Film

'X-men-Origins: Wolverine' Can't Tell Which Story to Tell

Conflicting viewpoints and intentions and external issues beyond anyone's control culminate in a film that is an unfocused, inconsistent mess.

The year 2008 was a banner one for comic book films. By 2008 such films evolved, matured and reached new levels of success. Trends tend to emerge and change slowly in Hollywood, especially in blockbusters that take two or more years to make. And so, following the success of 2008, the genre entered a transitional period. In sharp contrast to the nine comic book/superhero films released in 2008, there were only two released in 2009.

The first was Watchmen (Snyder), an adaptation of the brilliant, hugely influential graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Watchmen was first published in 1986 and it sent shockwaves through the comics industry with its dark, violent deconstruction of superhero mythology and creative uses of comic book visuals. Adapting this graphic novel to film was an ambitious idea, to say the least. Much of the book's visual inventiveness comes from playing with conventions of the comic book medium, so that is automatically lost in the shift to the cinematic medium.

On the narrative side, Watchmen deconstructed 50 years of comic book tropes, and film audiences were not necessarily familiar enough with these tropes to connect with the material in the film. Arguably, something as subversive as Watchmen may be more effective now, in a marketplace that has become overrun with comic book films, than it was nine years ago. Given these inherent problems, the film adaptation was much better than anyone could have expected. Though not perfect, it was pretty well done. And I say this as someone who considers Watchmen to be one of my favourite books.

The only other comic book film in 2009 was X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Hood), a far less ambitious film that is as clunky as its title. 20th Century Fox viewed X-Men: The Last Stand(Ratner, 2006) as the end of the X-Men trilogy, and decided to shift gears into spin-offs starring individual characters rather than continue with team films. The first characters chosen for individual films were Wolverine (a no-brainer, as the most popular X-Men character and star of the X-Men films) and Magneto (whose complex, sympathetic backstory made him such a compelling villain). Work on a script for a Wolverine-focused film began as early as 2004, and it was slated to be the first X-Men spin-off.

Logan/Wolverine first appeared on the last page of The Incredible Hulk #180 (Oct. 1974), before his full introduction in The Incredible Hulk #181 (Nov. 1974). Both issues were written by Len Wein and drawn by Herb Trimpe, but the initial idea for Wolverine came from Roy Thomas, and John Romita designed him. He was first conceived as a fierce, short Canadian special agent in a yellow and blue costume, three razor-sharp claws protruding from the back of each hand, and super-fast healing. He did not make an enormous impact in these first appearances, but Wein included him in the classic Giant-Size X-Men #1 (May 1975), drawn by Dave Cockrum. This was the first issue to reimagine the X-men as a more diverse, international team of mutants. The issue introduced characters that were Russian, Kenyan, German, Japanese, and Native American, as well as Canada's most famous mutant. The new X-Men team was a sensation. Chris Claremont took over writing the ongoing Uncanny X-Men series, which became one of the industry's most popular comic books by the start of the '80s.

Wolverine soon became the most popular character in the series. Fans appreciated his gruff, angry, violent demeanour and his rebellious streak. He was the cool character on the team. Fans were also fascinated by Wolverine's past, which was shrouded in mystery. His healing factor made his age indeterminate, and he had lost his memories of how he acquired the adamantium metal that coated his bones and claws. In 1982, Claremont collaborated with superstar artist Frank Miller for a four-issue Wolverine mini-series set in Japan. Claremont and Miller added depth to the character, giving him the complex moral code of a samurai. This series, more than anything prior, gave Wolverine enough nuance to be a fully-fledged character beyond his berserker rage and anti-authority tendencies. Towards the end of the '80s, when dozens of dark, angry, violent characters following the Wolverine template were introduced and popularized, none could match Wolverine's depth. In 1988, as these types of characters became the norm in comics, Claremont launched an ongoing Wolverine series that would continue essentially uninterrupted from then on.

As time passed, the most popular Wolverine stories were the ones that offered some clue to the character's past. In 1991, Marvel Comics Presents featured a story focused on Weapon X, the program that brainwashed Wolverine and grafted the adamantium onto his skeleton. In a 1993 story, Magneto ripped the adamantium from Wolverine's bones, and it was revealed that his claws were natural bone underneath. In 2001, the six-issue Origins mini-series filled in some backstory for Wolverine, explaining that he was born James Howlett on a Canadian plantation in the 19th-century. An ongoing series filling in the rest of his history began publishing in 2006. These snippets of the character's past were so popular that is is no surprise that they provided much of the basis for X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

By the '00s, Wolverine was one of the most popular Marvel characters. He was the central character of the supposedly team-focused X-Men films from 2000 to 2006. In the comics, he joined the Avengers in addition to the X-Men teams. Wolverine became so ubiquitous that in January 2009 (cover-dated March 2009), the character appeared in 24 comic books. A few months later, his first solo film was released. Given his long-standing popularity in comics and on film, X-Men Origins: Wolverine was poised to be a sensation.

