There are really only two types of people in the world. There are those who saw the trailer for X-Men Origins: Wolverine and thought, “Wow! Hugh Jackman beats up a helicopter! Seriously!” And then there are those whose response was closer to, “Wow. Hugh Jackman beats up a helicopter? Seriously?”
In the end, neither group will get what they’re expecting. There’s enough good stuff in the controversial prequel to save it from debacle-osity, but despite a strong cast and several decades of fertile source material, it only occasionally manages anything better than serviceable mediocrity.
Wolverine opens with a prologue set in 1845, where we meet young James Howlett and his surly pal Victor Creed (whom we’ll soon learn is James’s half-brother). A violent tragedy drives the boys from their home and into a terrific opening credit sequence that follows the now-adult brothers through a succession of wars. James (alias Logan) tries to control and defend Victor as the older sibling becomes increasingly bloodthirsty, and they both eventually land in front of a Vietnam-era firing squad. When their shared mutant power for miraculous healing allows them to recover from their execution, the brothers come to the attention of Col. William Stryker (Danny Huston), who recruits them for a “special team” he’s putting together.
Soon the two are globe-trotting with a group of fellow maladjusted mutants, executing black-ops missions with some decidedly questionable goals. When Logan’s had enough, he flees and sets up housekeeping in Canada with a sexy schoolteacher (Lynn Collins). His violent past will soon catch up with him, setting him on the path that will lead him to become Wolverine.
Hugh Jackman once again reprises the role that made him a household name, and he’s still good at it. Liev Schreiber, who thankfully replaces Tyler Mane as Sabretooth, holds his own as a supervillain, and the supporting cast, including will.i.am as John Wraith and Ryan Reynolds as snarky Wade Wilson, is solid, if often wasted.
Director Gavin Hood, hailed for Tsotsi and widely forgiven for Rendition, has caught a lion’s share of the blame for Wolverine’s failures. Like the cast, though, he does the best he can with what he had to work with. He obviously isn’t quite sure how to shoot an action scene, but he gets plenty of help from a capable crew (and, if the rumors are true, Richard Donner).
So if we can exonerate the cast and the director, who’s to blame? See those guys over there in the corner, trying to look as if they had nothing to do with it? Those are the writers, David Benioff and Skip Woods, and they’re our culprits. Their script is a mess of tired clichés, goofy contrivances, and hastily discarded characters. Maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on them, though. If anything, they’re guilty of reckless enthusiasm as they try to squeeze as many mutants as possible into the mix, regardless of whether or not they have any business being there. Some characters emerge relatively unscathed from the fevered retconning (that’s “retroactive continuity,” to you normal people) that was necessary to get everyone in the right time and place to make an appearance, however pointless that appearance may be. Taylor Kitsch’s Gambit, besides having nothing to do and seeming puzzled as to what he’s doing in this neck of the Marvel universe, gets a respectful treatment, as does Sabretooth. Others aren’t so lucky; Agent Zero is wasted, and as for poor Deadpool, well, let’s just hope the writers bought him dinner first.
The result is an overcrowded mash-up that can’t spare more than a few minutes of screen time for any but a lucky few. Fans of the comics will enjoy an initial “Yay!” of recognition, only to be followed by an annoyed “WTF?” when the character is dismissed or dispatched, having served no purpose in the story other than as a painfully contrived plot point. Moviegoers who aren’t familiar with the comics won’t have a clue who any of these people are, or why they should care. The world-building and character development that made the first X-Men films so much fun are virtually non-existent in this prequel.
Viewers who stay in their seats during all of the end credits will be rewarded with one of three “secret” endings. A lucky third will get the best of the batch—a playfully affectionate nod to one character’s idiosyncratic habit of breaking the fourth wall in the comics. The rest of us get yet another reason to shrug and say, “Well, okay.”
Wolverine is largely a redundant exercise in wasted potential, but there are worse ways to spend a rainy afternoon. See it only if you can appreciate it for what it is: a mildly entertaining diversion with a likeable cast and occasional flashes of the great flick it could have been.
Hugh Jackman does, after all, beat up a helicopter. Seriously.