X-Men Origins: Wolverine  (2009)

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So they wanted to bring the main X-Men film series to a rousing conclusion with The Last Stand, making a neat trilogy of it, but of course they didn’t want to stop milking the property as a whole, so they had to come up with new stuff... They ended up taking a two-pronged approach to keeping the franchise rolling along: one fork leads to X-Men: First Class, which will presumably want sequels, and the other starts with this, and I suppose is expected to generate parallel side-projects giving origin stories for other characters... but which is also scheduled to get a sequel of its own, in which Wolvie goes to Japan.

The trouble with both prongs is, they’re prequels. Once a series descends into prequels, you pretty much know most of the good flavor has already been squozen out of it, even if it’s not also sinking, as here, to a much lower status than before in terms of budget and publicity.

So clearly, watching this is a much lower priority than the main series it spins off from. But how is it on its own terms?

Not bad, I’d say. Once more, the X-Men franchise continues to uphold a reassuring level of decency even at its weakest. My one complaint is that the weakest points of this film are precisely those that are set up as prequelage for the main sequence: the bits that detail just how Wolverine became Wolverine. Most especially, the notorious skeleton-adamantiumizing scene, the one bit that’s been most heavily revisited in flashbacks and hints prior to this film. When we finally get the whole story, it’s not only weakly presented (in part due to hanging on to a PG13 rating, I guess) but also very sloppily plotted: you really want a better explanation that that if you want to sell a scene where the mad scientists try to convert someone into an unstoppable human weapon, and then immediately change their minds and decide that their only further interest is in killing him.

The rest of the story — a synthesis from multiple evolving versions of the Wolverine back-story worked out over the years in Marvel comics — works a good deal better. The center to it all is his relationship to his half-brother Victor Creed, a.k.a. Sabretooth. Now in the main series, Sabretooth was just a big mean galoot who hardly spoke. There was not the faintest need to hire a real ac-torr to play him. Now that such a need had arisen, the filmmakers unceremoniously dumped Tyler Mane from the role and hired a guy who has never ever before been known for being big and hulking and threatening, but was much better known for arty melodrama roles. Liev Schreiber.

I will certainly admit that I didn’t see that one coming.

So they sent Liev off to the gym to muscle up... and he put on thirty pounds of beef. Rumors of forty-five pounds are exaggerated, he says, but still, that’s quite a physical transformation. All of a sudden, this dude is scary.

I am disappointed by this career move by Liev on two fronts: first, he’s appealing to the lowest common denominator of casting, much like getting a boob job. No matter how legitimate it is, it can’t help but lower the tone a little. And second, now that Liev is (at least temporarily) a badass, it’s going to be that much more difficult to arrange an “accident” for him so that Naomi Watts can correct her mistaken choice of husband.

Anyway, the suddenly very intimidating Schrieber makes an excellent foil for Hugh Jackman, and their unbreakable bond of loyalty and emnity, though rather fake and forced in script terms, works pretty well to give the film a strong center point.

Add to that some pretty decent depth for the Howlett/Logan/Wolverine character, and some quite respectable major action scenes, and the whole thing is fairly satisfying. One might easily argue that it’s totally unnecessary, but for what it is, I say it’s all right.

The overall mood of the film is not comic-booky and action-movie-y at all... a lot of the time, it has a tone more like some kind of historical melodrama. And that works, though I suppose it may not be for everybody. This tone makes it a very twenty-first century film; this is just the sort of thing that is separating the forward-looking instances of modern action cinema from the classic styles of the past. It’s also a very twenty-first century aspect that within this context, it can have action set-pieces that are this badass.

On the other hand, there is one thing here that’s nicely old-fashioned in comparison to the mainline X-Men series: we finally get away from Wolvie constantly fighting and stabbing women in the closing act.

There is one further problem to discuss. Ryan Reynolds. They’ve got him playing the character who becomes “Deadpool”. He was a pain in the butt in Blade: Trinity, and he’s going to be a pain in the ass in Green Lantern, and you’d think that in this case he’s perfectly cast for once, because his character is supposed to be a pain in the heinie... but he’s a pain in the buttocks even at playing a pain-in-the-patoot character, because he suddenly fails at playing the kind of pain in the fundament that he managed very smoothly in the Blade movie — when he’s supposed to be a jabbering motor-mouth, he sounds like he’s rehearsing his declamation of a bargain-basement Shakespearian soliloquy. Where’s the energy and spontaneity? Fail. Then once he’s Deadpoolified, he mostly turns into Scott Adkins, who doesn’t speak.

There are a bunch of other super characters in the movie; as in many of the Avengers series films, they shoehorn in as many extraneous B-list Marvel characters as they can make fit. This does become a distracting drag on things at times. The most important one they introduce is Remy “Gambit” LeBeau, played by Taylor Kitsch, whose cajun accent is weak sauce. This has been one of the most popular (or maybe just one of the most overplayed) X-characters in the comics, so it’s surprising that it took this long for him to show up in a movie. And there are a bunch of others, and they make sure to fit in a bunch of X vs Y matchups among them.

There are, of course, rumors that both Deadpool and Gambit will get movies of their own...

But as I said, in spite of these gripes it’s a decent movie. It’s common for fans of the X-Men series to dismiss this film as a minor mediocrity, but that just shows how privileged we’ve been lately with our action blockbusters. Just ten years ago, this film would probably have been groundbreaking, maybe a minor classic. That it is no such thing today is a testament to how much better action blockbusters are made nowadays.