So, Dear Reader, as you will know, I like my superhero movies. The Dark Knight (obviously) is way out ahead in terms of which I think is the best, but there are plenty of others out there that are well worth the admission fee. I thought Watchmen superb. I liked Iron Man within the first three seconds (it opens to the sound of AC/DC’s ‘Back in Black’, which is one of my all-time favourite songs). Men in Black is hilarious (although not a lot of people know it’s based on a comic book, trust me, it is). And there are lots of second-rank entrants that are still great matinee popcorn flicks. The Incredible Hulk. Spiderman 2. Batman Begins. And the X-Men franchise.
I like the X-Men movies for a number of reasons. I like the team dynamic. I particularly like the friction between Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian MacKellan), and the fact that one can genuinely sympathise with the nominal villain. I like the way the scripts deal with the thornier aspects of minority group behaviours with wit and intelligence – the best example of this being in X-Men 2, when Bobby (‘Iceman’) ‘comes out’ to his parents as being a mutant. His mother’s response? “Bobby, have you tried not being a mutant?” – what a great way to talk about generational differences in attitudes to homosexuality.
In case, though, you think I’m taking the whole thing too seriously, I should confess that I also like the X-Men films for this reason right here:
This is the lovely Famke Janssen. So lovely, in fact, that she even makes ‘Famke Jannsen’ sound sexy – quite a feat, given that, phonically, ‘Famke Jannsen’ doesn’t have a lot going for it. Nevertheless, she fills the silver screen most appealingly when she happens to be on it, and I’m predisposed to favour those films in which she appears.
(Ross, in Friends, had a list of five actresses he considered attractive. So, it turned out, did the rest of the characters. I have a similar list, which, in the interests of full disclosure, I should tell you consists of Famke Jannsen, Gong Li, Monica Bellucci, Jennifer Connelly, and… well, I like to keep the last vacancy open, for the reason Ross discovers to his cost in that episode.)
Anyway, back to the X-Men. I have now been to see X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and…weeelll…hmm. But before I get to the ‘hmm’, let me tell you the ‘yay’. Liev Schreiber, as Wolverine’s half-brother Victor Creed/Sabretooth, is really very good. He taps into the feral nature of the character very well, and he’s a believable villain as someone who’s just got a little too in touch with his inner animal. Kevin Durand, who plays Frederick Dukes/Blob, provides some welcome comic relief, and Taylor Kitsch, who is Remy LeBeau/Gambit, manages to out-cool Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine himself in the (maddeningly brief) periods he’s on-screen. The opening montage looks brilliant (while not as clever as Watchmen‘s, it nevertheless does an admirable job of compressing more than 150 years of history and character development into a couple of minutes, and the visual effects and cinematography involved enhance the effect) and some of the big set-pieces (the collapse of the cooling tower, for example) look equally impressive.
There’s a great big ‘hmm’ that lurks at the core of this film (and you should know that spoilers will appear in the next paragraph). The hmm is this – this film proceeds like a point-and-click PC game. It says something, I think, that the character development shown in the dialogue-free opening montage matches the character development in the rest of the film, where, you know, they’re allowed to talk. This is a film that relies on hurtling from one fistfight to another via a big explosion in order to progress the plot. At least, I’m choosing (charitably) to believe that that’s the reason; I have a horrible suspicion that’s growing firmer the more I think about it that the fistfight/explosion/fistfight structure is the plot.
And I could even cope with that – this is a film about Wolverine, after all, not Anna Karenina – if it wasn’t for the fact that the movie’s mythology bears no relation to the character as I understand him. In fact, it goes further than that: the movie actively sets out to wreck who Wolverine is. And the biggest betrayal of the character is his relationship with Sabretooth, which is entirely fundamental to his story. In the comics, Sabretooth murders Wolverine’s lover, Silver Fox. In the movie, Sabretooth appears to do the same thing…only to have the surprise twist that she’s not dead! It was all a set-up to persuade Wolverine to get the adamantium grafted onto his skeleton! Gotcha!
