Saturday, May 23, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

The 1960s were a tumultuous time in American history. It was a time of both peace and war, of social and sexual revolution. It was also the decade that saw Marvel Comics rise to prominence. It was perhaps their most creative period to date, seeing the births of classic characters like Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men. But as the '60s transitioned into the '70s, America continued changing, and Marvel and DC began to reflect these changes.

Both companies published stories about the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse, while minorities found themselves with greater representation in the superhero community. Horror and fantasy comics also grew in popularity, as did vigilantes like the Punisher. The decade also saw the creation of one of the industry's most popular characters: Wolverine.

The brainchild of Len Wein and John Romita Sr., the clawed mutant made his first appearance in 1974 as an opponent for the Incredible Hulk before eventually joining the X-Men and arguably becoming the group's most famous member. And beyond that, he would go on to become one of Marvel's most popular and recognized characters. He's appeared in video games and cartoons, on T-shirts and toy store shelves, and Wizard Magazine even ranked him as the greatest comic book character of all time.

Wolverine finally hit the big screen in 2000 with the release of the X-Men movie, which spawned two sequels and earned a combined one billion dollars at the box office. With the superhero movie genre on a roll, Twentieth Century Fox chose to develop spin-offs detailing the history of certain X-Men characters, under the banner of "X-Men Origins." And naturally, the first movie to be made would be Wolverine. But just how does it hold up?

Welcome to the Northwest Territories of Canada, circa 1845. It is here that we are introduced to James Logan (Troye Sivan), a sickly young boy whose only friend is another local kid, Victor Creed (Michael James Olsen). On one fateful night, James sees his father die at the hands of Victor's father. The trauma prompts bone claws to grow from his knuckles, and in a fit of rage, he uses these claws to kill his father's murderer.

With his final breath, the elder Creed tells James that he is his real father. James flees, with Victor tagging along to keep him company. As the years pass, the adult James (Hugh Jackman) and Victor (Liev Schreiber) stick together, fighting side by side in the American Civil War, both World Wars, and the Vietnam War. But after Victor kills a superior officer in Vietnam and James gets involved in the ensuing fracas, they're both sentenced to death via firing squad. Their mutant healing abilities allow them to survive their executions, so they're imprisoned until it can be decided what to do with them.

During their stay in prison, the brothers are visited by Colonel William Stryker (Danny Huston), who offers them membership in his elite mutant task force. They agree to join, and are promptly introduced to the other members of the team: the invulnerable Fred Dukes (Kevin Durand), teleporter John Wraith (, electricity manipulator Chris Bradley (Dominic Monaghan), martial artist Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), and expert marksman Agent Zero (Daniel Henney).

Their first mission takes them to Nigeria, where they're to retrieve the pieces of a meteorite containing a virtually indestructible metal called "adamantium." They retrieve one hunk of meteorite from the headquarters of a diamond trafficking operation, and then raid a nearby village to find more. James, disgusted by the willingness of his teammates to kill the innocent villagers, abandons the group.

Six years pass, and James — now going by just his last name — is a lumberjack living a simple life with his girlfriend, Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins). Things get complicated, however, when Colonel Stryker finds Logan and tells him that someone is killing members of their now-disbanded task force. He asks Logan to rejoin him, but gets shot down. It is soon thereafter, though, that Kayla ends up falling victim to the team's murderer: Victor. An enraged Logan hunts down Victor, but ultimately loses a fight to him. When Stryker contacts him again the next day, he agrees to work with him. Stryker takes Logan to a laboratory, where he has Logan's skeleton reinforced with the adamantium they found in Nigeria. But when he overhears Stryker mention he wants to experiment with Logan's abilities, Logan flees.

Logan briefly makes contact with Dukes and Wraith, who inform him that Victor's murders were made at the behest of Stryker, who is having mutants either kidnapped or killed so that he can perform experiments on them at a mysterious facility known as "The Island." The rumor goes that only one mutant, a New Orleans card shark named Remy "Gambit" LeBeau (Taylor Kitsch), has ever managed to escape the Island, and would thus know its location. Logan tracks Gambit down, and after a fight caused by something of a misunderstanding, he agrees to take Logan to Stryker's laboratory. This sets the stage for an epic showdown, where Logan will seek revenge against the enemies that want him dead.

