Wolverine Sinks its Claws into the Box Office

05/01/2009 12:26 PM |

Hey, it’s Filmscene! Our semi-fegular feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart climb out from under their film-snob rock, to find out what regular people all over the country are eating popcorn during. This week: X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine – the latest installment in the already exhausted X-Men movie franchise drawn from the eponymous comic book series – reminded me of the three Star Wars prequels, mashed up into a furious historical epic. Like that ill-advised trip to the mythic source, Wolverine features multiple wars: the Revolutionary War, World Wars I and II and Vietnam swoosh past during the opening credits, then most of the film addresses the Cold War, with plenty of parallels to the current Middle East conflicts. Like Lucas’ intergalactic melodrama, Wolverine is obsessed with father figures. The film opens in Canada’s Northwest Territories, where sickly young Jimmy kills the man who just shot his father with the nifty bone claws his anger cues, only to find out that the man he just killed was his real father. Two dads killed in the first five minutes, and before the film ends at least two more are dispatched. After that first kill, Jimmy and his seething brother escape into the wilderness, growing up to become Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Victor Creed/Sabretooth (Liev Shreiber). Unlike the Star Wars prequels, though, Wolverine director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) and screenwriter David Benioff (The 25th Hour) seem aware that they can’t keep up the self-serious facade of the original series. This bumpy trip back in time marks the X-Men franchise’s crossover into B-movie camp, which is probably for the best.

Campy B-movies I like – unless they’re grossly irresponsible, like all the superhero movies seem to be these days. I’m glad you brought up that opening credit sequence, because it was one of the most absurd I’ve ever seen: Wolverine and his brother, leading the charge at Normandy (!) and gloriously kicking ass in every American conflict (even though they’re Canadian) since the war between the states (where they fought on the side of the Union, natch) excepting Korea, that oft-forgotten war. By Vietnam, brother Creed has taken his machine-gunning bloodthirst a bit too far, even for that war, and Wolverine feels compelled to intervene. And with that bit, Hood introduced what would become my major problem with the movie.

In Benoiff’s tossed-off script (“add a little sibling rivalry and we’re done!”), Logan is the voice of (relative) pacifism, reason and empathy, while in contrast the villains argue for pre-emptive action and drop lines like “your country needs you!” Ostensibly, then, the neocon-ish pseudo-patriots are the bad guys here – hooray? But Hood’s tone undermines it; Logan is an unconvincing counterpoint to the glorified bloodspills. The opening battle scenes look like War by Annie Leibovitz, combat rendered in glossy, romantic fashion photography. And then there are the copious action scenes: the teleporter’s (Will.i.am) acrobatic gunfights that change angle mid-frame, like The Matrix, and the swordfighter (Ryan Reynolds, whose snarkiness must have irked David Denby, sitting a few rows in front of me) who splits a bullet in two like something out of Wanted. (Rounding out the opening act’s supermutant taskforce are two former Lost cast members. Apparently when you die on The Island, you wind up in an X-Men movie.) Twice, Wolverine is photographed against a background of lush flames, including once while gunning a motorcycle. For all its lip service, X-Men: Origins‘ violence-fetish struck me as hyper-jingoism, more Iron Man/Dark Knight bullshit – a Bush-era hangover spoiling Obama’s first early-summer blockbuster season.

You’re completely right, Hood seems to have a knack for making tragic places and events look beautiful: remember Tsotsi‘s dreamy Johannesburg, and of course this film’s scene in Lagos (which evoked uneasy memories of Slumdog Millionaire‘s aestheticized Mumbai, Bad Boys 2‘s nameless Cuban shantytown, or Team America‘s parodic globetrotting destruction). In fact, before we move on I should point out that when Lost characters die on The Island they are sent to Wolverine’s mutant prison on “The Island”. In the film, that center for genetic experimentation (minor spoiler alert) turns out to be Three Mile Island, of the same-named nuclear meltdown, another calamity of modern history that Hood and cinematographer Donald M. McAlpine (The Chronicles of Narnia, Moulin Rouge!, Romeo + Juliet) turn into a breathtaking digital tableau – Wolverine, in a stormy rage, also trashes a soundstage of pre-Katrina New Orleans. The secret military prison and science lab is clearly a proxy Guantanamo Bay too, but when this movie’s government tries to shut it down, the evil suit on duty Stryker (Danny Huston) dispatches the messenger and business continues.

