Going Berserker – Revisiting X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Cal takes his claws to Wolverine’s first solo adventure. 

  • Let’s face it: we pay to see summer movies for the explosions, the fight scenes and the action in general. They aren’t required to engage us on a cerebral level, they merely offer an abundance of spectacle during which we’re required to suspend our disbelief. X-Men Origins: Wolverine, however, is definitive proof that a plateful of action is not enough to create a satisfying summer movie. For a film to attain the status of an excellent popcorn-muncher, it’s required to pay at least some attention to narrative coherence and character arcs, not to mention the action has to occur in an actual context. In Wolverine, the action sequences just… happen. To arrive at one, you have to suffer through badly-paced scenes of trite dialogue and terrible acting. Plot holes also flourish, logic is quickly discarded, and it leaves too many things unexplained. There’s no human drama (ala Spider-Man) or witty dialogue (like Iron Man). Even the other X-Men movies had a political resonance to them which isn’t retained here. This is Hack Filmmaking 101.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine was ostensibly a labour of love for poor Hugh Jackman who also served as producer, but unfortunately his efforts didn’t pay off. About a month before the film’s scheduled release, an incomplete workprint was leaked online. As it turns out, though, this leak was the best thing to happen to the film industry during 2009. Those eagerly anticipating the movie (this reviewer included) were given the opportunity to see how awful it truly was. Fox immediately attempted to cover their blunder by claiming footage from the reshoots was missing from the workprint (fourteen minutes in total, apparently). Curiously, closer to the release date, Fox’s story changed: ten minutes of reshoots are missing from the workprint version, and these ten new minutes are replacing ten particular minutes which have been removed from the final cut. However, the workprint was indeed the final cut sans finished special effects, sound effects and music. The alleged “missing footage” never existed… it was a lie manufactured by Fox in a frantic attempt to convince audiences to go see the completed movie. But those deceptive chairmen at Fox couldn’t manufacture a lie to cover one particular fact: Wolverine is completely beyond salvation. No amount of reshooting could salvage this mess. Nothing short of a total remake – with a completely new script and plotline, and a bunch of new actors – could rescue this awful film.

In a failed attempt to distance the franchise from 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, Fox greenlit this prequel instead of another sequel. Wisely, Wolverine was selected as the focus of this first origins adventure, yet this motion picture fails to illuminate the breadth of Logan’s tale. His backstory is complex and lavish, traversing many centuries and veering off into numerous sub-plots (and countries), all the while navigating through various relationships with an assortment of characters. This is all condensed into about 105 minutes, and it falls apart in less than a fraction of that time.

The film opens in Canada in 1845 (which is very strange, considering Canada wasn’t established until 1867) when a young James Howlett first discovers his bone-claw abilities. A few deaths occur and James goes on the run with his half-brother Victor. This prologue, however, is very rushed and is more confusing than compelling. Following this, a montage is presented as Wolverine and Sabretooth (Jackman and Liev Schreiber, respectively) fight alongside each other in every major U.S. war. Never mind that it’s impossible for these two to always be assigned to the same unit, as this indiscretion is reasonably minor compared to the other sins of logic to be found within. For instance, they’re also Canadian… I guess no-one checked their papers when they enlisted in the U.S. Army.

After their experiences in Vietnam, the brothers are recruited by William Stryker (Danny Huston) to be part of a team of mutants assigned to carry out missions in third-world countries. Off-tangent sub-plots then appear in abundance; the main one concerning Wolverine seeking revenge after his lady friend meets with a violent end. Some betrayal also occurs, more mutants are introduced, and events culminate in an endlessly silly climax. Instead of one solid plot, Wolverine is merely a ton of sub-plots mashed together.

The first major problem is the screenplay. It’s a string of well-worn clichés we’ve seen a million times before – including not one but two “don’t do it, you’ll be just as bad as him” moments as well as a conventional, cheesy, embarrassing romance which concludes on the most conventional note possible. Dialogue is another issue: it’s AWFUL! I have no idea what’s worse; the dreadful discussions or the abysmal way the actors disperse it. The script also skims through crucial character development and more or less eschews Wolverine’s origins entirely. If it’s truly an “origins” tale as advertised, where are the explanations? When initially introduced to baby Wolverine, he’s already a mutant with bone-claws. How did he get them? The best we can assume is his biological father was a mutant, although the implication is irritatingly vague. These things are brushed aside in a hurry in order to dive straight into the action. The screenwriters never considered, however, that an audience needs a reason to care for the characters that are stuck in the midst of the action (only small-minded, ADD-inflicted individuals will overlook this). Another thing regarding the set-pieces: virtually all of the characters are invincible, which jettisons all hope of any emotional investment in them. When Wolverine and Sabretooth battle pointlessly over and over again, we know neither of them will die and the fight will conclude with them just walking away. Why should we care?

Wolverine is never given an opportunity to come to terms with his mutations. Even after his skeleton is coated with Adamantium, he’s automatically cool with it all, except for the customary “looking at self in mirror while testing abilities” scene which lasts one or two minutes. Another major gripe: the name “Logan” is never justified. In the original comics, Wolverine was a Samurai and he was given the name Logan as a result. In this muddled mess of a movie, the name Logan just… appears. We have no idea where it came from; he’s just named Logan for no discernible reason, and other characters mysteriously pick this up.

