X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) – Directed by Gavin Hood – Starring Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, Lynn Collins, Dominic Monaghan, Ryan Reynolds, Taylor Kitsch, Will.i.am, Kevin Durand, and Patrick Stewart.
This is the fourth movie in which Hugh Jackman has played Wolverine in a leading role in a motion picture. Who else has done that with a superhero? Christopher Reeve did it, and Robert Downey, Jr. is currently doing it, filming Iron Man 3 as of the writing of this review which will give him four when you include Avengers, and …
Exactly. Respect to Jackman.
It strikes me that X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE is something of a forgotten superhero film. It never seems to come up in many discussions of the genre, seemingly having fallen into that slightly indifferent middle ground – nobody seems to hate it, but nobody seems to love it, either.
By “nobody” I mean fans of the genre because most professional critics took a blowtorch to WOLVERINE. Coming out just three years ago in 2009, WOLVERINE already feels like it’s been out for ages, which is what happens with films that fall through the cracks. In part, I think this is because WOLVERINE was one of the first superhero movies to come out post-Iron Man, and films that come out in the immediate wake of game changers usually suffer because they weren’t made with the knowledge of how the game was being altered. There’s a real sense of uneasiness among professional critics about how to react to superhero films, a reticence to think of these films as anything but sill action movies for grown up boys.
It’s ridiculous, of course, and every time some of them start writing about a new superhero movie they reveal their ignorance of the genre and their failings as critics. A. O. Scott of The New York Times has seemingly been citing the “end” of the cinematic superhero for as long as there’s been a superhero films being made, and he uses WOLVERINE to decry the entire genre:
“X-Men Origins: Wolverine will most likely manage to cash in on the popularity of the earlier episodes, but it is the latest evidence that the superhero movie is suffering from serious imaginative fatigue. A twist at the end that gives poor Wolverine a bad case of amnesia — turning him into a kind of Jason Bourne with sideburns — is a virtual admission that nothing terribly interesting has been learned about the character. He forgets his origins before the movie devoted to their exposition is even over. It won’t take you much longer.”
Try and follow Scott’s “logic”: Because Wolverine gets amnesia that’s an admission that nothing interesting has been learned about the character.
If a story ends with a character getting amnesia, that’s an indication we haven’t learned anything interesting about them? How does that remotely make sense? Maybe he missed the idea that this was a prequel? Scott reveals his own critical shortcomings when he writes, “What’s worse, the outsize emotions that give any decent superhero epic its adolescent, pop-operatic gravity are diminished by the sheer hectic confusion of the storytelling.” First, Scott clearly indicates that he doesn’t see superheroes as anything more than adolescent fantasies, which means we’re dealing with a critic whose conception of superheroes is stuck somewhere between 1939 and Amazing Spider-Man 96 (the beginning of the Harrry Osborn tripping on LSD storyline). Such ignorance-slash-elitism isn’t rare, of course, and Scott is hardly alone on this, as comic book fans well know. It’s the second part of his phrase that irks me, the part where he cites the “sheer hectic confusion of the storytelling.”
WOLVERINE is not a complicated movie. At all. There’s plenty of characters dropping in and dropping out but the story isn’t confused about what it’s doing. At all.
Look, I’m not saying A. O. Scott or anyone has to like superhero movies. I’m not a huge fan of torture porn stuff like Hostel and Human Centipede and unlike professional critics, if I don’t want to watch a movie, I don’t have to. My point is that if you don’t like a particular genre – admit it. There’s nothing wrong with that, and the great Roger Ebert shows how to do it. In his 2-star review of WOLVERINE, he bluntly states:
“Am I being disrespectful to this material? You bet. It is Hugh Jackman’s misfortune that when they were handing out superheroes, he got Wolverine, who is for my money low on the charisma list. He never says anything witty, insightful or very intelligent; his utterances are limited to the vocalization of primitive forces: anger, hurt, vengeance, love, hate, determination. There isn’t a speck of ambiguity. That Wolverine has been voted the No. 1 comic hero of all time must be the result of a stuffed ballot box. At least, you hope, he has an interesting vulnerability? I’m sure X-Men scholars can tell you what it is, although since he has the gift of instant healing, it’s hard to pinpoint. When a man can leap from an exploding truck, cling to an attacking helicopter, slice the rotor blades, ride it to the ground, leap free and walk away (in that ancient cliche where there’s a fiery explosion behind him but he doesn’t seem to notice it), here’s what I think: Why should I care about this guy? He feels no pain and nothing can kill him, so therefore he’s essentially a story device for action sequences.”
