Amid the rise of a new type of comic book film, represented in films like THE DARK KNIGHT
, and IRON MAN
, there is still a place for films within the previous framework. Some of these will reach the highest level of quality and entertainment, like SPIDER-MAN 2
or X2: X-MEN UNITED
. Others will be perhaps falter and exist on the lowest tiers of the genre, suffering from lower quality and less seriousness that combine to make for a mediocre experience. In between, however, there is plenty of room left for comic book films that are fun and exciting, delivering good production values and acting with stories that are competent, adding up to an enjoyable experience that achieves what it set out to do – entertain us with a big summer popcorn flick.
X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE fits into that latter category. While there is plenty to criticize – as I'll do shortly – there is also plenty to like. The film has been the victim of some pretty bad reviews that rely on quite a bit of hyperbole regarding the shortcomings, and quite a bit of myopia regarding what does work in the film. I think these criticisms are overly harsh, and that while the film is overly "safe" and frequently by-the-numbers, it's still a decent, respectable entry in the X-Men series.
The story is simple, but makes sense and follows a logical path. A brief prologue establishes Wolverine as young James with his older brother Victor in the mid-1800's. Through the opening credits, James and Victor fight in the major wars in U.S. history. The sequence ends with them in Vietnam. Victor kills a superior officer, James tries to defend Victor, but they are captured and executed by firing squad – which fails. While they are locked in a cell, Stryker offers them spots on a new secret team. The brothers join their mutant teammates on the first mission: retrieving a meteorite containing adamantium from Africa. The team takes an African village hostage, and James stops Victor from murdering a villager and then abruptly quits the team.
Years later, James – now using his father's name, Logan -- works as a lumberjack and lives with his girlfriend. Elsewhere in the world, Victor kills off ex-members of the secret team. Stryker shows up, telling Logan about the killings and asking him to come back to work for the government. Logan refuses, Stryker leaves, and Victor arrives to kill Logan's girlfriend. Logan tracks Victor to a bar, and Victor beats Logan. Logan agrees to participate in an experiment for Stryker, in order to gain the ability to defeat Victor.
The experiment applies adamantium to Logan's skeleton, making him indestructible, and he adopts the codename Wolverine. Stryker orders Wolverine's memory erased, Wolverine hears this, and he smashes free of the lab and escapes. Hunted by Stryker's team, Logan discovers that Victor has remained part of the team all along, and Stryker has been hunting mutants around the world to take them prisoner and use their blood samples to replicate all of their powers in a single mutant-hunter (Deadpool). Wolverine not only seeks vengeance, but also must also help the imprisoned mutants and confront Deadpool. Along the way, Wolverine encounters other characters who will be familiar to fans – Blob, Gambit, Cyclops, Emma Frost, and Deadpool (the big climactic villain) for example.
There are no big secrets or surprises, and the main details are already known – Wolverine involved in an experiment with Stryker to graft adamantium to his bones, Stryker determined to destroy mutants (via a counter-productive plan relying on mutants whom Stryker keeps granting augmented powers), and Wolverine's eventual loss of his memory. Likewise, the fate of everyone involved is pretty much a given here, since we know all of the main characters show up in the X-Men films. Since we know Wolverine is indestructible and largely impervious to pain, and since his lack of moral ambiguity is established very early in the film, we also know that he won't be undergoing any major transformative moments in the film – nor will anyone else for that matter, since the supporting characters who appear in the X-Men films are drawn here exactly as they exist in those films.
And therein lies the biggest problem of the film – we already know everything that will happen, we know what won't happen, and there's no larger narrative playing out. The lack of any moral complexity to the characters or their situations (every event has a clear absolute right and absolute wrong, with the hero always choosing the right path while the villains gleefully embrace the wrong one) makes it hard to invest any emotion in the film's outcome (which, as noted, is predetermined anyway).
