Monday, October 7, 2013

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (20th-Century Fox, Marvel Entertainment, Dune Entertainment, 2009)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a 2009 production not only starring Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, probably the best-known character from Marvel’s X-Men comic books — he’s the one that has long, scythe-like metal knives shoot out from his hands (not from his fingers, by the way, but from his knuckles). The awkward title reflects the way the X-Men franchise, like a lot of the other comic-book derived movies cluttering up the multiplexes (and the DVD markets, and the download services) these days, has been rebooted and fissioned into a lot of bizarre little pieces, some of which blatantly contradict each other in terms of explaining how the characters came to be. So far there’ve been five movies in the current X-Men cycle, of which Charles and I have seen four: the initial X-Men from 2000, its direct sequel X2/X-Men United from 2003, X-Men Origins: Wolverine from 2009 and the most recently released retread, X-Men: First Class, from 2011, which itself is generating a sequel to be issued in 2014. I was never a devotée of the X-Men comics — in fact, I can’t recall ever having read one (but then my attitude towards comic books in my youth was a pretty much take-it-or-leave-it one; I read some of them and was entertained, particularly by Batman and Spider-Man, but didn’t become an obsessive fan of them the way some people did, like the ones who go to Comic-Con) — but I was quite taken with the X-Men movies, at least in part because the central premise of them intrigued me. The idea was that the introduction of atomic weapons in 1945 and civilian nuclear power shortly after that so vastly increased the amount of radioactivity in Earth’s environment that it created super-powered mutants who were alternately hunted down and killed by Earth’s civilian and military authorities and captured for exploitation as super-soldiers.

The X-Men comic book was first published in 1963 and was apparently the highest-selling debut issue of a comic magazine to that time — and it was widely interpreted as a metaphor for the African-American civil rights struggle, which was gripping the country at a time. But it seems to work even better as a metaphor for the Queer-rights struggle, especially since mutants, like Queers but unlike Blacks, have the ability either to be closeted about their pariah status or to be “out” and demand that society accept them on their own terms. Alas, very little of that subtlety made it into X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and though Hugh Jackman (who’s played Wolverine in all his appearances in the cycle) also was listed as one of the producers and tried to bring the project some depth, this one is pretty much an action shoot-’em-up with only the barest plot line to connect the big action set-pieces. It also runs roughshod through the mutant origin story as told in the first three films (and the X-Men comics before that); the film opens in northern Canada in 1845 — that’s eighteen forty-five — and shows us two mutant brothers, James Logan (Troye Sivan) and Victor Creed (Michael-James Olsen), being raised by a dysfunctional couple whose biological relationship to them is unclear. They kill the father-figure and dash off into the wilderness, and at some point they cross over the border into the U.S. and get involved in all America’s wars, courtesy of an artful montage sequence by director Gavin Hood. They quickly grow up to be Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber, respectively, and as such fight in — and survive — the Civil War, World War I, World War II and the Viet Nam War (apparently they missed out on Korea) without visibly aging: apparently mutants, at least of their class, are immortal. Since the mutants were supposed to be products of atomic radiation, it’s difficult to tell how Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine and Victor, a.k.a. Sabretooth, came into existence when they were born at a time when humans didn’t even know radioactivity existed and there was no radiation in earth’s environment other than the natural background level (which was probably pretty low in northern Canada, not exactly known as a great spot for mining pitchblende).

The script by David Benioff and Skip Woods tells a wild and pretty disorganized tale in which Wolverine bails out on the secret special-forces squad Victor has organized for the U.S. Army (or maybe they’re free-lance; it’s hard to tell) when Victor orders him to kill children. He goes back to his ancestral homeland in northern Canada and lives for six years with girlfriend Kayla (Lynn Collins) until he’s traced by General Stryker, who wants him for another top-secret mission and kills Kayla just to prove he means business and to intimidate him into joining his project. Stryker’s project is an attempt to remodel human beings into super-weapons, and for this he’s used a meteorite Wolverine previously discovered with Victor in Nigeria (this film zips around the world so fast you really need the frequent titles to tell just where you are) that can be refined into a metal called adamantium (well, at least it’s a better name for a chemical MacGuffin than “unobtainium”!) which can be fused into a human body and give the resulting person super-strength, invulnerability and all that other good stuff — only after Wolverine gets the treatment (in a transparent bathtub that looks like an oversized aquarium and was probably inspired by the tank in which the Hammer version of the Frankenstein monster was created, a prop reused in The Rocky Horror Picture Show) he rebels again and Stryker and his goons have the task of hunting down and killing a man they’ve just made even more invulnerable than he was before. In the meantime he’s been taken in by a farmer couple, Travis (Max Cullen) and Heather (Julia Blake) Hudson, who find him naked in their barn (this got a PG-13 rating for “intense sequences of action and violence, and some partial nudity,” the latter being some choice look-sees of Hugh Jackman’s naked body in the Hudsons’ barn even though he doesn’t get to go full-frontal) just after they discover the spaceship with a baby inside … oops, wrong superhero myth. Stryker’s goon squads find Wolverine with the Hudsons and kill them in cold blood, leaving him nowhere to go.

From then the film is a long chase scene with just a few interruptions for exposition, as Wolverine, Stryker and Victor variously find and trace other mutants, including the telekinetic John Wraith (Will.I.Am), oversized Fred Dukes (Kevin Durand, who starts the movie normal-sized and then blows up to be a mutant called “Blob” — I don’t know whether they gave him a “fat suit” or tried to do it digitally, but Blob’s oversized body is a singularly unconvincing special effect that’s surprising for a big-budget major-studio movie in the CGI era) and Remy LeBeau (Taylor Kitsch), a card dealer in New Orleans (or is it Las Vegas? Key scenes take place in both locales) who was apparently the only other person successfully to escape from Stryker’s compound. After the big to-the-death battles take place Wolverine learns that his girlfriend Kayla didn’t really die after all, nor was she really his girlfriend; she was a mutant herself, sent to northern Canada to seduce him, live with him and monitor him for … well, for whoever. Dramaturgy is not this film’s strong suit, and neither is depth — Hugh Jackman wanted the script to indicate clearly that Wolverine was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in his redoubt with Kayla in Canada (where he worked as a lumberjack but was definitely not O.K.) but the studio vetoed it, though he and the writers were able to sneak in the symptoms of PTSD even though it was the condition that dared not speak its name — but fortunately the writers and director Hood managed to make the film speedy and action-packed enough one could just turn off the critical faculties and groove on the intensity of the action, enjoying it as the popcorn entertainment its makers intended even while missing the depth and emotion the other X-Men movies (especially the two directed by Bryan Singer that kicked off the cycle) gave us. And at least this one lasted just 107 minutes, unlike so many other superhero films these days that cross the two-hour mark and really overstay their welcome!