What I love about Ebert’s review, and what I love about the man’s approach to criticism, is that his position is all laid out for you. When I started my series of Star Trek reviews, I was open about the fact that I’d never been much of a fan, and that if you want to dismiss my thoughts on Star Trek on the grounds that “I don’t get it,” well, yeah, you’re right.
Ebert has voiced some of the frustrations the anti-Wolvie comic crowd feels about the character, though truthfully most of that seems to centered on the fact that, “He’s everywhere!” But what’s important is that he voices his frustrations with the character.
Wolverine is one of the few characters who could win Favorite and Least Favorite Character in the same year. Logan became the poster child for the X-expansion of the ’80s and ’90s (bringing with it much adulation and hatred), and under the care of Bryan Singer and Hugh Jackman, the cinematic Wolverine became a friendlier, more heroic, and less-troubled guy, which made him more palatable to folks who didn’t like the angry killer of the comics, but also, to me, less interesting.
And this brings us to X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE, which is a seriously good film.
WOLVERINE doesn’t reach the heights of the best films in the superhero genre, but it’s the equivalent of walking into a comic shop, buying a TPB off the shelf, reading it, and feeling like you got your money’s worth because it delivers exactly what it promises in a really good way. There are no aspirations here to be literary, but there are aspirations to leave it all on the screen. WOLVERINE strikes me as a film made specifically for comic book fans. We’ve got a conflicted Logan who unleashes the animal and tons of cameos. Are there too many characters floating around? Yeah, probably, but we’ve got Logan in nearly every scene taking us from start to finish, and so the movie, much more than most superhero movies, gives you the sense of an entire shared universe taking place out there beyond the confines of the screen.
I dig that, and I dig Hugh Jackman’s performance here, which runs across a broad emotional spectrum. Importantly, this is the first time I believed that he was a dangerous killer and that this was someone you definitely did not want to mess with.
There’s five acts to WOLVERINE
Act I: CHILDHOOD
A quick sequence that shows James Howlett (the pre-Wolverine, pre-Logan Logan) sick in bed and his buddy, Victor, watching over him. James’ dad ends up in an argument with Thomas Logan, and Thomas kills him, which causes James’ mutant ability to pop, which results in him jamming his claws into Thomas’ torso. Thomas dies but not before telling James that he’s really his dad. Whoops. This results in James and Victor taking off and having their relationship evolve from that of friends to brothers. “And brothers look out for each other,” Victor says repeatedly throughout the film. This sequence isn’t bad, but it’s helped that it’s short. One of the problems with Ghost Rider was all the time spent with Johnny Blaze before he grows up to become Nic Cage. As much as I just want a movie to be good, I also want to see the star whose name is above the title.
ACT II: GROWING PAINS & SEPARATION
WOLVERINE uses its opening credit sequence very effectively. Needing to get from 1845 to the film’s present (initially, Vietnam, and then later the late 70s) quickly, the opening titles show Logan (Hugh Jackman) and Victor (Liev Schrieber) fighting together in all sorts of famous battles of the Civil, World, and Korean variety. For some reason, critics seemed to be tripped up by the fact that two Canadians were fighting in the American Civil War, which is silly because lots of non-Americans fought in the Civil War. As these scenes unfold, we see that Logan is slowly becoming concerned with Victor’s blood lust, which gets us to Vietnam where Victor kills a senior officer. After the two brothers’ mutant powers allows them to survive a firing squad, they are visited in jail by William Stryker (Danny Huston), who wants to recruit them into a situation that will allow them to be who they are.
It’s a not-so-subtle Magneto-styled seduction, and Logan and Victor are taken in to Stryker’s mutant strike team alongside Agent Zero (Daniel Henney), Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), John Wraith (Will.i.am), a pre-blobby Fred Dukes (Kevin Durand), and Chris Bradley (Dominic Monaghan). They go around the world and do bad things at Stryker’s behest, and honestly, I could have watched 90 minutes of this team doing their thing. It’s really impressive how quickly the director Gavin Hood establishes who each character is, why they’re part of the team, and how they relate to one another.
And I know I’m not the only one who’s said this, but I am one of the ones that’s been saying this since I first spun WOLVERINE in the DVD player: give me a Ryan Reynolds-starring Deadpool movie right now. Man, why does Hollywood insist on making a nice guy out of him? He’s at his best when he’s kinda dickish. He’s fantastic here, absolutely fantastic. If we have to endure Reynolds in that mediocre Green Lantern movie, can’t we get a Deadpool film to balance the scales?
