He may come from the Great White North, but the Marvel Comics character Wolverine isn’t what you’d call “way Canadian.” The national character of Canada, after all, includes a live-and-let-live reasonableness and humility you don’t generally find in a guy who growls, “I’m the best there is at what I do” before gutting you.
There are other reasons, of course, why Wolverine - the feral, cigar-chomping tough guy of the heroic-mutant X-Men - is as angry and conflicted as producer-star Hugh Jackman portrays him in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” opening Friday.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, Will.i.am, Ryan Reynolds
(Fox; US theatrical: 1 May 2009 (General release); UK theatrical: 29 Apr 2009 (General release); 2008)
The character has suffered untold trauma and loss since his birth in the 19th century - his aging is slowed by his mutant “healing factor” - and an animalistic antagonist has been dogging him for decades. It’s no wonder he flies into the occasional berserk rage.
“Hugh told me this character is filled with a certain degree of self-loathing, and yet the audience felt a great deal of empathy for him and connected with him” in the “X-Men” movies, says Gavin Hood, the new film’s director and a veteran of such character-driven dramas as “Rendition” (2007) and the South African “Tsotsi,” which won the Academy Award for foreign-language film in 2006. “He felt,” Hood says, “that the character didn’t necessarily like his own nature.”
That may be “well, duh” to comic-book fans, who are long accustomed to such conflicted characters as DC Comics’ Batman, Image Comics’ Spawn or even Marvel’s monstrous Thing in his earliest Fantastic Four days. But moviegoers saw little of Wolverine’s angst in the three “X-Men” films (2000-2006) in which he was more a jaded cynic than an existential agonizer.
That’s one reason this movie is set, according to 20th Century Fox’s press notes, in the 1970s, long before Wolverine, aka Logan, aka birth name James Howlett, found a haven teaching young mutants at Prof. Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.
In this prequel, he’s a war-weary soldier, fighting in conflicts from the Civil War to Vietnam. By the time he and half-brother-in-arms Victor Creed (Liev Schreiber), later known as Sabretooth, are recruited for the black-ops cadre Team X, Logan’s great love, Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins), has been murdered. Now, Logan has become a hollow man, and when the government bonds his bones to indestructible adamantium, there’s as much metaphor as there is metal.
“As human beings, we do things we often regret,” Hood says. “We lash out and then wish we could withdraw the claws. This resonated with me, the idea that his claws are a kind of physical manifestation of this inner psychological angst, this desire to lash out at an unjust world, and at the same time his desire not to lash out - to withdraw, to find peace.”
Yet despite the successes of the similarly brooding “Batman Begins” (2005) and “The Dark Knight” (2008), the tone fans call grim ‘n’ gritty doesn’t guarantee great guns box office - witness the poor results of the ambitious and estimable “Watchmen” (2009). Hood - who worked with screenwriter Skip Woods after early-draft scripter David Benioff “had already done his thing and developed the script as far as he wanted to develop it” - says one difference between that film and this is: “I wasn’t trying in any way to re-create the comics in the movie. I hope that we’ve been true to the ideas that underpin the success of that character rather than to exactly what he wears.”
This includes re-imagining Sabretooth as Wolverine’s half-brother, a relationship not stated in the comics but the subject of fan speculation. “Why did I ask the studio if we can go that way? Because you want the antagonist and the protagonist to be as emotionally connected and involved as possible,” Hood explains. “Human emotion is at its most emotional when it’s family that you’re in dispute with.”
Or the studio that you’re in dispute with: Variety reported in September that Hood was “nearly fired because of squabbles with the studio” and that “two backup directors were in place.” Then came the much-recounted arrival of director Richard Donner (1978’s “Superman,” the “Lethal Weapon” movies), husband of “Wolverine” producer Lauren Shuler Donner, onto the Sydney, Australia, set.
Because Hood had never directed a big action movie, the blogosphere was abuzz over whether he was being replaced, as Donner himself had been on 1980s “Superman II.” The studio and the filmmakers have since said Donner - later credited as an executive producer - was simply lending a hand. And Hood, indeed, remained on the reins all the way through postproduction reshoots in Vancouver earlier this year.
Between all that and the movie’s widely written about pirating onto the Internet for a day or two on March 31, “Wolverine” has suffered almost as much angst as Wolverine.
But ultimately, none of that matters if what’s on-screen clicks - or perhaps “snickt!s” - to use the signature sound effect of Wolverine’s emerging blades.
TEAM X MARKS THE SPOTS IN THE MOVIE
Aside from Wolverine, Team X includes:
Sabretooth/Victor Creed (Liev Schreiber) - Wolverine’s feral, murderous half-brother
Agent Zero/David North (Daniel Henney) - Tracker and marksman with ability to absorb energy
Deadpool/Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) - Wisecracking mercenary with healing factor
John Wraith (Will.i.am) - Teleporter also known as Kestrel in the comics
Bradley (Dominic Monaghan) - Manipulates electricity; also known as Bolt in the comics
The Blob/Fred J. Dukes (Kevin Durand) - A 700-pound immovable object
OTHERS IN THE FILM
Emma Frost (Tahyna Tozzi) - Telepath who can make her skin diamond-hard
Cyclops/Scott Summers (Tim Pocock) - Younger version of the future X-Men leader capable of optic blasts
Gambit/Remy LeBeau (Taylor Kitsch) - Cajun with power to charge objects with explosion energy
Weapon XI (Scott Adkins) - Like Sylar of TV’s “Heroes,” absorbs other mutants’ powers
THE ARTIST WHO CREATED WOLVERINE
He may be best known as the Silver Age artist who helped Spider-Man swing to new heights after co-creator Steve Ditko left, but John Romita Sr. is himself co-creator of Wolverine, the Punisher and a raft of other Marvel Comics characters.
In 1974, “Incredible Hulk” writer Len Wein approached Marvel art director Romita with “a new character called Wolverine. That was all I would usually get from Stan (Lee) or other editors - they would just give me a name.” Romita, 79, laughs as he admits, “At the time, I thought a wolverine was a female wolf!”
The office encyclopedia, however, described “a small, ferocious creature with catlike features and claws. So I go to my drawing table and start drawing sketches” incorporating those traits. “Because I wrote ‘small’ on my notes, I suggested on the original sketch to make him 5-4, 5-5. I said, ‘He’s ferocious, and he’s little,’ so you make him an angry little guy.”
Romita’s uncertain, but he thinks he also devised the claws’ retractability. “When I make a design, I want it to be practical and functional. I thought, ‘If a man has claws like that, how does he scratch his nose or tie his shoelaces?’”
Wolverine debuted in the final panel of “Incredible Hulk” No. 180, drawn by regular series artist Herb Trimpe. Later, in various X-Men comics and solo series, he became one of Marvel’s top characters.
“When I saw the first X-Men movie, I’m sitting with (my wife) Virginia in the theater,” Romita recalls. “The first time he retracts his claws, I nearly jumped out of my chair. I got the biggest rush when I realized something I created was being used on-screen.”