Plot more mutant than hero

Posted: Thursday, May 07, 2009

'X-Men Origins: Wolverine'

20th Century Fox

1 hour, 47 minutes

I stopped reading comic books sometime in the early 90s, just after high school. It wasn't that I necessarily outgrew them, it was just that financial realities closed in. Suddenly, instead of being able to con my mother into a monthly trip to the bookstore, I was now expected to pay for the comics myself, and that pretty much put the kibosh on my collecting days.

While I was into them, though, I was a big fan of the "X-Men," and in particular, one Wolverine, a rough and tumble brawler of a superhero with razor sharp claws, unbreakable bones, and the ability to heal just about any wound. When he was first introduced in the 70s, Wolverine was little more than a wise-cracking, cigar-smoking Canadian, but by the time I was reading him, he was experiencing a revitalization of sorts. Writers had begun fleshing him out, making him a tortured loner with no memory of his past and prone to berserker rages.

Though I left the pages behind before they had completely worked out his history, Wolverine was always one of my favorites. He was born to be popular -- dark, complicated, cool looking, rebel, anti-authority and virtually unbeatable.

Or so we thought. It appears that the money-men over at 20th Century Fox have figured out how to crush the life out of even the toughest of heroes.

"Wolverine" is technically a prequel to the "X-Men" trilogy, though it certainly stands alone. Hugh Jackman returns to the character for a fourth time, and though he certainly has it down, the film itself completely misses the boat. I don't know about specifics -- whether they got this character or that character wrong or whether this or that bit of Wolverine lore has been changed or left out.

As I said, I quit reading his stories before they got so deep into his past, so for all I know this version of his life is gospel, but it's also equal parts silly and stale and devoid of all the complex emotional baggage that made the character so appealing in the first place.

The story begins in 1840s Canada, where a sickly young boy is learning to his horror that, not only is his father not the man he believed, but that he also has deadly sharp bone claws protruding from his knuckles. Suddenly we're on the run, young James, along with his brother Victor, who has similar traits -- claws, healing, etc. Fast-forwarding through history, we see the brothers fighting in the Civil War (I thought they were Canadian ...), WWI, WWII, and Vietnam (did I mention that they don't really age beyond their hunky 30s?) before they are recruited to join a special black ops unit of other "skilled" individuals.

This works out for a while, but eventually our hero decides he can no longer stomach the indiscriminate killing that the unit, and especially Victor, employs. James leaves the military and retires to a quiet life back in Canada, lumberjacking and living with a schoolteacher.

Nothing this good can last, however, and he is thrust back into the violence after his love is killed and it's revealed that someone is hunting down the old team. His former commander offers James a devil's bargain: undergo a horrible procedure that will fuse an indestructible alloy to his bones, and revenge will be within his grasp. But who can our hero trust? Not Hollywood screenwriters, that's for sure.

The problem isn't the above plot, although things really start to go south the more mutants the writers try to shoehorn into this already overly-complicated story, culminating in an idiotic final battle.

The real problem is one of character development, of which there's virtually none. Why is that such a big deal, you may ask? Isn't this just an action movie with fun superhero battles?

On the one hand, that's exactly what "Wolverine" is, but unlike "Batman" or "Superman," whose existence make a kind of sense, without character development, mutants just come off as silly. That's why "X-Men" dealt with social issues and interpersonal conflicts in addition to super-battles.

The writers of this film spend all their time focusing on the "cool" aspects of these superbeings, but it's all just surface area. Wolverine isn't a layered, complex, damaged individual, he's just a guy running around with knives coming out of his hands, careening from one explosion to the next. There was nothing to care about, nothing to latch onto. I might as well have been watching a cartoon, for all the thought that was put into it.

Oddly, though the main characters of Victor and Wolverine are fairly cardboard, there were a few glimmers of depth and subtlety here and there. In particular, I was impressed with the portrayals of both Blob and Bolt, two original members of the special ops team with plenty of demons in their pasts. These are small roles, but well-written and very sympathetic and well acted by Kevin Durand and Dominic Monaghan. Those characters are in contrast to the "fascinating" mutants Agent Zero and Deadpool, who probably have cool comic book backgrounds but here are merely super-skilled at shooting and swordplay, respectively. Ho hum.

What it all comes down to is a lack of respect and a desire to simply strip-mine a beloved storyline for easy bucks. Twentieth Century Fox has become adept at this, giving us substandard versions of "Daredevil," "Electra," "The Fantastic Four," and now "Wolverine." Diehard comic geeks are just about fed up, and Fox chairman Tom Rothman certainly didn't help matters when he recently commented, "@*#! the fans! We already have their money."

That may be true, but for how long? It's a fact that "Wolverine" was tops at the box office this week, but in this highly competitive market, big movies now depend on repeat viewings, and with "Star Trek" on the horizon, Hugh Jackman may have strapped on his last set of claws.

Grade: C-

"Wolverine" is rated PG-13 for violence and language.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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