Friday, November 22, 2013

X-Mania: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Too many times has a superhero franchise been botched by a third film and then utterly destroyed by its fourth.  Batman Forever begat Batman and Robin, Superman III begat Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, and X-Men: The Last Stand begat X-Men Origins: Wolverine (in retrospect, maybe it's a good thing we never got a Spider-Man 4).  It is a film so terrible in some respects that it's surprising the studio allowed it to be released at all.  An awkward set-up, a confusing plot littered with holes, and special effects that would look cheesy in 1995 are just some of the many qualities that ruin Origins for anyone as excited as I was to see it when it first came out in 2009.

The story begins with a flashback, like the first and third X-Men films.  This time, we meet a young Logan (or Jimmy. I guess he changes his name at some point) in the late 1800s it seems. In the most ridiculously rushed thing I've seen since the flower shop scene in The Room, Logan has a conversation with his father, his father is killed by a random man, Logan kills that random man, and then that man reveals that he was Logan's father all along. It happens within the space of about two minutes.

What am I watching, the season finale to a soap opera?

This opening gets Origins off to a really rocky start, and while nothing else in the film is quite as horrifically assembled as that first scene, it comes dangerously close at points.  Logan and his brother Victor (Sabertooth) decide to run away from home, and proceed to participate in all the American wars they can fit into a montage for the opening credits. It's a creative idea, and could have lead to something truly interesting, but more on that later.  The montage is edited with the speed-up-slow-down effect that was used in 300, as are most of the film's action scenes.

After that noise, Logan and Victor are confronted by William Stryker, who discovers that they are mutants during what seems to be the Vietnam War, but it's difficult to tell. The film never establishes what year it takes place in exactly, or how much time is passing in between events.  Logan and Victor are given the chance to work for an elite task force made up of mutants.  Keep in mind, the word "mutant" is never said aloud until (I shit you not) the ONE HOUR MARK.  God, do I feel sorry for the jerk who walked into this having never seen an X-Men movie.  But once again, more on that later.

So about these characters, one note as they are. We have Will i Am playing John Wraith, who has a teleporting ability just like Nightcrawler's; Ryan Reynolds as Wade Wilson (Deadpool in the comics), with his ability to cut speeding bullets with a sword or something; and Daniel Henney as Agent Zero.  I think Zero's powers make him move really fast, but he never runs fast, he just loads a gun by ignoring the laws of physics.  And he can jump really high for some reason. I'm going to call him No Physics Man.

This group is on a hunt for adamantim, a precious substance that apparently fell from the sky in a meteor.  Stryker would do anything to get more of it, including kill a group of innocent people, which Logan doesn't take kindly to.  He leaves the group behind, vowing to never go back to this life of killing and savagery.

We're still only at the 15 minute mark, people.  The film isn't just rushed during this period, it's on crack.  The film has so far been nothing more than a lousy exposition dump. It only exists so that Stryker and Wolverine can have "a history" together for later on.

What follows is a series of convoluted, cliched, and downright stupid incidents that mostly involve the death of Logan's love interest, Kayla. No, we didn't need to see how they met, or how long it's been since they've been together, or what year it's supposed to be now. Oh no. You continue with your plot.  I don't want to interrupt with my needless desire to get a feel for the world and the characters.

So yeah, Kayla is killed by Sabertooth, who is apparently killing all the other mutants who were in Stryker's little group.  Striker gives Logan, now calling himself "Wolverine," a chance to make himself stronger than his brother so that he can kill him out of revenge (and save the other mutants Sabertooth might go after next).  Wolverine agrees to have the adamantium injected into his body and coat his skeleton, a scene that is supposed to be the reason we're seeing the film in the first place.  In X2, the flashbacks depict a much darker, more surgical procedure that leaves Logan bloodied and without his memories.  Here, the surgery is quick and robotic, and in a deliberate break from continuity, Wolverine breaks out of the lab and goes on another quest for even more revenge.  His memories will be erased in an entirely different (and nonsensical) method later on.

The revenge aspect of the film gets a bit tiring, and the writing doesn't let us inside Logan's head at any point to see what he makes of all this. It's a lot of busy action without any of the substance, such as the themes of discrimination, that made its predecessors so great.  

