There's something almost unutterably sad when a studio takes a sure-fire, can't-miss project and yet somehow manages to bungle it. With X-Men-Origins: Wolverine, 20th Century Fox had their hands on something that was solid, shimmering gold -- the fascinating, pathos-ridden, action-packed origin story of one of the most popular characters in the Marvel Comics pantheon. And they spun that gold into straw.
What's most frustrating about Wolverine is that, at several points in the picture, there are glimpses of what the film might have been. Following a perfunctory (and pointless) prologue covering the obligatory Tragic Parental Death, the credits roll over a brilliant montage in which the pre-Wolverine mutant Logan (Hugh Jackman) and his brother, the pre-Sabretooth mutant Victor (Liev Shreiber) fight side-by-side, invincible and ageless, through the Civil War, both World Wars, and Vietnam, with Victor becoming increasingly nihilistic and bloodthirsty. This in itself is perhaps the tightest segment of the entire film, and could stand as a story all on its own.
Quickly, however, we flit off to see the pair join an all-mutant military squad run by Gen. William Stryker (Danny Huston), whose increasingly non-humanitarian agenda rubs Logan the wrong way. Again, this could have been an entire film, with the brothers, now at moral odds, carrying out missions with their mutant comrades. The section of the picture devoted to the soldiers, who include Fred Dukes/The Blob (Kevin Durand), Chris Bradley/Bolt (Dominic Monaghan), John Wraith/Kestrel (Will.i.am), Wade Wilson, destined to become Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), and Agent Zero (Daniel Henney) is frustratingly light given the amount of rich material at hand -- which is essentially the problem with Wolverine as a whole, but here it's especially egregious.
When director Gavin Hood (Rendition) finally steers the movie in the direction of the core origin story, everything begins, sometimes quite embarrassingly, to fall apart. There are usually good reasons for a writer and director to stray from canon when translating a book or graphic novel to screen -- Bryan Singer's first two, far superior, X-Men films took liberties with the existing story with satisfying results -- but in this case there seems to be no purpose for the changes other than to make the movie longer.
(Spoilers to follow.)
It's difficult to imagine that even audience members who are only familiar with Wolverine's story via the X-Men movies won't be baffled and annoyed by the ridiculous, wholesale changes to the story that have been made here. We, the viewers, have already been given the information that Logan lost his memory as a result of the unimaginably painful operations, flaying him open again and again, conscious all the while, to bond metal to his bones -- an experiment that was performed on him after he was kidnapped, and which resulted in his going berzerk and slaughtering everyone involved in the operation.
Yet here, Wolverine undergoes the procedure of his own free will, and the operation itself is a simple process of multiple injections of molten metal (which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, even given comic-book logic) which cause him to thrash about in a tank like an angry tuna. And instead of killing everyone, Logan just runs off, giving the filmmakers an excuse for more chase scenes, more explosions, and more Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Mutant fight scenes.
But it does pose a dilemma -- how does Logan lose his memory? The solution, and I wish I was making this up, is for Stryker to load a gun with adamantium bullets and shoot Wolverine in the head. Not to try and kill him, mind you. Stryker shoots him in the head specifically so he'll lose his memory. Because, you know, that's what a bullet to the brain does. It makes you forget precisely the stuff that the person shooting you in the head wants you to forget, no more, no less.
This alone would be reason enough to hate Wolverine. Add some truly terrible effects (the green-screen work during a motorcycle chase is especially poor), not one, two, but three scenes with a character looking up at the sky and screaming, "NOOOOOOO!" and one of the most ham-fisted soundtracks in recent memory, and it all adds up to a big pile of fail.
Regrettably, the secondary actors are treated shabbily, as well. Ryan Reynolds fares pretty well, with an unusually sharp action sequence in which he wields a pair of katanas against a roomful of gunmen, and he gets to show off his freakishly muscled physique -- and some dandy makeup effects -- once he's been changed into the hybrid killer Deadpool. But his pre-Deadpool screen time is pathetically short, as is Monaghan's, to point of it almost being cameo/stunt casting to have them play the roles at all.
The persistent rumors of studio interference indicate that clueless execs may have been behind many of the ill-advised story changes and other problems with the film. But the who and why don't really matter. The end result is that Fox and Marvel have released a film that mangles a story, a character, and a property that should have been an easy hit out of the park, and the movie itself is a mess. Shifting a few things around to make a picture appeal to general audiences as well as comics nerds is one thing. Making changes that are stupid, alienating the core fans, and putting out a lousy movie that won't appeal to anyone is simply bad business.