What the Hell Was That? – X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

We live right now in a Golden Age of Comic Book Movies.  What was once seen as a niche market, with only the occasional crossover hits, is now the dominant force in film-making today.  It seems like any studio will take a shot at adapting Comic Books into movies these days, whether they are good or bad, just so they can capitalize on the trend.  While comic book films are diverse, the vast majority of them are coming from the big three players in this battle at the box office; Marvel, which is owned by Disney; DC Comics, which is owned by Warner Brothers; and 20th Century Fox, which has held on to it’s licensed characters from Marvel (namely the X-Men).  Though independent comic book adaptations still happen occasionally (such as Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)), it’s these three competitors who are clearly driving the state of Comic Book adaptations forward.  For the most part, fans of comic books are pleased with the state of things in this booming industry.  A lot of these movies are made by fans for fans, and the studios are learning quickly that it’s better to give their audiences what they demand, instead of delivering what they think the audiences want.  Marvel, of course, is leading the way with their ambitious Cinematic Universe, which has tied all their collective films together.  But, it’s not been without tough competition from their competitors, such as DC’s Dark Knight trilogy and of course the unexpected success of Deadpool earlier this year.  But, the one thing that the studios have learned is that when one of their comic book movies fails, it fails hard.

We’ve seen a number of times over the years where a comic book series runs out of steam and hit a low point.  Sometimes those low points result in movies that are so bad that they completely shut down the series as a whole, stopping any chance of further installments.  Most Comic Book franchises have fallen victim to this at some point.  Superman saw his series come to an end with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), a ludicrously cheap sequel in a once revolutionary franchise.  Batman also reached an absurd end with Batman & Robin (1997), which traded in the gloomy gothic grandeur of Tim Burton for the neon, cartoony carnival excess of Joel Schumacher. Spiderman has had to be rebooted twice thanks to two horrible movies; Spiderman 3 (2007) and The Amazing Spiderman 2 (2014).  It’s practically a miracle that nothing like this has happened yet in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (though Iron Man 3 (2013) and Ant-Man (2015) brought it awfully close).  But, what somehow redeems some of these movies in the long run is the fact that they are so bad, it actually makes them fascinating.  I could go on about the ridiculous and seemingly unthinkable creative choices that went into the making of some of these movies (like the dance sequence in Spiderman 3, or the laughably terrible acting in Batman & Robin), but to be considered one of my least favorite superhero movies, you would need to something much worse; and that’s be a complete bore.  A boring superhero movie is worse in my opinion than any weirdly horrible film.  Batman & Robin at least has camp value.  Superman Returns (2006) does not.  But, if I were to pick out one of the worst Superhero movies I’ve ever seen because of this factor, it would be the worst film in the X-Men franchise; X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009).

Up until last year’s Fantastic Four (2015), I would say that Origins was the worst superhero movie that I’ve ever seen.  It’s not the worst made or the worst acted, but it’s the one superhero movie that feels the most bland and uninteresting.  Just watching the movie you feel like no one involved had any passion behind the project and that it was made purely out of an obligation to keep the franchise going.  The only problem is, there was no place for the franchise to go.  Fox had already put an end to the X-Men story-line with 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, an equally derided sequel that left fans upset, because of the way that it shamelessly killed off some fan favorite characters for no good reason.  Origins was an attempt to keep the franchise going by rolling back the clock and showing how it’s titular hero began.  The only problem was that nothing interesting was revealed to us.  The origin of popular X-Men character Wolverine (played throughout the franchise by Hugh Jackman), was already explained pretty well in the critically acclaimed X2: X-Men United (2002), so using this movie to tell a story that we already know felt pretty pointless.  That being said, a earnest approach to the story could have found new and unique revelations about the character.  Sadly, because this was a film driven more by commerce, Origins relied more heavily on action set-pieces than actual character development.  This film came at the tail end of an era when studios were more interested in the characters than stories.  Because of this, many movies of this era usually forced superheroes into story-lines that normally weren’t suited for them; feeling more like generic action films rather than something that was pulled off of the panels of the comic.  This film is exactly the worst example of that.  It’s explosive without reason and hard to care about despite it’s attempts at trying to be profound.

