X-Men Origins: Wolverine

I wish “Star Trek” and not “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” would kick off the summer season, because it’s a much better and more enjoyable picture than this troubled prequel, in which Hugh Jackman forcefully navigates through a preposterous narrative, sort of a shallow survey of the most popular American movie genres.


First a warning: Please do not walk out on the picture during the closing credits (as most of my colleagues did) for there are two crucial images to be seen at the very end, one quite funny. This is one of the side benefits of timing the running time of pictures on my own (Studios’ reports are often inaccurate, I learned as a Variety critic).


It’s probably a matter of opinion and taste, but as the fourth picture in the “X-Men” saga, “Wolverine” is one notch better than the third (and weakest) in the franchise), Brett Ratner’s “X-Men: The Last Stand,” in 2006, but not nearly as entertaining or innovative as the first or second. That’s not much of a compliment.  Is it?


What is interesting about the “X-Men” franchise in general is that, despite variable quality, each picture has made more money than the previous one, attesting to the power of home entertainment and DVD.  “X-Men” grossed domestically $157 million, “X2: X-X-Men United” $215 million, and “X-Men: The Last Stand” $234 million.  I will not be surprised if, despite mixed reviews, “Wolverine” would outshine the previous chapters in the U.S. and abroad.  According to a recent poll, by 2009, over 70 percent of American moviegoers had seen at least one of the “X-Men” movies.

Reprising the role that made him a star, as the fighting machine that possesses amazing adamantium claws and primal rage, Hugh Jackman (also credited as producer) looks terrific and moves forcefully yet also elegantly.  Having spent countless hours at the gym, he has turned his biceps and lean frame into solid granite, a tanned, gorgeous body that unlike Schwarzenegger’s or Stallone’s still maintains human proportions. 


Either by intent or nor, “Wolverine” doesn’t sustain the tone and look of the other “X-Men” pictures, which is no big deal if it could establish a tone (any consistent tone) for itself.  This prequel doesn’t even make an effort to maintain a semblance balance between story and spectacle, characters and special effects.  Ultimately, what elevates the film slightly is the caliber of actors, most of whom take their jobs quite seriously—surprisingly so.


Structurally, the movie is a mess.  “Wolverine” may go down in history as one of the pictures that completely disregards (read destroys) generic conventions and differences, mixing and blending them in such ways so that each chapter literally represents another genre.  In the course of 108 minutes, the poorly written script revisits the most popular American genres, sci-fi, horror, WWII actioner, Western, rural family melodrama, prison and escape adventure, military farce, but without the joy or pleasure that go with viewing genre movies.


When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby conceived “X-Men” over 40 years ago, they created eccentric characters that were sarcastic, anti-social, and flawed, yet sympathetic when battling their own demons or fighting all kinds of villains with their specialized talents and idiosyncratic skills.

Wolverine first appeared as a character in comics in 1974 (it was created by writer Len Wein and art director John Romita Sr.) before becoming an integral member of “X-Men” and the headliner of his own comic series. The character has now become part of movie lore and pop culture. Last year, Wolverine was ranked #1 of Wizard magazine’s “Top 200 Comic Book Characters of All Time” and #4 in Empire Magazine’s “The 50 Greatest Comic Book Characters.”

The three previous “X-Men” films were set in the future, but as the saga’s first chapter, “Wolverine” takes place in the not-too-distant past.  Aiming for an epic sweep, the new movie contains flashbacks and chapters that span at least 150 years, but the end result is a clunky, overwrought yarn in which every sequence looks and feels as if it belongs to another movie.  It’s like Hood and his writers have not heard of a thing called thematic continuity or visual coordination.

In a plot that’s a hodge-podge, Wolverine and the mutants are pitted against forces that are determined to eliminate them.  On at least one level, the yarn could be seen as a variation of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None,” for each act sees the elimination (or near annihilation) of a major figure, and it becomes a guessing game who’s next, even if it’s clear who will survive at the end.


As most of you know, Team X is a covert military unit comprised of mutant members: Logan/Wolverine (Jackman); his brother Victor Creed aka Sabretooth, a fierce, feral being (Liev Schreiber); Wade Wilson, a high-tech mercenary skilled at swordplay; Agent Zero, an expert tracker and lethal marksman; Wraith, a teleporter; Fred J. Dukes, aka as The Blob, a frightening obese in and out of the ring; and Bradley, who can manipulate electricity.  Their leader is William Stryker (Danny Huston), a figure introduced in “X2” but fully explored in this picture.  (Please see below a more detailed character analysis).


