I was very pleasantly surprised by James Mangold’s The Wolverine. Everybody involved did the right thing by simply pretending that the appallingly awful X-Men Origins: Wolverine was never made.
Marvel Comics continues their (mostly) winning streak, showing everyone how superhero movies should be done. Hopefully soon we will be rid of grimly ultraviolet takes on children’s characters like Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and Zack Snyder’s Watchmen and The Man of Steel. The Wolverine is just the right kind of “serious”, in the sense that it focuses on character and not on vengeful violence. I’m tired of gruesome sights like Superman summarily executing General Zod in the Man of Steel by snapping his neck.
The Wolverine should be commended for having four major female characters, when a typical superhero movie maxes out at one (such as Lois Lane in Man of Steel and Gwen Stacy in The Amazing Spider-Man). But The Wolverine squanders this achievement by casting women than look like supermodels, and a script that fails The Bechdel Test. All any of the women talk about are Logan and their daddy issues.
Mangold is a true chameleon, having tackled everything from indie drama (Heavy) to Oscar-bait biopic (Walk the Line). He’s handled action before (Knight and Day, 3:10 to Yuma), but here in his first real summer blockbuster popcorn movie, he exhibits a remarkable stylishness and even a little visual poetry. One scene stages a self-surgery straight out of a Cronenberg film. And when Wolverine races through the streets of a Japanese village to rescue his beloved imprisoned in a tower, swarms of ninjas shoot tethered arrows into his back, in an apparent homage to Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. The sight is startlingly moving, like something out of a violent fairy tale.
It also helps that until the climactic action sequence, not a single character parades around in a spandex costume. By the point that the villains Viper and Silver Samurai show up in full four-color splendor for a big comic book-esque fight sequence, I thought, what the hell, this movie has totally earned it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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, 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.
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.
On a whim, this blogger decided to rewatch X-Men and found it surprisingly good, even better than I remembered from my first viewing almost 10 years ago. I used to be a comics fan, and read most of Chris Claremont and John Romita Jr.’s lengthy run on The Uncanny X-Men series in the mid-80s. Even though I had long since stopped reading comics regularly by the time the movie was announced in 2000, I recall being convinced there was no way a live-action X-Men movie could not be a ridiculous folly. But I went to see it partly out of morbid curiosity and partly out of a sense of duty as an ex-fan (see what I did there?). As it turned out, writer David Hayter and director Bryan Singer’s expert adaptation of the Marvel Comics source material turned out more fun, clever, and exciting than it had any right to be. Most welcome of all, it is frequently laugh-out-loud funny (in a good way), a key ingredient unfortunately lacking in the mostly humorless (but still pretty good) sequel X2: X-Men United (2003).
Hayter and Singer managed to dig up every ounce of subtext baked into the X-Men mythos by original writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby. At its heart, the X-Men series was essentially a neverending sci-fi soap opera with a noble moral of progressive social awareness. The weirdo superheroes that make up The X-Men are “mutants,” born of human parents but with superhuman powers typically manifesting during adolescence. Prior to Lee and Kirby’s innovation, comics’ superhero templates were either extraterrestrials like Superman or ordinary humans with artificially gained superpowers like Spider-Man (mere mortals Batman and Iron Man don’t count, no matter how inordinately driven to fight injustice). Unlike the physical ideal Superman, most of Lee and Kirby’s mutants did not view their powers as gifts, and some were outright monsters.
The X-Men formula also incorporates deeper themes of racism, xenophobia, and even evolution. Indeed, the entire premise is built upon the theory of evolution: as multiple species of humans walked the earth simultaneously hundreds of thousands of years ago, so too do humans now find themselves sharing the earth with arguably the next branch of homo sapiens’ evolution: known in the comics as “homo superior.” Carried through to the next logical conclusion, this mutant minority is feared and demonized as freaks by the humans that vastly outnumber them.
