4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

Weapon Blech — X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Wolverine was introduced in 1974 at the end of Incredible Hulk #180 by the late, great Len Wein & Herb Trimpe, inserting himself into a battle between the Hulk and the Wendigo. A Canadian secret agent, codenamed Weapon X, Wolverine spent issue #181 fighting both Hulk and Wendigo, failing to stop either one. A year later, Wein used him as part of his new team of X-Men introduced in Giant-Size X-Men #1, and he quickly became the most popular of those new characters; his combination of snotty-brawler personality, tendency to explosive violence, and mysterious past proved to be incredibly compelling, particularly in the hands of Wein’s successor, Chris Claremont, and his longtime collaborator, Canadian artist/co-plotter John Byrne. He became Marvel’s most popular character, matching, if not supplanting, Spider-Man as the company’s flagship hero in the latter two decades of the 20th century.

When the X-Men hit the big screen in 2000, the character did likewise for the growing series of X-films.

Details about Wolverine were revealed slowly in the comics, over the course of many years. Initially, he was just a mutant with better-than-usual fighting skills. Wein’s original intent was that the claws were part of his gloves, but Claremont later revealed them to be natural, and he also had an adamantium skeleton. When the X-Men (and the readers) find this and other things (like that he speaks Japanese, or his real name) out, they inevitably say, “You never told us,” to which he replies, “You never asked.” It became an entertaining running joke.

His fast-healing ability wasn’t revealed until about five or six years after his introduction, which explained how he was able to have his skeleton replaced and how he’s able to pop his claws through his skin without bleeding to death. When Magneto removed all the adamantium from his body, he discovered—to his surprise—that he had bone claws underneath the metal. While he considers Logan to be his real name, that was one he adopted, and his birthname of James Howlett wasn’t revealed until much later.

Helping with Wolverine’s mystery is that he himself has very little memory of his life before he was rescued by James MacDonald Hudson and his wife Heather, who took him in and recruited him to Canadian intelligence, where he worked until he left to join the X-Men.

Bits and pieces of his backstory were filled in over the years, particularly in the various Weapon X series (first in Marvel Comics Presents, and then in a solo series), in Wolverine’s own 1990s series, and eventually in great detail in the two Origins miniseries and then the Wolverine: Origins ongoing.

As played by Hugh Jackman—a last-minute replacement for Dougray Scott in 2000’s X-Men—Wolverine became just as popular in the movie version of the X-Men as his four-color counterpart. He was the central member of the ensemble in four of the six X-Men movies (and made cameos in the other two), and was a natural for the first spinoff.

The intent was for this to be the first in a series of “Origins” films, with the second focusing on Magneto. Besides Jackman—who co-produced the movie and consulted on the first-draft script by David Benioff—Liev Schreiber was cast to play Victor Creed. The real name of Sabretooth in the comics, unlike the Sabretooth who appeared in X-Men, Creed hews more closely to the comics’ version of the character.

Various characters who hadn’t appeared in the X-trilogy show up here: Ryan Reynolds as Wade Wilson (a.k.a. Deadpool, though the resemblance between this character and either the one in the comics or the one in the more recent movies is poor), Taylor Kitsch as Remy LeBeau (a.k.a. Gambit), Kevin Durand as Fred J. Dukes (a.k.a. the Blob), Lynn Collins as Silverfox, Dominic Monaghan as Chris Bradley (a.k.a. Bolt), Daniel Henney as Agent Zero (a.k.a. Maverick), and will.i.am as John Wraith. In addition, younger versions of William Stryker and Scott Summers are played by Danny Huston and Tim Pocock, respectively. Brian Cox had wanted to reprise the role of Stryker, established in X2, with digital trickery used to de-age him. While the filmmakers declined to do so, Sir Patrick Stewart did make a cameo as a digitally de-aged (and ambulatory) Charles Xavier.