(20th Century Fox / poster)


But it was not a sensation. In fact, this film is a proper mess. No one ever sets out to make a bad film, but fans tend to forget that. Sometimes, as with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, conflicting viewpoints and intentions, as well as external issues beyond anyone's control, can culminate in a film that's unfocused and inconsistent. As is often the case with these types of failures, there were conflicts behind the scenes regarding the vision for the film. The original screenwriter, David Benioff, wrote an R-rated script that he described as a dark, brutal character piece in 2004. In 2007, South African filmmaker Gavin Hood was hired to direct the film, fresh off of his Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award win for Tsotsi (Hood, 2005). Hood wanted the film to explore post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in people with violent pasts, as well as the internal conflict between Wolverine's violent animalistic nature and noble human nature. On a seemingly unrelated note, Ryan Reynolds had been attempting to develop a film based on the character Deadpool since 2004, when David Goyer introduced him to the character on the set of Blade: Trinity (Goyer, 2004).

But all of these plans met with opposition from the 20th Century Fox producers. These executives rejected the PTSD and internal conflict angles, feeling that audiences would not be interested in such themes. They also worried about the mainstream appeal of the film, wanting to shift it to lighter, more mainstream superhero territory. This, of course, included a rewrite to secure a PG-13 rating. It's impossible to say which version of the film would have been better, because X-Men Origins: Wolverine ended up being an awkward amalgamation of every idea, with no clear plot or theme. Every ten minutes, the film seems to rush to an entirely new scenario with new characters, then discards them before audiences have a chance to become invested. The producers also wedged in fan-favourite X-Men character Gambit, who is an underused afterthought in the film. Worst of all, the decision was made to include a version Deadpool, played by Reynolds, but altered the character drastically from his comic book counterpart, and in so doing ruined over four years of development on the character's own film.

These fundamental problems are enough to put any film in jeopardy, but further production issues compounded them. In October 2007, Fox announced that X-Men Origins: Wolverine would be released on 1 May 2009. This is relevant because, hell or high water, the studio seemed intent on making that release date. On 5 November 2007, the Writers Guild of America went on strike, halting last-minute rewrites of the script. With a release date to meet, the production continued with an unfinished script, and filming began in January 2008. Besides rewrites flowing in all throughout production, scheduling conflicts arose with star Hugh Jackman and Ryan Reynolds, requiring the filmmakers to shoot around their characters or use body doubles when they were not available. Problems such as these could be dealt with by delaying production to, say, finish the script or ensure the availability of two of the film's stars. But the studio did not want to miss its release date, and production did not cease.

The studio, Fox, is personified in this case by Thomas Rothman, the CEO and Chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment from 2000-2012. Many of my previous articles on Fox-made Marvel films, notably Daredevil (Johnson, 2003) and X-Men: The Last Stand (Ratner, 2006), have made mention of Fox's reputation for meddling in its big blockbuster films, and there are many websites devoted to tearing down Rothman for "ruining the X-Men films". What such articles fail to acknowledge is that Rothman oversaw some great films too, and he would never intentionally ruin his studio's biggest films. That being said, he and Hood reportedly had serious clashes over the course of production. Hood blamed Rothman for the clunky title, refusing to delay production, and dismissing attempts to add greater thematic depth. There are rumours that Rothman even ordered some of the sets to be repainted in brighter colours while Hood was away. At a certain point, executive producer Richard Donner was flown to Australia to mediate between Hood and Rothman.

Hugh Jackman as Logan/Wolverine; Liev Schreiber as Victor (IMDB)

Given all of this to contend with behind the scenes, it should come as no surprise that X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a mess. The film feels rushed, introducing then discarding characters and scenarios at a relentless pace. Any ten-minute segment could have been fleshed out into a feature film as if each of the competing visions for the film were given a chunk of screen time as a compromise. It comes across as a weightless blur. By the climax, audiences have been treated to over a dozen characters that are quickly introduced and discarded without making much of an impact. Then the film clumsily attempts to tie everything together in a nonsensical final portion. Overall, there's no overarching thematic unity to give the film a point. Further, the tone of the film is inconsistent. The first half is deathly serious, contrasting with the silly, jokey tone of the second half. Beyond that, the editing and effects are garish, sapping energy from the actions scenes. And finally, the film shoehorns in characters like Gambit, Deadpool, Cyclops and Professor X, who further pull focus away from disparate plot threads or themes.