Stryker, as you pointed out, seems like a facile Bush-era baddie, but what to make of Wolverine now that we know more about him than he’ll ever remember? I’m glad that, despite the frequent reading of X-Men narratives as stories about ambiguously marginalized outcasts (are they gay? is mutant the new black?), Logan embraces a working-class identity. Granted, the mountain-top log cabin compound he shares with his Native girlfriend Kayla (Lynn Collins) is a delirious fantasy for a lumberjack earning $18,000 a year (sorry, $18,500), but then who’s ever heard of a superhero staring pensively out the only window of his basement studio? For all this film’s shortcomings (of which more to come), I was impressed that Logan was so clearly cast as a proletariat mutant. Maybe this, more than his fated life of tragedy and destruction, is his true identity – as Michael Moore taught us, only America’s poorest would fight in so many wars. After all, in that first scene we learn that Logan’s father is the drunken and vengeful underling, not the wealthy colonizing aristocrat. To top it all off, the film is being released on May Day. On such a reading, his brother Victor would be the aggressively ambitious predatory capitalist, which seems to fit. But then what to make of the rest of the wolf pack, er, Team X?

Before I answer your question: shooting the climax at Three Mile Island confused me – was that supposed to be some kind of alternate history of how the meltdown occurred? A revisionist unraveling of a conspiratorial cover-up? In the X-Men movie of 2050, will Magneto pilot the planes that hit the Towers? Anyway, racism, or at least general discrimination, has always been the X-Men series’ most potent subtext, so I was glad the filmmakers included that island prison/lab. When they mentioned that mutants were being spirited away to a secret island, my first thoughts were of Japanese internment camps or Nazi concentration camps. I’m too History Channel, I guess; once we get there, it was obviously meant to evoke Guantanamo, as you mention, which introduces the idea of mutant as Arab. (Potent!) Will.i.am’s character mentions at one point that Team X was hunting down mutants to protect humanity from “the bad ones,” just like the American military does with Arabs in the Middle East.

But if we can step back, I wanted to expand on the patricide motif you mentioned earlier. At root, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a coming-of-age tale, even though Wolverine doesn’t physically age after the 1860s. Dispatching the father figures early on struck me as an allegory for one of the earliest stages of psychological development: young and sickly Wolverine is forced, for the first time, to recognize his individual autonomy. His childhood lasts over 100 years, I guess, but his conversion to adamantium-infused supersoldier (vaguely messianic as he must be “destroyed” to be reborn) marks the onset of his adolescence. Like many a teen, he feels like everyone’s out to get him – and, in fairness, a lot of people are. Logan Scissorhands playing with his new claws, while locked in the bathroom of the Kent Family-esque retirees who briefly take him in, was a masturbation joke (“in a minute!”), and defeating his brother and other assorted villains, then, was his rite of passage into adulthood. That his memory was wiped at the end might just be a lazy way to set up Wolverine’s subsequent coming of age, the Bogartian shift in the first two films from self-interested rebel to collectivist-minded hero.

I’m glad you brought up the country couple who take Logan in (more proxy parents for Wolverine’s rampaging patricide), who immediately evoked Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” – or what would happen if Happy Gilmore’s grandmother married David Lynch’s late go-to old fart Jack Nance. That section – the film’s most pleasant and playful – seemed the clearest evidence that Hood is happy in genre-blending B-movie territory, rather than reaching for Bryan Singer-like gravitas and coming up with crap, as Brett Ratner did with X-Men: The Last Stand. Another moment when Hood and Benioff poke fun at the ridiculous franchise they’ve inherited comes when Stryker tries to re-recruit Logan with that classic “your country needs you” line, to which the wolfman responds: “I’m Canadian.” Brilliant.

Despite Wolverine‘s self-conscious humor and, as you noted, way-2008 political compass, I still can’t shake the uneasy feeling that it’s some dangerous conservative propaganda – aside from the obvious problem that its only female character (Kayla) literally cannot live without an abusive male keeper. With the Obama Administration’s current push to re-invigorate the American research sector, could Stryker’s wayward scientific experiments be something of a smear campaign? As in: “Hey, explosion-loving movie-goer, look what kinds of crazy projects your tax dollars might go to.” In this context, the fact that Stryker is essentially cloning and combining harvested mutant genes brings up the touchy, Christian heartstring-tugging stem cell question. I’m not saying it’s a perfect fit, just that Wolverine’s baddies could be something more current than the tired military contractors of the Bush years.

One Comment

  • Very good how you threaded the current/past political situation to the wolverine/xmen subtext of racism. I hope I can learn some writing style from this post. You have a great one by the way. Emily Blunt (Gwen Conliffe 2010)