Cinemautopsy: What Went Wrong With ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’?
In Cinemautopsy, we look back at a recent, high-profile failure and asks a simple question: What the hell happened? In this installment... the most popular member of a massive franchise. A talented supporting cast full of up-and-coming actors. A promising indie director. The mysterious origin of a legendary comic book superhero. What could possibly go wrong?
Uh ... how much time do you have? Because this could take a while.
Movie: X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Director: Gavin Hood
Writers: David Benioff, Skip Woods
Release date: May 1, 2009
Worldwide box office: $373.0 million
Reported budget: $150 million
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 38
Franchise context: Fourth X-Men film (first solo spinoff, prequel); first of two Wolverine films.
What Went Right:
The longest-running superhero casting in history almost never happened.
After five X-Men movies and two solo films over the course of 16 years, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. But Bryan Singer’s X-Men went into production without Jackman; after a lengthy casting search, Singer actually chose Scottish actor Dougray Scott to play fandom’s favorite X-Man. Then shooting on Mission: Impossible II, where Scott played the villain, dragged on for nine months, and Scott had to drop out. It was only then that Singer cast Jackman, still an unknown Australian actor, partly on the recommendation of Russell Crowe, who had already turned down the part of Wolverine.
It’s a tantalizing what if: What if M:I-II had wrapped a few months earlier? Would Dougray Scott be as huge as Hugh Jackman? Jackman’s been the bedrock of the X-Men franchise for a decade and a half; without his participation, would the series have faded away? Or rebooted at some point in a completely new creative direction? Either way, Jackman must send John Woo and Tom Cruise a fruit basket every Christmas, right?
Dougray Scott’s loss was the rest of the world’s gain. Even in the crappiest X-Men movie (like, for example, this one) Jackman remains totally compelling. X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a pointless and confusing prequel with an awful script and characters whose actions are either illogical, dumb, or illogically dumb. The only thing worth watching in it is Jackman. The fact that he maintains his dignity amidst this schlock is a more superhuman feat than anything Wolverine does in this movie.
Most of X-Men Origin’s version of “Weapon X,” the iconic comics storyline where Wolverine gets his adamantium skeleton, is pretty terrible, but Jackman’s fury after his transformation into an unstoppable killing machine is terrifying. Comics’ Wolverine often flies into what’s referred to as “berserker rage,” a concept that sounds pretty badass on the page, but could look mighty foolish onscreen. Jackman screams so much in the X-Men franchise that it’s become something of an internet meme, but in individual moments, he convincingly evokes the character’s torment and anger in a way that I, as a lifetime comics reader, didn’t think was possible before the first X-Men movie came out.
On the other hand, when you’re trapped in a cinematic catastrophe like this one, it’s probably not that hard to find the motivation to act really, really angry.
What Went Wrong:
The goofy title pretty much says it all. Director Gavin Hood and the X-Men franchise’s stewards at Fox tried to make three movies at once: A Wolverine adventure, an origin story for the character, and an X-Men movie. Every new scene is set in a new genre, from coming-of-age story to war movie to tragic romance to revenge flick to sci-fi horror to broad comedy to superhero action. If Hood had focused on just one aspect, he might have had a shot at a respectable film. But this thing was basically doomed when it was conceived as a mish-mash of a half-dozen different X-Men and Wolverine stories.
It opens in the Northern Territories of Canada in 1845, where, in a breathlessly paced prologue, a young Wolverine (Troye Sivan) discovers his powers, witnesses his father’s murder at the hands of his family’s groundskeeper, learns that the groundskeeper is his real father, and that the groundskeeper’s nasty son Victor (Michael James Olsen) is his half-brother. With all that plot out of the way, the movie then glosses over almost 150 years of history, with the grown Wolverine (Jackman) and Victor (Liev Schreiber) fighting in a series of wars — World Wars I and II, even the American Civil War, even though both are Canadian. These guys just like to kill people.
It would be legitimately interesting to see what it’s like to live forever in an endless swirl of war and death, but all of that pathos is confined to the opening titles. At the very least, the credits set the tone for what’s to come: a blockbuster that glosses over the emotional components of its story to cram in as many setpieces and mutants as possible.
Speaking of which: Here comes a setpiece with a bunch of mutants! Jackman’s Logan (or “Jimmy”; characters call him both) and Victor are bailed out of military prison by William Stryker (Danny Huston), who would later become the mutant-obsessed villain of Bryan Singer’s X2. Here he recruits the brothers to join a secret squad of mutants he’s put together to perform black ops missions for the U.S. Government. They include teleporter John Wraith (will.i.am), indestructible Fred Dukes (Kevin Durand), electricity manipulator Bradley (Dominic Monaghan), uncanny assassin Agent Zero (Daniel Henney), and additional uncanny assassin Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), who also twirls swords so fast they can deflect machine gun fire.
The heavy emotions of Wolverine’s backstory (Parental betrayal! Murder! A century of blood!) make for a jarring contrast with the flat-out goofiness of the film’s action scenes and mutant powers (Twirly bullet-repellent swords!). Look at how Agent Zero leaps over this fence:
Who would willingly choose to jump like that? It’s not even ass over teakettle; it’s teakettle over ass. Even in the world of superheroes, the physics make zero sense. (Maybe that’s why he’s called Agent Zero?)
A lot of jokes have already been made at the expense of Liev Schreiber’s Victor, who likes to leap into fights in the most literal (and canine) way possible, because there’s nothing more intimidating than a guy running like a dog strung from invisible wires.
