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In honor of the impending release of the upcoming comic book adaptation The Wolverine, I have decided to write about the previous installment in Wolverine’s film oeuvre. X-Men has been a popular film franchise since the first movie topped the box office during the summer of 2000, spawning a series of sequels (which include next summer’s much anticipated Days of Future Past) and largely reviving interest in adapting comic books for the big screen. A film adaptation of one of the most popular comic book characters in the Marvel canon should have been an enormous hit, but X-Men Origins: Wolverine grossed less than the two previous X-Men films, and led to a four-year lull in the Wolverine film spin-off franchise. So, what exactly went wrong?
Wolverine has long been one of, if not the, most popular comic book characters. The first three X-Men films largely revolved around him as a centralized figure. The first film featured a growing bond between Rogue and Wolverine, who were both new to the group and thusly outsiders. The second film explored Wolverine’s connection to Col. Stryker, featuring Stryker as the main antagonist of the movie. X-Men: The Last Stand largely revolved around the relationship between Wolverine and would-be love interest Jean Grey, who had been reborn as the dark, villainous Phoenix. Having devoted so much screen time already to the character, an entire movie based around the origins of Wolverine might not have been such a great idea from the start. There is only so much of a character a film can feature before it just starts to get old and boring, and in many places X-Men Origins: Wolverine really feels sluggish and boring (and dumb).
X-Men Origins: Wolverine has been a punching bag of a movie since its release during the summer movie season of 2009. The film was met with an overwhelmingly negative reception, from both critics and audiences. On the critical end, the film garnered largely negative reviews (scoring a cumulative 38% on Rotten Tomatoes), and it was also met with scorn online by many comic book fans, who decried the treatment of fan favorite side characters like Deadpool and Gambit. Though Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber were both praised for their roles as Wolverine and arch-villain Sabretooth, the two men ultimately couldn’t save the production’s mostly negative reception. It didn’t help that X-Men Origins: Wolverine also had an incredibly troubled production, which included a lengthy shooting schedule, tension between Fox executives and director Gavin Hood, and an online leak of a nearly finished print of the film that was downloaded millions of times months before the movie’s summer release date.
On opening weekend, X-Men Origins: Wolverine debuted to lower numbers than Fox anticipated. The studio publicly blamed a leaked, nearly completed version of the film for the lower box office gross. In March of 2009, a leaked version of the movie began appearing online, and was subsequently downloaded millions of times. At least one reporter, Roger Friedman, reviewed the film from this incomplete, illegally shared workprint, and was notably fired for doing so (ironically, he worked for Fox News). In addition to the leaked version of the film, X-Men Origins: Wolverine also had to contend with a real-life illness, the much publicized H1N1 or “Swine Flu” virus, that had been rolling through various countries all spring long. Pundits estimated that the film lost millions in potential dollars due to this outbreak.
I noted earlier that X-Men Origins: Wolverine feels kind of sluggish in places. The script for the film was originally written by David Benioff, known primarily these days for adapting Game of Thrones for HBO. Benioff is credited as screenwriter along with Skip Woods, who rewrote the script. Skip Woods is largely known for writing incredibly bad screenplays, including the script to the recently-released, dreadfully dire sequel A Good Day to Die Hard. Even after Woods’ rewrite, Fox brought on two additional writers to contribute to the script as well. The shooting script for X-Men Origins: Wolverine was clearly a case of too many cooks in the kitchen, leaving the film with a sluggish feel that is also over-stuffed, muddled, and needlessly confusing. Take for instance the opening scene to the film, where a young Wolverine, named James for some reason, kills the man who turns out to be his father. The scene should be powerful and dramatic, but comes off as a confused mess of a moment. Four years and many viewings later, and I’m still not exactly sure what was going on there.
I don’t entirely find the film without merit, however. Jackman gives a great performance as Wolverine, and as far as I’m concerned he really owns the character and can play him for the next ten years in many more movies. Liev Schreiber’s performance as Sabretooth is also completely unpredictable and terrifying, and he serves as a great foil and villain to Wolverine. The opening credits montage for X-Men Origins: Wolverine is also really well done, capturing the essence of the main character and his antagonistic brother in just a few minutes. Additionally, the first twenty minutes or so of the film after the credits, featuring the top-secret mutant team is really cool (if only the whole movie could have been like that). There are places in the film where Hood’s direction works very well, and nicely complements the melodramatic nature of the movie’s tone (there are also other places where Hood’s incompetence as an action director hamstring’s the production, however).
Watching X-Men Origins: Wolverine over four years after its initial release, I didn’t hate it as much as I expected to. Then again, I didn’t really hate it when I saw it in theaters originally either. It’s certainly not a great film, but it has its share of cool moments, even if it doesn’t really do justice to fan-favorite characters like Deadpool and Gambit (The Blob is still really fucking funny, though). On the whole, I don’t think the film is nearly as odious as the internet has made it out to be, and I certainly enjoyed it much more than X-Men: The Last Stand, which I think is the obvious weakest film in the X-Men film franchise. There are certainly problems with the script and the direction in a lot of places, but the principle performances are pretty good and there’s enough interesting material here to hold my attention, even on a repeat viewing. I can certainly see, however, why the film ended up being such a failure. I really hope The Wolverine is a lot better.