There are about a thousand–and perhaps even more–things wrong with the new X-Men prequel, lazily titled X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It’s dumb, it’s hackneyed, it’s laughable, it’s an utterly ridiculous start to the summer movie season and you’d be ill-advised to see it as a sign of great things to come for the rest of this month, June, and July. HOWEVER—aw, dammit. I liked it anyway.
Hugh Jackman returns as the titular character of Wolverine, the world’s most popular X-Man. Now, I know pretty much nothing about the X-Men comics, so if you’re looking for someone to size things up on the level of faithfulness and accuracy, then this is not the review for you. And if you’re looking for this film to be on the intellectually resonant level of The Dark Knight or Watchmen, then stop reading now, because this is NOT that movie. In fact, a lot of this movie sort of plays like it’s Watchmen for the audience that thought that movie was too heavy/depressing/long/boring/talky/graphic/fill-in-the-blank-adjective. The story has an element of “someone’s killing off the old team,” and it all leads to something far more large and grand, of course. But where Watchmen used that template to paint a far more philosophical and weighty contemplation of heroism, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is exactly the kind of story that it’s criticizing.
But I’m jumping ahead here. Let’s begin at the beginning, shall we? It is, after all, an “origin” movie, isn’t it? (GET IT???!! The ”beginning??” “Origin” story??!! I’m so FUNNY!!)
Meet James. He’s just your average 19th-century Canadian boy, but it seems he’s a bit sick. Watching over him is Victor, a friend a bit older than he is. One fateful night, some shit goes down (to say the least) and James ends up finding out that his own father isn’t actually his real father and that Victor’s father is his real father and they’re both…mutants! They both have regenerative powers as well as some form of sharp appendage. Victor’s got a couple of really sharp teeth as well as retractable vicious fingernails and James–who at some point will begin to be referred to as Logan–has got three extra bones on each hand that retract between his knuckles like claws.
After Logan’s fake father gets shot and killed by his real father (and Logan kills his real father in retaliation), Logan and Victor make off into the wilderness of the world, where they grow up together by participating in just about every war you can think of during the film’s fun little opening credits montage. Over the course of time the two young lads from the beginning become Hugh Jackman (Logan) and Liev Schrieber (Victor) and we soon find out that Logan is quite the sympathetic soul, while Victor has more of a taste for blood. (This will be important later!) Bear in mind, this is all the opening credits.
When their mutancy is discovered in Vietnam and the firing squad fails to properly execute them (“It tickled,” according to Logan), in comes Colonel William Stryker (Danny Huston) to whisk them away to his nifty little Black Ops task force made up entirely of mutant-types including John Wraith (Will.i.Am), Chris Bradley (Dominic Monaghan), and Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds). But when assignments start turning a little vicious for Logan’s taste, he leaves the gang and flees to become a happy lumberjack, living in the woods with his sweetheart, Kayla (Lynn Collins). But Stryker, of course, has ways of finding him–as does Victor. And when Stryker informs Logan that someone is starting to kill members of that special task force of yesteryear, things start to go a little nutty for everyone and eventually Logan joins Stryker’s little operation and volunteers for the government experiment that will turn him into the indestructable mutant known as Wolverine.
To save from certain spoilers, I’ll go ahead and stop there (I’ve already breezed over and omitted much), although this is pretty much a movie where you know every step it’s going to take ten steps before it takes it. And that’s really the least of its problems, too. A cliche story, I can handle. And of course, there’s all the usual stuff in here like bad dialogue, questionable performances, awkward directing choices, and general cheesiness, but what really keeps you at an arm’s length from everything going on here is the complete and total lack of any kind of emotional resonance.
There’s nothing in this movie that makes you feel anything for any character at any moment (with the possible exception of Danny Huston, who I probably just connected with because I think he’s an awesome actor). No one’s motivations are really clear at any point in the movie. It feels like a movie where people do certain things because if they didn’t there would be no movie. Sabretooth (Schrieber’s alter ego) is a bad guy and he obviously wants to kill Wolverine, but we’re not entirely sure why. To be honest, it just seems like it’s because he drew the bad guy card, shrugged, and decided to play it.
