X-Men Origins: Wolverine will forever be remembered as the right cross of a one-two punch that, coupled with X-Men: The Last Stand, nearly buried the credibility of the X-Men movie franchise. Not even I, superhero movie apologist that I am, can sit here and tell you that this is a particularly good film. That being said, I came not to bury X-Men Origins: Wolverine (the internet has already done a fine job of that over the last however many years), nor to praise it. I’m just a guy looking for a silver lining.
With the initial success of the X-Men movie franchise, A Wolverine solo movie seemed inevitable, as the character had already spent the last twenty years as the center of attention in any and all attempts to bring the X-Men to other media. Hell, most of the unproduced X-Men movies before Bryan Singer finally came along and managed to actually get things done properly, and before anyone had heard the name Hugh Jackman, were actually titled Wolverine and the X-Men. The prefix-less solo Wolverine film, scripted by David Benioff was put into development in 2004, around the same time that Deadpool and Magneto were eyed by Fox as potential spinoffs.
2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand killed off so many key players in the franchise that calling the prospect of a linear X-Men 4 impractical would be generous. And long before “shared cinematic universe” became a phrase I had to type on a daily basis, 20th Century Fox knew what they had to do. Basically, they had to make an X-Men movie without the X-Men (but still featured enough mutants to keep the toy companies happy), that they could still brand as an X-Men movie, and that prominently featured their most marketable character and bankable star.
Why not, right? Marvel had been doing exactly that on the comics end of things for years. It’s not like anyone was clamoring for a Cyclops movie (then again Cyclops Unclenches has a nice ring to it). Gavin Hood came on to direct, and armed with a script that carried echoes of some of the better stories in Wolvie’s back catalog, everything seemed in order. Those who have seen the finished product (or the workprint) now know better, but on the internet, everyone’s mutant power is hindsight, so let’s not go crazy.
“We’re the X-Pendables. Hello? Is this thing on?”
In some ways, particularly during its first act, X-Men Origins: Wolverine has an appealing late night cable action movie aesthetic. In the days before every superhero movie had to be a nine figure budget affair, most of us would have predicted exactly that vibe for a character like Logan, who really came of age during the golden age of the macho action hero in Ronnie Reagan’s 1980s. The problem is, X-Men Origins: Wolverine isn’t a late night cable movie. It’s the fourth installment of one of the most successful superhero franchises ever and (that one Brett Ratner directed exception aside) a beloved one at that.
There are a few (very few) positives to be had, to be sure. This is the movie that gives us our first look at Ryan Reynolds as Wade Wilson, Liev Schrieber’s excellent Sabertooth, and the expected rebel-with-only-a-hint-of-conscience cool of Hugh Jackman’s Logan. It’s also loaded with enough fan service and Marvel easter eggs to make Kevin Feige blush, and this was something that still felt somewhat novel in 2009.
None of these niceties change the fact that this first stab at a Wolverine solo movie is rough going, full of poor special effects and worse dialogue. It’s also, somehow, a remarkably bloodless affair for a movie about a guy with claws. Then again, it appears that those claws were used to edit this one.
To be fair, director Gavin Hood has told tales of “getting [script] pages the night before and trying to make them work” the next day, which certainly isn’t conducive to any kind of creative endeavor. Richard Donner stepped in to help mediate things, but having another, more experienced director come in to smoothe things over with the studio is never a good sign on a big budget film set. For his part, Mr. Hood has been gracious, saying things like “one must have a certain humility…I do respect the fact that I am being hired to pick up the ball on an established franchise that is extremely precious to this studio.”
But here comes that silver lining…
“Channing Tatum? Who dat?”
In a rather sideways fashion, we have the critical failure (although, it should be stressed, not a box-office one) of X-Men Origins: Wolverine to thank for the ultimate revitalization of the X-Men movie franchise. Don’t forget that X-Men Origins: Wolverine was originally planned as the first of a series of X-Men solo movies, and things were moving briskly towards headlining spots for Magneto and Deadpool, both of whom had scripts written. It’s likely that Fox had eyes for a Gambit movie (and continued to, right up until their demise at the hands of Disney), as well, something that might have worked had they not introduced the character with a poorly staged, mind-numbing action sequence that quickly eliminated any goodwill that Taylor Kitsch had built up in his few minutes as Gambit. They’re still trying to make that one, but don’t hold your breath.
X-Men Origins: Magneto had a rather good script written by Sheldon Turner (Up in the Air) and was set to be directed by David Goyer. There are some very recognizable bits of that script that made it into X-Men: First Class, a movie that Sheldon Turner shares a story credit on.
X-Men: First Class soon turned out to be a fine movie in its own right, although it struggled a little at the box-office (ahem…by X-Men standards), perhaps because of confusion among general audiences as to whether or not this was intended to be a prequel to the existing series or a flat-out reboot. The truth ended up being somewhere in the middle, but we wouldn’t know that for sure until much later. The bad taste left by X-Men 3 and X-Men Origins probably didn’t help, either.
The critical reception to X-Men Origins: Wolverine buried Wolvie’s solo movie prospects for the next four years. This, coupled with the perceived underperformance of X-Men: First Class ultimately gave Fox license to do something previously unheard of in superhero movies: an actual on camera continuity reset. By the end of X-Men: Days of Future Past, most (if not all) of the events of X-Men Origins: Wolverine were safely eliminated, with a new timeline that appears to be, ummm…well, it’s best not to think about it too much.
But the good news is, you never have to really think about this movie too hard again, either. That’s right, folks, because of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, we may have the ultimate case of fidelity between a superhero movie and the source material: the continuity of the X-Men films is now just as incomprehensible as the X-Men comics! That’s really impressive.
Of course, the biggest success story to come out of X-Men Origins: Wolverine was probably the most outrageous failure at the time. C’mon, you know what I’m getting at here:
“Baraka? Is that you?”
I am, of course, talking about Deadpool. While Ryan Reynolds’ Wade Wilson is in good (if unmasked) form during his few scenes early on, the Deadpool we got at film’s end was, ummmm…well, c’mon, you’ve heard it all before, haven’t you? Fortunately, Deadpool himself has “taken care” of this with Deadpool 2.
But it was the X-Men Origins model for solo spinoff films, and Reynolds’ appropriately charismatic and smartass-y performance, that convinced Fox to finally take a chance on an obscure fan favorite like Deadpool and actually doing him right. And without the backlash to this movie, perhaps Fox wouldn’t have been so willing to swing so far in the other direction with the masterful Logan.