Over the last few decades, comic book movies have reached heights of storytelling and spectacle that readers could never have DREAMED of. But for every triumphant high—The Dark Knight, The Avengers—there have always been a good number of stinkers… some bad enough to become punchlines or talking points, but most mediocre and ultimately forgotten…
Until they end up here.
The Discount Spinner Rack is where you’ll find the worst, the weirdest, and the most puzzling of comic book movie misfires. We’ll take a look at the things that actually work and the parts that absolutely don’t, and decide whether it’s worth your time and your dime. In the end, movies will be marked down on a scale from $1.00 (a surprise gem) to $0.05 (better used for kindling). This spin around the Rack brings us our first look at the now-defunct X-Men cinematic universe, as we slash our way through Fox’s heinous first attempt at a spin-off franchise: X-Men Origins: Wolverine!
The X-Men films are… a divisive bunch.
Developed by 20th Century Fox at the turn of the millennium, at a time when cinematic superheroes weren’t exactly in vogue, the first X-Men film reframed the colorful Marvel superheroes and their mythology as a slick sci-fi parable drenched in burnished steel and black leather—aesthetically more in line with The Matrix or the Terminator films than with the garish tableaus of Joel Schumacher’s recent Batman sequels1. The movie did quite well at the box office, spawning an even more successful sequel and helping to jump start the comic book movie boom of the early 2000s. But while general audiences were enthralled with the franchise’s competent action and the none-too-challenging social commentary, a backlash began to develop in the comic fan community—a community which became increasingly irritated by the franchise’s narrow dramatic focus (Wolverine/Rogue as the main characters, Magneto as the villain), mischaracterization/marginalization of popular heroes and villains, and subdued, low-key production design and costuming.
The initial phase of the franchise would ultimately come to a thudding, unsatisfying conclusion with the release of Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand: a cheesy and dim-witted piece of slapped-together trash that nonetheless stands as the third-highest grossing entry in the franchise2 to this day, behind only the Deadpool movies (go figure). In the face of this seemingly growing audience interest in a franchise that the studio had pointedly wrapped up with a big, shiny bow, producers Laura Shuler Donner and Ralph Winter decided to take the property in the most logical, creatively fertile direction they could go:
Plans soon took shape for the production of at least two feature films detailing the origin stories of the franchise’s most popular characters: Wolverine and Magneto. The Magneto film, described by screenwriter Sheldon Turner as “The Pianist meets X-Men”, was meant to shoot for a 2009 release, but was delayed and ultimately shelved due to the 2007 Writer’s Strike; some concepts and details from the unused script ended up being integrated into Matthew Vaughn’s 2011 reboot film X-Men: First Class.
The WOLVERINE film, on the other hand, couldn’t be stopped by a simple writers strike; it plowed right ahead into production without a finished script. Initially written by David Benioff3—who pursued a solo Wolverine project for three years before finally getting hired on—the script was revised by Skip “Hitman” Woods, before going through a last-minute rewrite from Scott Silver (who just wrote that baffling Joaquin Phoenix Joker movie) and James “Amazing Spider-Man one AND two” Vanderbilt, which was only partially completed when shooting began. Although such cinematic luminaries as Len Wiseman and Zack Snyder were considered to helm the film, ultimately directing duties went to Gavin Hood—a South African actor turned director, whose film Tsotsi won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film (and who had precisely ZERO experience with directing action, science fiction, or special effects4). Obviously, the studio was dead-set on getting this movie made.
So the real question is… what was the POINT of making a Wolverine origin film?
Unlike most superheroes, Logan isn’t defined by his origins—in fact, he’s probably MOST famous for not having an origin. From his creation up until the early 2000s, Wolverine was an amnesiac; his actual beginnings were a mystery, to himself and to the readers. Hell, he wasn’t even certain if “Logan” was actually his real name. And in a startling bit of adherence to the source material for Fox, the movies dutifully recreated the character’s set-up in the first three films: Hugh Jackman’s Logan is a cynical nomad haunted by nightmare flashes of a past he can’t remember, only driven to become a hero and an X-Man by his connection to Rogue and the personal sense of alienation they share. His origins are ultimately irrelevant to who he is as a character, because he has no memory of those experiences; the Logan who lived over a hundred years before getting tortured in the Weapon X project would ultimately be a completely different person from the Logan who wandered Canada for fifteen years, cage-fighting for beer money before he met Rogue.