At the center of the narrative are two complex, potentially lethal bonds, one biological, the other professional. Stryker’s relationship with Wolverine defines Logan’s past as well as future, a point I shall return to later in this essay.  However, as this is an “origins” story, blood ties bind and thus no character (human or mutant) has greater impact on Logan than his brother, Victor Creed. Logan had abandoned Victor (and Team X), but the two brothers cannot be separated by time or distance; they are two sides of the same person. You could say that Victor is Logan’s doppelganger, his darker side, and that what drives both men is desire to find a place in the world they can call home. But alas they are fated (or doomed) to wander around.

The main female in the yarn is Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins), with whom Logan has a romance that eventually ends tragically.  It’s Kayla who leads to Logan’s involvement with the Weapon X program, a top secret, multi-billion military experiment in which Wolverine and other mutants are key players.


At the risk of sounding too psychological, I’d like to propose that the key ideas of this mishmash of a yarn are solid and relevant, identity formation and identity crisis; it’s the execution that leaves much to be desired. Thematically, “Wolverine” centers on Logan/Wolverine as a man who doesn’t really know who he is, and who is not comfortable with any of the multiple facets of his personality.  He’s a man/creature torn and tormented by inner battlefield.

Indeed, as Logan continues to search for peace, the world he’s been trying to escape keeps calling back, demanding his presence and action.  Wolverine has run away from his brother Victor/Sabretooth, who possesses powers similar to his.  Both are indestructible, except that Victor is tougher and nastier and also has a feline-like fighting style and leaping facility that enable him to fly.

In a short but impressive pre-credits sequence, set in the Northwest territories of Canada circa 1845, we learn that Logan (born James Howlett) and Victor did not know they were brothers until they reached their teens, a result of a family tragedy that can’t be depicted here.  This traumatic revelation leads to Logan’s berserker rage and claws, which emerge out of his flesh as razor-sharp spikes. As adolescents, Logan and Victor flee their home, forming a unique bond based on dysfunctional co-dependency and ambiguous, love-hate relationship.


The credits sequence that follows plays against a montage of images, in which the indestructible warriors Logan and victor fight together through wars spanning two centuries, including the American Civil War, World Wars I, World War II, even Vietnam; uniforms and weaponry are indicators that change within seconds.

When the story proper begins, Logan is seeking solace from his dark past, working as a lumberjack in the pastoral Canadian Rockies. Finding true love and happiness for the first time in his life, Logan leads an idyllic existence with Kayla Silverfox, a schoolteacher.  It’s Kayla who motivates him to think differently about the tension between being human and mutant. She’s the one who prevents the easily irritable Logan from engaging in fights, as in a scene in which a truck is blocking the road.  In these chapters, “Wolverine” resembles a classic Western, a rural family saga that brings to mind “Shane,” “Friendly Persuasion,” and other 1950s pictures.

Recognizing Logan’s and Victor’s unique abilities, the military officer Col. William Stryker asks them to join a special team, a covert unit comprised of mutants with extraordinary powers.  Stryker was introduced in “X2,” in which he tried to destroy all mutants in the world, but it’s in “Wolverine,” that the measure of his impact on Logan is fully detailed.  Stryker offers the “only solution,” the top-secret Weapon X program, in which Logan’s skeleton will be bonded to adamantium, an impenetrable metal alloy that will make him indestructible, turning him into the Wolverine we know from the previous movies. “To beat Victor,” Stryker tells Logan, “you’re going to have to embrace the other side of you. Become the animal.”   And animal he becomes.

To undergo this transformation, Logan suffers and endures gunshots, knife wounds, car crashes, executions and explosions.  Midway, there’s a scene that’s taken right out of a classic sci-fi.  As Logan lies in a water-filled plexiglass tank, robotic arms, which taper into foot-long needles, spin at high speeds, enter his body and bond his bones to the adamantium. It’s a scary sight to behold, not to mention the howl that comes out of Logan.

