X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

The cost of DADT climbes higher every day.
The cost of DADT climbs higher every day.

I’ve never liked Wolverine for the same reason I’ve don’t like most antiheroes: most of the time, he’s an asshole. Originally created by Len Wein so Bruce Banner could have someone to punch, Wolverine went to to be (arguably) the most popular and certainly the most recognizable asshole in the X-Men’s roster…for better or worse. Without him, odds are the X-Men books wouldn’t be nearly as popular as they are, and their three-and-counting films almost certainly wouldn’t exist.

That’s why the X-Men trilogy’s attempts to soften and humanize Wolverine always felt forced to me…a little too…disingenuous. True, apart from the occasional Odious Comic Relief piece, Logan’s softer side only surfaced when he was protecting The Children or trying to get into Jean Gray’s black leather pants. Both were noble goals that nevertheless annoyed me, bored me, and pulled the whole trilogy down into their gravity well. I spent three movies wondering just who this Hugh Jackman character was and why the films were trying so hard to convince me he was Wolverine? He was too damn nice, and his accent has a bad habit of shifting southwards. So for nine years I told Hollywood, “Quit pussyfooting around and give Wolverine his own film.”

I hate it when they listen to me.

As with so much else, X-Men Origins: Wolverine owes its existence to a famous 1985 memo by producer Christopher Vogler, “A Practical Guide to Joseph Cambell’s [sic] The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” The memo outlines how the archetypal Campbellian Hero’s Journey provides a “formula” for crafting movies with built-in mass appeal. Here’s an eerily prescient quotation: “The myth can be used to tell the simplest comic book story or the most sophisticated drama.” Notice how Vogler treated comics and “sophisticated” drama as mutually exclusive categories? Wonderful how far we’ve come since the 1980s, eh?


I'm pretty sure the boxing commission frowns on those.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine gives Logan three Hero’s Journeys for the price of one. I could describe the first journey to you but it’s so short I might as well just tell you to go read the six-book, 2001 Origin miniseries, which the film condenses down into a four minute precredit sequence. Enough to say it concerns a young man born in the Gothic splendor of Canada sometime in early nineteenth century, named James.

I’ll say this for X-MOW: it has about the best damn credit sequence I’ve seen in years. Through the magic of Montage, we watch the no-longer-young James Howlett (Hugh Jackman) and his elder brother, Victor Creed (Liev Schreiber), fight their way through over a century’s worth of wars, surviving through regenerative powers to rival any member of the Clan McCloud. But by the time both are fighting through the jungles of Vietnam, James has visibly tired of Victor’s insatiable bloodlust, which (we’re meant to infer) gets the brothers into more trouble than not.

For example: by the end of credits, both are about to face a firing squad for fragging (well, stabbing, but whatever) a few of their fellow soldiers. It’s a prefect opening that the movie will never live up to since X-MOW literally just shot its wad into our faces.

Logan’s second trip through Chapter 5 of Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces consumes the next ten minutes. Having proved resistant to standard-issue lead poisoning, the Fabulous Howlett Brothers are rescued from their standard-issue hole in the ground by Col. William Stryker (Danny Huston). Recognizing them for what they are (mutants, in X-Men argot), Stryker offers them a chance to join (an unnamed, but recognizable version of) Team X, a covert black ops unit composed entirely of mutants that Stryker’s put together on the sly. “Jimmy” and Victor accept his offer and, if the next ten minutes are to be believed, their subsequent lives become one big, superpowered action sequence.

Looks like somone else would rather be watching the Watchmen.
Looks like some one else would rather be watching Watchmen too.

Then Col. Stryker orders Team X to massacre a small, Nigerian village. For “Jimmy,” this is A Bridge Too Far. “We didn’t sign up for this,” he tells Victor. What exactly did you sign up for, then, Jim? It’s not like military black ops teams run around staging international paddycake tournaments. Hell, the CIA’s paid its bills with third world civilian massacres since at least the late 1940s…something you should probably know from experience. We just saw you and Victor land on Normandy Beach and you didn’t look all that happy back then either. (And at least back then you were massacring Nazis.) Your conscience waited this long to grow a pair of balls and I’m suppose to consider you the hero of this piece? Okay, fine. Whatever.

