Rewind & Reboot: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

X-Men Origins Wolverine movie poster


Much of what’s wrong with X-Men Ori­gins: Wolver­ine can be traced right back to its con­fused con­cep­tion, indeed begin­ning with its clum­sy title. The ungain­ly pre­fix is clum­si­ly bolt­ed on sole­ly for it to alpha­bet­ize adja­cent to the three pre­vi­ous X-Men films on Wal­mart shelves, iTunes, Pay-Per-View, and tor­rent track­ers. The two halves split by a colon try to have it both ways: “X-Men Ori­gins” brands it as part of a pro­posed series of pre­quels to the lucra­tive orig­i­nal tril­o­gy (none else of which have yet to mate­ri­al­ize, appar­ent­ly dis­card­ed in favor of the com­plete reboot X-Men: First Class), while “Wolver­ine” promis­es a fresh new fran­chise in and of itself.

With the orig­i­nal tril­o­gy still warm in its grave, bare­ly a decade after it began, why rewind and start over again so soon? There’s no rea­son why a pre­quel fea­tur­ing hon­est-to-good­ness movie star Hugh Jack­man as the fan-favorite icon couldn’t have stood on its own. One gets the feel­ing X-Men and X2: X-Men Unit­ed were pre­ma­ture­ly dis­card­ed. All of this is quite the pity, as direc­tor Bryan Singer’s inter­pre­ta­tion was far supe­ri­or than this and Brett Ratner’s weak X-Men 3: The Last Stand.

I can under­stand the desire to cre­ate a jump­ing-on point for new view­ers, one that does not require a detailed mem­o­ry of the events of the pre­vi­ous install­ments. But if what 20th Cen­tu­ry Fox and Mar­vel Comics sought was a fresh start, this isn’t exact­ly it. The nar­ra­tive con­torts itself to slot into some of the estab­lished chronol­o­gy, while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly ignor­ing or con­tra­dict­ing many oth­er sig­nif­i­cant ele­ments of the canon.

Liev Schreiber and Hugh Jackman in X-Men Origins: WolverineSabre­tooth and Wolver­ine demon­strate the prop­er pro­to­col in exe­cut­ing a man hug

Dan­ny Hous­ton por­trays a younger ver­sion of William Stryk­er, a role orig­i­nat­ed by Bri­an Cox in X2: X-Men Unit­ed. We learn a lit­tle more of his vil­lain­ous moti­va­tions and ties to Wolverine’s secret ori­gin, none of which real­ly sur­prise or illu­mi­nate. Fans might be pleased by super­flu­ous cameos by a younger Cyclops (Tim Pocock) and Pro­fes­sor X (a dig­i­tal­ly reju­ve­nat­ed Patrick Stew­art). Then there’s the mat­ter of Sabre­tooth, whom we already met as Magneto’s hench­man (Tyler Mane) in the orig­i­nal X-Men (2000), but now entire­ly recast and recon­ceived as Logan’s broth­er Vic­tor Creed (Liev Schreiber).

A pro­logue set in Canada’s North­west Ter­ri­to­ries in the mid 1800s reveals Logan’s dam­aged psy­chol­o­gy to be the prod­uct of frat­ri­cide. He and broth­er Vic­tor were dot­ed upon by a wealthy adop­tive father, but their super­sti­tious bio­log­i­cal father want­ed to kill them. The best sequence imme­di­ate­ly fol­lows: an impres­sive mon­tage of the broth­ers fight­ing side-by-side through the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War, Civ­il War, World Wars I and II, and Viet­nam. The word­less sequence suc­cinct­ly illus­trates the immor­tal war­riors grow­ing apart, as Vic­tor becomes increas­ing­ly unsta­ble while Logan slow­ly devel­ops a moral code and dis­taste for killing.

