By Charlie Jane Anders, 12:36 PM on Fri May 1 2009
The X-Men movies have finally descended from “epic saga” to “farce,” with a Wolverine prequel that sees him struggling against the banality of banality. Spoilers ahead.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine is not the worst movie I’ve seen lately – that honor probably belongs to Bad Channels – but it is a particularly awful type of bad movie. It’s nearly joyless in its badness – unlike some Z-movies that revel in their badness,Wolverine thinks it’s a great film. And it’s all designed to set you up for action sequences, which – apart from one exception – are pretty dull.
Wolverine’s origins used to be shrouded in mystery, but now they’re drenched in obviousness. We follow Logan from his unhappy childhood, through a hundred-odd years of fighting in every war, ever, and then he gets court-martialed and executed. And that’s just the opening credits. Then he gets recruited into a special secret military mutant squad, which flies around the world kicking ass and being one-note characters. Until the thuggery gets to be too much for him, and he quits. But nobody walks away from Whatever-it’s-called Squad, and Logan’s half-brother, Victor, goes after him, apparently killing the woman he loves.
There are really two kinds of dumb movies: ones where you don’t notice the plot holes until you’re out in the parking lot afterwards, and ones where you can’t concentrate on the explosions because you’re sitting there saying “WTF” to yourself over and over. Wolverine is the second kind. I particularly love the overly twisty plot that military goon William Stryker hatches: He goes all over the world to get hold of some adamantium, a metal so strong it could only come from both outer space and Africa. Having gone to so much trouble, he decides he wants to inject this rare metal into Wolverine’s bones. But for some reason, he can’t just strap Wolverine down and do this – because the procedure is so painful, Wolverine has to volunteer. (Pause for a moment and reflect that Wolverine is not super-strong. Straps and chains actually do stop him, right?) So Stryker gets his mutant super-agent Kayla to pretend to be in love with Wolverine for a year or two, then he gets Wolverine’s half-brother Victor to pretend to kill Kayla. All this, so Wolverine will agree to lose his ability to walk through metal detectors ever again. And then, as soon as Wolverine actually gets the metal in his skeleton, Stryker has some half-assed plan to erase his memory. And when that doesn’t work out, he immediately decides to kill the guy he just spent half a billion dollars putting the world’s rarest metal into. Instead of, I dunno, talking it out. Does any of this make sense to any of you? It’s so nutty the stock army general, General Exposition, comments on how nutty it is.
There are also way, way too many scenes of Wolverine and Victor, aka Sabretooth, with their mouths open wide, growling/hissing at each other. The half-brothers have approximately twenty-seven fight scenes in the movie, and they’re all identical. Logan pounces, Sabretooth does a weird hands-on-the-floor lope, and they meet in the middle, tossing each other around and spouting homo/incest banter, until they call it a draw. “Same time tomorrow?” “Sure.”
And this is where the movie really falls apart for me. The relationship between Wolverine and Sabretooth is meant to be the central focus of the story. They realize they’re actually half-brothers, they vow to rely on each other, they go to war, they grow apart, and finally they become bitter enemies. At no time does this movie even remotely sell me on any of this. Partly, it’s because the arc I just described takes place in the first ten minutes of the film, and we barely see it. But mostly, they just snarl at each other and then have rote fight scenes. If you even remotely need to care about the people you’re watching fight, then it’s a dreadful letdown.
Having said that, there is one area in which X-Men Origins: Wolverine absolutely excels, and that’s awful dialogue. Wolverine’s nemesis Sabretooth gets to say things like “Look what the cat dragged in,” and “How about this time, you die for real,” on a regular basis. Wolverine’s love interest Kayla gets to say stuff like, “It was real for me too.”
At one point, Kayla tells Wolverine a beautiful Native American legend, about how a wolverine and the moon were in love, but a trickster fooled the wolverine into leaving the spirit realm to collect flowers for the moon. The wolverine didn’t realize he can never return to the moon afterwards, leaving the moon lonely. Later, Wolverine and Kayla revisit this fable, and Wolverine tries to hash out a new exegesis: “Maybe I’m not the wolverine. Maybe I’m the moon and you’re the trickster. No, wait. Maybe I’m the moon *and* the trickster, and you’re the wolverine. Actually, what makes the most sense is if the moon represents the military-industrial complex and the wolverine stands for Robert Gates, and the trickster is OMB director Peter Orszag. How’s that?”
And best of all, there’s the movie’s villain, William Stryker. Who gets to say stuff like, “Become the animal.” (While Kayla says, “You’re not an animal,” over and over again. I sense a techno remix in the making.) Also, Stryker gets to say, “Embrace the other side,” which sounds like a come-on, especially as he leans over a naked Wolverine saying it. Plus “We’re going to make you indestructible. But first we have to destroy you.” And then there’s my favorite: “I promise you two things. You will endure more pain than any man has ever known, and you will have your revenge. And there will be a chocolate smoothie afterwards. Oh, damn. Three things. Pain, revenge, smoothie. And you get to be bishop of Nova Scotia. Crap! I promise you four things. No, wait. Five things!”
Oh, and also amongst the multitudes of blah, repetitive fight scenes, there are a couple of real standouts. The sequence towards the beginning where Stryker’s group of mutant thugs takes out an African strongman is really fun and exciting, with each mutant getting to show off his special powers. (Except, oddly, for Wolverine and Sabretooth, who just stand around.) And the helicopter/motorcycle/truck sequence you’ve seen in every single trailer is really as much fun as it looks. For those few minutes, this becomes an A-movie, and then it slinks back to Z-movie-land.
But that only reminds me of another problem with this film: the weird, old-school CG effects. I’m not a CG animation connoisseur, and I actually prefer practical effects wherever possible, but the shoddiness of some of the CG effects really jumped out at me this time. Like that scene, which you’ve seen in the trailers, where Wolverine walks away from an explosion – in the actual movie, the explosion turns into flames, which turn into fake-looking CG cheese.
I’m not sure they sell enough drugs to make this a good movie. I’m not even touching on the sweet old couple who randomly take Wolverine in and bring him free stuff, even after he trashes their bathroom. Or Dominic Monaghan’s weird turn as a mutant who leaves the army in order to make a living as a circus freak. I’m not even going to go near the travesty that is the movie’s version of Deadpool.
The really sad thing, though, is that this film really degrades the core idea of theX-Men franchise: mutants struggling for acceptance (and debating whether to crush the humans instead.) Wolverine parades out a seemingly endless stock of mutant characters, but they’re all incredibly bland and gimmicky. Being a mutant really ought to be somewhat cool or interesting, and it would be nice to see people questioning their differences from regular humans. But instead, we get a bunch of forgettable cage fighters and single-idea characters.
All of the publicity for Wolverine has focused lately on how much the movie’s actors bulked up – with Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber one-upping each other. “I ate a whole chicken every hour on the hour!” “Well, I went to a supermarket and didn’t leave until I had eaten everything in it, including all the home cleaning products!” Etc. And in the end, their massive bodies are the most noticeable thing about the film. They both seem a bit bloated and blown up, even with Logan’s ripped muscles – I honestly thought Hugh Jackman looked sexier fifty pounds ago – and we’re encouraged to fetishize their sheer bulk. (And it’s parodied, somewhat, by the appearance of the Blob, who’s Keamy from Lost in an ever-expanding fatsuit.) That, in the end, is what mutation seems to mean in this movie – massively overinflated male bodies, slamming into each other, again and again.
It’s all a long way from the first two X-Men movies, which managed to turn the themes of the comics into something coherent and even a bit awe-inspiring. By contrast, this really just feels like an extra-long episode of Heroes, with better special effects.