As you can probably tell, neither of Logan’s first two arcs is very interesting because neither gets any time to breathe. The film (which, I remind you, is called X-Men Origins: Wolverine) spends more time (and money) on Team X’s introductory action sequence than it does on Wolverine’s actual origin. So forget all that period-piece, faux-Gothic drama Bill Jemas, Joe Quesada and Paul Jenkins packed into the eponymous book. In its place we get a view of Wolverine’s pre-X-Men life that seems pretty much just like his post-X-Men life…only without the costumes. Or the Pretty White Kids with Problems (though those show up, eventually).

Personally, I’d run off to the Canadian Rockies too. Especially if I got to shack up Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins). Thanks to the magic of transitioning, Logan spends six years enjoying the lumberjack life, including (one assumes) the ability to sing that one Monty Python song without the slightest hint of irony. We get to see about fifteen minutes of this before Victor returns to Logan’s life, apparently murdering Silverfox and setting our Wolverine on a righteous quest for Vengeance.

So, would this be...Logan's run?
So, would this be…Logan’s run?

Finding Col. Stryker on that path is no real surprise, and it’s certainly not welcome…until Stryker offers Logan “the tools” to defeat Victor, something Logan’s never really managed before. Ah, but Stryker has a plan to coat Logan’s bones in an indestructible metal called adamantium…an alloy made from the very same MacGuffin Team X tore up Nigeria looking for all those years ago.

But since this is one of William Stryker’s pet projects (which he actually refers to as “Weapon X” – bold step there, X-MOW, referencing your source material by name) Logan’s the only one surprised when Stryker starts talking about wiping Logan’s memories or using his DNA for something called “Weapon Eleven.” Finding his naturally-occurring bone claws are now shiny weapons of mass destruction, Logan escapes Stryker’s clutches. Following standard Action Moive protocol, Our Hero soon discovers Stryker and Victor are working together, have been all this time, and now Our Hero must slaughter his way through Stryker’s cadres and find that other secret medical research facility before…well, actually, there is no “before.” Logan’s just out for revenge. As usual, stopping the Villainous Plot of the Month is a secondary distraction for Wolverine at best.

All of which consumes the last hour of film. For all the pomp, circumstance, and explosions director Gavin Hood packs in, I’m surprised to find myself this bored. Except that’s not really true. Like many a one-dimensional, taciturn bad ass, Wolverine is at his most interesting when he’s at his most mysterious. After tossing away any chance to tell a vivid, century-spanning story, the film chooses to characterize him with the laziest string of action movie cliches I’ve seen outside of a Silvester Stallone film. So I’m bored.

Honestly, this prequel only exists to serve as Hugh Jackman’s personal star vehicle, a cynical, manipulative ploy to drag women of a certain age (and men of a certain sexual preference) into theaters that they might hang on the sculpted Australian’s every growl and grunt. X-MOW believed it could get away with that if it tossed in enough Marvel characters to mollify the core fan base and enough special effects to entrance everyone else.

"I'll never have to buy a disposable razor again!"
“I’ll never have to buy a razor again! Brilliant!”

In the end, it managed to piss everyone off. There are, on occasion, some nice special effects. There are also some really god awful ones. For example, I don’t know whether to laugh or cringe every time Liev Schrieber flirts with quadrupedal locomotion. Some of Logan’s claws are beginning to take on a decidedly digital look to them, which is as annoying as it is unwelcome. But once again the X-Men’s primary problem shines right through the film’s glossy exterior: too many damn characters, too many superpowers, not enough budget, and no director with flair. You got no style, Gavin. You’re an ex-lawyer and star of such unforgettable classics as Kickboxer 5 and Operation Delta Force 2. You can’t seem to decide if you wants to be Paul Greengrass, Bryan Singer, Brett Ratner, or the Wachowski siblings. So you rip all of them off and hope none of us will notice. Dude, how could we not? We’ve spent the last ten years watching the same damn movies you have…and a hell of a lot more anime to boot from the looks of it. Wanna know how many characters I’ve seen simultaneously reload two pistols by tossing them up into the air while they pulled fresh clips from their flack jackets? In slow motion? Let’s just say, “Quite a number of them.”

