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Not Quite the Best There is at What he Does — Josh Suffers Through X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Hoo boy.

One of my first articles, when I started this blog, was about great franchises that have fallen on hard times.  I was writing about my once-beloved Alien and Predator series, but we can all now safely add the X-Men films to that list.  What in the world has happened to this series??  X-Men and X2 were so spectacular — but after X3 and now the rather verbosely titled X-Men Origins: Wolverine I am sad to report that the series is batting only two for four.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a Fantastic Four caliber catastrophe.  Some talented actors appear on-screen, there’s some exciting action, some familiar X-Men characters pop up (one in particular really surprised me), and we finally get to hear Wolverine say on-screen, “I’m the best there is at what I do.  But what I do best isn’t very nice.”  But the scant enjoyment I felt from those moments was short-lived.   X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a rentlessly dour and joyless affair, one that consistently reveals itself to be a truly B-Grade effort.  What do I mean by that?  Allow me to elaborate:

The film is filled with plot-holes, but more than that, it doesn’t hold together at all as any sort of coherent narrative.  I respect the filmmakers’ ambition in trying to capture a number of different periods in Wolverine’s life, from his birth in the late 1800’s, through his experiences in a variety of wars (captured really well, actually, in an exciting opening credits sequence), through his time with Silver Fox, his involvement in the Weapon X program, and beyond.  But none of the bits and pieces hang together.  Instead of merging together to form an expansive back-story, each jump in time left me with countless unanswered questions: Why would Logan, a Canadian, fight in so many of America’s wars?  Right from the first scene, he is established as a gentler soul than his mean brother Victor — so why would Logan hang around with Victor for so many years?  If Stryker and the team were so upset when Wolverine left them, how and why did the whole group disband soon after?  And why would Victor, of all people, be the one to remain in Stryker’s service?  I could go on.

The film makes a total hash of the X-Men comic continuity.  There was a lot of precedent for this, of course, as the previous three X-Men films also mixed and matched characters and story-lines from different periods of the comics with great abandon.  But there’s a souless “everything and the kitchen sink” approach to this film as it ties a barrage of random Marvel Comics characters (Gambit!  Deadpool!  The Blob!) into Wolverine’s origin — and many of the changes to the established comic books’ back-stories really bugged me.  Sabretooth and Wolverine are siblings?  Logan entered the Weapon X program voluntarily?  Emma Frost is Silver Fox’s sister?  Whaaa??

The film isn’t even all that consistent with the previous three X-Men films.  I mean, I know that Logan gets shot with amnesia bullets at the end (I’m not kidding, by the way — do you think I could make that up??) so he wouldn’t remember meeting young Cyclops — but shouldn’t Cyke have remembered HIM when they meet up again in the first X-Men film?

There are some moments of fun action and visual spectacle — the three-way fight atop a nuclear reactor at the movie’s end comes to mind — but there are some achingly bad special effects as well.  In the scene in a bathroom where Logan first pops his adamantium claws, the claws look ridiculously fake.  I mean, really astonishingly I-can’t-believe-that’s-the-finished-effects-shot fake.

I feel sort of bad about picking on this movie, because Hugh Jackman seems like a terrific fellow — and he is so good at playing Wolverine that it is easy, now in his fourth go-round in the role, to take him for granted.  This is a character that, before the first X-Men film, I would have argued to the death would be completely impossible to play on film and not come off as totally ridiculous.  And yet, ever since that first shot that revealed him in the steel cage in the first X-Men movie, Jackman has inhabited the character in a magical way.  Even in this sub-par installment (or maybe I should say especially in this sub-par installment), he’s the best thing about the film.

It is clear that the stewards of the X-Men film franchise really have no idea where to take the series.  That is frustrating, because there is a GOLDMINE of amazing X-Men stories from the last 40 years of comic books that can be drawn from.  This should be the easiest franchise in the world to continue for movie after movie.  There are so many great stories that could be adapted.  Are actors like Patrick Stewart or Halle Berry getting too expensive?  Easy!  Just re-cast the roles or write those characters out of the series and bring in new ones.  The X-Men in the comics changed their roster constantly, and there are so many amazing new characters who could be brought to life on screen to replace a Storm or a Professor X or a Jean Grey.

I could understand it if the film-makers wanted to, occasionally, take a break from the enormous multi-character X-Men epics to focus on a single character film.  The idea of making a gritty Wolverine solo movie is an appealing one!  But if that was the filmmakers’ intention, then why did they surround Logan in this film with a bevy of other mutant characters — X-Men lite, if you will?  If we’re going to see Logan fight the bad guys along with a team of people with super-powers, then why not just give us a fourth X-Men film, for heavens sake??   And dark and gritty, this film is not.  True, Logan spends much of the movie unhappy, and none of the characters around him are any fun.  But the film never brings any real intensity or violence to the fight scenes, and the emotional moments just aren’t that gripping.  (Compare the death of a female character in this film to the mid-movie death of a female character in The Dark Knight.  Night and day in terms of the emotional impact of those two moments.)

Furthermore, if one wanted to make a Wolverine solo film, I am stunned that the filmmakers decided to tell this patchwork origin story and ignored what would have been a magnificent template for a film: the 4-issue mini-series Wolverine, from 1987, by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller.  In Wolverine’s first major solo spin-off adventure, Logan travels to Japan, falls in love, fights ninjas, and travels an intense personal journey in which he struggles between the human and animal sides of his nature.  A spectacular story that holds up today, this would have make a kick-ass movie.

Instead, I got to watch Wolverine team up with some leftovers from Dutch’s team from Predator to hunt rocks, kill some people, then make goo-goo eyes at a cute babe, cut down some trees, meet Ma and Pa Kent, jump onto a helicopter, and engage in three versions of the exact same fight with his pissed-off brother Sabretooth.  Oh, and at long last we learned the secret origin of that cool jacket Logan was wearing in the first X-Men movie.

Pass me those amnesia bullets, would you please?

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