A Wolver­ine film seemed like a promis­ing idea when I first heard of it; it could have pro­vid­ed a neat way to shake off the detri­tus that had accu­mu­lat­ed by the end of the orig­i­nal tril­o­gy. Each sub­se­quent install­ment added too many addi­tion­al char­ac­ters drawn from decades of Mar­vel Comics his­to­ry, and quick­ly snow­balled to the point where the ensem­ble cast became com­i­cal­ly unwieldy (pun intend­ed). So, the notion of a fresh sto­ry focused around just one char­ac­ter sound­ed like a wise choice. But expect­ing a smart cre­ative choice from 20th Cen­tu­ry Fox was obvi­ous­ly too much. X-Men Ori­gins: Wolver­ine is over­stuffed with a tremen­dous num­ber of X-Men b-lis­ters, includ­ing The Blob (Kevin Durand), Dead­pool (Ryan Reynolds), Gam­bit (Tay­lor Kitsch), The White Queen (Tahy­na Tozzi), and Bolt (Dominic Mon­aghan). The lat­ter, inci­den­tal­ly, fea­tures in one of the best scenes in the film, in a low-key con­fronta­tion with Vic­tor that approach­es real dra­ma.

Taylor Kitsch,, Liev Schreiber, Hugh Jackman, Tim Pocock, Ryan Reynolds, and Lynn Collins in X-Men Origins: WolverineThe Amaz­ing Adven­tures of the Uncan­ny C-List Char­ac­ters, com­ing soon from Mar­vel Comics

Worse than the pro­lif­er­a­tion of sup­port­ing char­ac­ters is its menagerie of vil­lains. Like Spi­der-Man 3, the film fea­tures a mud­dled array of ene­mies when just one well-devel­oped vil­lain would have suit­ed the sto­ry bet­ter. At least three mor­tal neme­ses align them­selves against our hero here: Stryk­er, Sabre­tooth, and Weapon XI. The best, most icon­ic com­ic book vil­lains are flam­boy­ant char­ac­ters intri­cate­ly tied in with the ori­gins of the hero: Bat­man vs. The Jok­er (Jack Nichol­son, Heath Ledger), Spi­der-Man vs. The Green Gob­lin (Willem Dafoe), and Super­man vs. Lex Luthor (Gene Hack­man, Kevin Spacey). But Wolverine’s most seri­ous foe here is the lit­er­al­ly mute and expres­sion­less Weapon XI, devoid of char­ac­ter or charis­ma. Worse, his moniker looks much bet­ter in print than spo­ken aloud; “Weapon Eleven” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue.

X-Men Ori­gins: Wolver­ine is direct­ed by Gavin Hood, of the crit­i­cal­ly respect­ed film Tsot­si, mak­ing it unusu­al­ly fine­ly pedi­greed for an escapist piece of enter­tain­ment based on kids’ com­ic books. Mar­vel Comics seems not to have learned its les­son from hand­ing Hulk to Ang Lee and Thor to Ken­neth Branagh. A good case study for Fox and Mar­vel would have been Warn­er Bros.’ dis­as­trous Inva­sion, from Oliv­er Hirsch­biegel, direc­tor of Down­fall. Both Inva­sion and X-Men Ori­gins: Wolver­ine are some­how fatal­ly bro­ken, to the point where they fail to make rudi­men­ta­ry sense (which ought to be a base require­ment for pop­corn spe­cial-effects-dri­ven block­busters). Is it too much to ask that films like this at least be inter­nal­ly log­i­cal?

Stryker’s scheme sim­ply doesn’t add up. What exact­ly does he intend to do? Stryk­er is evi­dent­ly dis­sat­is­fied with his cre­ation Weapon X (who escaped and became Wolver­ine). After what he per­ceives as a failed beta test, Stryk­er moves on to Weapon XI, an osten­si­bly per­fect sol­dier with super­pow­ers extract­ed from oth­er mutants. So why does he go to extreme lengths to keep Wolver­ine under obser­va­tion by a fake girl­friend (Lynn Collins) for sev­er­al years, when all he has to do is kill him and extract his pow­ers with his super-syringe? Even more puz­zling, if Stryk­er wants Logan dead, why does he trick him into sign­ing up to become Weapon X? Stryk­er suc­ceeds only in mak­ing an already near-inde­struc­tible man even more so.

