In the early 1980s I was an "X-Men" fanatic, eagerly devouring every comic book I could get my hands on. But my favorite, and it remains my favorite to this day, was a 1982 four-issue mini-series written by Chris Claremont, drawn by Frank Miller and devoted exclusively to Wolverine. In it, Wolvie goes to Japan to find out what happened to his true love Mariko. He's a magnificent warrior and he understands Japan's ancient codes and rules but also understands his own raging animal instincts and his need to abandon the rules. He constantly battles these two sides, and in one sublime image, after a fight, he smoothes the disturbed pebbles in a Zen garden, making the connection between chaos and order.
Sadly, there's nothing in the new X-Men Origins: Wolverine even remotely as good or as interesting as that one image. This Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) no longer struggles between his two sides. He's smack dab on the side of good, and beholden to the unwritten Hollywood rule, which says that no hero can kill anyone in cold blood (only in self-defense, or in response to senseless acts of cruelty and violence). Sure, he can rage and howl from time to time, but he must pull back at the last second -- to set a good example for the kiddies, I guess. To spur him to action, the film brutally dispatches everyone who's nice to him, from his kind-hearted father/guardian in the opening flashback to the sweet farmer couple that gives him refuge, to his own sweetheart Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins). So there's some bad foreshadowing for you: if you help an old lady across the street or tell a romantic story about the moon, you're toast.
The plot has Wolverine -- a.k.a. Logan -- growing up on the run alongside his older brother Victor Creed (Liev Schreiber); we see them fighting in the American Civil War, World War II and Vietnam, before Victor starts turning recklessly violent. Logan walks out, but years later he is forced back into the fray to avenge his loved ones. His old boss, Col. Stryker (Danny Huston), offers to help by lacing Logan's skeleton with "adamantium," an indestructible alloy. This will also change his original "bone claws" into new, razor-sharp blades. Unfortunately, there's a sinister deception behind it all.
If Logan is all good, his brother (soon to be known as Sabretooth) is one of those paper-thin, one-dimensional villains who spends the entire movie devoting himself to pure evil for no reason; his behavior consists of sneering and chortling and saying things like "Well, well, well..." There's very little emotional, fraternal connection between the two. They could never sit down for coffee together the way that Batman and the Joker could have in The Dark Knight (2008). The movie's whitewashing of all the gray areas between good and evil is just one side effect of its dubious approach. I think that most comic book/superhero fans would agree that the "origin" part of the movie is the dullest part, which is why the sequels are almost always better: X2: X-Men United (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004), The Dark Knight, etc.
But now we have an entire two hours devoted to nothing but origin, and all the subsequent exposition and ham-fisted dialogue that goes with it. Every line feels lazily copied from other movies. (They even bring out old chestnuts like "We had a deal!" and "Let's do this!") The screenplay was co-written by David Benioff and Skip Woods, each with a list of lousy credits (one exception: Benioff's superb 25th Hour). Besides the dialogue, the writers also throw in a few plot holes, one glaring math error, two "surprise" last-minute rescues, and several stupid ideas, such as Stryker having to manually type out commands to his new evil mutant soldier.
This dud was directed by Gavin Hood, who inexplicably won a Best Foreign Language Oscar for the awful Tsotsi (2005). He can't seem to find a groove either in South African neo-realist art house films or Hollywood blockbuster sequels. He directs with a kind of glum soullessness, throwing in auto pilot action sequences and less-than-seamless visual FX. Bryan Singer came to the first two films in the series, X-Men (2000) and X2 -- the latter still one of the three best superhero movies of all time -- and brought with him a genuine love for the characters as well as a feel for their liberal tale of intolerance. Singer was able to find connections to the modern world (mutants get the same treatment as gays), but Hood clearly has no interest in this. The paradox of Stryker's mutant son sparking his father's hatred of all things mutant is glossed over in one or two lines of dialogue.
Real-life comic book readers probably identify more personally with Spider-Man, and his awkward existence as Peter Parker, but Wolverine is just as popular for more primal reasons. He represents the bridge between unguarded feelings and polite behavior, and the frustration and confusion we may feel at having to choose one side over the other. The saddest thing about X-Men Origins: Wolverine is that it's all polite behavior. It's pre-planned, committee-made, audience-tested and risk-free, with no room for authentic, messy, personal emotions. The movie never takes the chance that, even if Wolverine does something horrible in the heat of the moment, we may forgive him -- and still love him.