He’s the best there is at what he does, but what he does isn’t very nice.
Actually, that’s not really true. It might be true of his brother Victor Creed, or Sabretooth as he’s later called. Victor’s a lot better at what they do than his brother James Howlett, the man who will be Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). And while Sabretooth (Liev Schreiber) certainly isn’t nice at all, Wolverine isn’t all that not-nice.
Certainly he displays very little penchant for feral ferocity and berzerker rage. Not that I want Wolverine, the most popular mutant superhero in the X-Men pantheon, to be an animal. But I think the character ought to struggle with bestial tendencies, certainly in the long back story that X-Men Origins: Wolverine sets out to tell.
I don’t object to his walking away from a covert mutant strike force assembled by a young General Stryker (well-cast Danny Huston) over moral objections to the way they’re being used. That just means he has a conscience. I do wonder why we pretty much never see Wolverine in an unsympathetic light — why he never picks an unnecessary fight, say, or reacts with excessive force to a fight picked with him, or shows callous indifference to a crisis that is not his problem.
I can remember only two occasions in which Wolverine actually uses his claws, or otherwise uses deadly force (outside of an opening-credits war montage), on a human being — at least, one without the same genetic kink that produces Wolverine’s crazy healing powers. The first time, when he is just a boy, a man has just killed his father — and, as far as we know, his mutant condition manifests here for the first time. As the scene is developed, you could hardly call him responsible for what happens.
The second time is the crucial scene in which Wolverine is weaponized with the unbreakable metal adamantium fused to his skeleton, where the extenuating circumstances are even more dire. Neither scene threatens to alienate the viewer from Wolverine. Neither suggests that he is, or is in any danger of becoming, “truly lost,” as the man who called himself Ducard described the young Bruce Wayne in the first scene of Batman Begins.
Again, not that I want Wolverine to be a clone of Batman Begins, although as inspirations go you could do a lot worse. If anything, though, shouldn’t Wolverine’s risk factor for being “truly lost” be higher than Bruce Wayne’s, not lower?
He’s even a gentleman — sweet with his girlfriend Kayla Silverfox (winsome Lynn Collins), with whom he shares a mountain cabin somewhere in Canada, where he works as a lumberjack, and polite to an elderly farm couple who, in a scene with curious Ma and Pa Kent overtones that don’t really pay off, are driving along when Wolverine comes flying, naked as the newborn Kal-El, across the path of their truck.
At the same time, Wolverine has sadly all but lost his wit. Other than a little impudent taunting and an occasional ironic understatement like “Right” or “Okay,” there's little sign of the wiseacre who got lines like “Well, this certainly is a big round room” and “You actually go outside in these things?” in the first two X-Men movies. (There were no clever lines in the third X-Men movie.) Oh, and the only time in the whole film that he calls anyone “Bub,” it’s a jokey plot point.
After a prologue set in 1845, the opening-credits war montage, and a couple of scenes set in the Vietnam era, the balance of the film takes place in the 1970s. This means that Wolverine is about 150 years old (his regenerative powers mean that he doesn’t age like normal humans).
What must it be like to remember the preindustrial world in the space age, to have fought in the Civil War and World War II as well as Vietnam? To hold a woman whose great-great-grandmother was probably born after you were, or to be able to remember people who have been dead for over a century?
What is it like to be able to smell the sweat of an enemy from fifty feet away, or hear a whispered conversation from the next room? To suffer physical trauma and feel great pain without fear, and know that in a few minutes you’ll be right as rain? To look the same as you did a century ago, and wonder whether you will ever die?
Director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) and screenwriters David Benioff (Troy) and Skip Woods (Hitman) show virtually no interest in such questions. Essentially, they’re ticking off items on a checklist. Sabretooth, Stryker, Deadpool, Gambit; check, check, check, check. Wants normal life, revenge motivation, Weapon X process, betrayal; check, check, check, check. Big action set piece, mutant cameos, climactic battle, amnesia; check, check, check, check. Paycheck, check.
It’s not unlike Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith, as prequels go. You go in knowing it has certain beats to hit, and it hits most of them in ways you might expect, more or less. If you’re a fan of the material, you’ll want to see the beats hit, even if they aren’t hit especially well. There are some decent action scenes, and an inevitable, tragic climax, as well as things that make no sense. All in all, it’s not a bad film. What’s most conspicuously lacking is any sense of surprise, of revelation, of creative boldness.
I don’t think my lack of surprise is simply because I have a closet full of comic books going back to my childhood, and know something about the story. I don’t think Wolverine will particularly surprise anyone who’s seen the first two X-Men movies, or even anyone who has seen a fair number of action movies. On the other hand, Batman Begins was full of surprises for me, even though I knew a lot more about Batman’s origins than I did about Wolverine’s. (I can’t resist noting that next week’s Star Trek, another origin story of sorts, is just one bold surprise after another.)
(Spoiler warning.) Top thing that doesn’t make sense: Stryker’s convoluted plot to get Wolverine to “volunteer” for the Weapon X process. Stryker says Wolverine had to volunteer because the process is so painful (and anesthetics don’t work on him). Is that, like, an ethical consideration? From Stryker? Once you realize what Stryker’s capable of, and what he actually went through to accomplish his goals, you have to wonder: Why he didn’t just send Sabretooth to beat Wolverine to a pulp and bring him back in chains? I’m just saying.
He’s the best there is at what he does, but what he does isn’t very nice. The Wolverine: my “Reel Faith” 60-second review.
It’s not a great film, but it’s a pretty good one. This year, that’s enough to make The Wolverine not only the season’s best superhero film, but arguably its best popcorn action movie: a gingery palate cleanser in a summer of overcooked Big Macs.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.