I'm going to come right out and say it: I do not know why X-Men Origins: Wolverine had to be made. Outside of Twentieth Century Fox needing to make an X-Men movie every so often so they can hang onto the rights, I fail to see any point for this movie's existence. Wolverine was already the star of the three movies that came before, at the expense of every other character. So outside of the fact that this is a prequel, there is really no difference at all between the previous team efforts and this so-called "solo movie."

And although I can understand doing a movie focused solely on Wolverine, since he's the franchise's most popular character, but why make it an origin story? If you paid attention during X2, you pretty much learned everything important. Somebody did experiments on him to make him a weapon, so now he's an amnesic with metal bones. It isn't much more complicated than that. It's not like he's Batman or anything. And any other important details could have been done via flashbacks in another sequel, instead of this. The version of Wolverine's origin depicted in direct-to-video animated movie Hulk vs. Wolverine took all of three minutes and thirty seconds, and it accomplished pretty much everything it needed to. It was simple yet sufficient. All this movie does is demystify a character whose franchise was already on a downward slope thanks to the relative disappointment of X-Men: The Last Stand.

But what could have caused the Wolverine movie to turn out this way? Could it have been the work of director Gavin Hood? This is only the second Hollywood movie made by the South African filmmaker, who won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2005 for Tsotsi. It's also his first big-budget action movie, as well. And while I will confess that I've never seen any of Hood's earlier work and thus cannot make comparisons, I found his direction here to be competent yet underwhelming. It comes across as being simply adequate. But even though he's inexperienced when making this kind of movie, Hood does put together some well-made action sequences. Hood's direction, however, is boosted by the fantastic score composed by Harry Gregson-Williams. Gregson-Williams's music is almost too good to be in this movie. It's exciting, engaging, and actually makes the movie feel better than it is.

The only drawback to this aspect of the production is the special effects. You'd think that a huge movie studio would try and make sure that a big summer blockbuster whose special effects are an integral part of the movie would be released with special effects that don't totally suck. So how does Fox let Wolverine hit theaters with effects that look so poor? When that bootlegged workprint landed on the Internet at the end of March, Fox's damage control team went into overdrive, saying that people shouldn't judge the finished movie based on the workprint due to its unfinished special effects and sound editing. And judging by the final product that was released, they must not have done a whole lot of work between the workprint and the finished movie. There are quite a few scenes where the CGI and green screen effects look cheap and unconvincing.

Take, for example, a scene at the end where a certain familiar character makes a cameo in order to help save a group of kidnapped mutants. The green screen effects in that scene look so bad that they're laughable. And then there's the climactic fight scene, and the bit where Wolverine first examines his new adamantium-coated claws... sigh. Were they in such a rush to be done in time before the movie's release date that they started half-assing the special effects? The effects are, as I said, an integral part of movies like this, and when they're bad, it can drag down the whole production.

But in some cases, the acting can help viewers overlook some of a movie's other flaws. Is that the case with Wolverine? Not really, as sad as that is to say. The acting is really a mixed bag. Some of it is good, the rest of it isn't. First of all, Hugh Jackman returns to the role for a fourth time, and though this Wolverine isn't the mysterious amnesic he was in the previous movies, Jackman feels like he's gotten the hang of it. But while this isn't the best of his four appearances as Wolverine, he still puts forth a fine performance. Jackman plays the character as someone who's tough and has the potential to be a violent animal, but simply wants to be a good guy. He's definitely trying hard, and that goes a long way.

Unfortunately, Jackman ends up being almost completely overshadowed by Liev Schreiber. While Schreiber being cast creates something of a plot hole for the franchise (how does Sabretooth go from looking like Liev Schreiber to looking like Tyler Mane in the first X-Men movie?), his work here is fantastic. He gives off a certain sense of cocky menace, as if he were playing the exact opposite of Wolverine. It's like he knows he's evil and doesn't care because he's having so much fun. The "I'm bad, and that makes me cool" kind of villain can be really stupid in the wrong hands, but Schreiber manages to pull it off well.

