X-Men Origins: Wolverine (United States, 2009)April 30, 2009
2008 was the year in which the comic book superhero came of age. Films like Iron Man and especially The Dark Knight illustrated what was possible when a motion picture dared to take its characters out of the comfortable box in which too many superhero franchises reside. Wolverine, the fourth in the X-Men series, ignores the gains made by the genre during the past year. Although neither unwatchable nor inept, this movie is generic and uninspired. It's a B-list story masquerading as an A-list title. It's the kind of thing that, based on concept and screenplay alone, would have been more at home with an early spring or late autumn release rather than batting leadoff for 2009's roster of summer blockbusters.
When it comes to superhero tales, the two least appealing types are origin stories and prequels. Wolverine has the double disadvantage of being both. And, although it can take credit for clearing up some of the mysteries surround the title character's identity, those revelations serve to make Wolverine less compelling. What was mystique in the X-Men trilogy has now been reduced to formula. Perhaps the problem isn't that the movie answers questions but that there's little creativity evident in the way those blanks are filled in.
For those who demand little more than a string of loosely connected action sequences from a superhero movie, Wolverine provides what is desired. The film doesn't spend a lot of time on exposition or character development, showing a form of attention deficit disorder that demands no more than ten minutes elapse between one fight or chase and the next. The prequel problem results in an anticlimax. Since two of the villains have significant roles in the X-Men trilogy, there's not a lot of suspense about their prospects for survival. We also know Wolverine's forgettable fate, so the only open question is how it happens.
Wolverine opens in Canada's Northwest Territories in 1845, and introduces us to mutant half-brothers Logan and Victor, who go on the run to help Logan avoid a murder charge. An opening credits montage shows them fighting in various conflicts: the Civil War, both World Wars, and Vietnam. During the '70s, the two of them (played as adults by Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber) are recruited by army honcho William Stryker (Danny Huston), who is assembling an elite team. When Stryker's methods become too brutal for Logan to countenance, he breaks from the group and retreats to a remote part of Canada, where he works as a logger and lives with his lover, Kayla (Lynn Collins). But Logan's past pursues him, and it catches him in the form of Stryker and Victor, who has become disillusioned by what he believes to be his brother's betrayal and abandonment.
Although the action scenes are competently executed, there's nothing here to raise the pulse. The battle atop the nuclear cooling tower, for example, pales when compared to the kinetic runaway train sequence in Spider-Man 2 or even the smash-mania at the end of last year's The Incredible Hulk. There's nothing in Wolverine that stands out as memorable - no signature sequence that will put this movie on the superhero map. Admittedly, director Gavin Hood has no experience dealing with a big budget production of this nature, and he was reportedly aided by Richard Donner, but the problem is less an issue of how the scenes were choreographed than in their inherent banality.
The film does its best to remind us that it's intended to be an integral part of the X-Men saga rather than a disconnected appendage. Parts of the ending are forced into a lead-in position for the original X-Men. There's a jarring cameo. Numerous "familiar faces" from the other movies make appearances - Cyclops, Sabretooth, Stryker - but all are played by different actors. Wolverine pays lip service to the most complex and intriguing aspect of X-Men mythology - the political and cultural struggle between humans and mutants - but it's more of a plot device than an integral element. Stryker, in fact, was deeper and better motivated in X2, when Brian Cox portrayed him, than he is here.
The bright spots are provided by actors Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber. Having made three previous appearances as the character, Jackman has an excellent feel for Wolverine, and that familiarity illuminates his performance. Jackman takes the role seriously and puts as much effort into this movie as he might into a more serious-minded production. Liev Schreiber is a top-notch foil. He snarls and growls his way through the film with élan, and his delivery of one-liners is perfect (or nearly so). Schreiber effortlessly steals scenes from Jackman, and both actors stand head-and-shoulders above everyone else. Danny Huston makes the interesting choice of not going over-the-top with Stryker. As villains go, this makes him a little colorless and personality-deprived.
Wolverine had a troubled production history, which might explain its inconsistent tone and sloppy ending. As previously mentioned, Richard Donner was recruited by Fox to "advise" Hood on some of the more challenging action scenes. (Accounts about the degree of this "advice" vary based on who is discussing it - some claim that Donner took over the center chair.) Re-shoots were necessary. And there was the infamous Internet leak of a work print. Publicity-wise, Wolverine has been overshadowed by some of the summer's later releases. Nevertheless, superhero movies are big business, and this is 2009's lone established comic book franchise sequel. In terms of tone and content, Wolverine is a nearer match to Daredevil than Iron Man, but its box office gross will undoubtedly be closer to the latter. Marvel Comics movies have a history of "opening" the summer; this is one occasion when the splash may be bigger than the material warrants.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (United States, 2009)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Screenplay: David Benioff and Skip Woods
Cinematography: Donald M. McAlpine
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams
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