The screenplay is beset with absolutely preposterous moments. Like there’s a high profile facility on the mysterious “Island”, and Wolverine is able to simply stroll through the front doors. No security? No locks? And when mutants are escaping, a grand total of four armed men try to stop them. The cages containing the mutants are also just metal wire fences. Some mutants have powers to cut through these wires easily, like Cyclops who can slice through bricks. On top of this, Stryker is so dumb he decides to erase Wolverine’s memory after coating the guy’s skeleton with Adamantium, making him indestructible. Characters also pop-up at the most appropriate time (an entrance from a particular favourite during the final showdown is embarrassingly terrible and way too convenient). One should suspend their disbelief for a comic book movie, but this takes things to the next level. It’s worse than your usual brainless summer actioner. The film’s concluding ten minutes in particular are absolutely retarded. On top of this, the continuity of the entire series is wrecked. Certain conversations in the other X-Men films now make no sense (like Stryker telling Wolverine he gave him claws when in reality Stryker just strengthened the claws).

A plethora of infamous Marvel characters are dispatched not long after their introductions. Virtually every single character is flat, appearing in name-only form to entice fans. Deadpool’s treatment is infamously the most heartbreaking. Perhaps Ryan Reynolds was behind the workprint leak after he viewed the incomplete version and realised the gross misuse of the Merc With a Mouth. The character’s appearance is no more than a cameo that his resultant movie handily ignored. Don’t get too attached to other much-hyped characters such as The Blob, John Wraith, Agent Zero and Bolt, as, like Deadpool, their appearances amount to mere cameos. Team X is formed at the film’s beginning, but after a brief first mission, Wolverine has a strike of moral conscience and leaves the group. Why Wolverine and Sabretooth are so willing to join Stryker in the first place is a mystery. Due to the rushed nature of the opening twenty minutes, there’s no way we can get emotionally attached to the characters. A lot of potential is wasted.

Director Gavin Hood previously helmed 2007’s Rendition as well as Tsotsi (which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Feature in 2006). Hood’s inability to direct a genuinely enjoyable and resonant motion picture surfaces here again. Wolverine is a concatenation of action movie clichés, not just from the hackneyed screenplay but also the selection of shots. Like an image of the protagonist setting off an explosion and walking in slow-motion towards the camera, as well as the customary situation of the hero walking away from the bad guy he’s decided not to kill, only to turn back slowly as said bad guy dramatically reveals a weapon.

The action sequences are frequently marred by slow-mo shots, whereas others can’t be enjoyed because of the invincibility of the characters, and as for the others, well, there’s no context. A scene involving Wolverine taking down a helicopter is admittedly awesome to watch, but within the story it makes no sense. Stryker is trying to kill the creature he just created at great expense, and sends his right-hand man to do the job… knowing fully well that bullets made of Adamantium are the only thing that can take down Wolverine. That’s just the first of many irreverent sequences. Others include a boxing match between Wolverine and The Blob that happens for no reason, and even a large-scale battle against Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) – a mutant who’s actually on the same side! The special effects are also quite shonky, and an appearance of a CGI Patrick Stewart is absurdly unconvincing. The pacing is also awful, as spaces between the set-pieces are unforgivably sluggish, and this is due to Hood’s incompetent direction. Thank god for James Mangold’s involvement with The Wolvreine!

The casting is also problematic. Jackman has endless charisma as an actor, but his performance here is hamstrung by the badly-drawn characterisation. Wolverine is meant to be a badass anti-hero, but he’s toned down for the sake of toy sales and the target audience. All Jackman does is strike poses and deliver dismal dialogue. Meanwhile, Schreiber just alternates between sassy one-liners and open-mouthed rage. Luckily, he is actually an interesting villain, even if his motivations are never explored. Reynolds is good here as swordsman Wade Wilson, providing but a peek at what he would later give us, but he’s lost far too early into the movie. His screen-time is exasperatingly brief, as is that of Dominic Monaghan whose character of Bolt has an appealing sadness. Kitsch is a soulless Gambit with a terrible, false accent. Perhaps Lost‘s Josh Holloway would’ve made a better version of the card-throwing Cajun (he was offered the chance to appear in X-Men: The Last Stand as the character but declined).

X-Men Origins: Wolverine eventually turns into a confusing hodgepodge of uninspired, clichéd fight scenes and loud explosions. The other X-Men films focused on Wolverine at certain times, and he was more or less the central character. You’d think this “origins” tale would, ya know, reveal his origins but it doesn’t! It’s just an action flick with Logan at its core and mutants surrounding him, not unlike the other X-Men flicks. As a whole, the film feels very rushed; it’s too short to be considered an epic Marvel feature. The action is occasionally impressive, granted, but good pyrotechnics do not make an excellent movie on their own. If it wasn’t for X-Men: First Class, this movie might have killed the franchise in one fell swoop…

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Hugh Jackman recommended his Kate & Leopold (2001) co-star Liev Schreiber for the role of Sabretooth, describing him as having the necessary competitive streak to portray Sabretooth. During filming, they dared each other to perform more and more of their own stunts.
  • In the film, Logan fights in the American Civil War, WWI, WWII, and the Vietnam War. In the comics, he participates in WWI and WWII, even teaming up with Captain America in the latter.
  • Ryan Reynolds and Wesley Snipes (in the Blade movies) are the only two actors with roles in Marvel Comics film adaptations to have not gone through an audition prior to signing.
  • Jackman himself expressed regret over this film, admitting it fell short of his expectations and didn’t do the character of Wolverine justice. Subsequently he and the rest of the crew sought to do a better job with The Wolverine (2013).

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1 Comment

  1. Dan O'Neill says:

    God, this movie sucked. Seriously. Thanks for the reminder, Cal.

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