And in fact, X2 ended up suggesting that very thing! At the end of that film, the villainous General Stryker reveals that Logan actually volunteered for the Weapon X procedure after years of working closely with him—pointedly suggesting that Logan may have actually been a very bad person before losing his memories.
Hell—that raises all SORTS of dramatic possibilities! A Wolverine solo film could well be the story of a morally compromised man sinking deeper and deeper into the ugliness of his violent nature, ultimately undergoing a trauma that erases the man ALTOGETHER and leaves only his bestial nature behind… or a story of how soldiers are stripped of their humanity by a system that uses them as tools, a la the Bourne films… or even just the tragic story of a broken, cynical soul searching for redemption and finding it only AFTER his memories are gone…
So what did we get?
IN THIS ISSUE: A hideous, lifeless Franken-movie made from the desiccated corpses of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Commando. With cartoon claws.
Rather than opting to tell a story unique to Logan as a character, X-Men Origins: Wolverine proves to be little more than a patchwork of stale, overused action movie tropes, heavily sanitized for a PG-13 rating. We get the “rogue badass ditches corrupt military force” set-up, followed by the “rogue badass joins up with military spook to take down personal rival”, then flip around to the “rogue badass vows to take down government that was stupid enough to try to kill him”, with a brief detour into the “kindly civilians teach violent hero the value of decency” plotline, and that old chestnut, “loved one dies to prod the hero into action” (better known as “fridging”).
These are all bigger-than-life plotlines—absurd flights of macho fancy that have formed the foundations of hundreds of pulpy novels, films, and TV shows. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that! Logan is a hyper-masculine wish-fulfillment fantasy personified: a gruff, cigar-chompin’, ass-whoopin’, girlfriend-stealing sh*t-kicker who’s also an alienated loner hiding an unexpected sensitive side. But in order for any of these ideas to work, there has to be a degree of style and humor to the way they’re presented. Films like Predator and Die Hard play to the audience, giving us a subtle wink and a nudge here and there to let us know that we’re supposed to be having FUN, because the filmmakers had fun making it.
But the people behind X-Men Origins: Wolverine are not having fun. We’re not being invited to join in on an adventure; rather, there’s a sense that director Gavin Hood is talking down to us—half-heartedly trotting out hoary old tropes with no understanding of why audiences loved them in the first place. This is an intelligent, politically-minded director getting roped into doing a big, stupid action movie, and his apathy for the genre practically RADIATES off the screen. It’s like watching Frasier Crane try to direct Predator.
The story structure is a mess, and the pacing is hideous. Four minutes in, and we’ve 1.) met little 10-year-old rich waif Jimmy Howlett (our soon-to-be hairy protagonist) in the 1800s, 2.) established that he’s sickly, 3.) established that he’s friends with young rough-and-tumble Victor, 4.) introduced Jimmy’s father, 5.) KILLED Jimmy’s father, 6.) revealed Jimmy’s bone claws, 7.) had Jimmy kill Victor’s father, 8.) revealed that Victor’s father was actually JIMMY’S real father too, 9.) watched Jimmy run away from his mother, 10.) seen Victor and Jimmy form a brotherly bond, and 11.) ended our flashback-prologue with the two running off to face the world together. FOUR MINUTES.
Then we get a time-skipping montage5, and by nine minutes into the film, our intrepid mutant brothers have left the Vietnam War behind to join Colonel William Stryker’s secret mutant strike force—five new characters that all have to get their own truncated introductions6. Shortly thereafter, the crew has suddenly assembled in front of a fortified compound in Lagos, Nigeria, and Logan7 literally utters the line, “why are we here?” It’s hard not to sympathize with him; the film has completely unmoored us from any sense of narrative thrust.
