Status: In theaters (opened 5/1/09)
Directed By: Gavin Hood
Written By: David Benioff and Skip Woods
Cinematographer: Donald McAlpine
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, and Lynn Collins
Some things are just better left unexplained, and the origins of the Wolverine character from the X-Men films, I’m sorry to report, serve as a prime example. The whole source of his coolness (well, aside from his neat metal claws and his generally badass attitude) is the fact that he comes from mysterious origins; even he isn’t aware of the details of his own past, which is a valuable plot device that’s been used to great success many times previously, from classics like Spellbound and The Manchurian Candidate to modern-day blockbusters like The Bourne Identity. Part of what makes such films work is that the audience and protagonist are along on the same ride; the fun of the story lies in what is not known, and in discovering the hidden truths behind the characters as the story progresses (typically climaxing with a big reveal late in the third act). This technique basically comprises Wolverine’s story arc in X2, the best of the X-men films, and after seeing a whole lot more of the character’s past revealed in embarrassingly bad detail in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, I wish they had just left it at that.
This film primarily fails, then, in its very intention. I will fault the script for its silly premise, but at the same time I don’t know if there is a better one out there; once the decision had been made to tell the “full story” of Wolverine’s origins, I’m not sure any story they came up with would’ve really worked. As we already know the basics, finding them out in drawn-out fashion is not a particularly interesting undertaking—not to mention that the additional details only serve to, in my opinion, weaken the character. (I don’t know if the backstory used is taken from the Marvel comic books or not, but I’m only concerning myself here with the film in the context of the series to which it belongs.) For instance, we learn during the opening credits sequence that the mutant who would become Wolverine, who is also sometimes called Logan, was originally named Jimmy, and has been alive since the mid-19th century. This is a throwaway piece of character development, though: were we told that he had been born 30 years before the events in the film take place, absolutely nothing about the plot would have changed. Nonetheless, Wolverine/Logan/Jimmy is apparently a Highlander of sorts, the explanation I assume being that his mutant healing power is also capable of healing him from aging, the most ubiquitous of all diseases—though it didn’t stop him from growing to adulthood, despite his mutant powers being present in adolescence, as we’re shown in the film’s equally throwaway introductory scene. We also learn that Wolverine’s trademark claws were originally present in his body as bones that can grow out from between his knuckles. I’m sure some people will see this and think it’s cool, but it was hard for me to not laugh at the ridiculous goofiness of it every time his bony claws sprouted out. I had always been under the impression that Wolverine’s mutant power was super-healing, and the claws and metal skeleton were the result of government experimentation, which he was able to endure thanks to his ability to heal. Now we find out that his mutant power is super-healing, and also he’s kind of a half-wolf man, sort of, and oh yeah, he’s immortal too. Then the government just metal-coated his already-existing claws to make them look cooler.
Except they don’t. The claws look equally (though differently) stupid in metallic form. This doesn’t make much sense to me, because we’ve seen three previous films where this was handled infinitely better. It just adds to the general thrown-together feeling this movie has, its other major failure being its technical execution: taking silly ideas and implementing them poorly certainly doesn’t help matters any. The special effects are distractingly bad, those claws looking like drawn-in cartoons whether they’re the bones we initially see or later the metal-coated knives we’re more used to. It almost feels like this movie was made about 15 years ago, during that post-Jurassic Park period in the mid-90s when seemingly every studio and effects house in Hollywood suddenly thought that good computer graphics were easy, and then proceeded to come up with as many ways as possible to prove that hypothesis wrong. The early fight scenes in Wolverine are also particularly bad, utilizing an artificial motion blur effect that adds a slightly strobe-like feel to them, not unlike the jumbled messes of fight sequences Joel Schumacher employed in his terrible Batman films.
The early low point comes when Jimmy/Logan/Hugh Jackman finds his lover (Lynn Collins) apparently murdered in the woods, and you can see what’s coming from a mile away: he will kneel beside her bloody body, cradle her in his arms, wait just long enough for the tears to start flowing, and then tilt his head back and shout “NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!” at the overhead camera as it pulls back to show him alone in the woods. It sends chills down your spine, though they don’t stem from the emotional weight of the scene; they come from the embarrassment of having to sit through such bland, uncreative writing and generic, unimaginative direction.
Somewhat surprisingly, once the film manages to slog its way through the lengthy and mostly pointless exposition, it gets to a story—the actual story of how this Jimmy guy came to become “Wolverine”—that is sort of interesting, though it is inconsistently and sloppily told. It’s tied into the previous X-Men films via William Stryker (Danny Huston), the U.S. Army colonel who serves as the primary antagonist in X2 as well (played there by Brian Cox). He is behind the mutant super-soldier experiments that will lead to Logan gaining yet another moniker, Weapon X (the tenth attempt, as Stryker explains—the X being a Roman numeral… though later in the film, his next project is called “Weapon Eleven,” not “Weapon Ex-Eye”). These experiments are the work of the U.S. government, I think, though it’s explained poorly enough—in addition to contradicting the previous explanation we’ve seen, which seemed to indicate that it was the Canadian government that was behind the creation of Wolverine—that I’m not entirely sure. It all amounts to feeling like thinly-veiled excuses to contrive some fun fight scenes with Wolverine and his brother Sabertooth (Liev Schreiber). In this endeavor the film does deliver to a point, though it has trouble overcoming the poor special effects and confusingly weak storytelling that seems to be the result of sheer laziness.
The script attempts to make up for the fact that we are already aware of all of the big surprises of its story by throwing in various smaller ones throughout, to mostly lukewarm success. Likewise, it attempts to cover up for the fact that we already know all that’s interesting to know about its main characters (and what will become of them) by throwing in several other mutant characters, most of whom feel like they’re the result of scraping the bottom of the barrel that is its voluminous source material. It predictably ends off at a point that will dovetail somewhat conveniently into Wolverine’s introductory scenes in the first X-men film, as well as shoehorning in an introduction to a forthcoming installment in the series, though both are in a very forced and contrived fashion. It left me confused in several regards before I just gave up trying to make sense of things, but I won’t spoil everything here should you want to see for yourself… though that is not something I can really say I recommend you do.