Tahyna Tozzi and Lynn Collins in X-Men Origins: WolverineThe White Queen and Sil­ver­fox look wor­ried as they dash through some cor­ri­dor or some­thing, what­ev­er, who am I kid­ding — Tahy­na Tozzi and Lynn Collins are just in this movie to tit­il­late the fan­boys

The prob­lem with com­ic book super­hero sto­ries is that there’s a point at which your pow­er­ful pro­tag­o­nist becomes lit­er­al­ly inhu­man, and thus dif­fi­cult to find sym­pa­thet­ic or relat­able. The best exam­ple is Super­man, lit­er­al­ly an alien who can do almost any­thing. What kinds of prob­lems would such a crea­ture have, and how can any view­er relate to him? Here, Logan and his neme­sis Vic­tor are both effec­tive­ly immor­tal, so there is lit­tle at stake in their con­flict. The most inter­est­ing com­ic book super­heroes must rec­on­cile super­hu­man pow­ers with their deep flaws and anx­i­eties, like Spider-Man’s inse­cu­ri­ties and Daredevil’s dis­abil­i­ty, or are nor­mal human beings with extra­or­di­nary dri­ve, like Bat­man and Iron Man.

A pirat­ed ver­sion of X-Men Ori­gins: Wolver­ine infa­mous­ly leaked online before its offi­cial the­atri­cal release. It was round­ly panned, and Fox attempt­ed dam­age con­trol by claim­ing it was an unfin­ished workprint with place­hold­er CGI, sound effects, and titles. Accord­ing to the Los Ange­les Times, the ver­sion final­ly released in the­aters was report­ed­ly almost iden­ti­cal, an embar­rass­ment to say the least.

The spe­cial effects are rather shod­dy, espe­cial­ly com­pared to the state of the art as seen in its con­tem­po­raries Star Trek and Trans­form­ers 2: Revenge of the Fall­en. Wolverine’s claws and Sabretooth’s bound­ing and pounc­ing suf­fer espe­cial­ly from uncon­vinc­ing cheap­ness. The only two gen­uine­ly impres­sive excep­tions were wast­ed, to show­case sup­port­ing char­ac­ter Cyclops’ laser eye-beams slic­ing large struc­tures into geo­met­ric chunks.

Stray Obser­va­tions:

  • Two east­er egg codas fol­low the cred­its. One is total­ly unnec­es­sary (Stryker’s fate is bet­ter left to the imag­i­na­tion), but the oth­er is enjoy­ably campy, with a kind of sick humor that could have enlivened the rest of the film.
  • The DVD fea­tures an anti-smok­ing Pub­lic Ser­vice Announce­ment, no doubt penance for Logan’s sig­na­ture cig­ar-chomp­ing. But where are the warn­ings against drink­ing alco­hol, rid­ing motor­cy­cles with­out hel­mets, killing peo­ple with blades, and per­form­ing uneth­i­cal med­ical atroc­i­ties?
  • The script is a non­stop bar­rage of clichés: if I had sub­tract­ed one star for every time some­body utters “Let’s do this” or “Look what the cat dragged in,” my rat­ing would be, well, a lot of neg­a­tive stars.

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The Mutant Menagerie: X2: X-Men United

X-Men 2 movie poster


In ret­ro­spect, the first X-Men movie did an incred­i­ble job of man­ag­ing the intro­duc­tion of a wide array of char­ac­ters to mass audi­ences like­ly unfa­mil­iar with the decades’ worth of con­ti­nu­ity estab­lished in its com­ic book source mate­r­i­al. But the sequel X2: X-Men Unit­ed crowds the stage with too many new faces in addi­tion to the return­ing orig­i­nal cast. In short order, audi­ences not only have to rec­ol­lect the orig­i­nal char­ac­ters but also learn how Stryk­er (Bri­an Cox), Ice­man (Shawn Ash­more), Pyro (Aaron Stan­ford), and Lady Deathstryke (Kel­ly Hu) fit in to the mutant menagerie. X2 also expands the ranks of the Blue Man Mutant Group, with Night­crawler (Alan Cum­ming) join­ing Mys­tique (Rebec­ca Romi­jn-Sta­mos) in head-to-toe body paint, lat­er to be accom­pa­nied by Beast (Kelsey Gram­mar) in Brett Ratner’s ris­i­ble X-Men 3: The Last Stand.

