The James Clayton Column: The critics’ claws

Should we look on approvingly as producers run our favourite franchises into the ground...?

Hugh Jackman as Wolverine

How great would it be to be Wolverine? Along with the kudos and convenience of having nifty, nicely sharp blades concealed between your knuckles, you also get the most awesome sideburns imaginable, healing ability and – in theory – wouldn’t have to take crap from anyone. Throughout the X-Men film series, there’s no faulting Hugh Jackman’s hirsute hero and, existing on his own plane of coolness, I don’t think anyone would cast evil eyes in Wolverine’s direction and slag him off.

The comic book community and franchise fans can be a tetchy, hard-to-please bunch, so it’s not surprising that the X-Men movies have been a source for diverse dispute and disgruntlement. Whatever flak has come the franchise’s way though, Jackman’s Wolverine emerges free from criticism and condemnation – partly because he was born to portray Logan and partly because you can’t help but love the character. Where there was whinging about Cyclops being too sulky, Halle Berry’s Storm wig looking stupid or Vinnie Jones’s Juggernaut being just terrible, Wolverine got a thumbs up every time.

There was no doubt as to which of the X-Men would receive a spin-off feature first and that movie is now in multiplexes going under the title X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Because you can never have enough Wolverine, such a solo trip for the star comic book mutant offering back story and maximum opportunity for claw-battles is most welcome. What’s more, fans of Logan may soon enough find themselves treated to a sequel (early speculation suggests it’d be set in Japan).

Yet it’s not all praise and pleasantries for our adamantium-enhanced protagonist and the arrival of his eponymous full-length feature has not been smooth. After the early online leak and all the subsequent shenanigans and shame that followed, the people behind X-Men Origins: Wolverine have further reason to frown now that the critics have cast their opinion. Altogether, it doesn’t make easy reading – the consensus from the film press can be identified as, erm, unenthusiastic.

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In fact, the reception that X-Men Origins: Wolverine has received from the self-proclaimed guardians of cultural taste has been brutally hostile. Wolverine’s extendable alloy attributes don’t frighten the critics – they’ve got claws of their own, and they cut pretty deep. Scenes of Wolverine and Sabretooth fighting back-to-back through the wars of history and the sight of Hugh Jackman naked have failed to win over cynics whose summaries are distinctly unimpressed. Take for example the succinct summary of the Daily Telegraph’s Sukhdev Sandhu: “Wolverine is an artificial stimulus package of the most unsatisfying kind”.

Rounded up on the Rotten Tomatoes website, the movie – at the time of writing – has tallied up a critical response score of 37%, thus ranking it as “rotten”. That doesn’t bode well for a character whose regenerative abilities make decay impossible. To cite a few more cases of antagonistic critique, John Walsh of the Independent brands it “wretched” and Kirk Honeycutt of the Hollywood Reporter describes it as a “keen disappointment” (well, at least it’s “keen”). There is little love here for our man Logan…

Amidst all this negativity, Robert Wilonsky of the Village Voice is the scribe who pens the most controversial words in reviewing the X-Men Origins flick. Looking to the leaked version that supposedly lacked key special effects, Wilonsky weighs in with advice that audiences avoid wasting their money at the box office and hold back until a complete bootleg is bandying about in accessible places.

Now wait just one moment. Reviewers are paid to write their opinion and it’s their right as individuals not to like a movie. It’s one thing to firmly condemn movies in the public arena, but to actively urge audiences towards contraband strikes me as being extremely callous and rude. Has this man no heart? Did he not hear how upset Hugh Jackman was when he discovered the picture had been pushed onto the web prematurely? Is it not enough that he’s pressed his pernicious pessimism on all involved in the creation of the Wolverine film without adding the insult of advocating piracy, thus undermining their efforts and industry? Bad man – make sure he gets no goodie bag at the press screening of X-Men Origins: Magneto

That a film critic – someone who should surely be serving as a guardian of good cinema – recommends opting for an inferior bootleg instead of the ultimate, authentic cinema experience is pretty troubling, but there’s an interesting point raised here. Comment on X-Men Origins: Wolverine has unfortunately been coloured by the internet leak that lacked certain special effects and left Jackman so distraught. Several reviews remark that the finished article is not improved exponentially in its final polished state with the added industrial light and magic. If, according to the voices of scorn, Wolverine isn’t enhanced by the extra technological touches, it’s worth wondering: which films are either no better or in fact worse with the supplementary special effects?

Springing to my mind as a recent movie is Will Smith’s ‘last-man-on-earth’ drama I Am Legend. All is good (or as good as things can be in a post-apocalyptic future) until we see that the virus-infected Darkseekers are pretty crude CGI constructions. Had the film been delivered into theatres prior to the final post-production stages, the end result would not have been tainted by the presence of unconvincing effects. In movie-making, computer generated imagery can indeed ultimately prove calamitous…

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The original Star Wars trilogy was just perfect as it was before George Lucas started attempting to soup the saga up with available advanced technology. Steven Spielberg is guilty of the same tinkering, but whilst substituting guns for walkie-talkies in E.T. doesn’t impact upon the film massively, dumping a CGI Jabba in A New Hope and having Greedo shoot first in the Mos Eisley cantina does.

They should’ve left well alone. Ah well – what goes around comes around. Perhaps the critics of X-Men Origins: Wolverine will wake up to find a set of adamantium claws gleaming at them from the foot of their bed, and maybe George Lucas will right his technological wrongs come the re-release of the Star Wars prequels. Let’s see The Phantom Menace minus the special effects, totally played out with only bluescreen backdrops to set the scene. Maybe then, beneath the surface sheen, we’ll see the true stellar cinematic classic that always existed at the core.

James’ previous column can be found here.