If Wolverine is not quite as ringing a success in terms of tone and dramatic impact as last year’s Dark Knight or Iron Man, neither is it as disappointing as one might have feared from its status as a prequel, burdened by the audience’s foreknowledge of where everyone ends up (I’ll just mention the name “George Lucas” in passing and leave the subject at that). It’s not as deliberately subversive and game-changing as Bryan Singer’s first two X-movies, but it’s entertaining in its own right.
Enough about comparisons to other films and statements of what it’s not, though: what is it, and why and how does it work?
The first half-hour surveys the strange and tragic life of James Howlett/Logan, later to become Wolverine, starting in his childhood in 1845 and bringing events up to roughly the late 1970s. The credit-sequence montage of Logan and his half-brother Victor fighting in more than a century’s worth of wars is particularly gripping (although it completely elides the question of what they did during the various intervening decades when the U.S. wasn’t fighting anybody). This first act presents a streamlined yet relatively faithful version of Logan’s history as presented in the comics over the years… which is no small accomplishment, given what a patchwork that history actually is, having been assembled almost arbitrarily by scads of comics writers.
After that first act, though, once Logan has had his skeleton saturated with unbreakable adamantium by a super-secret black-ops government project, the story veers off in a different direction, necessarily moving away from comics-based backstory and concentrating on two things: setup for the later status quo we remember from the first X-Men movie, and introduction of an assortment of second-tier mutants.
The first goal is achieved fairly well. This film fills in Logan’s history with the Machiavellian Colonel William Stryker, as hinted at in X2, with Danny Huston doing a suitably creepy job stepping into the role Brian Cox played in that film. Perhaps more significantly, it establishes a vicious psychological tug-of-war between Logan and Victor (aka Sabretooth), something that wasn’t even hinted at in the X-Men films. But those didn’t have Liev Schreiber in the role of Victor, and if he’s far less hirsute than wrestler Tyler Mane was in the same role, the increase in acting ability more than makes up for it. Schreiber arguably hams it up just a bit, but then that fits the character’s cavalier delight in acts of violence.
Aside from Victor, though, the other “mutant” characters seem largely disposable (and, in fact, several of them are disposed of). Perhaps the best moments come from Ryan Reynolds as Wade Wilson (Deadpool), but he only has a couple of scenes, and after the character undergoes a rather vivid transformation he’s actually replaced by another actor later in the film. Meanwhile, the involvement in the film’s climax of teen versions of several of the later X-Men seems almost too streamlined a path to the team’s formation. Tim Pocock as the young Scott Summers actually isn’t bad—and he gets almost as much screen time as James Marsden did in X-Men 3, which isn’t to say he’s any less irrelevant to the story—but OTOH the inclusion of a young Emma Frost, who’s never been seen on screen in any X-film, seems like a particularly strange creative decision. And the brief appearance of Prof. Xavier near the end has some particularly awkward CGI work; I honestly couldn’t tell whether it was a cameo from Patrick Stewart transformed to look younger, or some other actor transformed to look like Patrick Stewart, but either way it just didn’t work.
Xavier aside, though, most of the special effects were suitably effective, and the stuntwork was likewise. “Effective” is not quite the same thing as “impressive,” but then it’s hard to be impressed these days when we’ve become accustomed to seeing almost anything imaginable presented in “live action” on screen.
All of that seems like a fairly mechanistic assessment of the story, and to be fair those aspects are hard to avoid noticing. Still, the film ultimately rises or falls on Hugh Jackman’s performance, and he elevates the material to a level it wouldn’t otherwise reach. Jackman is a remarkably talented and charismatic performer, and he obviously doesn’t think of this role as slumming it in any way, shape or form. If Logan’s fate is to remain a tortured, unloved loner, torn between his human and bestial sides… well, Jackman at least gives us a convincing and compelling inside perspective on how he got that way.
Audiences seem to agree, given the film’s $87 million opening weekend. With box office like that, future X-Men prequels are assured (and in fact a couple are already in the works). Whether any of them will feature Wolverine and/or Jackman remains to be seen, though. His popularity isn’t in doubt, but if nothing else, one can’t help but wonder how long Jackman could effectively portray a character who doesn’t age. It might be best to let Logan fade out on a high note.Tags: Hugh Jackman, Liev Schrieber, movies, super-heroes, Wolverine, X-Men