As the finale of a trilogy, X-Men: The Last Stand was disappointing. It concluded by removing the natural superpowers of two key characters, killing off two other beloved heroes, and apparently killing, then inexplicably resurrecting, another central character—an odd ending considering all of them survive in the comics with powers intact.
Rather than resolve these threads—it's too expensive to renew the actors' contracts—the masterminds at 20th Century Fox are moving forward by looking back to the origin stories of various mutants. Naturally, they've started with the ever-popular Wolverine, followed by two other origin films in early development.
By now, fans know this franchise plays fast and loose with the mythology of the comics. The awkwardly titled X-Men Origins: Wolverine is no exception, but that's hardly surprising considering how murky and nebulous the character's past is. The movie still manages to strike some of the necessary beats of Wolverine's story, even while overloading it with extra characters and subplots that seem to conflict with the previous films. For example, how can a younger Cyclops or arch-nemesis Sabretooth appear in this movie when Wolverine seems to meet them for the first time in the original X-Men? The film attempts to explain questions like these with convoluted answers. (Hint: Sorta rhymes with magnesia.)
This tale originates with Wolverine's earliest days as James Howlett, a boy living in mid 19th century Canada. As a mutant with the ability to heal rapidly (not to mention those trademark retractable claws), he ages at a much slower rate than normal—hence why he still appears middle-aged even today. Turns out his half-brother Victor has similar talents, including a lesser healing ability and some deadly fingernail claws.
The siblings run away from home after a tragic event, leading to the coolest sequence of the film: an opening credits montage detailing their experiences in the Civil War, both World Wars, and Vietnam. It's a little bit Benjamin Button meets Highlander—and all too reminiscent of the credits in Watchmen— but nevertheless serves to contrast how these characters wield their abilities. Victor (a very feral looking Liev Schreiber) is a murderous psychopath who kills for thrills, while James (a very buff looking Hugh Jackman) is more a reluctant killer with a conscience.
Their time in Vietnam attracts the attention of Col. William Stryker (Danny Huston), who has put together a black ops team comprised of gifted mutants to perform dangerous covert missions around the world. (An older version of Stryker, played by Brian Cox, was the key to Wolverine's past in X2.) A conflict in morals soon causes James to walk away from the team. Changing his name to Logan, he settles down into quiet life as a lumberjack in love with a kindly Native American schoolteacher. That tranquility is short-lived once Victor (aka Sabretooth) begins killing off members from the disbanded team; apparently out of brotherly respect, he settles for Logan's beloved instead. The murder sets Logan on a vengeful path that eventually leads to the Wolverine we all know from the X-Men comics and films.
Those details summarize the movie's better half. Academy Award winning director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) is fairly well suited in capturing the tragedy that drives this darker X-Men tale. As such, the quarreling brothers story carries weight early on, the introduction of Team X is intriguing, and there's anticipation to see where everything is headed. And besides, this is the story of Wolverine, arguably the coolest of all the mutant characters. There's great potential in exploring what makes him tick, what drives him to the brink of insane rage, how he becomes virtually indestructible (perhaps immortal), and his struggle with his own human/bestial nature (a metaphor for our own conflicted souls).
All that potential is wasted, however, on a story that becomes increasingly formulaic and unsatisfying as it progresses. We never really come to understand why Sabretooth is so vindictive (he just is!), nor do we see Wolverine commit any atrocities with Team X that might leave him with a guilty conscience. For an origin story, it does surprisingly little to explain much of anything beyond Wolverine's rage and the surgical procedure that bonds the world's strongest metal to his bones (claws included).
Instead, Wolverine favors a typical story of the reformed anti-hero (gangster, thief, super-soldier, etc.) who can't seem to escape the sins of his past. A plot like this requires emotional investment on the audience's part, to create sympathy and a rooting interest in their pursuit of justice and ultimately their salvation. But how many times can they show Wolverine screaming at the heavens (with claws extended, naturally) and hope to elicit pathos rather than self-parody?
Much as I love this character, I stopped caring halfway through the film. That's because the film is concerned less with storytelling and more with obligatory action … and its own franchising. For sure, there are some cool special effects and action sequences, plus a few plot surprises and even some fun cameos. But the action becomes all too repetitive as Wolverine and Sabretooth engage in at least three stab-and-slash fights. It also denigrates into one of those B-level superhero movies where visual effects eventually overwhelm the plot. The filmmakers are most in love with the endless parade of characters and cameos—it's all about the superpowers, apparently. Too often, characters are introduced, demonstrate their ability once or twice, and then move on.
Take Gambit, one of the coolest mutants in the franchise. The ragin' Cajun's cinematic debut has been hotly anticipated since movie No. 1, but with just a few minutes of screen time, he's merely a pimped-out side character cameo. The same could be said for Cyclops, whose appearance is only justified by the surprise cameo that follows him.
Oh, and the movie offers plenty of winks to further potential sequels and spinoffs that Fox would love to launch (including another post-credits easter egg that will leave non-fans scratching their heads). Hardcore fans may geek out over this stuff, but it's bound to leave most viewers at least a little disappointed. Advice to Fox: take your time in introducing and developing characters. It seems like that would increase the number of films that could be made—and films more worthy of our time, for that matter.
Despite clunky dialogue, repetitive action, and clichéd plot points, Wolverine isn't unwatchable, but at best, it's merely serviceable summer blockbuster eye candy. I want to love it more because of its brawn, but it lacks the brain and heart of better comic book movies (like 2008's Iron Man and The Dark Knight). Sorry to say it, but Wolverine's once sharp claws are wearing dull in this one.Discussion starters
- Is Logan/Wolverine justified in his quest for revenge/justice? Why or why not? Do you agree with him that he didn't have a choice? Is Travis Hudson (the old farmer) correct in saying that a man who seeks blood will only find blood?
- Logan's healing power allows him to age more slowly and live longer. Do you think this is a blessing or a curse?
- Logan and Victor have similar powers, but use them quite differently. What does this say about how we choose to use our own gifts/talents? What defines how we use or misuse what has been given to us?
- One character tells Logan that he's not an animal. Another says he needs to embrace the beast within. Which one is correct? Or are they both right? Can we relate to Logan's battle with his true nature? Is there similar conflict within our souls?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
X-Men Origins: Wolverine is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, as well as some partial nudity. The movie is in many ways darker and more violent than its predecessors in the X-Men franchise. That's not to say the film is overly graphic or as heavy as The Dark Knight—it's generally PG-13 comic-book violence. But there are plenty of slice-and-dice sequences involving the claws of Wolverine and Sabretooth that lead to (mostly) bloodless stabbings, slashes, and a decapitation reminiscent of Darth Maul's death in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Wolverine also escapes from a laboratory fully nude, though little is shown. The film also has its fair share of profanity, including misuse of God's name, but there are no f-bombs like some other PG-13 films.
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