Alan Cumming in X2: X-Men UnitedNight­crawler audi­tions for a spot in the Blue Men Mutant Group

Holo­caust sur­vivor Mag­ne­to (Ian McK­ellen) is still just as geno­ci­dal as his for­mer Nazi oppres­sors, an irony he fails to per­ceive despite it being point­ed out to him repeat­ed­ly. His aims and obses­sions make for a very good vil­lain, but also for a vir­tu­al repeat of the pre­vi­ous movie’s plot. In the orig­i­nal (read The Dork Report review), Mag­ne­to built a device to forcibly mutate homo sapi­ens into homo supe­ri­or, the aris­ing species known as “mutants” to which both The X-Men and his Broth­er­hood of Evil Mutants belong. The weapon turned out to be faulty and instead sim­ply killed every human with­in range. To a man like Mag­ne­to, said glitch was not a bug but a fea­ture. Noth­ing if not per­sis­tent, he employs basi­cal­ly the same scheme in X2. New bad­die Stryk­er has reverse-engi­neered Pro­fes­sor X’s mutant-detec­tion device Cere­bro into a weapon capa­ble of killing all mutants en masse. Mag­ne­to plots to repur­pose it to kill all humans instead.

Also recy­cled from the pre­vi­ous movie is the fact that Mag­ne­to is again not the movie’s true vil­lain, despite long hold­ing the rank of the X-Men’s offi­cial neme­sis. The real antag­o­nist last time around was intol­er­ant politi­cian Sen­a­tor Robert Kel­ly (Bruce Davi­son). Now the foe is anoth­er pow­er­less human, Colonel Stryk­er, a war­mon­ger with a pri­vate army. Like Kel­ly, he’s a fer­vent speciesist, so enflamed with pas­sion­ate hatred of mutants that he trans­forms his own mutant son Jason (Michael Reid McK­ay) into a com­po­nent in his geno­ci­dal weapon.

Hugh Jackman in X2: X-Men UnitedWolver­ine babysits The New Mutants

One notable tweak to the orig­i­nal recipe is a health­i­er dose of vio­lence and killing per­pe­trat­ed by the fan-favorite Wolver­ine (Hugh Jack­man). As a char­ac­ter, Wolver­ine is capa­ble of both berserk­er rage and human empa­thy, but his movie incar­na­tion seems to be able to turn it on and off at will. Cou­pled with a PG-13 rat­ing dic­tat­ing that his slaugh­ter remain blood­less, this negates one of the trag­ic flaws of the char­ac­ter I recall from read­ing the comics as a kid. The Wolver­ine I remem­ber con­stant­ly strug­gled to keep his ani­mal­is­tic side in check in order to live among his friends, lovers, and allies. The movie Wolver­ine is a lit­tle bit of a softy, actu­al­ly, spend­ing much of film babysit­ting mopey teen trio Ice­man, Pyro, and Rogue, the lat­ter still har­bor­ing an unre­quit­ed crush on a dude way too old, hairy, and Cana­di­an for her.

X2’s biggest prob­lem is that it has no sense of humor, allow­ing the grim­ness of the sce­nario to drain most of the fun out of the expe­ri­ence. The orig­i­nal had only a sin­gle cred­it­ed screen­writer, David Hayter, but the sequel teams him with Michael Dougher­ty and Dan Har­ris — hint­ing that the crowd­ed stage of actors was par­al­leled by a few too many cooks in the kitchen back­stage. One good scene, at least, pro­vides a reminder of what the first film got right: when the teen Ice­man reveals his super­pow­ers to his par­ents for the first time, his moth­er asks “Have you ever tried to… (awk­ward pause) not be a mutant?” It’s an excel­lent scene that uses humor to employ the sci-fi con­ceit of the mutant expe­ri­ence as a metaphor for a minority’s trou­bled com­ing of age.

