The summer of 2009 was a rough one for Hollywood blockbusters. Throughout most of the previous year, the Writers Guild of America had been on strike (for largely ill-conceived reasons), prompting producers to push projects forward with incomplete screenplays, unrevised drafts, and lots and lots of money to spend haphazardly. To this day, the most striking example of a cinematic oeuvre made without writers remains Michael Bay’s Transformers 2: Return of the Fallen (2009), but X-Men Origins: Wolverine surely comes a close second.
The movie starts off on more or less the right foot as our titular hero, still a child at this point, discovers his mutant powers in the midst of a family tragedy and forges a life-long bond with his half-brother Victor, who may or may not grow up to become Tyler Mane’s Sabretooth from the first X-Men (2000). Admittedly, the scene is set in 1845 Northwest Territories, which strikes me as a bit odd given Canada was founded in 1867, but I love the subsequent montage, in which the siblings spend the next hundred years on the trenches of one U.S. conflict after the other, including the American Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Vietnam War, and so on.
The bloodshed takes its toll on both mutants, but each expresses his existential angst in a radically different manner. The eldest, for example, comes to the conclusion that humanity is fated to destroy itself and that only his fraternal love matters. I adore this take on Victor, partly because the character is portrayed by Liev Schreiber, who, in my book, can do no wrong, partly because this romantic fatalism makes him more of an anti-hero than an outright villain. “We stick together no matter what and take care of anyone who gets in our way,” he tells his little brother, words that take a whole new meaning when shared between two immortal beings.
In contrast, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), having had enough violence for multiple lifetimes, just wants to hide from the world and find redemption in the Canadian wilderness. He does just that after a single mission alongside a mutant mercenary team led by William Stryker (Danny Huston), the bad guy from X2: X-Men United (2003). Don’t worry though. He comes back to the USA a few scenes later, after Victor attacks his new girlfriend Kayla (Lynn Collins), a.k.a. Silver Fox.
This needless back and forth across the border proves emblematic of the structural issues in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The traumatic Weapon X experiment that endows our hero with his fabled adamantium skeleton is generally recognised as the defining moment of his past. In the source Marvel Comics series, it leads to his partial memory loss when the X-Men recruit him, so you’d figure any prequel exploring this material ought to either begin or end with this pivotal scene. Strangely, absentee screenwriters David Benioff and Skip Woods slap it right in the middle, forcing the narrative to fold back on itself by way of convoluted plot twists and inexplicable amnesia bullets.
Take, for instance, the flip-floppy way one character seemingly dies, comes back, is revealed a traitor, turns out to be on the angels’ side after all, and then gets aced again only for Wolverine to come to the rescue, sort of but not quite. Better yet, consider the ridiculous comings and goings of Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) in the final act. He begins by helping our hero reach the Weapon X headquarters (they just fly there: boring), disappears unceremoniously, and then turns up again out of nowhere only to be told to run to the other end of the complex so as not to interrupt the final confrontation with Stryker. The Cajun mutant obliges, realises he’s got nothing to do at said other end of the complex, and so comes back to pick up the pieces of the showdown he just missed!
Oh, yeah, Gambit shows up in this flick, as does an endless parade of X-Men familiars, including a young Cyclops (Tim Pocock), the White Queen (Tahyna Tozzi), Blob (Kevin Durand), Bolt (Dominic Monaghan), Agent Zero (Daniel Henney), and the Vanisher (Will.i.am of all people). For the most part, these cameos don’t serve much purpose in the narrative or resemble their comic book counterparts in the least. None, though, seem as wasted as Ryan Reynolds, who portrays Wade Wilson for one scene and then gets replaced by stuntman Scott Adkins when his part turns into that of the popular Deadpool. If it’s any consolation, the character gets butchered anyway, in more ways than one.
What I find the most troubling about X-Men Origins: Wolverine is that a lot of these issues could have been fixed with just a second pass at the script. Director Gavin Hood does his best with what essentially amounts to an incomplete story and even manages to evoke (if perhaps not convey) some of the depth to which the entire creative team aspired before the writers’ strike. In a similar bind, Michael Bay brought about one of the most offensive blockbusters of our generation. This one turns out a forgettable mess at worst, and even then I can’t help but show affection for the movie that might have been.