and rebellious disdain for authority.   

In short, this guy is James Cagney with claws. 

The appeal here, as stated, is easy to understand (plus, to many of us Canuck readers, he remains the only really cool Canadian-born super hero).  Wolverine was also typical of the type of rigid, anti-authority heroes that emerged in popular fiction in the 1980’s and onwards.  The red, white, and blue patriotism represented by the eagle scout that was Superman was becoming blasé, which allowed characters like Wolverine – with his brooding intensity, teeth clenched vigor, and willingness to use lethal force – to blossom.  That, and he looked really good on the comic panels – he is the ultimate poser comic book hero. 

The younger reader in me loved him, but as I got older I started gravitating towards comic personas that had a more complex and fascinating psychological edge (like Batman).  As an adult I think that Wolverine works better almost as an elusive and captivating secondary character.  He was enjoyable in the previous X-MEN movies largely because he was part of a larger ensemble and that we never really had a fully clear idea of who he was and where he came from.  Now, with this X-MEN ORIGINS film, we have a story that pains itself to explain all of the ambiguous aspects of his back-story, but all this does, as stated, is to act as a counter-productive weight that holds this character down.  By the end of the film, WOLVERINE certainly fills in the blanks, but it ironically does not really flesh out this mutant like it aspires to.  Instead of offering up more layers of intrigue and allure to the character, the film gives us a lot of dull exposition, routine action sequences, tired action film clichés, and – yes – a whole lot of posing by its title character.  The end result is a film that’s all surface sheen without anything really flourishing on the inside. 

The film’s opening is a categorical letdown.  Great origin super hero films demonstrate patience in slowly developing the hero’s early past (like SUPERMAN, BATMAN BEGINS, and IRON MAN), but WOLVERINE does not allow itself time to segue into its story.  The film begins in 1845 in the Canadian Northwest Territories as we are introduced to two brothers, half brothers to be precise, James Howlett (Troye Sivan) and Victor (Michael James Olson) whom are both mutants (how there are is never explained; funny, I thought this was an origin picture?).  James has to endure the unthinkable by seeing his father, John (Peter O’Brien) brutally killed by Victor’s dad, Thomas Logan (Aaron Jeffrey).  Showing some of the berserker rage that his future adult self will later display, young James kills the elder Logan with his mutant bone claws, but he discovers that he actually killed his biological father.  This leads to the two distraught boys quickly fleeing the home.  This whole opening sequence barely lasts minutes when it should have simmered more slowly and observantly. 

We then get whisked way into the future where we see the two boys as adults, James (Hugh Jackman) now goes by the name of Logan (the film is sketchy here as to why) and his brother (Liev Schreiber) are shown fighting throughout the largest military campaigns of the American Civil War, World Wars I and II, and eventually the Vietnam War.  All of this is swiftly shown in a wonderfully executed opening credit sequence, but no matter how polished and well orchestrated it looked, this montage left me asking too many obvious questions: Like, for instance, if the brothers are Canadian, then why are they participating in American-centric conflicts (the Civil War and Vietnam)?  My college History degree informs me that Canada had no direct part on the battlefront of those two wars, so as to why the mutant brothers would bother with them is never fully explained.  

But...this is an origin movie, right? 

Anyhoo’, Victor demonstrates some grisly, animalistic behavior in war (he, like Logan, is super strong and quite invulnerable), but it takes one bad turn when both of them end up on the receiving end of a firing squad (Victor killed a superior officer after he attempted to stop him from raping a very young Vietnamese girl).  Of course, no one on the firing squad has been informed that these two are impervious to gunfire as they have shown that they can’t be killed in battle, as seen by hundreds of eye witnesses.

Well, they do get shot and survive, but are thrown in military jail and are soon bailed out an army General named William Stryker (the always commanding Danny Houston), who wants the pair to join his new “elite” team of people with “unique” talents.  After a series of missions where Stryker’s methods are too much of an immoral burden for Logan to bare, he quits the team and exiles himself to a serene life as a lumberjack in Northern Canada, where he lives with girlfriend, Kayla (the beautiful Lynn Collins).  Of course, one just can’t leave Stryker’s top secret military group, and It soon appears that both Stryker and Victor have discovered Logan’s whereabouts, which has calamitous effects on his love life, not to mention that it acts as a catalyst for his really, really mean behavior that the character is legendary for. 

The film also shows, as did the first two X-MEN films (albeit much more clearly in X2: X-MEN UNITED) how Logan decided to become a guinea pig in Stryker’s super secret, billion dollar medical experiment that injected adamantium into his body, essentially creating the “Wolverine” as we know him.  Yet, all this elaborate sequence does is explore areas we are already keenly familiar with.  And, yes, the film does offer up a laundry list of cherished comic book cameos by other popular characters (like Remy LeBeau as Gambit, Fred Duke as The Blob, and Canada’s own Ryan Reynolds as the shockingly lethal Deadpool), but all are never really developed as characters: they are essentially window dressing for an already dull script.  Reynolds in particular - who does seem to have an enjoyable level of mischievous and snarky charisma playing his mutant - is curiously vacant through much of the film, despite a heavy preponderance of advertising him as a prominent character. 