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Bum Ticker: Iron Man

Iron Man


Jon Favreau’s Iron Man finds just the right tone for a super­hero movie, pitched some­where in the sweet spot between Spider-Man’s emo­tion­al melo­dra­ma and Batman’s grim vengeance. This Dork Reporter, a for­mer lover of com­ic books (that stopped keep­ing up with them part­ly out of fru­gal­i­ty, and part­ly lack of brain band­width), sees two high water marks in the recent surge of super­hero-themed Hol­ly­wood fea­ture films:

Sam Raimi’s first two Spi­der-Man movies cap­tured the key themes that made Spi­der-Man such a pop­u­lar and last­ing char­ac­ter in the first place (seri­ous­ly, find me a kid in the Eng­lish-speak­ing world who does not know all about Spi­der-Man). The com­ic book on its sim­plest lev­el was a para­ble of the some­times unwel­come changes that come with ado­les­cence. Also key to Peter Parker’s teen psy­che was his con­stant nego­ti­a­tion between his own hap­pi­ness and respon­si­bil­i­ties towards friends, fam­i­ly, and soci­ety. Please, let’s not dis­cuss the painful­ly awful Spi­der-Man 3; the bit­ter wounds of dis­ap­point­ment are still raw, ooz­ing, and infect­ed.

The oth­er com­ic book super­hero fran­chise to trans­late well to the screen in recent years is, of course, Bat­man. Helmed by such mature, seri­ous artists as direc­tor Christo­pher Nolan and actor Chris­t­ian Bale, Bat­man Begins per­haps could not help but to turn out as well as it did. The com­ic book char­ac­ter was orig­i­nal­ly con­ceived as a lone vig­i­lante avenger in the 1930s, descend­ed into camp self-par­o­dy in the 60s, then revert­ed back to grim form in the 70s. The char­ac­ter fol­lowed a par­al­lel arc in his movie incar­na­tions: Tim Burton’s Bat­man films are dark and weird­ly won­der­ful, Joel Schumacher’s are tacky and cheesy, and now Christo­pher Nolan has restored the fran­chise back to its goth­ic roots. Note that Heath Ledger as the Jok­er in the upcom­ing sequel Bat­man The Dark Knight doesn’t actu­al­ly smile!

Robert Downey Jr. in Iron ManTalk to the… nah, that’s too easy

Iron Man was heav­i­ly mar­ket­ed as Robert Downey Jr.‘s redemp­tion after decades of louche behav­ior led to him becom­ing unhirable (or more accu­rate­ly, unin­sur­able). Was Downey per­fect­ly cast, or was the role tai­lored to suit him? If any­thing, from what lit­tle I know of the comics, the film­mak­ers may have actu­al­ly toned Iron Man’s alter-ego Tony Stark down. Phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ty is a long-estab­lished theme in Mar­vel Comics’ sta­ble of char­ac­ters, take for exam­ple the blind Dare­dev­il. Stark’s dis­tin­guish­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic was his bum tick­er, but he was also famous­ly an alco­holic prick. Do you think, per­haps, there’s a metaphor to be found in the char­ac­ter of a soul­less arms deal­er who los­es his lit­er­al heart but finds his con­science? Hmmm…

Terrance Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Robert Downey Jr., and Jeff Bridges in Iron ManDjay da Pimp, Vio­la De Lesseps, Char­lie Chap­lin, and The Dude star in Iron Man

Jeff Bridges total­ly rocks a bald pâté, and bless­ed­ly under­plays his role as chief bad­die Oba­di­ah Stane. He’s the mel­low voice of rea­son, sound­ing for all the world like The Dude with an M.B.A. That is, until he rais­es his voice for the first time, and the good times are over, man. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Gwyneth Pal­trow (as the allit­er­a­tive Pep­per Potts) and Ter­rence Howard (Jim Rhodes) don’t fare as well. Pal­trow, with lit­tle expe­ri­ence in the sci-fi effects block­buster genre, is hys­ter­i­cal­ly uncon­vinc­ing at run­ning away from fire­balls in high heels (you can imag­ine her pout­ing “But Har­vey said I don’t have to run from fire­balls!”). Howard is just plain bor­ing, with lit­tle to say or do.

