Midway through the clunky but sometimes fun X-Men Origins: Wolverine — right before his skeleton is laced with liquid Adamantium — the indestructible metal that makes him invincible, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is told by a techie that the pain will be excruciating and that he should focus on whatever reason he had for undergoing the life-threatening procedure.
The irony of this line is that, taken out of context, the comic-book character’s “one thing” has been about as constant as the myriad of creative teams that have brought us yet another version of, to quote the ads for Bill Jemas/Paul Jenkins/Andy Kubert/Joe Quesada’ mini-series’ Origin (2001-02), the character’s previously "untold" history.
If anything, Wolverine probably has more history than should most feral manimals without a past should (see this nifty and wonderfully OCD chronology for proof), so determining who this Wolvie would be was not so much a matter of the screenwriters reinventing the wheel as it was multiple choice.
With so much material to choose from, the initial trailer for director Gavin Hood’s film came as a bit of a shock. Featuring mutants both well-known and obscure, from Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) to Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), the film looked like it was trying to both appeal to a weird hybrid of fan and layperson — or lay geek — if you will.
On the one hand, it’s the story of why Wolverine got his claws, speaking to a fanbase whose appetite was ostensibly whet by the character’s sizeable subplot in X2: X-Men United. In the first 10 minutes, set in 1845 Canada, Wolverine pops his claws for the first time, kills his biological father by accident and runs away with his blood brother Sabretooth (Liev Schrieber).
True to biopic form, they form a decades-long bond, fight together in the Civil War, WW2 and ‘Nam and fall apart over a woman — a traumatic event that is later on in the film reimagined as the tipping point for their earlier falling out over Sabretooth’s extreme behavior.
Without the whole part about one wanting to behead the other, this could be Walk the Line, a character study as a shallow psychological exercise in "origin story" bathos.
On the other, the rumor that Reynolds’ character got more face time after principle photography ended suggests that they also wanted to do more with a character that’s big with the geeks but fairly obscure with the normies. In this dichotomy, Gambit is the perfect middle solution, a figure that even non-comic fans have been clamoring to see in the X-movies since X2. (Director Bryan Singer even said that he’d written the Cajun into his treatment of X3 that never saw the light of day.)
With three films behind it providing a more serious history, Hood’s film could then afford to become a silly cameo-filled melee. Any “origin story” plot that doesn’t insist that either the character has to mature for its audience to take him seriously or be presumed to have the IQ of a peanut can’t be all bad.
At the same time, while Wolverine is a hot commodity and has been for decades now, the truth is that he was not one of the original X-Men.
After the series was canceled in 1969 due to poor sales, the team was revived by writer Len Wein and artist David Cockrum with brand new members, one from each nationality. There was Thunderbird, the Native American; Sunfire from Japan; Storm from Kenya; and Wolverine from Canada. Since then, Wolverine became the most popular of the bunch, guest-starring in just as many of the series’ various tie-ins and other Marvel titles as a certain webhead. He would make it an inevitable leap to his own series, eventually overshadowing the rest of the team.
However, another character entirely speaks to the kind of audience Marvel is trying to court. The genetically manipulated super-assassin Kestrel (played by will.i.am) was a minor ’90s figure revived in Ultimate X-Men, a contemporary series that specifically targets people that are interested in the movie characters but are otherwise unfamiliar with the comics.
The series’ readership, along with other titles like Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate Iron Man, comprises both to the old fan that gets a kick out of seeing yet another version of their favorite baddy revived and gives new fans the illusion that they’re seeing history in the making.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine feels like the “Ultimate” equivalent of an X-movie — one that complements the canonical story but has zero impact on it.
But that might be a blessing in disguise. Wolverine is going to be pounced on for being a hyperbolic, dumb-dumb explosion-fest but that’s just fine. After X3: The Last Stand, Brett Ratner’s shaggy dog entry in the series, the stakes for the characters should be lowered a bit — OK, a lot.
It’s a dumb and extremely campy action movie on steroids, but the purty explosions — why would anyone watch the leaked workprint knowing that this is really the reason to watch a Wolverine movie? — and the wall-to-wall mutants will sate both new fans and old.
This will no doubt be seen as pandering to fans and will undoubtedly be the template for the future Origins titles, but for once, that’s OK. Hood’s not trying to make The Dark Knight, just a bit of brainless fun — and in a time where we no longer have to say "Comics aren’t just for dids anymore" to defend them, the fans can afford to have their cake and eat it, too.