Some of you may be wondering why I dislike this movie over say the more aggressively bad X-Men: The Last Stand.  While I will gladly agree that The Last Stand is a terrible film and also much more incompetently made than Origins, it doesn’t quite make me upset as Origins does, and that’s because of the lowered expectations.   To understand how I respond to the direction of a franchise, I should probably state the point of view that I had on these movies as they came out.  The first two X-Men movies did a fairly good job of bringing the popular Comic Books to life, under the guidance of director Bryan Singer.  Singer in fact really helped to bring the Comic Book genre back to life with these films in the wake of the failure of Batman & Robin, which nearly killed it.  But, he left the franchise in the midst of developing the third film in order to make Superman Returns for DC, leaving The Last Stand without direction.  Instead of refocusing their efforts, Fox just hired a hack director named Brett Ratner (Rush Hour) who was not a good fit for the series and told him to finish what Singer had started, which he was ill equipped to do.  The Last Stand is a convoluted mess of a sequel, but knowing all this did manage my expectations and made me more prepared for the failure of that film.  X-Men Origins:  Wolverine on the other hand looked more promising, given that it was being directed by an Oscar-winning filmmaker, Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) and was being scripted by a great writer named David Benioff (who later created a little show called Game of Thrones).  Not only that, but the film was also going to introduce some fan favorite characters from the X-Men series that had yet to make it to the big screen; namely Gambit and Deadpool.  But, none of this panned out the way it should’ve and it’s because of this waste of talent and potential that Origins feels like the bigger failure overall.

It’s hard to explain exactly what went wrong.  The story does follow the comics, but does so in such a step by step way, that we feel like we’re watching a stage play rather than an immersive adventure.  The film does start out with a surprisingly effective opening credit sequence, showing Logan (aka Wolverine) and his brother Victor/ Sabertooth (Liev Schreiber) fighting in every American War fought over the last 200 years, from Civil to Vietnam, surviving because of their regenerative mutant powers.  But from that point on, everything becomes convoluted and hard to follow.  And that’s mainly because the villain, Colonel William Stryker (Danny Huston) never has a clear motive for his actions.  At first, he commands mercenaries with mutant powers for his own ends, then he wants to start exterminating them, but to do so he has to create even more powerful mutant warriors; and you can see why this movie is all over the place.  Sadly, this reduces one of the best villainous characters from the series, who was so vividly portrayed by actor Brian Cox in X2, to a very one-dimensional character.  He’s gets no character development; he’s just there as a plot device to provide conflict for the character of Wolverine.  But, this becomes a problem when there’s another villain present in the person of Sabertooth.  Here you have an interesting adversary to Wolverine, possessing every same attribute he does as well as the bond of blood but lacking the moral center to do good, and the movie wastes that potential.  Sabertooth has no place in the movie because of Stryker’s presence, and he’s merely there to get into fights with his brother, allowing little time for character development.

Which gets me to the most problematic part of the film, and it’s the fact that it tries to cram too many characters into a movie that doesn’t need it.  The problem with many Superhero movies of this era was that they tried to capitalize on too many characters too soon and all at once, without giving them the right amount of development.  Multiple villains were common and shoe-horned together to less effective results in many films, like The Riddler and Two-Face sharing screen time in Batman Forever (1995).  At least with X-Men (2000), this ensemble approached was built into it’s DNA, so it didn’t feel too out of place.  But, when this is supposed to be a movie focused on a single central hero like Wolverine, it made less sense to fill the screen with fan favorites who were deserving of their own films (and ultimately got them).  Because they were forced into this story-line purely for fan service, we merely got bland, characterless stand-ins for what should’ve been amazing characters.  Take Gambit for instance.  In the comics, Gambit is one of the most colorful and charismatic members of the X-Men team; a ragin’ Cajun hotshot with a heart of gold.  His appearance here was long overdue; it unfortunately just never lived up to that potential.  You could imagine someone of Matthew McConaughey’s ilk bringing great life into the character, but instead they cast Canadian-born Taylor Kitsch who sounds nothing remotely close to Cajun.  Also, his performance is lazy in the movie, mistaking aloofness for swagger, and it sadly ruins a beloved character.  Still, that’s better than what happened with Deadpool.  Strangely enough, they cast the right actor in Ryan Reynolds, but the movie wastes him in bland action sequences and saddles him with unfunny one-liners.  Seriously, how do you make Deadpool not funny?  That’s kind of miraculous.  The biggest insult from the filmmakers is thinking that the character was going to be so obnoxious that audiences would applaud them for sewing his mouth shut for the final climax.  That right there shows you that this was a movie made by people who knew nothing about comic book heroes and were merely just making your average, run of the mill action film purely for the money.