The X-Men’s sympathetic antagonist Erik Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen) is a survivor of a German concentration camp. The horrors he experienced at the hands of those that hated his race (but didn’t yet realize he was actually a different species) in 1944 Poland inform his actions as the supervillain Magneto. As he listens to contemporary American politicians argue over how to contain and suppress the increasing mutant population, he disgustedly states “I’ve heard these arguments before.” His former friend (and fellow mutant) Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) hopes to find a way to live in peace, and counters “That was a long time ago. Mankind has evolved since then.” But Magneto is unyielding. “Yes. Into us.”
The crucial factor that had me simply assume the movie would be terrible was casting. It’s not hard to imagine a young actor able embody Spider-Man’s secret identity Peter Parker as a put-upon geek harboring tremendous reserves of guilt and righteousness. But how do you cast Wolverine, a diminutive, half-animal Canadian supersoldier with ridiculous hair? Easy! You hire the tall, absurdly handsome Australian studly song-and-dance man Hugh Jackman. Against all odds, he totally nailed the fan-favorite character. The moment in the film when this former X-Men comics fan decided that Jackman succeeded is a sequence in which he steals an X-motorcycle and discovers a handy turboboost button. The entire audience at the New York Ziegfeld theater laughed heartily along with his undisguised glee at its total awesomeness. This doubter was completely sold.
Another casting coup was the double-dose of Royal Shakespeare Company gravitas provided by McKellen and Stewart (both with extensive experience in fantasy and sci-fi genre material, as Gandalf in Lord of the Rings and Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation, respectively). Bruce Davison (as the xenophobic Senator Robert Kelly) also has a long history in science fiction, having starred in Willard and the influential classic The Lathe of Heaven.
James Marsden later proved himself to be entertainingly charismatic in Enchanted, but here he’s a victim to the humorless character of Cyclops. As Wolverine correctly psychoanalyzes him, he’s a dick. Similarly, Famke Janssen isn’t given a whole lot to work with as the no-fun-please Dr. Jean Grey (known in the comics as Marvel GIrl, later to die and rise again as Phoenix in Brett Ratner’s crap sequel X-Men 3: The Last Stand). But together with Jackman, the trio brings alive the Wolverine/Cyclops/Phoenix love triangle drawn from the comics, helping to make the movie accessible.
The one real weak spot in the cast is Halle Berry. Like Jennifer Lopez in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, she seems to have only one real acting performance under her belt (Monster’s Ball, of course). Here she turns in one of her most bland and toneless performances yet. For extra amusement, be sure to catch the deleted scenes on the DVD edition in which she can be heard affecting a weak pseudo-African accent. It’s a shame, because Storm was a very strong character in the comics around the time I read them. Writer Chris Claremont obviously had an affection for her, even promoting her to leader of the X-Men.
Aside from casting, I imagine the second-biggest obstacle facing the filmmakers was how to introduce the complex X-Men universe to mainstream audiences while preserving its integrity to appease longtime fans. Hayter and Singer came up with the excellent solution of having us meet Professor X and his X-Men through the eyes of newbies Wolverine and Rogue (Anna “That’s my mother’s piano!” Paquin). Both are very different characters that share key common experiences that allow them to bond in a big brother / little sister relationship: Wolverine is a loner amnesiac unaware there are others like him, and Rogue is a young runaway isolated by particularly extreme powers that prevent her from experiencing normal human interaction. Almost anyone can identify with the painful coming of age that comes with her exaggerated adolescence. A startling moment of pathos occurs between them when she sees him wield the fearsome metal claws sheathed in his forearms: “When they come out, does it hurt?” “Every time.”
On an even more practical level, the filmmakers came up with an ingenious solution to the comics characters’ silly costumes by having the movie X-Men wear more photogenic uniforms. Cyclops’ joke about yellow and orange spandex is an easter egg for fans: Wolverine sports such an ensemble in the comics. Best of all, the requisite action set pieces are justified by the characters, not just the plot. For example, a big blow-out staged at a train station is the result of a heartbreaking misunderstanding that causes Rogue to flee the longed-for safe haven she had only just discovered.
The franchise is now set to continue with a trilogy of prequels including this summer’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and rumored projects X-Men Origins: First Class and X-Men Origins: Magneto. But with the first of these wracking up some notably awful reviews, it’s clear the first in the series will still stand as the best for some time.