The seventeen-minute mark is when Logan breaks ranks from his team and strikes out on his own… which, as it turns out, is merely the conclusion of a SECOND prologue. You see, the actual STORY starts with Logan workin’ as a lumberjack in Canada, Dexter-style, while dating pretty schoolteacher Kayla Silverfox (played by Lynn Collins) and trying to put his violent past behind him. Victor, meanwhile, has gone rogue and started killing the former members of their team… and while Stryker shows up to try to warn Logan of the danger, Victor soon comes calling and kills Kayla, spurring Logan to seek vengeance.
… It’s a revenge movie that takes thirty-two minutes to get to the part of the story that needs avenging.
Logan fights Victor, but he gets his bone claws handed to him—ending up crushed by thousand-pound logs and getting hit by a Mack truck (healing factor or no, how was he not just a pile of bloody goop after all that?!). So he joins up with Stryker again, volunteering to have adamantium grafted to his bones to help him beat Victor. The process8 works, and then Stryker IMMEDIATELY (and seemingly for no reason) turns on Logan—ordering his memory erased. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Ah ha! This is where Logan loses his memory, because this is the last thing he remembers in the X-Men films—so now he’ll have to figure out who he is and why he’s fighting all these goons!”
Well… no. Logan overhears Stryker’s orders while still in the tank, goes into a rage, and escapes. With his memory intact.
Just… just roll with it.
But just like the Weapon X comics, the naked, ferocious killing machine is soon found by a kind couple and weaned back to humanity… except in this version, instead of running into James and Heather Hudson (a young couple who would go on to become the superheroes Vindicator and Guardian, and lead the team Alpha Flight), Logan runs into the barn of Off-Brand Ma and Pa Kent.
Why are they here? Why, they’re here to show the still-civilized, somehow-unaffected-by-the-catastrophic-trauma-he-just-experienced Logan a measure of kindness, decency, and charity—to remind him that, yes, people can still be good, and that maybe there is a better way to live than by following the path of violence.
… They are also there to get VIOLENTLY MURDERED by Stryker’s men, giving Logan a specific reason to track Stryker down and seek retribution after escaping the Weapon X project. THAT’S RIGHT—this is a movie with not one, but TWO revenge plots, pulling the main character in two separate directions! (But don’t worry—we find out three scenes later that Victor was working for Stryker the whole time ANYWAY, so Logan can get his revenge for both transgressions in the same climactic showdown. How convenient!)
The remainder of the film is a half-formed road-trip adventure where Logan (accompanied by Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am’s truly awful portrayal of John Wraith) meets all the most popular mutants that didn’t make it into the first three X-Men movies. He reunites with former teammate Fred Dukes, a.k.a. “the Blob”9…
… followed by everyone’s favorite sleazebag, the ragin’ Cajun Remy LaBeau, a.k.a. Gambit…
… and finally, after a quick glimpse of him in human form at the beginning of the film, we get to see the final transformation of Wade Wilson into the Merc With a Mouth, Deadp—
It’s all just sound and fury, of course—an IP checklist to tick before the big, nullifying finale. For you see, Kayla isn’t actually dead; she was working with Stryker all along (even though she’s still in love with Logan). And Victor may have been the villain for most of the film’s runtime, but he’s totally willing to join forces with Logan again for the last ten minutes (even though they still hate each other). And as for Logan himself? Well, the hero who’s spent the entire film resisting his violent animal impulses and proving himself an honorable man… bum-rushes a single guy with a revolver in a fit of rage, getting shot in the head by Stryker with an adamantium bullet—yes, an ADAMANTIUM BULLET—and finally losing his damn memory. What little character development and plot progression there is gets rolled back to zero, bringing a suitably dour and anticlimactic end to this dull, self-serious farce of a movie.
And all of that is just scratching the tip of the iceberg. I didn’t even get around to mentioning the green-screen motorcycle chase… the arrival of digitally de-aged Playdoh-Face Charles Xavier… the well-worn “hardboiled” dialogue or the incomprehensible action staging… the editor’s fetish for digitally zooming in on people’s faces to make a scene seem more exciting than it really is… This film really is a treasure trove of nits to pick.
