The James Clayton Column: Wolverine, X-Men & spin-off confusion

With The Wolverine in cinemas, James considers the increasingly complicated timeline of the X-Men movie universe...

Snikt snikt! That’s the sound of Wolverine baring his claws on the big screen once again. The Wolverine has hit cinemas, and Hugh Jackman’s Logan is in Japan for more first-rate mutant mauling and slashing.

It’s good to have the hirsute antihero back in theatres, and the Far East setting makes the return all the more tantalising. From Yojimbo to Zatoichi to Lady Snowblood to Lone Wolf And Cub, there’s a rich wandering solo warrior tradition in Japanese pop culture. Wolverine is very much a kindred spirit, and it feels right that the ace with an adamantium skeleton has made it to the Land of the Rising Sun for some samurai battles.

Personally, I’ve missed him. Maybe it’s the character or maybe it’s Jackman’s charisma, but I don’t think I could ever get bored of watching Wolverine, whether he’s fighting things – other mutants, humans, personal demons, helicopters – or simply spitting out bitter witticisms.

His brief sweary cameo in X-Men: First Class was a sweet beat, but The Wolverine offers something more substantial – a centre stage spotlight for the icon in his own feature-length spin-off. He had 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, of course, but popular opinion perceives it as a disappointment that doesn’t resonate as the righteous comic book slashterpiece that Logan deserves. Hopes are high that The Wolverine is that definitive movie that fans have waited for.

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There’s further good news for those fans if they’re still fixin’ for the ferocious fightin’ Canuck after this film. Jackman’s on board for X-Men: Days Of Future Past, along with a multitude of X-Men alumni from the trilogy made between 2000 and 2006. That means more ripped Jackman action plus more Ellen “Kitty Pryde” Page, more Halle “Storm” Berry, more Patrick “Professor X” Stewart and more Ian “Magneto” McKellen. Bryan Singer is also back in the hotseat directing the superpowered stars.

Those comebacks, though, are supplemental to the return of the cast of X-Men: First Class, which is a damn classy class of first class acting talent. In truth, I’m more excited about rejoining James “Xavier” McAvoy, Michael “Magneto” Fassbender and their respective gangs of young mutants than I am about reacquainting myself with the veterans.

As much as I love Wolverine and am intrigued to see possible Looper-esque encounters between older and younger versions of Magneto (Fassbender meets Sir Ian) and Xavier (McAvoy meets Sir Pat), I have some Days Of Future Past doubts. Is Singer’s follow-up going to undermine the excellent work done by First Class in establishing a fresh identity aside from the older releases? Are there too many X-Men in this X-Men feature, and by giving fangirls and fanboys so many superheroes, are they over-X-ing the pudding? How is this thing going to work and will it work effectively?

Time will tell, and Singer and co will undoubtedly make sure that the time travel mechanics are sound, and that the story can support all the distinct personas across different period settings. I may have slight apprehension about the X-Men series reaching back into the past (both on-screen and off-screen), but I’ve also got faith. It’s got Wolverine so it can’t be all bad, right? (I still stand by this assertion even if you raise me X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine.)

Facing Days Of Future Past, I’ve not only got questions about ‘how it is’ but also questions about ‘what it is’. The Wolverine, likewise. Where in the great scheme of things are we up to and how do all these films relate to each other?

Days Of Future Past is a perplexing prospect thanks to its twisty title, its era-jumping synopsis and convoluted cross-casting. We are both in the 1970s and in more contemporary 21st century times thanks to some Shadowcat time-shifting. It is thus a sequel to both the original X-Men trilogy and X-Men: First Class, acting as a nexus point connecting the two cinematic strands.

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Timetravel narratives, however, inevitably produce trouble, and looking ahead (or ahead-behind?) to future (future past?) franchise instalments I wonder whether Back To The Future-esque conundrums may come into play. Could the events of the Days Of Future Past in the 70s alter the unravelling of the X-Men adventures of the new millennium? Could this plot contrivance be abused as a retconning device to rewrite the canon and make massive changes to the movie lore we know and love?

It’s feasible, for instance, that some misguided filmmaker (Brett Ratner?) could stride in and, now that a precedent’s been set, get Patrick Stewart’s Xavier to visit James McAvoy’s Xavier and prevent his future balding. This would then necessitate re-editing of the first X-trilogy to ensure cosmetic continuity and future Blu-ray releases would have Stewart wearing digital follicle enhancements. Alternately, they’d have to make the movies again and The Amazing Spider-Man proves that studios aren’t phased by that outlandish idea.