Meanwhile, Danny Huston was okay as Colonel Stryker, I guess. But his work here really makes me wish they'd brought back Brian Cox from X2 and used makeup and special effects to de-age him. I also thought of Black Eyed Peas fame did an acceptable job, considering he's primarily a singer instead of an actor. And Ryan Reynolds was beyond awesome as Wade Wilson. Though Reynolds has only about three minutes of screen time, he makes an impression that really makes me want to see his character's eventual spinoff movie. Unfortunately, I can't say I have high hopes for that spinoff after seeing the character's ultimate fate in the movie's climax.

The rest of the cast, however, doesn't make that much of an impression, if they make an impression at all. Lynn Collins is unremarkable as Kayla Silverfox, doing nothing to really stand out among the flotsam of this movie. Her only real purpose at all is to provide a setup for how Logan comes up with the "Wolverine" name. I guess the script might be partly to blame for that, but her acting was a bit on the flat side as well.

Taylor Kitsch shows up as Gambit, a character just as mistreated as Deadpool. A very vocal segment of the X-Men faithful have been begging for Gambit to appear in a movie since the franchise began, and Fox finally decided to add him to one. Unfortunately, the character has only a bit part and appears in only a tiny handful of scenes. Kitsch's performance isn't really all that memorable either, and it doesn't help that he keeps slipping in and out of his Cajun accent. You'd think that somebody would have made him spend all the time he wasn't in the movie working on his accent with a dialect coach. Other than that, I thought the rest of the cast was just kinda there. They aren't really anything to write home about.

The movie's most enormous flaw, however, is that awful script written by David Benioff and Skip Woods. How could the producers read this script and think it would actually work? There are plot holes you could drive a truck through, a severe absence of logic or common sense, a dreadful lack of real character development, and a sense that Benioff and Woods were just flinging things at the wall and used what stuck.

As I said, there's not a lot that separates this from the three prior movies. It's basically just Wolverine along with as many comics from the characters they could cram in there. I mean, was there any point for Cyclops or Emma Frost to show up? Did Gambit ultimately serve any sufficient purpose, other than to finally give in to the fanbase that had been requesting him since they started making X-Men movies? And just what the hell were they thinking when they started screwing around with Deadpool? Ryan Reynolds has a few great scenes as the character, but the writers had to go and him into Baraka from Mortal Kombat by the end of the movie! It's one thing to alter certain things about a character for the benefit of the story, but to completely change everything about the character is stupid.

And let's talk about one of those huge plot holes while we're at it. Remember how I said I wasn't sure how anyone could believe Liev Schreiber and Tyler Mane were supposed to be playing the same character? Benioff and Wood's writing doesn't help that either. So we're supposed to believe that the violent, sarcastic, animalistic Sabretooth seen in this movie is supposed to evolve into the Sabretooth that was in the first X-Men movie back in 2000? He goes from being Wolverine's sadistic, murderous adversary to being a mute, utterly useless background character that, outside of the fight scene on the Statue of Liberty's head, never acknowledges Wolverine at all? I realize that Sabretooth has an important part in the Wolverine mythos, but couldn't they change the character just for the sake of continuity? Yeah, they could always explain that in the inevitable sequel, but that's just lazy, lazy, lazy.

So who is to blame for X-Men Origins: Wolverine? Was it a director that may have been out of his element? Was it a mediocre cast? Was it a lousy script? Was it the studio? It could be one or all of these things, I'm not sure. But I do know that the person to blame is someone who just plain didn't give a damn. I mean, how do you justify awesome movies like Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk in 2008, then a mediocre one like this in 2009? It's like somebody decided, "Why are they making good Marvel movies when we can do them on the level of Elektra instead?" Seriously, at this point, the X-Men movie franchise has degenerated into a series of movies meant to turn Wolverine into the superhero equivalent of Poochie from The Simpsons.

I'm officially sick of the X-Men movies, sick of Wolverine, and sick of comic book movies where nobody bothers to try or even care. If I were Marvel Comics, I'd be trying to get my characters away from Fox as soon as possible. It's just too much sometimes, you know? In a nutshell, I guess I'd have to give X-Men Origins: Wolverine two and a half stars. I'm not sure what else there is to say about this movie. Hopefully they'll know better the next time they want to do an X-Men movie.

Final Rating: **½