Stryker’s team infiltrates a warlord’s compound and takes a big hunk of metal that will later be bonded to Wolverine’s skeleton, but Logan decides to leave the group before he can get injected. Why? At some point before the movie began, Wolverine apparently developed a conscience. For the first (but not the last) time in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, something hugely important happens off-camera.
“We didn’t sign up for this,” Logan growls at Victor, one of the many lines in X-Men Origins that also functions as a meta commentary about the awfulness of X-Men Origins. (Others include “We’ve done enough!” “You look like a man fixing to do a bad thing,” and my favorite, “Wake me when it’s over.”) For the third time in its first 15 minutes, the film leaps ahead. Six years later in the Canadian Rockies, Logan now lives the happy, humble life of a lumberjack with his girlfriend Kayla (Lynn Collins). Subsequent scenes will reveal this woman knows about Logan’s mutant powers and the fact that he is over 100 years old and has killed more men than Genghis Khan, and that’s she’s totally cool with all of it. How did that conversation go? The movie doesn’t say because, again, none of the interesting parts of this story happen on camera.
Instead, we get a lengthy nonsense fairy tale about the moon spirit and her former lover Kuekuatsu which ends with the reveal of where Wolverine’s codename comes from.
Stryker interrupts Logan’s domestic bliss to warn him that someone is murdering the members of his old team. That someone is Victor, who’s still going by the name Victor and not Sabretooth, possibly because he doesn’t have a girlfriend to tell him a dopey fairy tale about a saber-toothed tiger. Victor murders Kayla, and then Logan makes a Faustian bargain with Stryker, who promises to give him the power to kill his brother once and for all.
It’s at this point that the movie goes from looking stupid to being stupid down to its core. Wolverine is too stupid to realize he’s being manipulated by Stryker (even after Stryker claims he didn’t know Victor was the one killing their old team and then reveals “[Victor] said he was coming after all of us” in the span of a single conversation). And Stryker is too stupid to realize that if he’s going to erase Wolverine’s memory like he wants to, he should have a) done it before he turned him into an unstoppable killer and b) not discussed his plan within earshot of the guy he just turned into an unstoppable killer.
Dummy Stryker continues his dummy ways by sending Agent Zero (a guy whose whole schtick is shooting people) to kill Wolverine (who, again, Stryker just made unkillable) without the adamantium bullets Stryker has lying around for just such an emergency. In the original “Weapon X” storyline about Wolverine’s origins, the actual adamantium bonding procedure turns him into the amnesiac wanderer he remained for years of X-Men comics. Here, Logan doesn’t forget his past until Stryker shoots him in the head with two adamantium bullets. “His brain may heal,” Stryker sneers, “but his memories won’t grow back!” Okay sure.
There’s also a scene where Wolverine calls Fred Dukes “bub” and Dukes thinks he said “blob” (his comic-book codename), because those two words almost kind of vaguely sound sort of alike. Later Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) climbs a wall like this:
Still, X-Men Origins: Wolverine’s dumbest decision by far was turning Deadpool, a popular character beloved for his snarky sense of humor and constant fourth-wall-breaking wisecracks into a mute, dead-eyed, computer-programmed weapon. (Stryker literally types “DECAPITATE” into his computer when he wants him to chop someone’s head off.) This was a profoundly misguided choice, one retroactively made even more laughable by this year’s Deadpool, which presented a much more faithful version of the character (also played by Ryan Reynolds) and made almost as much money in the United States as X-Men Origins: Wolverine made worldwide. I mean, just look at this goober.
How does he fit giant swords inside his arms? Wouldn’t they cut through his skin every time he bent his elbows? Also: Has there ever been a sillier line of dialogue than “Nobody kills you but me!”?
X-Men Origins: Wolverine was originally planned as the first in a series of solo X-Men prequels; Fox actually got fairly deep into development on an X-Men Origins: Magneto movie that would have featured Ian McKellan as the Master of Magnetism through the use of the same de-aging CGI technology from the flashback prologue of X-Men: The Last Stand. The absolute crapitude of the Wolverine prequel squashed those plans, although some of the concepts from the film were repurposed for X-Men: First Class. That wasn’t a huge financial hit, but it was much more popular with fans, as was its sequel, X-Men: Days of Future Past, a clever time-travel story that managed to combine both X-casts into one giant team-up. That was an even bigger success, spawning this spring’s X-Men: Apocalypse. (Jackman makes a cameo appearance in the film.)
Jackman got another go at a solo Wolverine in 2013; director James Mangold wisely learned from his predecessors’ mistakes and narrowed his focus to just his title character. But even with almost twice as many positive reviews as the previous film, The Wolverine made less at the U.S. box office than its predecessor. (It did fare better overseas.) The stink of X-Men Origins has proven difficult to wash off. People still mock Liev Schreiber dog-walking his way up the side of a building, Stryker’s magic computer, and Jackman’s laughable CGI claws. If only adamantium bullets were real; you might be able to make audiences forget this disaster.
Nonetheless, preproduction is already underway on a third Jackman Wolverine, which the actor has already suggested will be his last performance as the hairy Canadian hero after almost 20 years of big-screen adventures. With luck, this third Wolverine will be the best yet. Even if it isn’t, though, it will almost certainly not be the worst. At one point in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Jackman delivers one of his character’s signature comics catchphrases: “I’m the best there is at what I do. And what I do isn’t very nice.” If he was referring to this movie, then he was absolutely correct.