But, you’re probably wondering why I’m forgetting about the titular hero himself.  Well that’s because the movie forgets about him too.  For the most part, Hugh Jackman remains the only good thing about this film, and that’s only because he is pretty much the complete embodiment of the character.  Really, no other actor is as synonymous with a superhero as Jackman is to Wolverine; with the possible exception of maybe Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man.  From 2000’s X-Men to the upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse, Jackman has been the face of this franchise and it’s going to be quite a daunting task to replace him after he hangs up the claws for good.  Unfortunately, his first solo go at the character leaves him with nothing to do other than to just look aggressive and/or amazed all the time.  This is the most passive version of Wolverine that you’ll ever see.  He accepts offers without challenge, runs into fights without thinking, and by the end of the movie, he’s knocked unconscious and loses his memory, making all the little character development that he had in the movie useless.  You can clearly see the disinterest in Jackman’s eyes as the movie goes on, as if he’s waiting for something exciting to happen too and yet will never see it.  The movie also suffers from some very terrible CGI effects, especially with regards to scene where Wolverine discovers his atom-antium claws for the first time.  The disinterested look on his face in that scene says it all, like he’s asking the filmmakers, “What was wrong with the physical claws I wore in the last movie?”  But, at the very least, Hugh does still embody the part in the moments that allow him to.  But, when the movie doesn’t add anything to the mythos of the character, it just makes you wish that he deserved better overall.

As a result of all this, Fox abandoned their planed line of Origin films for some of the other X-Men characters, the next in line being a Magneto origin story.  So, in a way you can say that Origins: Wolverine did the same exact thing that Spiderman 3 and Batman & Robin had, which was kill a franchise.  But, unlike the others, X-Men did survive the double whammy of The Last Stand and Origins by retaining all the good things about the series and just refocused them in a soft reboot called X-Men: First Class (2011).  Like Origins, it turned back the clock on the story-line, but did so in a fun and more faithful way to the comic source, and as a result, it revitalized the franchise.  In fact, it seems like all that the X-Men series has done in the last few years is make apologies for their worst movies; Days of Future Past even wipes the events of The Last Stand completely out of the continuity.  Hugh Jackman also took a more active role in the development of the character since then and the Origins follow-up titled The Wolverine (2013) was a vast improvement, taking full advantage of the character and building a worthwhile story around him.  Ryan Reynolds would also get the last laugh when he finally brought Deadpool back in a big way earlier this year with his own solo effort.  Many of that film’s best gags were even directed at Hugh Jackman, and there’s a clever dig at the Origins version of Deadpool as well, if you caught it.  Jackman’s own swan song to the character also looks to be promising in the next few years as it’s rumored that it will be tackling the beloved “Old Man Logan” story-line from the comics.  Origins is the lowest point this series ever got and thankfully it was all uphill from there.  But, it still stands as the most blatant, and pathetic example of getting the formula wrong in adapting a comic book movie.  When you make a Superhero film, make sure it’s one that you care about making and don’t just put it out purely to make money.  Fan reactions matter in this genre.  It’s what separates the X-Men Origins: Wolverines and Batman & Robins from the Deadpools and Dark Knights.