The movie was not particularly well received, though it made quite a bit of money for the studio. However, they quickly abandoned the “Origins” notion, with the planned X-Men Origins: Magneto shelved and reworked into 2011’s X-Men: First Class (which we’ll be covering around the end of the year). Jackman would get two more Wolvie solo films—having covered his past here, 2013’s The Wolverine will deal with his present (specifically the aftermath of his killing Jean Grey in X-Men: The Last Stand), and 2017’s Logan his future, taking place in 2029.

 

“I’m the best there is at what I do…”

 X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Written by David Benioff and Skip Woods
Directed by Gavin Hood
Produced by Lauren Shuler Donner and Ralph Winter and John Palermo and Hugh Jackman
Original release date: April 9, 2009

We open in Canada, 1845. Young James Howlett is very ill, looked over by his best friend Victor Creed (who has sharpened his fingernails to points). Creed’s father arrives and harasses Howlett’s mother. Howlett’s father goes to stop him, but is shot and killed for his trouble. Howlett screams with grief and six bone claws extend from his hands. He kills Creed’s father, whose dying breath reveals that he’s Howlett’s biological father, not the man who raised him.

Howlett—disgusted at this revelation and frightened of these weird claws that he seems to have—runs away. Creed follows, and they agree to stick together. Over the credits, we see them fighting side by side in the Civil War, World War I, World War II, and Vietnam. Some time after the latter, Creed—who was already pretty unstable—starts attacking his fellow soldiers. He and Howlett are both imprisoned, and then recruited by Colonel William Stryker. He’s putting together a commando team of powered beings to do covert ops for the U.S. government.

The team includes Creed, Howlett, Wade Wilson (who is a devastatingly brilliant fighter, able to deflect bullets with his swords), Agent Zero (who can draw, aim, and shoot faster than anyone, with perfect accuracy), John Wraith (who can teleport), Chris Bradley (who can manipulate any electronic device from a light bulb to a computer), and Fred J. Dukes (who is super strong and immovable).

Their first mission is to Lagos, seemingly to stop a diamond smuggler, but Stryker is actually interested in a meteor fragment that the diamond smuggler has on his desk. (So much so that the team kills a lot of people to get to it.) He got it from a small rural village, and Stryker heads there (ignoring calls from headquarters, which Bradley is able to jam). The villagers hold the fragment sacred, as it fell from the sky, and Stryker orders Creed to kill the villagers. Howlett stops him, and then walks away from the team, tossing his dogtags to the ground.

Fast forward six years. Howlett is now calling himself Logan and living with a woman named Kayla Silverfox, a schoolteacher in rural Canada. One night she tells him a fable about a wolverine.

Bradley is now working a carnival, and Creed shows up and kills him. Stryker tracks Logan down and warns him that Bradley is dead, and so is Wilson. Stryker tells Logan that he fears someone is tracking down the old team, though Creed is still alive. Logan isn’t interested in rejoining Stryker and tells him to pound sand. When Stryker tries to appeal to his patriotism, Logan reminds the colonel that he’s Canadian.

Creed himself shows up and attacks Silverfox. Logan finds her dead, and loses it. He goes to Stryker, who explains why he was so hot for that meteor in Lagos. Using the metal from the meteor, he has created an unbreakable compound called adamantium. He wants to bond the metal to Logan’s skeleton, making his skeleton unbreakable, his claws unstoppable. His healing ability makes him the only choice to undergo the experiment. In order to stop Creed, Logan agrees. Stryker offers him his old dogtags back, but Logan insists on new ones that say “Logan” on one side and “Wolverine” on the other, in tribute to Silverfox.

The process succeeds, but is so incredibly painful that Logan runs away from the facility after trashing it. He’s taken in by a couple, Travis and Heather Hudson, and he struggles to deal with his new metal claws.

Agent Zero kills the Hudsons and blows up their house. Logan attacks him and the soldiers with them, taking them all down. Logan kills Zero—who has mentioned an island where Stryker is now based—and tells Stryker that he’s going to find Creed and then go after Stryker. Stryker warns him that he won’t like where this road will lead.

