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X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Director: Gavin Hood
review by J.C. Hartley
Spoiler alert!Inevitably, films like this annoy the comic-book fan-base. When the first X-Men movie came out, actor Freddie Prinze Jr complained that Marvel were taking plot and character details from the film and feeding them back into the comic's mythology to establish new fans who had only come to the title through the big-screen adaptation. Wolverine, far and away the most popular character in the stable of X-Men titles, has a special place in fan's hearts, and adapting him for film, and tinkering with the mythology, risks bringing down the ire of the faithful.
But why should that be? Marvel has dicked about with Wolverine from the moment they realised they had a potentially massive creation on their hands to rank with the original Lee/ Kirby/ Ditko characters, Spiderman, Captain America, Hulk, Fantastic Four, et al. The Claremont/ Miller Wolverine limited series in 1982 added depth to a character that up to that time had only fulfilled readers' enjoyment of the potential for unbridled violence. Barry Windsor Smith's Weapon X in 1991-92 attempted to fill in the backstory to how Wolverine was created. The various X-titles continued to fill-out the character biography, including revelations in Alpha Flight about the involvement of the Canadian government and Department H, and James Hudson, also known as the superhero Vindicator/ Guardian, and his wife Heather.
The technology that gave Wolverine his 'adamantium' skeleton was originally Japanese in origin, the invention of Lord Night Wind and used by him to restore the villain Bullseye after Daredevil had broken his back. In Weapon X the bonding process is perfected by Dr Cornelius (homage to Jerry's dad perhaps?). Much of the matter of these origin stories was either absorbed, contradicted, or retconned, by further revelatory series amidst a plethora of distracting tactics involving government conspiracies, shadowy organisations and the heavy application of false memories. That X-Men Origins: Wolverine has managed to develop a coherent storyline out of this pool of source material is to be applauded, rather than criticised because it leaves out some of the elements beloved of part of the fan-base.
The film starts in 1845 with the sickly James Howlett being tended by his father John under the resentful eye of the young Victor Creed. Howlett senior is attacked and killed by Victor's father Thomas Logan and this trauma triggers the young James' mutation, bone claws emerge from his hands which he uses to run through Thomas. The dying Thomas reveals that he is James' real father. James goes on the run and is joined by Victor who insists that as brothers they must always stick together. There is much about this opening sequence that is confusing. Who is Victor and why is he in the room with James, who is Thomas Logan and why does he have a different name to his son. These relationships would be known to fans of the book and to be honest the lack of explanation shouldn't really impact on first-time viewers, but the assumption of prior knowledge is the kind of thing that raises the hackles of the critics of these genre films.
The director uses a birds-eye view shot of the young James screaming in anguish and shaking his tiny fists over the body of his dead 'father'. I could not believe that we were seeing this shot that has become such a clich� beloved of parodists and used in everything from The Simpsons to Spaced. The combination of the shot and the fact that it was a little lad in it made my daughter burst out laughing. Director Gavin Hood even reprises the 'tough guys in a musical elevator shot' later in the film. The unpromising opening of Wolverine is followed by a brilliant establishing montage that plays over the credits and shows James Logan (Hugh Jackman, Australia) and Victor (Liev Schreiber, Defiance) fighting side-by-side and back-to-back through the American Civil War, First and Second World Wars and finally in Vietnam, by which time, Victor's bloodlust and cruelty has mastered him, and in saving Victor from summary justice at the hands of their comrades James finds himself sharing a firing squad. Now, it has been established that James and Victor cannot be killed by conventional weapons and having survived execution they are recruited by William Stryker (Danny Huston, 30 Days Of Night), to join a special operations team including Zero, Wraith, Bolt, Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), and Fred Dukes.
Stryker leads the team on a mission in Nigeria to appropriate a mysterious meteorite, but his violent methods, using the murderous Victor, now known as Sabretooth, to torture and kill civilians drives Logan to leave the team. Logan works as a lumberjack in the Canadian Rockies and is happy in a relationship with schoolteacher Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins) who tells him the Native American myth of the 'coyote trickster' who fools the wolverine into losing his love the Moon. We are shown Sabretooth, who has tracked down the machine-empath Bolt (Dominic Monaghan, Lord Of The Rings) and kills him. Stryker arrives at the lumber camp to warn Logan that someone is killing the members of the old team, meanwhile we see Sabretooth menacing Kayla. Logan arrives too late to save his girlfriend and subsequently is bested by Sabretooth in a brawl. Desperate with the urge for revenge, Logan seeks out Stryker to take him up on his offer of the enhancement that will give him the power to defeat his brother and rival.