Since the new film is set years before “X2,” a younger actor was needed to play Stryker, and Danny Huston, essaying Brian Cox’s role in 2003, does a pretty god job considering the one-dimensional man he plays, a variation of Dr. Frankenstein, with a touch of one of Kubrick’s insane generals in “Dr. Strangelove.” Like Victor, Stryker both hates and loves Logan, wishing to control him and the other mutants, perceived as children or wild animals.  He plans to use them as weapons for the safety of his country, a goal larger and more sacred than any personal agenda or selfish interest. It’s in this respect that the movie, unlike the new apolitical “Star Trek,” is slightly grounded in our current political reality, offering a critique of what it means to be a good citizen in the post 9/11 era.

Too bad that the filmmakers could not come up with a more workable and engaging scenario as the characters are far more interesting on paper than they are on screen. They include Wade Wilson, later known as Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), an efficient killing machine whose weapon of choice are katana swords, labeled the “Merc with the Mouth” for his endless, often witty wisecracks, Both a haunting and haunted figure, Bradley (Dominic Monaghan of TV’s “Lost”) can manipulate electricity.  Once a proud guerrilla soldier, he left the unit and went into hiding from Stryker and Sabretooth as a circus sideshow attraction.

John Wraith (played by music icon Will.i.am of the famed group The Black Eyed Peas), who becomes Wolverine’s close friend, is a teleporter who can appear or disappear at will. After departing Team X, Wraith remains closely allied with Fred J. Dukes (Kevin Durand), a 700-pound obese known as The Blob.  Agent Zero (Daniel Henney), an expert tracker with lethal marksmanship skills who has become Logan’s enemy and is determined to stop him.

The mutant Gambit (Taylor Kitsch), who goes by the name Remy LeBeau (and was not a member of Team X) has the ability to charge matter with kinetic energy, causing an object to explosively release its charge on impact. His specialized gifts are a deck of playing cards and a simple boe staff, which he turns into weapons.

But ultimately, it’s Victor’s brutal murder of Kayla (later seen in a flashback) that triggers Logan’s quest for revenge. Like the James Bond pictures, in which 007 periodically encounters, checks out, and fights the villain, Logan and Victor meet at least three or four times, during which their fights invariably leave Logan wounded and humiliated.   Again like Bond, we know that Wolverine will emerge from each ordeal to face yet another showdown with Victor, a brutal killer, relishing savage violence.


Meanwhile, undeterred by Logan’s escape from Alkali Lake as the now indestructible Wolverine, Stryker has abducted mutants to fulfill his twisted mandate of turning them into weapons. The unwilling participants are the teenagers Scott Summers (Tim Pocock), who can emit powerful beams from his eyes (and later becomes Cyclops), and Emma Frost (Tahyna Tozzi). a telepathic and possesses a diamond-like, indestructible skin. 

As interpreted by Jackman, Logan looks and comes across as a young Clint Eastwood circa the 1970s, around the time of “Dirty Harry,” combining in his on screen persona the kind of attitude, humor, sarcasm, and action that would make his predecessor proud.  A badass by his own description. Logan’s catch phrase is: “I’m the best there is at what I do, and what I does isn’t very nice.”  (You could almost hear Clint say this line, or Jackman saying Clint’s,“Go ahead make my day”).

It’s also a credit to the other performers that they conduct themselves honorably, acting with straight faces while uttering some of the most risible and campy lines of dialogue to be heard this or any other summer.

To be fair, “Wolverine” is not painful movie to watch the way that Gavin Hood’s former political thriller “Rendition” was due to its lethargic pacing.  This one, though burdened with illogical and preposterous narrative is, at least moves fast.  Viewing the picture is like taking a long, potentially thrilling roller coaster ride with many boring and borderline risible spots along the way.


The big mystery is how did Hood get to direct this picture?  Hood’s 2005 film “Tsotsi,” a drama set in Johannesburg about a hardened teenage criminal whose life changes after finding an infant his car, won the Foreign Language Picture Oscar, but was not a particularly good movie, either. There’s nothing in his resume to suggest the skills or proficiency required for such material, and indeed rumors has it that Richard Donner stepped in to orchestrate some of the big action set-pieces.

End Note


“X-Men” every 3 years: The first” X-Men” movie was released in 2000, “X2” in 2003, and “X-Men: The Last Stand” in 2006.  Next chapter in 2012?