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X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

WARNING: SPOILERS

You like overhead shots of someone kneeling by the body of a loved one and screaming up at the heavens?

You like scenes when a superhero has to choose between killing a villain and letting him live? A dilemma that reveals his “true” nature?

You like dialogue such as “We didn’t sign up for this,” and “If man were meant to fly he’d grow wings,” and — after a would-be-partner shows up just in time to save the hero — “You miss me?”

Then “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” is your movie. Bonus: You get two of those overheads shots of the hero screaming up at the heavens. Three if you count a flashback.

Admittedly, the filmmakers were hampered from the start. “Wolverine” is a prequel, which means they had to end it with the title character in a vaguely similar place to where he was at the beginning of “X-Men” (2000), which is to say: alive, with an adamantine skeleton, and with no real memory of who he is. That’s tough: to have your ending before your story even begins.

Even so.

The movie opens in 1845 in the northwest territories of Canada, where the boy who will become Wolverine, then called Jimmy, is sick in bed, watched over by his scowling brother (half-brother?) named Victor, the boy who will become Sabre Tooth, as well as his father, who, in a flash, is killed in the foyer downstairs. The trauma awakens Jimmy’s “berserker rage,” and his claws — skeletal at this point — are unleashed, and he kills the killer, who, it turns out, was his real father. Oops. Victor and Jimmy then flee. “Keep on running,” Victor says. “Don’t look back.” And they don’t. Through the entire credit sequence, in which you see them fighting in 1) the U.S. Civil War, 2) WWI, 3), WWII, and, 4) Vietnam. Questions immediately arise. Did they skip the Spanish-American War? And what did they do between wars? And why are they fighting for the U.S. anyway? Aren’t they Canadian? Actually the most important question is: Do they ever worry over the increasing might of military technology? Let’s face it, in 1845, or at least by the time they reach adulthood in 1860, nothing on earth — on earth! — was as powerful as they were; but during their lifetime they witnessed the introduction of the repeat-action rifle, the machine gun, the airplane, the missile, and the atom bomb. Don’t they ever think, “Wow, these humans are becoming more powerful than we are!”? Don’t they ever think? What have they learned in 120 years? Anything?

The story picks up — that is, the credits end — after the brothers have been shot by a firing squad for killing their own during Vietnam. They live, of course, and are recruited by Maj. William Stryker (Danny Huston), the man who will become Brian Cox. “I’m putting together a special team,” he says. For whatever reason, these mutants, including Victor and Jimmy, now called Logan, follow this human. Because they like killing? I don’t understand. Can’t they kill on their own? A few scenes later, Logan draws the line and tells his brother, “I’m done.” His brother responds, threateningly, “We can’t let you just walk away.” Then he and five other mutants stand around and watch him walk away. Smart.

Six years later, Logan’s in a 1973 made-for-TV movie. He’s a lumberjack in the Canadian Rockies, he’s got a pretty, long-haired girlfriend who’s a schoolteacher, and everyone knows they’re doomed. They kiss. Seventies music tinkles in the background. The audience gets restless.

Thank God Stryker shows up. “Your country needs you,” he tells Logan. Canada needs him? Oh, right, the U.S. Logan refuses but later tells his girlfriend the reason they want him is because “I’m the best at what I do. But what I do isn’t very nice.” It’s a famous Wolverine line, penned in the 1980s, but it doesn’t work here — particularly after Victor/Sabre Tooth kills the girlfriend and then defeats Logan. Apparently our boy isn’t the best at what he does.

Worse: Stryker convinces Logan to get all adamantined-up to get revenge on Victor. “I can give you the tools to defeat him,” Stryker says. Logan becomes Wolverine, in other words, because he’s a lousy fighter. Who knew? Almost feels cowardly. You’d think he’d try a martial arts class before getting his skeletal structure replaced.

I could go on. Every little element in this movie is just plain dumb. During the adamantine transfer, for example, Logan’s heartrate increases exponentially, then falters, and everyone’s urging him on: “Live, damnit!” When he flatlines, people turn away. And we wait... And we wait... As if there’s any suspense. He’s Wolverine! He lives! We know! Get on with it!

He goes to Three Mile Island, where he’s heard they’re holding mutants for experiments, to get revenge on Stryker and Victor; but when he discovers his girlfriend lives, that she fooled him, he walks away. Uh...dude. The imprisoned mutants? That are still being experimented on? Of course he returns and eventually frees them, and they leave, about 20 of them, scared and huddled together and hiding from the soldiers with their guns. Aren’t we sick of this yet? Why are they acting like malnourished boat people rather than, I don’t know, the most powerful people on the planet?

There’s a moment when we’re in the office of John Wraith, who runs a boxing gym in Vegas, and, in the background, there’s a matchcard with upcoming bouts featuring ’70s-era fighters. And I thought about the care that went into that small detail, and in the creation of the office, and Hugh Jackman’s insane workout regimen to turn his perfect body even more perfect. I thought of the inspired casting of Danny Huston and Liev Schreiber, and I thought, “It’s all for shit if you don’t have a story.” And this one’s for shit.

Admittedly, the filmmakers were hampered from the start. We begin knowing basically where we’ll end. But that’s a reason to open up your imagination, not close it off.

—May 2, 2009

© 2009 Erik Lundegaard