[With X-Men: Days of Future Past opening on Friday, I'm taking a look back at the X-Men movie franchise. These reviews contain spoilers.]
Since X-Men: The Last Stand killed Cyclops and Jean, half-killed Professor X, and weakened Magneto, the trilogy had concluded not because it was narratively fulfilled, but because it was exhausted. There was no place left for the X-Men to go, but fans knew that Wolverine’s story had plenty of places to visit, most notably, his origin. X2 gave causal viewers enough information to figure out what happened to Logan, but fans knew there was far more to his story. The movie lined up not only the Weapon X narrative, but also provided fan-favorite characters such Deadpool and Gambit.
But behind-the-scenes disasters and an abominable script weakened Wolverine and the franchise more than a revolver full of adamantium bullets.
Confined to the weak origin story from the comics (Wolverine was originally a sick kid! Twist!), the movie begins with promising opening credits as Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Victor Creed (Liev Schreiber) fight side-by-side through the major wars in American history. In a better movie, far more time would be spent making their relationship the focal point of the picture rather than transforming Creed into a one-dimensional villain or a poorly-designed mirror for Logan’s primal nature.
Instead, we’re rushed off to spend time with more mutants as William Stryker (Danny Huston) puts together a team that includes Wolverine, Creed, Wraith (Will.i.am), Fred Dukes (Kevin Durand), Chris Bradley (Dominic Monaghan), Agent Zero (Daniel Henney) and Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds). After Wolverine rejects killing villagers and leaves the team, he finds a peaceful life with Kayla (Lynn Collins), who tells him an awful parable that explains why he’s called Wolverine. Then the plot gets outright convoluted as it turns out that Kayla staged her own death so that Wolverine would pursue Creed, and they would fight to a stalemate, so that Wolverine, in order to get revenge, would have no choice but to take Stryker up on his offer to join the Weapon X program. It’s an elaborate and entirely unnecessary ruse since, in a lame twist, Kayla’s mutant ability is “tactohypnosis”, so she can make people believe anything just by touching them. If they had just thrown in a line like, “It wouldn’t have worked on Logan,” that would be enough. But it’s just another oversight in a movie that’s never really focused in the first place.
Re-reading my review of the film from 2009, I’m slightly stunned by my level of vitriol, especially when I bookend it by saying how I didn’t go in with a grudge. That’s still true, but looking back, I’m surprised I was so angry. I think most of my points still stand, although there are a few that could be explained away such as Alkalai Lake not being a frozen tundra. I now understand that Origins still takes place in the same location, but the season is different, and one that’s more camera-friendly (director Gavin Hood really loved his peaceful landscape shots in this movie even though they’re completely incongruous with his protagonist’s rage).
On my second viewing, I realized I don’t hate this movie, and part of that is because it’s no longer “shockingly” bad. I was prepared for its awfulness, and so I didn’t feel much in the way of anger. I know exactly how it’s a bad movie, and with my temper cooled, I wanted to distill the film’s failure down to its essence. Watching X-Men Origins: Wolverine again, I can see it has two major failings. The movie is death by a thousand cuts, and the big moments range from painfully cheesy to outright insulting.
Carelessness permeates the entire film, and if it were just one or two things in a better movie, then they could be forgiven (I certainly forgave major plot holes in X2). I don’t really care anymore that Huston didn’t adopt the southern accent Brian Cox gave Stryker since it doesn’t bother me that James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender aren’t trying to do Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen impressions, respectively, in X-Men: First Class. But why is Wolverine’s jacket indestructible? Why is his bike bulletproof? If this movie takes place 15-20 years before X-Men, why does everyone dress in modern clothes? Why is all of the technology current? Why does the general tell Stryker that he knows about his son when the kid is in cryostasis five feet away? Why is the resolution of Stryker murdering the general brought up in the closing credits as if solving that little conundrum was the extent of the movie’s problems? The list goes on.
These minor issues are compounded by the awfulness of the movie’s major transgressions. When Stryker reveals the adamantium bullets after the death of Agent Zero—the mutant whose ability is his proficiency with guns—and says the bullets are the only way to stop Wolverine, it’s jaw-dropping. How does any viewer accept that reveal? How did anyone making this movie wrap their head around these irreconcilable scenes?
I won’t repeat my original review, especially because the movie is already notorious. There’s no point in going into detail regarding the useless boxing match with Duke; Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) being over-powered; the god-awful visual effects (I still can’t get over the scene where Wolverine looks at his claws in the bathroom mirror); the tin-eared dialogue (“You look like a man fixin’ to do a bad thing”); the half-assed post-9/11 commentary with Stryker needing a “pre-emptive strike” against mutants; a creepy, digi-faced Professor X (Patrick Stewart) showing up at the end; and so on.
In the larger context of the series, this movie was meant to be a launching pad not for X-Men movies—movies about teams overcoming adversity and fighting persecution—but for solo films, which isn’t necessarily bad. Wolverine can carry his own movie, and I’m sure with strong writing and performances, you could make good spinoffs for Deadpool, Gambit, and even though he’s not in this movie, Magneto (the script for his spinoff movie was eventually folded into First Class).
But Origins shows all the pitfalls of taking this approach, and those pitfalls extend past shoddy storytelling, crummy visual effects, bad dialogue, etc. The movie illustrates the problem of throwing in too many mutants when those mutants are signposts for the hero rather than turning them into a team or even having them fit comfortably into the story. I know next-to-nothing about all of the mutants in this movie except for Wolverine and Creed, and even their relationship is thin. Weapon XI is a fitting symbol for the film because it’s a bunch of mutant powers dumped into a dummy.
In an interview with UGO, Hood talked about the story in grandiose terms, comparing to opera and saying “the truth is that what’s great about the Wolverine character, he’s really a character who suffers from a great deal of existential angst.” In an interview with Rotten Tomatoes in October 2009, Hood said that when it came to the Logan/Creed relationship, “Just having one good guy versus bad guy, with no emotional connection just felt like ‘Whoa — you’ll have nothing but punching and kicking’. In the finished film, you can see brief glimpses of what Hood wanted, but they’ve been thoroughly smothered by empty spectacle and horrid storytelling.
X-Men Origins was supposed to be the start of a new direction (hence attaching the character name to “X-Men Origins”) where they could even start making spin-offs of spin-offs. Instead, the film was rejected by fans who had nothing but good will for the character, and were given a shoddy, sloppy, soulless blockbuster in return. The regular X-Men movies had hit a wall, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine had driven the franchise to its nadir. The only way to move forward was to look to the past.
[Tomorrow: X-Men: First Class]