X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

2009 #23
Gavin Hood | 107 mins | cinema | 12A / PG-13

X-Men is a Great Big Action Movie Franchise — you know, the kind that sprawl on through increasingly lengthy films with the constant risk of diminishing quality. Well, at a relatively brisk 107 minutes, this fourth entry in the X-series is actually the second longest. Shocking I know. But while it counterintuitively conforms to the first rule, it fortunately doesn’t to the second, despite what others may say.

Wolverine, to put it simply — much as the film would — entertains. In this respect it may lack the depth of X-Men or X2, both of which played with subtexts of social exclusion and derision evoking especially the historical treatment of Jews and homosexuals; but, taken as a straightforward action-adventure movie about people with extraordinary abilities fighting each other, it more than satisfies. To this end the action sequences are mostly very good. Only one suffers notably from dark cinematography and choppy editing, both common faults these days, while others manage to exhibit the odd bout of originality — the climax atop a nuclear power station is brilliant, making good use of the characters’ superpowers while also delivering on the ol’ punching-and-kicking front. Some have criticised the action for being physically ludicrous, but perhaps they should be reminded that they’re watching a film about people with superpowers. With that in mind, Wolverine never goes beyond what’s plausible for the world that’s been created across all four films.

In fact, lack of subtext aside, this isn’t as distant from the other X-Men films as the single-character focus and prequel status may suggest. It’s mutant-packed, with numerous cameos from characters familiar to comics fans; it begins with the activities of a superhero team, ends with the rescue of a bunch of mutant kids, and the main plot revolves around some humans doing Bad Things to mutants — just like the first three. The most obvious difference is that Wolverine is now very much the central character, but even that isn’t a great change: he was in the first two, however much they tried to convince us otherwise, only neutered in the third because they knew this prequel was on the way. (For me, the abandonment of Wolverine’s backstory was The Last Stand’s biggest fault, the primary thing that made it feel truly separate from the first two films where it was the central — and unresolved — subplot.)

Elsewhere, the vaguely Watchmen-like opening titles are quite neat, conveying backstory and building up the Wolverine/Sabretooth relationship in an attractive fashion, while also slightly distancing this film from the rest of the series by being in a very different style. While the dialogue is rarely more than efficient, there is the odd good one-liner, my particular favourite being when a grossly overweight character mishears Wolverine’s trademark “bub” as “Blob”, a neat use of one familiar element to create another. Even with these moments, almost all the actors are above the script, especially Ryan Reynolds considering how briefly he appears. All do good work nonetheless, the standouts including Dominic Monaghan, whose character is so different from the violence-centric rest that you wish there was more of him, and Liev Schreiber, who is absolutely fine at what he has to do but would benefit from a few more dramatic scenes to get stuck into. Some of his scenes with Wolverine feel very much like a pair of good actors attempting to transcend the material they’re working from.

Around these weaker parts, Hugh Jackman unquestionably carries the film, and is occasionally granted more to do than just fight people. He even gets to attempt something we’ve not seen from Wolverine before: happiness. Even knowing where it’s all going to end — and there is sometimes a sense that we’re just being told a story we’ve either heard before or worked out for ourselves — there are bits like this that help flesh it out, that show us elements of Logan we might not have bothered to consider otherwise. There’s still the odd instance of box-ticking though, as the few pieces we know from the trilogy are strung together by this film’s plot. They’re not too awkwardly slotted in, but there is an awareness that someone was joining up dots.

While this can be ignored, the same can’t always be said for Wolverine’s noticeably silly hairstyle — one particularly bouffanty moment during the climax even provoked laughter from the audience I saw it with. Intriguingly, Jackman is the second of three Aussies with bloody silly hair this summer, following Russell Crowe’s L’Oréal locks in State of Play and preceding Eric Bana’s Picard pate in Star Trek. I’m sure there must be some deeper meaning to these bad barnets…

Unfortunately, a dodgy ’do isn’t the worst of Wolverine’s problems. There’s some very poor CGI, as if the effects guys thought claws were easy so didn’t worry about them too much. Clearly, this isn’t so. The much-criticised de-aging of another recognisable character is also weak, but, for my money, no weaker than what we saw in The Last Stand. Gambit is miscast and underused, and I’m told Deadpool is the latter also. Not being familiar with the character I had no real problem with his treatment here, but perhaps this is why fanboys dislike the film and some others won’t mind it: if you know what these two characters can be or are meant to be, their sidelining might feel like a betrayal; but if you don’t know them, there’s little wrong with them.

The biggest sin for others is that, at times, Wolverine merrily rolls out clichés. One might argue that it’s set in the ’70s and conforming to some kind of ’70s movie schtick, but that would be a pretty thin argument considering it’s not in evidence anywhere else. Personally, I was amused how some of these lines or moments are sped past, as if everyone involved knew they were shooting a bad cliché but felt they had to leave it in.

This year is surprisingly light on superhero movies, with only Watchmen and now Wolverine to satiate that particular fanbase. Of course, last year was exceptionally packed with them, and as the build to Marvel’s massive Avengers team-up kicks off next summer we’ve got a heavy few years ahead. A bit of a break is nice then, and while Watchmen dealt with the more intellectual front of superheroes (or, if you disliked it, tried to), Wolverine caters to the other side with its unashamed action-adventure entertainment. In fact, by being Actually Quite Good when almost everyone is laying into it, Wolverine manages to become the most underrated film of the year so far.

4 out of 5

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