X-Men Origins: Wolverine,
directed by Gavin Hood
(20th Century Fox, 2009)

In spite of the massive successes both Marvel and DC have enjoyed at the box office in the past few decades with their respective, highly successful franchises, it's not as easy as it appears to create a compelling comic-book movie.

The formula sounds simple enough: take the material seriously and have fun along the way while packing the film tightly with superstars in supporting roles (e.g., Marlon Brando as Jor-El, Anthony Hopkins as Odin, etc.). The method has paid out for Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and the X-Men. But it's the "taking the material seriously while having fun" part that is actually a rather delicate goal to achieve. The scale can easily tip to the wrong side.

Both of the Hulk movies tanked under the weight of taking themselves too seriously, while the first Batman, Superman and eventually Spider-Man franchises were a study in how injecting too much cheese can kill the taste altogether.

Add to this the fact that only a few hundred thousand comic book fans are truly familiar with the heroes in question. When that character has, like Logan/Wolverine, a complex backstory that makes other heroes' origins look as simple as a Bazooka Joe comic, not to mention an outright cultish fanbase ... well, then, making a decent movie that fans of the comic will respect while capturing the attention of the average, non-comic-book-collecting moviegoer who just wants a good time is a bit less like calculus, a bit more like astrophysics.

In terms of popularity, Wolverine is right up there with Batman and Superman. In fact, he was voted No. 1 fan favorite in a Wizard Comic poll, beating out the two most famous superheroes known to comicdom. He is the only hero I know of who is as emotionally complicated as Batman -- maybe even more so, given his age; the world and its villains had been screwing with Logan's mind and heart for decades while Bruce Wayne was still in the beginning stages of the post-traumatic stress disorder that would haunt him for life.

Batman and Superman are studies in Shakespearean tragedy, whereas Wolverine's violent, romantic life spans so many complexities and has created so much inner turmoil over so many years (he's been around since before the Civil War) that his story is more like an epic cycle that could have started with Aeschylus and ended with Homer, for all the ground it covers.

Wolverine is also one of the few heroes whose origin was shrouded in mystery literally for decades before Marvel decided to tell his story from the beginning. That mystery kept fans intrigued for a very long time. Even today there is a strong element of fascination because there's still so much more story yet to tell.

It stands to reason that Logan's background has to be told with a certain amount of finesse. It's simply not possible to elaborate on all the pieces of his life, so dramatic contrivances -- of the sort comic fans tend to loathe -- are an absolute necessity. Any movie that's faithful to his true origin, in fact, has to not only take the material seriously while having fun, it has to add something to the man that he is, and it has to do so in spite of the necessary reliance on certain conventions.

In short, the less forced it looks, the better. That's a tall order, one that director Gavin Hood, for the most part, gets right.

Hugh Jackman, who played Wolverine in the first three installments of the X-Men franchise, reprises his role as the complicated hero with the animal-like powers. The story in essence is about his tumultuous relationship with his brother, Victor Creed/Sabretooth (Liev Schreiber), and the top-secret, black-ops government missions he was forced to undertake when his brother's bad behavior cost them their commissions in the army during the Vietnam conflict. After living the life of a soldier for longer than his soul can handle, Logan breaks away and retires to a simpler life with his girlfriend, Kayla Silverfox.

When she is allegedly killed by Sabretooth, Logan goes on a hunt for revenge. He agrees to become a subject for the highly classified Weapon X program, run by the shady Col. Stryker, a process that is responsible for his adamantium-laced skeleton. From there it's a very wild ride as he runs up against mutant enemies while searching for the truth in what appears to be a double-double cross.

The special effects are decent, about what you'd expect from a big-budget hero flick. The performances are fairly good. Jackman is very comfortable in his role as Wolverine and it's easy to see he quite loves it enough to respect it as a real role, not just as a paycheck. He nails it as well as Christian Bale does Batman. Jackman's intensity and sincerity are about half of what makes the movie watchable, the other half being the mostly solid performances from the supporting characters, with Schreiber doing a pretty good turn as the more menacing of the two brothers. Ryan Reynolds appears as Deadpool, a set-up for his own origin movie to follow. There are loads of references to characters that will later populate the Marvelverse, including a teenaged Emma Frost and a young Scott Summers, and at least three minutes of Gambit, the Cajun who can blow things up with his hands.

The movie delivers what it promises: a solid, watchable hero flick, though it does seem at times that Hood is perhaps more at home in independent film territory than here. There are a lot of inconsistencies in the plot, and the script seems to rely more on kung-fu/gladiator-style action sequences where lots of stuff explodes and loads of butt gets kicked, than it does on character development. Still, he comes through with what amounts to a purely popcorn-ish, totally fun ride that is better enjoyed with your brain switched off.

review by
Mary Harvey

5 November 2011

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