Getting back to the opening scene, consider the superior Holocaust scene from the opening of the first X-Men film. That scene slowly builds tension in the concentration camp setting as Magneto is being separated from his mother.  The release of the tension is the reveal of Magneto's powers, and that is what hooks us into the film.  The same goes for Rogue's intro scene, where she kisses a boy and puts him into a coma because of her powers.  There is way too much going on in Origins' first scene for it to have any impact, and it doesn't help that the dialogue is atrocious. After seeing her son grow giant claws and stab his own father, the mother has no reaction. She asks, calmly, "What are you?"  Come on, lady.

Cliches riddle this entire film, from the kindly old couple who take Logan in, to the the way he yells up at the sky with his dead girlfriend in his arms as the camera backs out into the sky.  It's stock bullshit, and that is not what I had come to expect from the X-Men films.

Another thing that the first three films did so well was establish a universe with certain rules and realities.  Mutants are feared by humans, so the world shuns them.  In Origins, we have no clue what the outside world makes of all this.  Reactions of the humans in the situations Wolverine gets himself into are nonexistent.  The perfect example of this is when Wolverine and Sabertooth survive the firing squad in the screen.  Wouldn't it have been a great reveal of their powers, both to the soldiers, Stryker, and the audience, if we had gotten to see that scene, rather than just hear about it afterward?

Along with its awkward structure, the film does everything it needs to for the plot and nothing more. This leads to gaping plot holes and contrived motivations for the characters.  Wolverine finds his lover's body in the woods, blood covered and with no pulse.  What the hell happens after that?  SPOILER ALERT, but she's not really dead.  Are you going to tell me that there was no funeral? That Logan didn't check her body for damage? What kind of fool do you take me for, Origins?

The film also shoehorns in recognizable characters from the rest of the series.  A young Scott Summers (Cyclopes) is featured here, hopefully as an apology to the character for having such a lame death in the last film, as well as Gambit (played by future box office poison, Taylor Kitsch), who was previously unseen. I like Kitsch in the role, and it's too bad he wasn't somehow featured in the earlier films.  Patrick Steward, or at least a creepy, CGI version of him, appears in this film as well, reprising his role as Professor Xavier briefly. There are a slew of other characters from the Marvel Universe thrown in as well, including to most fan's dismay, Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool.  But like everything else in the film, the casting wasn't the problem.

If anything, the actors are what ultimately make this film watchable.  Hugh Jackman slips into the Wolverine role so easily it seems unlikely that any other actor will ever be able to replace him.  He IS the screen version of Wolverine, and he plays it with conviction and intensity.  He really thinks he's in a good movie, and it's  a shame that the performance is wasted on such a terrible script. Liev Schreiber has a lot of fun as the villainous Sabertooth, and I'm willing to stretch my imagination far enough to believe that he could devolve into the more animalistic Sabertooth from the first film.  Danny Huston and Lynn Collins are also quite good in their roles as Stryker and Kayla, respectively.

What's not so excellent are the action scenes and visual effects.  While I recognize that practical effects were used in many scenes, with great stunt work and crazy pyrotechnics, the choppy editing, shaky cam, and speed-up-slow-down effects are unbearable and cheapen the impact of the scenes.  And some of the CGI is clearly unfinished, with Logan's claw's occasionally hovering above his hand unrealistically and shoddy blue screen work.  The physics of the fight scenes are often bafflingly bad, with characters flying this way and that despite it not being an established part of their powers.  Sometimes the powers of the mutants are vague and nondescript, as in the case of No Physics Man.

I wouldn't care if the fight scenes and effects were bad if the script was good enough to distract me from them.  But alas, I don't think it's entirely fair to blame Director Gavin Hood for the things Origins gets wrong.  He was apparently getting last minute script changes that caused problems with the story, and I guess I can buy that. But it's no denying that Origins is a major missed opportunity to get inside the head of Wolverine before his memories were erased.  How about the post-traumatic stress disorder from all those wars? Could that be the cause of Logan's anger and nightmares later on?  Wouldn't it have been more interesting for Logan to agree to lose his memories because he couldn't take living with the guilt from all the people he's killed? We'll never know.

All we have is X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a well acted disaster of an X-Men film and only a mildly bad action movie.  It feels like Wolverine has been warped into a Steven Segal movie.  And some people like those. Granted, there's fun to be had in spurts, and even some good humor, but it's not nearly enough to save the film.  Weak characterizations and a rushed pace hurt the film in all the worst ways, letting down a great character with a great backstory played by a great actor.  It saps the mystery out of Logan's history in X2, and his reason to be, which is to find out about his past.  If this is your past, Logan, you're better off forgetting about it anyway.