(And also notice that I haven’t ONCE mentioned Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine—who, despite wonderfully embodying the role for seventeen years, has nothing to offer in THIS film aside from a lot of roaring and some crazy-shredded abs.10)
From scene to scene, from minute to minute, there is a startling lack of effort on display here, betraying the mercenary aims of the producers and the overall apathy of the director11. Origins is the apotheosis of Fox’s attempts to turn the X-Men into a drab, generic action franchise, indulging in all of the series’ worst habits. It very nearly killed the property on the big screen… but instead, like Batman & Robin before it, Origins simply ended up clearing the way for a franchise revamp that surpassed everything that had come before it; the film was so bad that it forced Fox to take RISKS again.
Amazingly, Jackman’s Wolverine was lucky enough to get folded in to the series revamp—even getting two more solo films, each exponentially better than the one before it. Not a lot of franchises would hang on to the lead performer and main character of their biggest, most derided failure… but if there’s one thing that this film makes perfectly clear, it’s that Logan knows how to walk away from a bomb without a scratch.
IS IT WORTH YOUR DIME?: No, no, no—HELL no. Despite some solid casting choices, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a stale, lifeless husk of a film, offering little to justify wasting the time to watch it. It’s… it’s bad, okay? It’s really, really bad.
DISCOUNT PRICE: $0.05 (RUN!!!)
- EVERYTHING with Victor: I haven’t had much of a chance to talk about him, but Liev Schreiber deserved so, so much better than this movie. Taking over the role of Victor Creed/Sabretooth after Tyler Mane’s monosyllabic turn in the first X-Men, Schreiber gives us a villain with genuine menace who takes cruel, coldblooded joy in violence and bloodshed… but whose viciousness masks a vulnerability and a deep, buried fear that traces back to his abusive upbringing. Victor is the one multidimensional character in the whole film; his antagonizing of his little brother is ultimately a codependent plea for attention from the only person in the world who actually cares about him.
- Gotta give ‘em credit(s): As frantically paced as the film is, its opening credits sequence—a montage of Logan and Victor fighting their way through every major American conflict from the Civil War all the way up through Vietnam—is a fantastic introduction to the adult versions of the characters. It cleverly illustrates how their lives are defined by violence, shows off their powers, and makes their relationship clear: Logan is the level-headed one who has to rein in the violent, unhinged Victor, but they both have each other’s backs when things get hairy (pun intended).
- The Door: There is a door leading out of the Alkali Lake facility that is perched right at the edge of a cliff overlooking a waterfall. There’s no ladder. No helipad. No stairway or path. There is literally NO WAY TO ACCESS THIS DOOR. So… why is it there? Simple—so Logan can slash his way out of it and jump off the cliff to escape.
- “It means ‘the Wolverine’”: Oh, I didn’t mention the protracted scene in which Kayla regales Logan with a Native American parable about Kuekuatsheu—a spirit who was in love with the moon, but was tricked into coming down to Earth and could never return to her? Nor did I mention that “Kuekuatsheu” means “the Wolverine”, meaning that Logan took his name from a tortured mythological love story rather than just being called “Wolverine” because actual wolverines are mean, vicious little bastards12? Huh. Must have slipped my mind.
- Cajun Style: I actually did like Taylor Kitch’s Remy LaBeau. He was slick, and stylish, and far less slimy than his print counterpart… but his battle with Logan in New Orleans is the undisputable low point of the ENTIRE franchise. It opens with Gambit actively stopping Logan from killing Victor—the man who tortured and imprisoned him—and then he starts flying around the soundstage using Matrix-esq wirework that was dated WELL before this movie was shot. And finally, it all culminates in this… amazing moment as Logan cuts down a fire escape to bring Remy back down to Earth:
NEXT ISSUE: If you thought my MOVIE REVIEWS took a while to write, let’s try something a little different by taking a look at a whole TV series, from beginning to end! Yessir, we’re gonna watch every single episode of the 2001 Smallville knock-off series Birds of Prey—all 13 of them!