Strictly speaking, Baz Luhrmann has made only one musical, the guilty pleasure Moulin Rouge (2001). But, last seen directing Puccini’s opera La BohÃ¨me on Broadway, he can’t seem to resist the genre. Strictly Ballroom (1992), Romeo + Juliet (1996), and now Australia all incorporate key elements of the musical: exaggerated emoting, spectacle, and especially, songs. Australia directly quotes whole numbers from The Wizard of Oz, but is actually better described not as Luhrmann’s Oz but as his Gone With the Wind. Which is to say, its an overlong costume drama faintly condescending towards its non-white characters and preoccupied with the epic spectacle of cities burning during wartime.
Australia’s biggest flaw is structural, being essentially two discrete movies featuring the same characters. Imagine a double feature of a movie and its sequel, smashed together into one. The first half concerns the Australian market for cattle needed to support the Allies’ war effort. Englishwoman Lady Ashley (Nicole Kidman – a native Aussie who even here has to affect a false accent) owns a small ranch in the outback, and believes her absent husband is cheating on her. She travels down under to sell the land in order to pay down debt, but also to rid her husband of what she imagines to be his adulterous refuge. There, she learns he has been murdered by the monopolizing “King” Carney’s (Bryan Brown) henchman Neil Fletcher (David Wenham, Faramir in Lord of the Rings).
She meets the hunky Drover (Hugh Jackman), a man whose name is his job, whose job is his name, and the sort of fictional Australian that actually says “Crikey” (q.v. Crocodile Dundee). Audience members interested in the beefcake factor will be delighted to see Jackman has built up his body to a size even bigger than for the Canadian mutant superhero Wolverine in three (soon to be four) X-Men films (although the neck-to-head ratio threatens to tip over into freakish territory). Lady Ashley also befriends the film’s narrator, the young “half-caste” boy Nullah (Brandon Walters, so extraordinarily androgynous that I had to keep reminding myself he was not a girl). Nullah spent most of the movie thoroughly annoying the hell out of me as he shouts out the name “Drover! Yay Drover! Drover, Drover, Drover, yay!” over and over and over again. Ugh.
Nullah’s grandfather, a mystical Aboriginal known as King George (David Gulpilil), has been framed for Lord Ashley’s murder. He watches over Nullah from afar, and encourages him to become a storyteller. The fact that we are being told this story by a little boy to some degree explains and excuses the cast’s hammy mugging (most especially by Kidman, of whom I am swiftly tiring, although I was never really a hater) and how, on the whole, everyone seems to take death pretty well. After losing Lady Ashley’s husband and Nullah’s mother, our gang of heroes is only really upset by the death of Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson), an alcoholic collaborating with Carney. They are moved perhaps because he is given a chance to redeem himself right in front of them (as opposed to, say, an innocent person dying offscreen).
Lady Ashely finds she can make more money by tending the ranch and selling its cattle. Not to mention to effect a trifold moral victory: avenging her husband’s murder, beating the local monopoly, and righting a whole host of injustices made against the little boy. Nullah’s white father sexually exploited and murdered his mother, and if that weren’t trouble enough, the state wishes to abduct her and “breed the black out of her.” Such was official Australian policy until the 1970s; for a much better film along these themes see Phillip Noyce’s hugely affecting Rabbit Proof Fence (2002).
All this fuss and to-do is largely resolved and winds down about 1 hour and forty minutes in, the length of a typical movie. But Australia is no typical movie, and has about another hour and half to go. The happy surrogate family living together on the ranch must work itself all the way back up into an all-new conflict: the return of the villainous Fletcher for his revenge. The turmoil of World War II is reduced to an arbitrary inconvenience to the characters as they fight to restore their new makeshift family.
The movie is full of not-always-convincing computer-generated spectacle like cattle stampedes and Japanese kamikaze attacks. But one fleeting little shot caught my eye and reminded me why I like Luhrmann so much. Watch for a brief moment as a velvet curtain drops, and Luhrmann invisibly cuts to the reverse angle. Classy and cool.