Well, I was surprised, alright, but horribly so. Because now the film makes no sense. Wolverine’s been hunting Sabretooth for killing his lover. It turns out Sabretooth didn’t kill her. Yet Wolverine explains that “This changes nothing between us.”
Wolverine will continue to hunt down Sabretooth for doing something that, it turns out, didn’t actually happen, and everybody’s okay with that? Including Sabretooth? For decades (literally), the comic was about Wolverine and Sabretooth and the spectre of Silver Fox hanging invisible between them. When Wolverine finally killed Sabretooth (just a couple of years ago), it was for Silver Fox, and all the other women Sabretooth had killed, including Wolverine’s Japanese wife (oh yeah – don’t be looking for that crucial piece of his backstory here). So with that backstory eradicated, you’re left with Wolverine as a moral black hole. Which I guess is kind of ironic, really, for a character who believes so strongly in personal honour. An example of the hero being unheroic: Wolverine shows up at a prison where lots of mutant children are being held captive, in order to avenge Silverfox (one word, in the film). Silverfox turns out to be alive. His purpose thus negated, Wolverine decides to leave, leaving behind the captured children.
Huh? The writers have clearly dragged the nobility out of the character and had it shot at dawn round the back of the chemical sheds. Wolverine may be many unpleasant things, but a nihilist has never been one of them. Of course, he comes back and rescues the kids (including Silverfox’s younger sister, Emma Frost – yup, didn’t see that one coming either, but again, with good frakking reason), but he should never have left in the first place.
Other notable nonsenses include Deadpool as a ‘Sum of all Fears’ -style mutant with no mouth – which is ironic, really, since in the comics Deadpool is known as ‘The Merc with a Mouth’. Not here, he isn’t. Here, he’s weapon XI, successor to Wolverine, Weapon X himself. Okay – I have to stop now. I’m depressing myself. (Worst of all – I’m sorry, but I have to forewarn you – Famke Jannsen isn’t in it, although Patrick Stewart makes a brief cameo).
Watching this film, I kept thinking about the boardgame ‘Scrabble’, and the mixing of the letters that occurs before you put them on the board. The Wolverine script is like that bag of letters. The scriptwriters have taken various cool words and concepts from the Marvel universe, mixed them up, and pulled them out at random in the hope of producing an Origin story. They succeeded, but only insofar as they managed to identify some of the core ideas. In terms of telling us Wolverine’s origin, this film’s a mess. In terms of being entertainment to scoff popcorn to, it’s barely adequate because – bizarrely for a film which depends so heavily upon them – the visual effects aren’t that good. There are times when the CGI appears embarrassingly ropy. Wolverine’s claws, the single most important physical attribute of the character (the sideburns, trust me, are of secondary importance), sometimes look as though they have been physically painted onto the film negatives. Watch the scene in the bathroom and tell me you were convinced by those claws. I dare you. And try to look at Hugh Jackman’s hair when he’s upset without laughing. I double-dare you.
I really, really wanted to like this film. I really did. Wolverine comes from a more troubled place than most superheroes, and there’s a great film to be made about him – if for no other reason that he is prepared to go places and do things that very few other characters in the Marvel universe are prepared for – but this is not that film. Like The Punisher*, we will all have to keep waiting for the decent film we all know is in there somewhere.
Two out of five stars.
Here’s some Zen. It’s more than Gavin Hood deserves…
*The Punisher deserves to have a good film made about him, but no one’s done it yet. Directors tend to obsess about the violence and leave the character and plot to go hang. For my money, the only guy who could do it well would be one who understood that violence, in comics, is necessarily aestheticised, and who understands that Frank Castle deserves to be treated like a human being rather than a machine. There are plenty of other Marvel machines out there to play with without turning Frank into one of them. So really it’s obvious. The only person who could write and direct a really good Punisher film is Quentin Tarantino who, even when he makes a bad movie (‘Deathproof’ springs immediately to mind), at least makes it interesting.