Again, as far as being an origin film, Wolverine never feels revelatory.  What’s perhaps even more disappointing is that the film had me asking so many questions (which is a no-no for a prequel).  Can someone please explain to me why Logan, despite being an immortal, decides to age up until the point he appears to be a adult in Hugh Jackman form and then never apparently ages any further (he looks the same as he did in the Civil War as he does in the film’s present).  This also confronted me to ask myself questions, like how much can I be truly involved in a story about a lead character that, under most circumstances, can’t die?  There is not much tension that can be derived from a character that is death proof. 

Furthermore, WOLVERINE regrettably sidesteps the sobering themes that made the X-MEN pictures so involving, like the political and cultural struggle between humans and mutants.  Much like the best of STAR TREK, the X-MEN films set their fantastical characters and otherworldly stories within the framework of motifs and themes that resonate with a familiarity.  The alienation of mutants as fringe elements by an uncaring society is an utterly lost theme in WOLVERINE, which is more in love with placing its hero in perfunctory action and battle sequences where he is forced to slice and dice his way through adversaries, all while looking as kick-ass as possible.  Wolverine is a poser, to be sure, but the character and story do too much posturing for their own good.   

There are some elements that I liked in the film.  Some of the individual performances hit the right notes, as is the case with the terribly brief appearance of Reynolds' Deadpool and, as far as villains go, Danny Houston can play duplicitous and vile bad guys in his sleep.  Liev Schreiber, an actor that one may not initially think as being perfect for this type of material, gives his role of Victor an eerie, underplayed detachment.  A weaker actor would have hammed in up to eye rolling levels, but Schreiber makes Victor stand out more by doing less.  Finally, we have Hugh Jackman, a bonafide leading man (see AUSTRALIA) and an underrated actor (see THE PRESTIGE) who effortlessly plays Wolverine for the fourth time, and there is little doubting his snarling charisma, gnarly charm, and ferocious energy.  He certainly looks like the living embodiment of that raging and scowling character that occupied countless splash pages in Marvel Comics. 

The rest of the film looks good too.  WOLVERINE was directed by Gavin Hood, a South African that made the Oscar winning TSOTSI in 2005 and also made 2007’s ambitious, but somewhat misguided RENDITION.   He does a decent job of helming WOLVERINE's high octane action sequences (one in particular, which involves a military helicopter and the hero attacking it while on his motorcycle, is exhilarating, as is a chaotic three way battle atop of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island near the film’s climatic conclusion).  The visual effects are also solid, if not a bit inconsistent (oddly enough, this film comes nine years after the first X-MEN film, but Wolvie’s adamantium claws seem even more obviously the product of feeble-looking CGI effects than ever).  Hood captures the escapist spectacle of Logan’s comic book allure, but he fails to embody the film with any dramatic soul.  WOLVERINE has oodles of machismo and brawn, but it never sinks its teeth into what really makes its characters tick.   

X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE was not a instant summer blockbuster picture that was void of production problems:  Hood apparently clashed with 20th Century Fox regarding creative control, which resulted in several re-shoots and, as some insiders have insisted, eventually led to Executive Producer Richard Donner stepping in to “advise” Hood on some of the action sequences (maybe “advise” is an industry euphemism for “taking over in the director’s chair”).  Then there was that much publicized leaking of the work print of the unfinished film on the Internet, which is essentially, in my mind, not as large of an issue as many think (the film will open huge, regardless of those who have seen it already). 

Nonetheless, all of this does not matter, because to die-hard comic fans and X-Men completionists, the film is essentially critic proof.  However, that does not absolve it from being largely underwhelming and, let’s face, kind of unnecessary, especially considering that it (a) fails at developing a character that worked better when his origins were mystifying and (b) as far as carrying a film, Wolverine is not all that interesting enough to require further embellishment.  Now, my personal choice for an X-MEN ORIGINS movie would have been Magneto.  You may recall that he was a figure that experienced racial bigotry and intolerance during the Holocaust and then later, as a metal controlling super mutant, would exact his own brand of ethnic cleansing by trying to rid the world of the humans that want to place him in bondage.  He becomes a sociopathic villain not because he is amorally vicious and insane, but more because he harbors emotional childhood wounds that he wants humanity to feel tenfold.     

Now...does that not sound like a much more satisfyingly compelling origin film?  In my mind...absolutely...but I guess that the image of a shirtless and sweaty Hugh Jackman has more mass marketing appeal than that of Ian McKellan. 

Oh well.  Not all mutants can be posers.

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