But again, this should be no surprise. How can you keep narrative, tone or themes consistent when the screenwriters, director, and producers cannot agree on a vision for the film? Or when there's a writer's strike that prevents last-minute work on the script that was desperately needed? Or when the studio refuses to alleviate these issues with any production delays? Let this be a cautionary tale.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine opens in 1845 in the Northwest Territories (present day northern Canada). Young, sickly James Howlett (Troye Sivan) is tended to by his father, John (Peter O'Brien), while his friend Victor (Michael James Olsen) watches. Thomas Logan, Victor's father, drunkenly kills John and James goes into a rage. Bone claws emerge from the back of James' hands and he fatally impales Thomas. It is then that James learns that Thomas was his biological father, making him and Victor half-brothers. The two boys run out into the night, promising to watch out for each other.

The film then begins the truly excellent opening credits, which trace James (Hugh Jackman), now calling himself Logan, and Victor (Liev Schreiber) as they fight in wars for over a century. They are both brutal and animalistic (Victor's fingernails are sharp and can slightly extend), and they both have healing properties that make them nearly impossible to kill and slows their aging. Short vignettes depict them fighting side-by-side in the American Civil War, the First World War, the Second World War, and finally the Vietnam War. As time wears on, the violence seems to wear on Logan while Victor becomes increasingly bloodthirsty. It is worth noting that this is the first fully period Marvel film, a trend that would continue in X-Men: First Class (Vaughn, 2011), Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011), and others. But after these opening sequences, there is very little in the film to indicate it is taking place in the '70s. This seems like a wasted opportunity. This first eight minutes would have made a fascinating film on its own, with the family drama and the evolution of warfare, but this film stops for no plot.

In the next segment, Logan and Victor are recruited from Vietnam by Major Stryker (Danny Huston) to join a team of covert mutant operatives. The film then cuts to a plane filled with Stryker's team, on their way to a mission. It's impossible to tell whether this is the first or the 101st mission for the team. The film seems to only have time for superficial introductions and a poorly constructed action scene before moving on. The team consists of smartass Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds, as an unscarred proto-Deadpool), Wraith (will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas), Dukes (Kevin Durand), Agent Zero (Daniel Henney), and Bradley (Dominic Monaghan). They raid a smuggler's hideout in search of a rare metal. The action is pretty over-the-top and choppily edited. Every character is given the opportunity to show off their mutant ability except for Logan and Victor since audiences already know what they can do. The segment is a series of showcase moments for each new character before they disappear for most of the film. Thus, the segment pulls focus from the main characters of the film, Logan and Victor, to make time for a parade of forgettable characters.

The team is directed to an African village, where Stryker threatens innocent villagers for information about the metal. This makes Logan uncomfortable, and he decides to quit. None of the characters, or Logan's connection to them, are well-established enough for this decision to have any real impact. Maybe it would if the film had spent more time with the team, but it is time to move on from this segment.

The film jumps six years to Logan working as a lumberjack in Canada. He has settled down with a nice woman, Kayla (Lynn Collins, doing her best with an underwritten role), but he's still haunted by the violence of his past. This is the part of the film that most closely resembles Hood's intentions. Logan experiences post-traumatic stress, but Kayla is able to calm him. Unfortunately, Logan's old life catches up with him. Stryker's team disbanded at some point, but now Victor has killed Bradley. Stryker tries to warn Logan, but soon Victor arrives and kills Kayla. Logan becomes enraged and tracks down Victor, who claims that he killed her in a misguided attempt to bring Logan back into the violent fold.

There are interesting, character-driven ideas at play in this segment, but the film doesn't down enough to explore them. This could have been an entire film, and it should have been at least a full act, but there is no time for depth. Kayla makes too little impact for her death to matter. And Victor's heel-turn doesn't come across as genuine. Schreiber is an imposing foil for Jackman, but his role is not fully developed. Not enough is made of how they have been together for over a century but grown apart in worldview. Not enough is made of the devastation of their separating after so much time together. The film has no time for these ideas because it has to move on. Schreiber is game but wasted. Logan fails to defeat Victor, and the next segment begins.