That’s a silly, highly unlikely example, but it highlights the risks inherent in the introduction of timetravel as a narrative instrument. It’s also worth wondering how Wolverine’s stand-alone movies relate to Days Of Future Past. Even overlooking the chrono-triggering, there’s still lingering bewilderment about how the invincible berserker fits into the big picture.

How do Logan’s solo features sit alongside past, present and potential future ensemble pictures? Are we to understand The Wolverine in isolation as a definitive stand-alone event or as a follow-up to X-Men Origins, the other X-Men features and as a lead-in to Days Of Future Past? Is X-Men Origins: Wolverine even considered to be part of the canon or has it been quietly dropped by producers as a franchise misstep that doesn’t count for anything like Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (the one where Kirk shouted at ‘God’)?

This is a relatively new kind of vagueness, because back in the old days, films tended to function in chronological order and popular series unfolded simply, one sequel after another. Apart from a few exceptions – The Godfather Part II’s flashbacks and the events of Indiana Jones And The Temple of Doom preceding Raiders Of The Lost Ark – everything followed on with lucid unchallenging logic.

Moving towards modern times, however, you find franchises throwing routine regularity right out the distortive portal window into unfathomable new dimensions of disturbing uncertainty. A 1-2-3-4 sequel structure is so three decades ago. Now we’re plugged into prequels, sidequels, spin-offs, crossovers, continuity-respecting reboots and ensemble ‘phases’ encompassing an array of franchise pieces.

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Where once it always looked like a flow-chart the structural composition of several major film series now resemble elaborate string theory experiments or a serial killer’s notice board. To completely comprehend all the events, plots, subplots and character arcs of thriving franchises you need annotated infographics.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact it’s brilliant if it actually encourages audiences to really get into the material, immerse themselves in the cinematic experience and use their mental powers instead of just passively consuming products of little meaning.

Most moviemakers put a lot of deep thought and effort into their creations, and it’s nice to imagine them hunkered down in Hollywood basement secret lairs constructing their own serial killer notice boards as they brainstorm and scheme out blockbuster series.

Study, say, the multifaceted Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Star Trek reboots and you’ll see series unrolling in a style similar to long-running comic book series and TV serials. That’s unsurprising considering the respective roots of those franchises, the cross-pollinated multimedia environment we inhabit and the personalities involved in those two examples (former TV showrunners and writers in Joss Whedon, JJ Abrams and Damon Lindelof).

The prominent Star Wars prequels may have been significant milestones but this industry phenomenon spreads far beyond that multiverse and the obvious comic-book properties and major pop culture monoliths I’ve already mentioned. You don’t have to go far before you find someone adopting a more unconventional approach to the traditional patterns, extending the lifetime of a concept through prequels, sidequels, crossovers or some other unusual contrivance instead of dancing to the by-the-numbers sequel beat.

In this brave new world of bizarre movie production planning we have Marvel’s Avengers moving both alone and together, the original Enterprise crew of Star Trek reformed in an alternate timestream, Bourne films without Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne (is The Bourne Legacy a sidequel?) and Evil Dead features that are simultaneously remake, reboot and sequel all at the same time.

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The Alien and Predator universes are all mixed up in themselves then crossed over with each other and, if you’re a conspiracy theorist extrapolating from esoteric easter eggs, possibly bleeding into the Blade Runner mythos as well. Jon Negroni’s recently publicised Unified Pixar Theory postulating that the animation studio’s pictures are all interdependent in infinitely complex ways is another prime example of a popular preference for convoluted blockbuster set-ups over the standard straightforward sequel model.

For me as a film fan, this is all fascinating, but at the same time, it has me deeply mystified and puzzled. Now I’m bewildered as I behold Wolverine, alone and lost in Japan with his heart both in the past, present, future, future past and possibly in spin-off timelines. Bub, where the X are we?

James Clayton is set to start showing his very groovy mutations very soon and will segue seamlessly into the ‘X-Men Far-Future Second-Class Past Origins’ movie due at some point in some alternate timestream. You can visit his website or follow him on TwitterYou can read James’ last column here.

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