When does this story take place? In X2, which took place in “the not-too-distant future” of the mid-2000s, a much older Stryker (played by Brian Cox) opined it’d been fifteen years since he’d last seen Logan. This places the events of this film sometime in the late-80s to early-90s (contemporary with Wolverine’s, and the X-Men’s, greatest wave of popularity in our universe, when the collector’s market pushed everyone to buy four copies of Jim Lee and Chris Claremont’s X-Men #1). Subtract those six years in the Rockies with Silverfox and we’re still only in the early-80s. Anglo troops pulled out of Vietnam in 1973. So Wolvie spent at least ten good years doing God knows what with Team X before he decided to give a fuck about the consequences of his actions.

Our Hero, ladies and gentlemen! He’ll stand up for what’s right…eventually. Once he runs out of cheap cigars. Not like he isn’t a functional immortal: he’s got nothing but time. It’s the rest of us who have to deal with his shit. And any movie so concerned with the state of Logan’s soul shouldn’t stack the deck by making everyone else in his life either so traumatized they attack him on sight…or ee-vil. Even Logan’s altruistic former teammate (Team X-mate?) John Wraith (Will.i.am) is a fucking collaborator. With the Marvel Universe’s Dr. Mengele, no less.

Ruth Fisher and Jonathan Kent sneak off for an afternoon delight.
Ruth Fisher and Jonathan Kent sneak off for an afternoon delight.

Are we really meant to believe Team X just broke up after Logan walked away? That only Victor remained a loyal soldier? Speaking of which, if Logan were half the bad ass he thinks he is, he would’ve figured out the two were working together from the moment Stryker showed up at his lumber camp. And if you don’t see the eleventh hour plot twist coming a mile away…you’re young. You’ll learn.

And if Stryker is so evil, why does he have to be so stupid? His strategy in X2 was a master stroke of comic book villainy, but this plot reeks to high heaven. Assuming it all went according to plan, what did he plan to do with an indestructible Canadian anyway? Especially one he told to “become the animal?”

Once Logan’s fled Alkili Lake, a visiting general points out that Stryker’s “just spent half a billion dollars making [Logan] invincible.” Where’d that money come from, eh? Rupert Murdoch? Stark Industries? If this universe’s mutant “problem” is so widespread and vast, how are the U.S. and Canadian governments collaborating on such a massive, military program of illegal medical experiments? They make the Tuskegee syphilis study look like a survey about boner pills and they’re doing it all in secret? How did an idiot like Stryker get put in charge of all that? What was he going to do? Stand a brainwashed Wolverine in front of the president and say, “I can get you twenty more by Christmas, sir”? Why does he kill a visiting general with his own hands after General Dead Person hints he might shut the program down? Yeah, Colonel, that’s subtle.

Quick: Don't think of a fart joke.
Quick: Don’t think of a fart joke.

While I’m being nitpicky, who thought lines like, “You wanted the animal, Colonel? You got ‘im,” were a good idea? Was it you, Jackman? What about Silverfox’s little speech early on, telling Logan (and the audience) the legend of Kuekowatsu, “he who only shaves his upper lip and soul patch”? She translates it to mean “the Wolverine” but we all know it really means “We made all this shit up as we went along.” I always thought Wolverine’s was some kind of military codename. It seems stupid enough to come from the mind of a rear-echelon bureaucrat, the kind of people who make up all the military’s acronyms. But no. The one-dimensional Love Interest has to give our hero his nom de guerre. At least someone other than Sabertooth kills Wolverine’s father.

