X-Men Origins – Wolverine, written by David Benioff and Skip Woods, directed by Gavin Hood, starring Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, and Danny Huston. Wolverine will either satisfy your summer movie cravings or disappoint your narrative sensibilities. It all depends on your perspective and expectations.
On one hand, if you’re going to have a big budget-fx driven action movie, you might as well stock it with mutants and comic book characters. It’s a proven formula for success, and if the early returns are any indication, Marvel has another winner. On the other hand, Wolverine the character has a singular place in the realm of comics, and his origin is ripe for some creative extrapolation.
I always felt Jim Shooter, Chris Claremont and the guys at Marvel got it right by leaving Logan’s origin story the hell alone in the 80’s and 90’s. It was a big reason why Wolvie became so popular. Unlike every other Marvel character, you didn’t really know that much about him; he had that mysterious and grimly alluded to past before he showed up as an X-Man and we liked it that ways. He was the anti-Spidey, a dude with a mean and vicious streak who sometimes killed the bad guys. This was new ground at the time (unlike today, where half your comic book ‘heroes’ have no bones about taking scalps). But Professor X trusted Wolvie, and he always proved himself a loyal and selfless teammate.
As the years went by, we saw more glimpses into Wolvie’s past. The original mini-series spoke of a lengthy stay in Japan, and there was the Weapon X storyline that overlapped with Alpha Flight in Canada. You had the whole ‘Patch’ persona on the island of Madripoor, and then Sabretooth showed up. Along the way, some older character would seem to know Logan from days gone by. It was pretty cool.
In 2001, Paul Jenkins wrote Origin, a six issue mini-series chronicling Wolvie’s childhood and early years on the Canadian frontier. It’s one of those series I will eventually pick up and read (Jenkins is good), even though I already know the basic story. The movie takes some element from this series as a starting point (though why they had to go back to the 1840s instead of the 1880’s – I suppose so they could have that cool Glory-like scene from the Civil War era…), but instead makes Victor Creed/Sabertooth an ally and compatriot for much of Logan’s life. I guess this should’ve been my first clue that the movie might break poorly.
Now I’m not a continuity snob or someone who thinks you have to bring every single inane detail from the source material into the movie, but I would submit that Jenkins and Claremont and others developed a lot of interesting source material. If the movie was perhaps a bit more cognizant and respectful of said material, they might have done something truly memorable here.
You see, Logan has had memory gaps since the beginning, going back to the Origin series, where it was a coping mechanism expressed by his mutant abilities (to protect his mind). Now how about that for hubris. Your superpower partially erases your memories anytime you do or are subjected to anything truly horrible. It’s Memento-esque with superpowers. And this is how it should’ve been done.
Imagine a non-linear story, with fragments of Logan’s memories from his past. Work in the Northwest Territories, and long spells living feral in the woods. Work in a couple of World Wars, earlier clashes with Sabretooth, Madripoor, and for the love of Stan Lee’s mustache, his Japanese adventures… Maybe you have a cameo by Captain America for the fanboys. Maybe you worry less about getting him prepped to be an X-Man.
Question – Why does Logan go to Japan? Answer – To learn the self-discipline necessary to keep his feral side at bay and avoid the accompanying memory losses. And now Wolverine has some depth. Now he’s more than a sociopath with cool claws. He’s lost people: women, family, friends. He’s gone to war and it drove him a little nuts, but he answers the call again and again. Not because he’s good at it, but because it’s what needs done.
You start with the voice-over of his most famous, most overused quote and tell this story in the context of Wolverine’s entry into the Weapon X program, his decision to get the adamantium and subject himself to the physical torture. Maybe he feels he deserves it on some level. Maybe he’s developed enough discipline to have mastered the memory loss gaps and now realizes only the trauma of Weapon X will erase some more recent painful episode (sounds a bit like Joss Whedon’s new Dollhouse uber-plot). Yeah, it involves Sabretooth and the painful loss of his love and family.
Now that would be some epic damned superhero filmmaking. Me and a couple of my writerly friends would’ve been happy to oblige. We definitely would’ve made it an R-rated affair. But Marvel didn’t ask.
And a non-linear character-driven story isn’t what they’re after anyway. They want that box office, and they want PG-13 mass appeal, media tie-ins, and new life for the X-franchise. For all we know, Benioff and Woods were capable of delivering something else and the producers dialed it down. I’m sure Paul Jenkins would’ve made himself available if asked. And in Gavin Hood you have a director with some chops for emotional depth. With Jackman and Schreiber you have some quality actors.
Ah, what might have been. In the end, it was a lot like Indy 4… I could see the awesome potential, only to find it trumped by stronger economical motivations to play it safe and deliver another action flick.
But even while bemoaning the lost opportunity, I’ll grant you that the movie was fairly entertaining. If you’re going to do a popcorn flick, might as well have Wolverine leading the charge. The set pieces with the helicopter chase and the final showdown at 3-mile Island were cool. Gambit and Deadpool were pretty decent in support (would’ve liked more of Gambit somehow) and Jackman is convincing with his muttonchops and big belt buckle. I still say he’s too tall; Wolverine is supposed to be this short little badass. I was somewhat annoyed by the PG-13 rating so clearly hampering what should’ve been brutal fight-scenes between Wolverine and Sabretooth. And Colonel Stryker didn’t really seem menacing enough to me. Maybe the evil army villain is too played out at this point.
So where does that leave us? If you’re down with Wolverine and the claw-popping super-hero action, you’ll probably enjoy this movie on it’s basic merits. But after films like Dark Knight and Watchmen, Spiderman, and to a certain extent Hellboy and Incredible Hulk, I find I want more from my comic book crossovers. Probably, this is a good sign.