Editor’s note: This review was written in September of 2009.
In Bryan Singer’s X-Men, the 2000 film that introduced the popular Marvel comic mutants to the silver screen, we meet Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine in a snowy Canadian roadhouse. He is blue jean legged, cowboy booted, and shirtless. He is leaning against chicken wire, and chomping on a cigar in between cage fights where he has dispatched challenger after challenger with the kind of ferocity that only a man with superhuman regenerative powers and an adamantium coated skeleton could. From our first glimpse of the man, we know he’s not someone to be trifled with, and his introduction is comparable to some of the coolest in modern cinema (see Indiana Jones, Honey Ryder, Darth Vader, et al.)
Singer’s X-Men was a lean and mean 100-minute romp through Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters where we meet a cavalcade of characters, each with his or her own unique mutation, but the mysterious Logan (aka Wolverine) is clearly the star of the show. The second entry into the series, X2, follows Logan on his search for his past and introduces even more characters along with expanding on a compelling prejudice subplot. With its added running time and bloat, X2 still moves briskly and purposefully toward a satisfying conclusion, but Singer’s touch is missing from X-Men: The Last Stand, the third film which collapses under its own weight. Although it is the culmination of a satisfying story arc, Brett Ratner creates a movie without the humor and pathos of the previous two installments. Worse yet, Jackman’s Wolverine is relegated to a supporting role.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine begins with a flashwayback that gives the character with the mysterious past and the go-to-hell demeanor the kind of backstory reserved for ageless vampires. Thanks to Marvel Comics’ desperate attempt to create more stories for one of its most popular characters, a comic book miniseries was crafted in 2001 that gave Logan a 19th Century birth date. Unfortunately, the movie sees fit to dispense with that trove of potential material by the end of the opening credits and quickly devolves into boilerplate action and kiddie-pool-depth characters. As a creative decision, it’s hard to fault this kind of production. A modern day Wolverine allows for equally modern action set pieces, but the result is that much of what makes Logan a man of mystery stay a mystery. Perhaps this is to be commended, as the march to give an enigmatic character’s every tic and motivation a raison d’etre has become a crutch in modern storytelling. Drips and drabs go a long way. Unfortunately, for the purposes of this film’s plot, we are left with a story that just tells us what we already know or could have guessed. Wolverine is a tough hombre with some emotional baggage.
However, the film’s worst offense is that it trades the titular bad ass’s grit for gloss. The pitch perfect introduction from X-Men is a thing of the past. This Wolverine is about as fierce as a focus-tested anti-hero can be. Sure, he’s still an angry dude with a chip on his soldier, but as the fait accompli presented here, he might as well be John Rambo. Rambo was great mid-eighties lone wolf popcorn cinema, and Logan’s baby-oiled pectorals and feathered hair could have a worse pedigree. However, the aesthetic seems out of place in 2009, even with the comic book geek’s retro sensibility. Logan does have something that Rambo lacked in Liev Schreiber’s Victor, a worthy mano-a-mano adversary, but the rift in their decades-old relationship feels like a convenient contrivance rather than true animosity. Think “Nobody picks on my little brother but me,” but replace “picks on” with “kills”.
In the end, Gavin Hood, the film’s relatively unknown director, does little to expand on Wolverine’s unique place in the annals of great comic book characters. If anything, the movie might signal the beginning of the end of the comic book movie renaissance before it can truly take flight. It’s no longer enough to put a four-color character on screen and expect the fanboys to flock to the multiplex. Jackman takes his role seriously here, and there are some visually exciting set pieces. Unfortunately, by the time the credits role, the whole affair feels like an unnecessary addition to the character’s canon. Will another visit to Wolverine’s story yield even more diminished returns?