(Just look at how awesome the upcoming Deadpool video game looks. Suck it, Wolverine!)
This is a Wolverine-centric movie, though, so we only get to hang with this squad for a bit before Wolverine quits on them.
ACT III: DOMESTIC BLISS
Logan moves to Canada, where he’s killing trees and shacking up with schoolteacher Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins). It becomes 1979 and the film signals this a bit with older cars, but for the most part, it’s completely contemporary in look and feel. They’re happy together until Stryker shows up with Agent Zero and lets Logan know that someone is killing all the members of their squad. Logan growls and snarls and tells him to bugger off but that wouldn’t make for much of a movie, so Victor shows up to kill Kayla, driving Logan into the adamantium-having arms of Stryker.
It’s a shame that they didn’t bring Brian Cox back to reprise the role he played so incredibly well in X2, but Danny Huston is a very good actor and he turns in a very good role here, so while I’d have loved to have Cox, I can’t complain about having Huston.
Logan agrees to the process and so gets himself pumped full of indestructible metal, but then he hears Stryker giving away his not-so-nice plans and jumps out of the water, kills a bunch of people, and jumps off a cliff face into a waterfall.
It’s to the movie’s credit that for all the origin stories we’ve seen, Hood delivers a very effective and un-rushed origin sequence. It’s nice to watch and Jackman, Schrieber, Huston, Reynolds, and Collins all make these scenes work really well. In fact, I enjoy the movie more before he gets his adamantium then afterwards. If I was making the movie, I think I would have structured it so Logan going in that tank was the final scene. Victor would have driven him to Stryker and Logan would have agreed to become Weapon X, and then he would have sat up in that tank with no memory of what came before.
ACT IV: THE HUNT FOR VICTOR
After bailing on Stryker, Logan ends up being adopted for a day by the Canadian version of Jon and Martha Kent. They’re nice people, so they have to die. The chemistry between Logan and Agent Zero (who does the killing) is good stuff and the action sequence with Logan against the Zero-led strike team is solid stuff. When he launches at the helicopter … I mean, if you don’t like that scene, you’re not going to like the movie.
He leaves a heavy body count and goes on the hunt for Victor, which involves actual detective work. Yep, there’s no Xavier, no Cerebro, just Logan hunting down a lead. It’s good stuff, and his verbal and physical showdown with the non-Blobby Fred Dukes is a blast.
All of these brief interactions with characters who have really small roles shows just how good of an actor Hugh Jackman is – even though he’s the star and Wolverine is always the center of the movie, Jackman is a very gracious actor, giving each scene what it needs. If he needs to be the lead, he’s the lead, and if the scene needs for Dukes to get the better of him, Jackman allows Kevin Durand to shine brighter.
Logan runs into Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) and then Victor, again, and then we’re off to Three Mile Island.
ACT V: THE SWERVE
Kayla Silverfox is still alive and Logan’s reaction is well-played. He’s spent all this time acting out of revenge and now when he discovers that there was no need for this, that Stryker and Victor and Kayla were all manipulating him, he doesn’t go beserk, he just walks off.
And, yeah, that wouldn’t work by itself so when Kayla gets hurt Logan comes back (she really does love him even if she was ordered to love him) and there’s a huge fight in which he frees all the mutants (including a non-James Marsden Cyclops), and then fights a Frankenstein Deadpool (all of the mutant powers Stryker has been stealing have been put into Wilson’s body), which is the dumbest thing in the film.
Why would you shut Wilson up? There’s a great line from Logan about it, but why play against the strength of your actors? That doesn’t make sense to me. Victor comes back to save Logan from Deadpool so he can kill him himself and … punch slash kick slash teleport punch optic blasts punch run teleport slash Deadpool dies. (Until the post-credits scene, at least.)
Logan’s memory gets damaged when Styker drops two adamantium bullets in his skull and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) shows up to usher the kids to freedom. Er, I mean, school.
It’s all quick and hard-hitting and good superhero violence. WOLVERINE isn’t a game changer, but it’s a darn good time, and when Victor asks Logan if he even knows how to kill him, and Logan growls back, “I’m gonna cut your goddamned head off. See if that works,” a huge smile broke out across my face.
For a movie like WOLVERINE, what more could you want?