Everything in this film is totally black and white, good versus evil, cardboard cops against cardboard robbers. (Again, with the possible exception of Danny Huston.) This is an area where Dark Knight and Watchmen were completely ahead of their genres and took such concepts in far more interesting directions, but that’s not what we get here. Should it be? Not necessarily, but it would at least be nice for us to know what our villains are after and not just accept that they’re acting out of an impulse for evil. Oh well. Maybe I just missed something.
And Wolverine is played up the same way that he was in all three of the other X-Men films–cold, aloof, mysterious. It seems kind of a bad route to go for the movie designed to give you some insight into his character. As such, we never really have anything remotely human coming from him. He’s just this fun little character who’s guiding the movie, and we’re not really sure what his deal is, but he seems angry a lot. Supposedly, he’s madly in love with Kayla, but we never really spend enough time with that relationship to really give a damn when bad things befall them. I feel like director Gavin Hood (who had me crying like a baby with his Oscar-winning film Tsotsi) ought to have been able to handle that kind of thing better. Part of me thinks he just didn’t care, either.
Also, this really isn’t much of an “origin” story. It’s just a story that takes place before the other ones we’ve seen with mostly different characters except for the one guy. I feel like origin stories should deal more in the realm of “why.” Batman Begins is a great example of a film that pulled that off with awe-inspiring gusto. Wolverine is just a big damn pile of “what” (in more ways than one). And it grows a little tiresome.
But, wait a second! Didn’t I say that I liked it all, anyway?? Yes, friends. Yes, I did. This movie is big, dumb, ridiculous, cliched, and emotionally flaccid, but I liked it anyway. It’s directed with a carefree bravura that I found genuinely appealing. I laughed out loud a lot at some of the movie’s more ridiculous moments (like sweeping overhead shots of epic screams of agony punctuated by absurd dialogue), but I never rolled my eyes or even felt like I was laughing at the movie, but with it. It’s campy stuff–subtle but certainly intentional. There are things in this movie that no adult filmmaker would have done without a tongue in the ol’ cheek.
The action scenes are also noteworthy, as I feel that they kind of carry the film. They’re quite creative and exciting, really. I’m not at all the kind of guy that stares in wide-eyed glee at big monstrous action scenes (and that’s probably why I’m not a Transformers fan), but the action here kept me involved and interested. Hood is an indie director that has proven himself entirely competent at filming action scenes (just like a little man named Christopher Nolan) and I enjoyed much of the action here way more than any random Michael Bay masturbatory effectsplosion sequence.
And as much as I come down on this movie for not having the cerebral capacity of Dark Knight and Watchmen, I have to just accept the fact that that’s not what this movie is. Wolverine is, above all else, a product of its genre. It’s a run-of-the-mill, easy-to-swallow superhero movie and there really isn’t anything wrong with that, conceptually. I’m not going to come down on Gavin Hood for not doing something more with it and instead I’ll be grateful that he knew how to do it without getting up his own ass about it. Had it been directed with the self-important tech-heavy air of a Michael Bay film or the boring pomposity of Brett Ratner’s terrible X-Men: The Last Stand, then I would have had an issue this movie.
But this movie isn’t going for anything else other than to give you 107 minutes of fun. And it succeeded for me for the most part. I liked the action, I liked (most of) the humor, I liked Ryan Reynolds’s regretably minimal screentime, I liked the cheesy dopiness, I liked Liev Schrieber’s squatting man-gallop, and I even liked that weird effeminate hillbilly that played Gambit. The boxing scene is still a toss-up, though.
At the end of the day, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a movie that knows not to take itself too seriously. It’s campy, dumb fun. Of course, that kind of humility and candor certainly doesn’t make it a “good movie,” but there’s no reason you can’t check the “guilty pleasure” box on this one. This film is nothing more than an entertaining little yarn: a fairly solid, if massively flawed and wholly forgettable, night at the movies.