[20 September 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
What, exactly, were people expecting from X-Men Origins: Wolverine? After the incessant bellyaching that followed the announcement of Brett Ratner as director of X-Men: The Last Stand, (and the resulting, subpar film) Fox went out and hired Oscar winning director Gavin Hood (responsible for Best Foreign Language Film Tsotsi) and offered up a cast of considerable talent including returning action man Hugh Jackman, as well as Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, and Ryan Reynolds. They mined the comic for favorite characters (Gambit, Deadpool) and reset the franchise to follow the adventures of James Howlett/Logan during his years in pre-Dr. Xavier exile.
And still the fanboys kvetched. They complained and argued over faithfulness to the source material, use of computer generated F/X, and a scattershot focus that weighed heavily on the psychological and not on the spectacle. And this is a year which saw Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra get by on substantially…SUBSTANTIALLY…less. So it’s interesting to hear Hood’s commentary track as part of the newly released, Blu-ray edition of the film. For him, X-Men Origins: Wolverine was a story of siblings. It was a look at how being different, exiled, and unwanted creates unusual bonds of brotherhood, and the mounting mental quandaries of having to live outside the norm. As a South African native, he could relate to the basic mutants vs. humans segregation and wanted to concentrate on the personal as well as the pyrotechnics. He did indeed deliver the big stuff. But for him, it was the small details that mattered.
Sequences like the opening, when a young Logan learns of his parentage, his biological link to the sinister Victor Creed (soon to be Sabertooth), and his own deadly physical mutation. Gifted with seeming immortality, the two half-brothers participate in major world events, like the Civil War and Vietnam. It is there that Victor’s anger gets the best of him, and when he attacks a superior officer, the two men are condemned to death. When the firing squad can’t kill them, a shady military man named Major William Stryker recruits them as part of a secret mercenary group. Their goal? Seek out and secure as much of the interstellar metal Adamantium as possible. When Logan balks at their brutal ways, he quits. This sets up the first of many conflicts between our hero and his sibling as well as with the Major and his prized recruit.
To delve into the narrative more would give away several of X-Men Origins: Wolverine‘s best moments. Suffice it to say, our lead learns of his physiological abilities, gets an impenetrable metal skeleton, and comes face to face with a horrific scientific creation bent on destroying the mutants one by one. For Hood, all of this is required of the wannabe blockbuster, built into a script by David Benioff and Skip Woods. But he is far more interested in the personality beats between Logan and Victor, about how the notion of being different translates into a psyche that stands alone against the world - for good and for bad. He also tracks the growing abandonment issues within the dynamic, illustrating how almost everyone Logan loves either dies or is indirectly destroyed, while Victor’s horrific temper seems propelled by his need for another like him.
Sure, this is heady stuff, but that’s part of X-Men Origins’ charms. It’s the reason comic book fans favor a set-up storyline when beginning a series. The previous films had Wolverine suffering from intermittent flashbacks, mere glimpses into what happened to him in Stryker’s lab. Now, we get the whole picture, painting in strokes that don’t smash you over the head with their obviousness. It’s interesting how fan embraced The Dark Knight for its various complexities, its more “realistic” take on the superhero standard, and yet X-Men Origins gets condemned for basically attempting the same thing. Yes, Hood is no Christopher Nolan, and he doesn’t have iconic elements like Two-Face and The Joker to work with, and we are dealing with ideas far outside Knight‘s vigilante against crime syndicate scenario, but with properly pegged expectations, this is a very good film. It’s entertaining, exciting, and an excellent example of what can be done when visionary individuals - not journeymen - sit behind the camera.
This is clear from the content packed product Fox provides. The Blu-ray format really celebrates Hood’s compositions and framing, the 1080p/AVC encoded transfer doing a terrific job with the 2.35:1 image. The colors pop, the various locations look epic, and aside from the occasionally forced F/X shot (some greenscreen sequences are rather obvious), the movie looks amazing. It really does recreate the theatrical experience in scope and visual wonder. As for the sound situation - get ready to have your subwoofer suffer from a massive bombast overdose. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 turns every explosion into a nuclear blast, every car chase or fight sequence into an Olympian battle between formidable aural gods. Even the smaller sonic situations, like the clank of Wolverine’s metallic claws, come across in crystal clarity.
Along with the aforementioned commentary track, the Blu-ray is packed with plenty of additional production insights. There’s another alternate narrative track with the producers (good), deleted scenes with option Hood discussion (interesting), a play along trivia track with lots of X-Men goodies (fun), and a discussion of each character and the difficulty of bringing them - and their abilities - to life (insightful). We also get an extended look at Hugh Jackman’s dedication to the role as part of a “Complete Origins” featurette, an overview of the character with Stan Lee and Len Wein, and a glimpse of the world premiere. One of the best bonus features however is the Ultimate X-Mode BONUSVIEW option, which provides three separate picture-within-a-picture choices (along with the trivia track) that allow you to immerse yourself in all facets of bringing X-Men Origins: Wolverine to the big screen, including connections to the rest of the franchise, casting choices, and a look at the film’s pre-visualization.
And yet one fears that no amount of bells and whistles will convince the already angry fanboy to change his mind and embrace this movie. Hood may have been a radical choice, but he brings a level of compassion and innate understanding to the mutant situation that few other filmmakers could - and he can definitely handle the bigger, popcorn movie mandated material. Sometimes, there’s no accounting for what the devoted demand of their beloved fantasy figures. Maybe the leaked bootleg version almost a month before did do some damage. Maybe there was nothing Gavin Hood could do to satisfy some. Whatever the case, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is truly a cut above the standard Summer blockbuster - it’s just a shame too few thought so. Maybe home video will resurrect its flailing fortunes. Unlike many of the season’s shoddy adventures, this one deserves a second chance.