Iron Man is quite enjoy­able, pro­vid­ed you try to ignore the rather con­ser­v­a­tive gung-ho atti­tude toward the war on ter­ror. It only dis­ap­points at the very end, when it devolves into a CGI rock ‘em sock ‘em robot bat­tle. It was inevitable accord­ing to the genre, and the nat­ur­al tra­jec­to­ry of the plot, but still…

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Superman Returns

Superman Returns movie poster


It’s prob­a­bly my own fault for buy­ing into the hype, but Super­man Returns left me cold. There’s not a lot of dra­ma implic­it in the sto­ry of an omnipo­tent alien from anoth­er plan­et, and I just can’t buy the “god walks among us” metaphors. Spi­der-Man is a real, trou­bled human being bur­dened with great respon­si­bil­i­ty; Bat­man is a human being wracked with guilt and obsessed with revenge; Dare­dev­il is a lit­er­al­ly bro­ken man over­com­pen­sat­ing for far more than just his dis­abil­i­ty. With Super­man, it’s just plain hard to relate to an alien, even if he suf­fers such pet­ty human prob­lems as unre­quit­ed love.

An obvi­ous point of con­flict is con­spic­u­ous­ly absent: instead of any jeal­ousy or anger from Richard White (James “Cyclops” Mars­den), he sim­ply acquieses to his roman­tic rival. It’s more like Super­man to be above & beyond mere mor­tal jeal­ousy; what makes White so noble? Per­haps he’s intim­i­dat­ed by Superman’s sheer poten­cy. Just as the char­ac­ter is defined by nepo­tism (he’s the Dai­ly Planet’s editor-in-chief’s son), Mars­den is Bryan Singer’s X-Man star who was con­spic­u­ous­ly erased very ear­ly in Brett Ratner’s X3. Hmm…

Anoth­er dis­ap­point­ment: where­as Spi­der-Man 2 exud­ed a strong sense of New York, Super­man Return’s fic­tion­al Metrop­o­lis is a blank, gener­ic city with­out char­ac­ter. It’s a time­less locale — the present, yet nos­tal­gic — where when a super­hero returns from across the galaxy to save them, the cit­i­zens all run out and buy news­pa­pers.

As for the cast, Park­er Posey wins for best screen pres­ence. While Kevin Spacey gurns, hams, and scenery-chomps, she scores laughs with mere looks on her face. There was a lot of con­cern over the cast­ing of a rel­a­tive­ly inex­pe­ri­enced for­mer soap star for the lead, but I thought Bran­don Routh was just fine. Kate Bosworth (made up to look like Rachel McAdams), how­ev­er, is was too young to be plau­si­ble as a star jour­nal­ist with a five-year-old kid, and to be at all appeal­ing to (yes I have to say it again) an omnipo­tent alien from anoth­er plan­et. Points detract­ed for dull, over­hyped out­takes of Mar­lon Brando’s mum­bled improv bull­shit, and shaft­ing screen leg­end Eva Marie Saint with about 5 min­utes of screen time.

X-Men III: The Last Stand

X-Men 3 The Last Stand movie poster


God help me, but I agree with Har­ry Knowles’ review. Some­times you need a fan­boy to point out what’s wrong with a movie craft­ed for fan­boys. He picked up on the absurd­ly sen­si­tive Wolver­ine, the impor­tant Phoenix back­sto­ry cur­so­ri­ly relat­ed in ham­my expo­si­tion, and the sud­den and arbi­trary shifts from day to night. But the worst crime of all is that the movie is actu­al­ly bor­ing; a mere nine­ty min­utes seem­ing­ly stretched to what felt like 2-plus hours.

Also both­er­ing me: why on earth was X-Men III: The Last Stand such a mas­sive hit? Not just the ques­tion of gen­er­al qual­i­ty, but also the fact that it’s set in a dense­ly self-ref­er­en­tial world com­pre­hen­si­ble only to dorks that read the comics as kids (cough, cough), or at least to movie­go­ers who hap­pen to remem­ber the first two install­ments real­ly well. Per­haps the answer is as sim­ple as it being a hol­i­day week­end with no real com­pe­ti­tion in the­aters, but still, it must have been off-putting and mys­ti­fy­ing to mere mor­tals.

It’s tempt­ing to blame the whole mess on job­bing direc­tor Brett Rat­ner, but if Bryan Singer had still been involved, would the script have been any dif­fer­ent?