It would appear—according to both fans of the comic book and film critics—that I’m supposed to have hated this movie. I’m not surprised by the hate business when it comes to fans of the comic book, since their agenda is often driven by something other than the movie itself, and is grounded in how much the movie departs from its source. Never having read an X-Men comic in my life, I’ve no clue how true to the source X-Men Origins: Wolverine is, and as a mere moviegoer, it’s not high on my list of concerns. That’s probably true of the majority of moviegoers in a case like this, because blockbusters are not made by comic-book fans coming out, but by a broader public. That said, I do not believe that the numerous bad reviews are coming from X-Men specialists. The image of Roger Ebert with scads of comic books in protective plastic bags is not easily conjured.
Nevertheless, I don’t hate X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It’s not a great movie (though it’s certainly better made than the third X-Men outing), and I doubt I’ll ever feel compelled to see it again, but I enjoyed it well enough while it was on-screen. Is it profound? No. That, I suspect, is why I enjoyed it. It doesn’t pretend to be weighty, which means—as far as I’m concerned—that it isn’t pompous like Watchmen (2009) or The Dark Knight (2008). To me, that’s a plus. I find it interesting and more than a little disheartening that the idea of quality in a comic-book movie has become synonymous with “depressing.”
The charge that the story isn’t realistic strikes me as peculiar to say the least. Uh, guys, we’re talking about a main character who, for all intents and purposes, is indestructible and who sprouts blades out of his hands that would warm the heart of a cook in a Japanese steak house. Where is the gritty realism in that? If the film wants me to believe that he and his half-brother, Victor, stop aging at the time of the Civil War, and that that happens to coincide with the current ages of stars Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber, I’m cool with that. It seems an easy enough leap to make, considering the basic premise of the entire enterprise.
The film is an origins story, which is probably its biggest problem. Personally, I’m not that entranced by Wolverine (and I don’t think the hairdo or the “Elvis plays Vegas” sideburns are a good look for Jackman), so I don’t much care about his origins. He’s just not that interesting of a character. Worse, though, is the fact that his origins are so hemmed in by where and how he has to end up that there’s not much room for expansiveness. Most of what we learn is either inessential—like the fighting in the Civil War, WWI and WWII etc. (the filmmakers missed the Spanish-American War)—or trivial—like when he took to wearing the leather jacket. The important things—like where all this is leading—are a given.
That leaves us with an action movie that rests mostly on how well the set pieces are accomplished and how well it’s acted. The set pieces—apart from the occasional redundant clashes between Wolverine and Victor—are surprisingly good, and the action is blessedly coherent (within the realm of comic-book panels anyway). The set pieces are also often on the ridiculous side, but since they’re consciously so, that’s not necessarily a downside. (Hint: I’d wager that the preposterous manner in which the old nuclear reactor meets its fate is supposed to be amusing.) I find it interesting that a lot of criticism centers on the lack of realism of the effects, when it’s not the effects that look unrealistic so much as it’s the deliberately unreal lighting of the scenes. This makes the film look for all the world like a beautiful studio fabrication from another era. If you can’t go with that, then the movie won’t work for you.
Director Gavin Hood approaches the material with sufficient gravity that it doesn’t feel condescending. Still, he never takes it to the level of humorless faux noir, nor does he mistake it for anything very deep. Thankfully, Jackman seems in tune with the approach; he’s respectful of the character, but remembers the pulp-level fun, apparently realizing that the deeper thematic implications of the overall concept came to fruition a couple movies back. Yes, the movie is more style than substance, but it’s still several notches above X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), which had little of either. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, and some partial nudity.