Logan goes to Las Vegas, where Wraith now owns a boxing club where Dukes trains. Dukes has let himself go to seed, but Wraith is trying to train him. Dukes tells Logan that Creed is working for Stryker, and nobody knows where the island is. One person who might know is Remy LeBeau, a mutant in New Orleans who managed to escape the island.

Wraith and Logan go to N’awlins to question LeBeau, who thinks they work for Stryker, and he refuses to go back. Creed shows up, thus obviating the need to search for him, and kills Wraith. Logan fights him, but it’s interrupted by LeBeau, who doesn’t realize that Logan’s on his side. Creed escapes, and LeBeau realizes his mistake.

Stryker is now based on Three Mile Island. LeBeau has a plane he won in a poker game and he flies Logan there. Stryker has been using Creed to collect powers from mutants both dead—like Wraith—and alive—such as a young man named Scott Summers who fires optic blasts—and pool them inside a single mutant. This pool of dead mutants is Wilson. (Ahem.) He has several young mutants prisoner and is experimenting on them.

To Logan’s disgust, Silverfox is alive and was working for Stryker—he promised to free Silverfox’s sister Emma if she did as Stryker wished, including helping Creed fake her own murder. Logan fights Creed and defeats him, refusing to actually kill his brother. He and Silverfox free the kids, including Emma and Summers.

Then they’re confronted by Wilson. Logan sends Silverfox off with the kids while he fights Wilson. He has swords that come out his arms akin to Logan’s claws, Wraith’s teleporting, Summers’s optic blasts, and a healing factor. They fight on one of the smokestacks, and then Creed arrives to save Logan on the nobody-kills-my-brother-but-me principle. They fight Wilson together, using the same back-to-back tactics they used in combat when they were younger, and eventually defeat him, cutting his head off and destroying the smokestack.

Creed then attacks Logan, but LeBeau saves him. Creed gets away, and the kids are rescued by a bald telepath in a helicopter who identifies himself as Charles Xavier.

Stryker confronts Logan with a gun filled with adamantium bullets and shoots Logan in the head. Silverfox also dies, having been wounded earlier. LeBeau finds Logan when he wakes up, but he can’t remember anything; while his brain heals the physical damage from the bullets, the memories are gone. His dogtags read both “Logan” and “Wolverine,” but he can’t remember anything else, including LeBeau and Silverfox. He goes off on his own.

 

“…but what I do isn’t very nice”

From 1994 to 2000, I was the editor in charge of a line of Marvel Comics-based novels and short-story anthologies. It was, prior to 2008, the biggest, most extensive line of interconnected Marvel stories told in a form other than comic books.

Among the fifty-plus books we did in that line, which was co-published by Byron Preiss Multimedia Company and the Boulevard Books imprint of what is now the Penguin Publishing Group, was a 1998 hardcover novel by Christopher Golden called X-Men: Codename Wolverine. It told a two-track storyline, one in the present day, one in the past, during Logan’s days as a covert operative. An old mission comes back to haunt them, as the people involved in a search for a disk years earlier are kidnapped in the present day. It was a fun espionage adventure from Wolverine’s pre-superhero career.

I had high hopes that X-Men Origins: Wolverine would be similar in tone to Golden’s book. There’s a lot to be mined in Wolverine’s mysterious past—indeed, comics writers have spent a lot of time the past four decades mining it—and I thought this movie could do likewise.

Things start out promising, with the history between Sabretooth and Wolverine fighting alongside each other through so many wars, then being recruited by Stryker. When they’re flying to Lagos, I thought, all right, this is what I signed up for. There’s even some overlap in the characters involved, as the 1998 novel featured not just Creed, but also Wraith, Agent Zero (when he was calling himself Maverick), and Silverfox.