As was often stressed in the comics in the early days, Wolverine's mutant power was the animal derived heightened senses and a rapid healing ability. The claws were originally part of the adamantium bonding process and were a shock to Logan when they first emerged from his hands. Subsequent developments established that Logan always had bone claws that were enhanced when the adamantium was bonded to his skeleton. It is stressed in the film that Logan is the only person who is likely to be able to survive the bonding process but it is never explained why. Clearly Logan can survive because of his healing abilities which he shares with Victor and yet Stryker insists that Victor could not withstand the process. This is never adequately explained.
Suitably enhanced and now taking the codename Wolverine, Logan escapes from Stryker and takes refuge with the Hudsons, now an elderly couple rather than the duo from Alpha Flight. Zero is put on the trail of Logan triggering an exciting action sequence featuring a couple of armoured cars and a helicopter. Logan travels to Las Vegas and meets up with Wraith and the now bloated Fred Dukes, learning that Stryker and Victor are rounding up mutants for experimentation. Logan seeks out Remy Lebeau (Taylor Kitsch, Snakes On A Plane), the only mutant to escape Stryker, who leads him to a facility on Three-Mile Island where Stryker is using DNA from captured mutants to develop Weapon XI/ Deadpool (Scott Adkins, The Bourne Ultimatum) the former Wade Wilson. Logan discovers he has been manipulated from the outset, a theme of his various origin stories in the books. Kayla is still alive, a mutant using her empathic powers to influence Logan, working for Stryker in an attempt to save her sister. Ultimately, Logan attempts to liberate Stryker's mutant prisoners, including a youthful Cyclops, and is pitched up against the powerful Deadpool who possesses an adamantium skeleton, rapid-healing abilities, and blades in his hands, martial arts skills, teleporting abilities, and optic blasts. The final battle takes place on the rim of one of the Three-Mile Island cooling towers.
Stryker's final throw of the dice is to pump adamantium bullets into Wolverine's skull which destroys his memory. Leaving Logan in the damaged state in which we will find him at the beginning of X-Men.
This could have been a great film but there is some indefinable X-factor missing. Some things jar. The birds-eye-view shot early in the picture, the jokey elevator reference, the clumsy claws comedy of Wolverine in the Hudson's bathroom, and the nicknaming of Fred Dukes, "You shouldn't have called him Blob" ... "I didn't, I called him Bub." Part of the problem is having the origin follow the introduction. We have seen what Wolverine does in three movies, now we are shown why he does it; many critics have found this to be a meaningless exercise, a creative dead-end. If an origins sequel happens, in Japan following the Claremont/ Miller limited series, the franchise could be given a massive boost if the creative clout is there.
The performances are excellent, Schreiber and Collins in particular. Huston isn't as creepy as the avuncular menace of Brian Cox in X-2 and remarkably Jackman is less impressive than he was when he first played the character; wake up Hugh this was your project. The movie didn't make the mistake of being too reverential to the source material, a criticism levelled at Watchmen, but somewhere along the line the magic of the early comic-book character has been lost. That said, some of the recent graphic origin storylines have seemed determined to make the character as repellent as possible. Not a great superhero movie, but not the death-knell for the genre that some critics have predicted. The action sequences are great but perhaps the plotting overall was just too busy. Wolverine gets his adamantium in a comparatively short sequence, as he would because we've seen it before in X-Men movie flashbacks. Perhaps the filmmakers should have taken a chance and suggested that everything that has gone before was the result of false memory implants, or perhaps this film should have been the re-imagining we have seen in Batman Begins, Dark Knight and are about to see in Star Trek, and Terminator: Salvation. Whatever the qualifications, although a little lightweight and CGI heavy and short on characterisation, the film doesn't drag and is never boring, and the main action sequences, Wolverine versus Agent Zero, and Wolverine and Victor versus Deadpool definitely have claws.
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