Yet, while that is really the large overarching problem with the film, most fans will be more upset by the portrayal of Wolverine, who as everyone has heard by now is not the man we met in the early X-Men films. Morally clear-eyed, heroic, jovial and calm most of the time, he has evolved through these films into a man with a firm hold over any supposed "animal" dwelling within his heart. We hear a lot about this "animal," in fact, in the newest film, but it never makes an appearance. And were this really just a character who has gradually evolved, it would be more forgivable – but this film is a prequel, so his transformation is inconsistent. It also makes for a pretty uninteresting lead character, despite the fact that there's no denying Jackman's charisma or the fact that it is Jackman, not Wolverine, whom we are watching fight his way through the bad guys now.
The other big complaint here is an incredibly contrived and very illogical "solution" to finally erasing Wolverine's memory. Without giving too much away, I'll note that you don't break through an indestructible alloy simply by making a weapon out of that same alloy – it's indestructible, and one would still cancel out the other. Add to this the absurdity of knowing where a particular set of memories is even embedded in someone's mind, and the problem with randomly AIMING to try to hit them, and you have a cheap plot device to simply revert back to the status-quo.
Other minor problems include the decision to simply give Wolverine an ordinary hairdo, far too many "run at one another and collide in the air" fight scenes, one or two too many "tackle the person through a window/door/wall" fight scenes, and two "bonus" scenes during/after the end credits that don't really amount to anything at all (although the second one is a nice nod to the "breaking-the-fourth-wall" aspects of one character). There are also some problems with the timeframe of the film – Stryker recruits them during Vietnam, yet their first mission includes some modern equipment. Wolverine's lumberjack job is only a few years after quitting the team during the 1970s, yet they are using modern equipment there as well. LCD screens pop up, modern weapons are seen, and the film has a hard time establishing a decade and sticking there. And, as you've probably heard, the opening scene in the 1800's claims to be in Canada despite the fact that Canada didn't exist yet as a nation.
Despite these problems, however, amazingly the film still manages to work overall. Jackman throws himself into this role more than he has in the X-Men films, and it's impossible not to like him (the problem being that he's TOO likeable, though). He clearly takes this role as seriously as any other film roles, and that's great to see. The supporting cast is also very good, often great – Schreiber in particular does an outstanding job. The film is always fun, and everyone seems to be having a great time making it. Although we know all along exactly where things will end up, it's a credit to the filmmakers that they manage to still make it an entertaining if predictable ride. The effects are – contrary to a lot of complaints that I just don't understand – not only good, but also artistic at times in an unexpected way. The climactic battle not only looks great, it has an almost painted quality at times that is clearly intentional and a very nice touch.
This is a movie that ends up being better than the sum of its parts, and it overcomes some pretty significant shortcomings with sheer enthusiasm and desire to entertain. It's not going to be what a lot of fans hoped for, and it's not going to rank on anyone's list of best comic book films, but it is a good (not great, but definitely good) outing and certainly better than the bad reviews suggest. Claims that it's terrible, very bad, etc are simply exaggerations, in my opinion. I strongly suspect that some of the online reviews trashing the film are actually from people who haven't seen the film yet; or from people who saw the leaked incomplete version and read some of the initial bad reviews, and then jumped on the negativity bandwagon. I've noticed a few reviews that make comments about the source material and comic book films etc, so the absurd bias rears it's uninformed head again as well.
Among the X-Men franchise, the film is nowhere near as good as X2, but it's superior to X-MEN: THE LAST STAND and in terms of writing, directing, and acting I'd rank it as almost as good as the first X-Men film. It is also better, all things considered, than SPIDER-MAN 3, the two FANTASTIC 4 films, BATMAN FOREVER and as well-written and with better production values than the first BLADE film. It is not in the same league as THE DARK KNIGHT, IRON MAN, WATCHMEN, SPIDER-MAN 2 or other top-of-the-genre films, but it isn't trying to be.
My final rating would fall between a B- and a B -- much higher than I expected it to be and higher than most of the reviews you've seen so far.