And then we don’t even get halfway through the first mission before Wolverine quits in a huff and we fast forward six years to Creed killing off the members of the team, as if that’s supposed to mean something. But we only saw the team for half a second, so neither Wolverine’s departure nor Creed’s tracking them down to kill them has much of an impact, beyond the sundering of the two half-brothers. I had more emotional connection to the doomed X-Force team in Deadpool 2, for crying out loud.

Then we get Silverfox. In the comics, Silver Fox was also a love interest for Logan who died, but she actually was a strong character in her own right, who led Hydra for a time, as opposed to a schoolteacher with a mutant power who was manipulated by Stryker. Here, as played by the supremely bland Lynn Collins, she’s a plot device, and not a particularly interesting one.

Not that the other characters fare much better. The character Ryan Reynolds plays is a good one, but he bears no resemblance to Deadpool except for using the scarring of the surgeries done on him to mimic the comic character’s mask (going so far as to sew his mouth shut). It’s pretty revolting, and were it not supposed to be an iconic character like Deadpool, it might have worked better. (Though I did love Logan’s line about Stryker finally finding a way to shut Wilson up.)

Reynolds, at least, will be able to redeem Deadpool down the line. Would that the same could be said for all the others. Liev Schreiber doesn’t sound like Sabretooth, he sounds like a bored hipster. He conveys none of the menace of Creed, and his physicality is lacking. His leaping about like an animal on all fours probably looked great on the storyboards, but looks idiotic when shown. Kevin Durand in a fat suit is pretty awful (though still probably only the second-silliest thing he’s ever worn on camera), will.i.am and Dominic Monaghan create absolutely no impression whatsoever as Wraith and Bradley, and the less said about Taylor Kitsch’s spectacularly bland Gambit the better. Though I suppose I should be impressed that they managed to make Gambit boring. I’ve never had much use for Remy LeBeau, but whatever I may think of him, he was never dull until this movie. And Danny Huston gives no sense that he will age into anyone as talented as Bryan Cox. (They should’ve shelled out the money for the CGI to de-age Cox, it would’ve been a thousand times better than Huston’s tired mustache-twirling.)

The title character doesn’t come across so hot here, either. Jackman seems to be sleepwalking through most of the picture. In every other X-movie he appears in, he takes control of the action—the camera almost always focuses on him, even if it’s just a joke cameo like in First Class—but here, he’s just either upset at Creed or blandly angry at Stryker. His anger and rage is irritatingly subdued—he’s only convincingly rage-y when he leaps from the vat after being implanted with the adamantium.

To make matters worse, the actual plot makes no sense. Bad enough we have no emotional investment in the systematic killing off of this team we barely met, but Stryker’s subsequent plan makes no sense. Why go to all the trouble of turning Logan into a killing machine if you’re then going to spend the rest of the movie trying to kill him? This plot flaw is, in fact, so bloody bog-obvious that General Munson actually points it out to Stryker. (Munson, by the way, is one of the best acting jobs in the whole damn movie, played brilliantly by Australian actor Stephen Leeder, whom I remember fondly from the Farscape episode “Nerve” as Commander Javio.)

Stryker’s response is the same as that of every other villain ever, which is to kill the general—except Munson has already said he’s shutting the project down, and generals are part of a chain of command. In fact, in a mid-credits scene, Stryker is taken in for questioning regarding Munson’s death. I suppose it’s possible that Stryker fobbed it off on Logan or Creed or Wilson—in fact, he had to have, since we’ve already seen that two decades or so hence, he’ll be a presidential aide

Still, what Stryker is trying to accomplish could charitably be called unclear, and not always consistent with how he was portrayed as an older man in X2.

There was a chance to tell a good movie here, a nifty little adventure flick with mutant commandos going on interesting missions. Instead, we were teased for that movie and got something far less interesting.

 

Next week, we move on to The Wolverine.

Keith R.A. DeCandido recently won the Scribe Award, given by the International Association of Media Tie-in Writers, for Best Short Story for his tale “Ganbatte” in Joe Ledger: Unstoppable, a Lydia “Warbride” Ruiz story about martial arts, the Florida Keys, and sexual harassment.

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