It’s nice to see all these other mutants packing the film in a desperate attempt to give it some sense of scope. But since the special effects are so hit and miss and the plot is full of more holes than a colander I sense a palpable desperation in ever five-minute cameo. Most of them show up in the last half hour, becoming interchangeable bricks in the yellow road towards the climactic action sequence. If you find yourself bedeviled by the sneaking suspicion most of these characters were meant to appear in previous X-Men sequels, don’t be alarmed. That indicates only that you are still sane.

Imagine you ask someone for a glass of champagne. X-MOW poured us a glass and then dumped the rest down our throats while holding our arms down with its knees. And it expects us to be thankful. That’s not fan service, it’s assault and battery. And a waste of good champagne. These characters are not a Bonus Feature you tack on to improve some substandard product. You could’ve given half of them Origin films in their own right and mined money out of this franchise for another whole decade. Instead, Fox decided to reboot the franchise…with the exception of this film, which is already getting a sequel.

He who only shaves his upper lip and soul patch is pleased.
He who only shaves his upper lip and soul patch is pleased.

Really I’m biased since I saw so much of this story back in the mid-90s when the X-Men cartoon (also on Fox) told it well. It’s the Spider-Man 3 Problem again. Not that I don’t care about Wolverine: I don’t, but the X-Men series worked hard to overcome that. This movie turns Logan into the Action Movie protagonist Hugh Jackman obviously always wanted to be, but aside from his weapon of choice and his damage-absorbing abilities what the hell’s so special about him?

Having watched an unhealthy amount of comic book movies, I gotta say, not much. This is yet another origin that remembers to have a plot once it’s finally done hitting us with chunky exposition. It reminds me of Terminator: Salvation or Clash of the Titans: films that might play just fine for people who’ve never watched a film before. So if you missed all three X-Men flicks, well…welcome to the last decade. Sucker.

At least it’s competently shot. More unified and linear than Spider-Man 3. It’s played straight, too, and never annoyed me with  snide self-consciousness, ala Ghost Rider or The Spirit. It’s decently acted, and it inspired me to take another look the much-better X2 just to remind myself where this story ended and that it did, in fact, end well.

Because in the end, X-MOW has prequelitis in the extreme, leaving us with not just one, not just two, but three after-the-end-credits teaser scenes, just so we’re clear that movies will never have any sort of closure ever again. The truly desperate for a Logan fix should just do what I should’ve done in the first place and watch X2 again. Or go see Hulk vs. Wolverine, which told the same story in a third of the time…with Bruce Banner…and a picture of Wolverine’s pre-X-Men life that I enjoyed a hell of a lot more.


6 thoughts on “X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)”

    1. With as much Marvel Comics fanservice as they could cram in. I swear, it’s like they looked into the bucket of cast-off shit from the previous three films, stirred it all around, and then dumped the result into our laps. “Here you go, hogs. Enjoy the slop.”

  1. Wolverine can be compelling when properly utilized. In Evolution he’s just the drill sear gent and in a 52 episode series he has…..four. He also makes mistakes at times (at one point Scott, who was essentially his top student, butts heads with him over what to do. Logan still sees him as the teenage boy he’s been training, while Scott states that he and the others are no longer the rookies they were when they started under him. In the end, Scott’s move turns out to be correct and afterwards Logan gracefully admits that Scott was right and that he had screwed up.)

    1. I see your point. But, then again, anyone can be compelling when properly utilized. Problems arise from the fact everyone has their own idea of how to “properly” utilize Logan. We’ve got ours, Hugh Jackman’s got his, and the studio doesn’t care, so long as the movie sells more toys. Normally, this would be the point where a producer/director with vision would step in and say, “No, fuck all ya’all. We’re doing this.” But the X-franchise barely had that at the beginning, in Singer (and Avi Arad had to twist his arm into taking the job). And Gavin Hood ain’t no Bryan Singer. Matt Vaughn might be…hell, he’s probably capable of surpassing Singer, just in terms of genre movies…but he chose to keep Logan out of things and I hope he sticks to those guns.

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