There are many creative choices a studio and the selected filmmakers can take in order to put together a highly satisfying film on James Logan - aka Wolverine- a belated addition to the X-Men and one of Marvel Comics’ greatest cash cows (cubs?). The amnesia-ridden mutant, whose powers include a healing factor and retractable claws, first appeared as an antagonist to the Incredible Hulk in the 70s, but rapidly became a fan-favourite, chiefly owing to his default badassery (he can flip into berserker rages with alarming ease) and his underdog nature, making him a ruffled ruffian to root for on most occasions, his uncouth appearance and attitude a part of his charm. But while he has been a ubiquitous character for decades, his early history has been a blur until relatively recently. His healing factor enables him to basically live forever, so the little personal history he could recall is highly colourful indeed: ranging from feudal Japan to most of the great wars of the Western world.
Each individual snippet of the character’s colourful past would make an excellent film: you can do samurai epic, Revolutionary War/WWI/WWII actioner…you have the chance to shed light on a character that has been used as part of a team dynamic and show his past and his individual mores in a tightly-scripted genre piece. Unfortunately, director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi), eschews any such path. Granted, it would be unfair to rest the blame on entirely on his shoulders: if anything, X-Men Origins: Wolverine - acting both as a supposed origin story for everyone’s favourite clawed Canuck and a bridge to the events in Bryan Singer’s 2000 X-Men - stinks of noxious studio interference from beginning to end.
We are introduced to our hero (and Viktor Creed, who would later become his arch-nemesis Sabertooth), as a pre-teen in British-occupied America in 1845. After a domestic squabble goes awry, it is revealed that the two young mutants are in fact brothers and they embark on a century-spanning career as soldiers of fortune. An adequately inspired introductory credits sequence shows them ploughing through several wars and eventually falling out due to Viktor’s tendency to give in to his animal side a bit too readily. After they both get into trouble with military higher ups, General William Stryker (Danny Huston) offers them a deal: he’ll bail them out if they agree to form part of his special team. But as their missions become more and more suspect, Logan begins to sniff a conspiracy, and strikes off on his own.
As the film progresses, you begin to enjoy it: not because it’s a conventionally enjoyable experience, mind, but as the layers of artistic as well as technical incompetence begin to unravel, you just jump with joy at the next cocked-up set piece. That the film is a mangled mess becomes evident pretty much after the initial premise has been delivered. As soon as a morally-indignant Wolverine leaves Stryker’s project, the studio begins to cram the film with intelligence-insulting plot twists and to undermine every supporting character. The X-Men mythos in the original comics is nothing if not rich. A dozen ‘X-books’ are released every month, with titles that orbit around more or less streamlined continuity. The variety of storylines and characters available is staggering. Some of these characters have a rich pedigree, like Ryan Reynolds’ Wade Wilson (aka Deadpool) and Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins), a temporary love interest for Wolverine. Which is why it’s very frustrating when the film simply reduces them to glorified cameos as it does with Dominic Monahagan’s Chris Bradley and Will.I.Am’s John Wraith.
That said, some of the characters that are secondary to Jackman’s anti-hero actually work: Liev Schreiber’s Sabretooth is perhaps the only convincing character on show, his thespian credentials trouncing those of his counterpart in X-Men (the ex-wrestler Tyler Mane) and delivering a welcome shade of menacing nuance to Wolverine’s psychotic mirror-half. Gambit, for whom the fans clamoured to be included in at least one of the X-movies, finally makes an appearance, and Taylor Kitsch does a decent enough job of bringing the rouge to life, while also managing to stir up enough chemistry with Jackman for the duration of their brief partnership.
But the fact that we can even approach to praise the film only through its supporting players is doubly tragic when you consider that this is supposed to be a film about Wolverine. If there was one complaint you could level towards the X-movie trilogy, it was that it simply had too much Wolverine in it. Granted, few really made the complaint, which is why having a team dynamic after they finally put together a solo film for Wolvie is simply ridiculous. Listing the film’s individual faults would take pages. But what becomes abundantly clear - five minutes into the mess - is that we’ve all been short-changed. Jackman included.