(IMDB)

Logan returns to Stryker, submitting to an experimental procedure that will graft adamantium metal onto his skeleton to better kill Victor. Logan's fast healing, it is hoped, will allow him to survive the grafting. In the cheesy dialogue before the procedure, Stryker tells him to "unleash the animal" and Logan asks for new dog tags bearing the name Wolverine (inspired by a myth told to him by Kayla). Logan survives the procedure, but immediately catches wind of Stryker having ulterior motives, and he escapes the facility. This sequence should have been the centrepiece of the film. It seemed in the first half that everything was driving toward Logan finally popping his signature metal claws and that perhaps the film would slow down once it reached that sequence. But this is rushed as quickly as everything before it. The fast-pace doesn't give the film any sense of momentum or energy, mind you. Every jump to a new segment just compounds the sense of missed opportunities and dramatic weightlessness.

After the procedure, and 45-minutes of utter humourlessness, the film starts to lighten up a bit. There are some goofy moments which are a nice break from the brooding, but are tonally inconsistent with what came before. Logan runs naked into an old couple's barn, and they take him in. There are jokes about his nudity, about him "recently gaining some weight", and about Logan's awkwardness with his newly metal claws, but it all creates a tonal dissonance with the earlier scenes. And the claws are handled dreadfully. He has had bone claws for most of his life, so he should not be awkward with them just because they are metal. Also, the visual effects team seems to have been given the direction to make the claws look particularly new and shiny, since the metal was just grafted, but they look like cartoon claws from the world of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Zemeckis, 1988).

Considering that filmmakers successfully visualized the claws nine years earlier in X-Men (Singer, 2000), there's no reason for them to look so terrible -- so unfinished -- in this film. The old couple is immediately killed by Stryker's men, as this segment is clearly taking too much time for such a rushed film. Logan takes down the humvees and helicopters sent after him in a garbled action sequence meant to demonstrate his increased effectiveness since the adamantium procedure. The scene is all quick cuts and bad green screen, but no energy. Hood reportedly also clashed with his second unit director, Peter MacDonald, who he claimed shot the film with an '80s action film aesthetic, which Hood disliked.

In the next segment, Logan goes on the hunt for Victor and Stryker and learns that they are working together. They are kidnapping mutants and experimenting on them for the government on an island from which only one man has escaped: Remy LeBeau/Gambit (Taylor Kitsch). Gambit is a fan-favourite X-Men character, clearly included as fan-service and to potentially lead a spin-off film. But his role in the comics is typically the rascally, rebellious cool guy, the same role often occupied by Wolverine. So putting them in a film together doesn't make for an interesting contrast. As superheroes do, Logan and Gambit misunderstand each other at first and get into a fight. First, Gambit incorrectly assumes that Logan is working with Victor. So, he attacks Logan a few minutes later while Logan is fighting Victor in a back alley, allowing Victor to escape. Did Gambit not see them fighting? Why not help Logan at that point?

Also, Gambit's power is the ability to charge objects with kinetic energy, making them explosive. Further, he's acrobatic and makes objects he has charged defy the laws of physics around him. On film, this looks silly. Gambit is a character that works well in the comics, but falls apart when he is adapted in live-action. In that same vein, there's a moment in the fight when Gambit is on a fire escape which has broken loose from a building, and Logan slashes away at it with his claws from below to bring Gambit down. The idea sounds cool but, like Gambit's powers, but actions in films need to operate according to some physical rules, or they look absolutely ridiculous.

When the fight ends, X-Men Origins: Wolverine enters its final segment, where it attempts to pull together many of the disparate threads and characters from throughout the film into something resembling a satisfying conclusion. To do so requires ludicrous plot twists and character turns that make no sense. It feels like the filmmakers hoped that all of the incident, action and surprise cameos would be distracting enough that audiences would not consider the illogic.

Gambit takes Logan to the Three-Mile Island nuclear facility, where Stryker is operating, and then disappears until the very end, wasting the character. Stryker perfects his ultimate goal: Wade Wilson is transformed into a mutant weapon capable of using powers somehow taken from the kidnapped mutants. Kayla is alive, and a mutant, and working for Stryker, and faked her death, and feels really sorry. This, like everything else, makes no sense, since I am sure that Logan's military background and heightened senses would have allowed him to tell the difference between real wounds and a bunch of fake blood. Victor is also around, bickering with Stryker. There's such much stuffed into this segment, desperately trying to make everything come together.

Logan walks away, deciding not to be drawn back into violence by Stryker's scheming. But, when Victor attacks Kayla, Logan is immediately drawn back into violence by Stryker's scheming. There's a shot of Logan outside, reacting to hearing Kayla scream. Then, in the next shot, Logan is back in Stryker's lab, jacket off, claws out, ready to fight. Logan helps Kayla free Stryker's captured mutants, who are guided off the island telepathically by a young Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), in a surprise appearance that adds to the overstuffed feeling of the finalé.

Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool


Logan has to face Wade/Deadpool as his final battle. Not his brother, with whom he has complex history, not Stryker, the main villain, but Deadpool, the character who appeared for five minutes over an hour earlier in the film and shared almost no dialogue with Logan. Why? Because he looks cool, because fans like him, because the film is not interested in anything close to thematic or narrative unity. Deadpool has been given fast healing powers, a metal skeleton, energy blasts out of his eyes (courtesy of a young Cyclops (Tim Pocock)) and, most idiotically, his mouth has been sealed shut. If you have seen Deadpool (Miller, 2016) or its sequel, you are aware that Deadpool's defining characteristic is his non-stop talking. You are also aware that he does not possess a metal skeleton, or optic blasts, or swords that come out of his hands. The character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine is not Deadpool.

This is arguably the most inaccurate depiction of a comic book character ever on film. After over four years of development, Ryan Reynolds' passion project was shoehorned into this film, where it was distorted and ruined. That Reynolds persevered for another seven years and was given the opportunity to do the character justice is miraculous, and his recent success is well-earned. After the showdown, Stryker shoots Logan in the head with an adamantium bullet, destroying his memories.

All of the competing visions and interests in this movie made a real mess of things. There's no central plot, no unifying theme. The film just rushes from incident to incident, with no pauses for depth or character development. Every ten-minute stretch feels like a different film, but all the segments were squeezed incoherently into one film. Maybe if Fox had been willing to delay the release by a few months to allow the filmmakers to overcome production problems, X-Men Origins: Wolverine may have been smoothed out into a clear vision. But it's hard to believe that any amount of time could have crafted the raw material here into a cohesive whole.

The film sent shockwaves through Fox's Marvel films for years. It had a large opening weekend, but dropped precipitously as bad word-of-mouth spread. The studio tried to blame this on a leaked workprint of the film, which appeared online a month before it opened, but I doubt that had a huge impact. The film ultimately sold fewer tickets than any of the previous X-Men films. The next X-Men film, focusing on Magneto, was retooled into a broader, team-oriented film that would become X-Men: First Class (Vaughn, 2011). Jackman expressed regret, and he promised to produce a more character-driven follow-up.

He soon teamed with director James Mangold on the vastly superior sequels, The Wolverine (Mangold, 2013) and Logan (Mangold, 2017). X-Men: Days of Future Past (Singer, 2014) ostensibly aimed to remove the poorly received X-Men: The Last Stand (Ratner, 2006) from the X-Men film continuity, but it also erased X-Men Origins: Wolverine almost as a bonus. And finally, Deadpool (Miller, 2016) and Deadpool 2 (Leitch, 2018) never missed an opportunity to mock the character's portrayal in this film, even inserting the new Deadpool into old footage of X-Men Origins: Wolverine in the closing credits of the latter film. That is six films to date that, directly or indirectly, attempted to make up for this film.

In a broader sense, reactions to X-Men Origins: Wolverine demonstrate a point that I have been making in my last several articles. Prior to 2008, it was typical to release comic book films that were not particularly faithful to the source material, that valued spectacle over substance, that sacrificed mature themes for a perceived mainstream appeal. But after the glut of well-made comic book films in 2008, audiences had come to expect more sophistication and fidelity to source material in this genre. X-Men Origins: Wolverine was the canary in the coal mine that signalled to studios to improve their approach. Thankfully, the studios seemed to take notice. As we entered a new decade, not only would comic book films generally increase in quality, but Marvel films would reach unprecedented levels of success and domination in Hollywood.


***

Stan Lee Cameo Corner: Stan was meant to cameo, but was unable to fly to Australia to film it. That is 11 cameos in 20 films.

Credits Scene(s): With this film, credits scenes had clearly become the norm for big blockbusters. This is the first Marvel Film to feature both a mid-credits scene AND a post-credits scene.

  • The mid-credits scene sees Stryker stopped by military personnel who bring him in for questioning.
  • The main post-credits scene features Deadpool's decapitated head in the Three-Mile Island rubble opening its eyes and shushing the audience, perhaps setting up an intended spin-off film.
  • There was an alternate post-credits scene, shown in some places, depicting Logan drinking in a Japanese bar. This was clearly meant to excite fans at the possibility of a Japan-set sequel. The sequel was set in Japan, but had no connection to this tag, which may explain why it is not attached to home releases of the film.

First Appearances:

  • Scott Adkins plays Deadpool for most of the shots that are not close-ups due to Ryan Reynolds' limited availability. He would later play a henchman in Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016)
  • Liev Schreiber would go on to voice the Kingpin in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Persichetti, Ramsey, Rothman, 2018)

Next Time: The Marvel Cinematic Universe stumbles over its world-building in its first sequel, Iron Man 2.

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