#10 in my ranking of the X-Men franchise.
That was unfortunate. Gavin Hood is a quality director with several very good films to his name like Tsotsi, Ender’s Game, and Eye in the Sky. And then there’s this. This may not be the worst film so far in the X-Men series, but I feel bad for how bad it ended up. There’s an obvious eye on display throughout, and the performances aren’t bad. However, the movie takes on too many characters, too much story, and with too little consideration from what comes between the action scenes that the whole affair ends up feeling like a random series of scenes, like fifteen comic books chopped up and reassembled at random.
Prequels are rarely a great idea. They’re usually treated as just another in a series of adventures, but the appeal of a series of adventures is the thrill of not knowing if the protagonist lives or dies. Having that basic question already answered conclusively, the stories end up chasing for some kind of urgency. The problems with this movie specifically are that it never even bothers to figure that out. It ends up feeling like a random series of events that just come to a stop after a certain point. Nothing is really resolved, and we’re just waiting for the next adventure, assuming it ever shows up (spoiler: it does not).
The movie is best in individual snippets, and one of its best snippets is near the beginning with the credits sequence. After a brief prologue of Wolverine and his big brother, Victor, running away from home after Wolverine’s powers first became apparent as a child, we see the two grow up through several wars. There’s particularly the American Civil War, World War II, and Vietnam, where the movie proper begins. This sequence is fun, giving us a brief look at the kind of hard lives they’ve lived up to the late 1960s as they discover their immortality in snippets. It’s the single best part of the film.
What follows seems like a decent way to begin this kind of adventure. Victor and Wolverine are arrested and executed for the murder of their superior officer. After they survive the firing squad, Colonel William Stryker shows up and recruits them for a special team. This team, consisting of mutants of course, is sent to Africa where Stryker is looking for a meteor. As Stryker leads the team to a small village to torture information out of a villager, Wolverine just leaves. This is about 30 minutes into the film. Up to this point we’ve had the introduction of Wolverine, his brother, Stryker, five other mutants, a look at the Vietnam War, and a brief action scene in Africa, and suddenly we’re done with it all as Wolverine goes off to live an isolated life alone with another new character.
Okay, this could be going somewhere. Let’s stick with it. Wolverine is now living in Canada with Kayla, a local schoolteacher, and he’s leading a quiet life as a lumberjack. The scenes between Wolverine and Kayla are another set of nice, individual moments, but they’re too brief, especially for what gets asked of them later in the film. Stryker shows up, warning that Victor has gone mad and is killing the former members of the team, and he needs Wolverine’s help, which Wolverine refuses. Victor shows up, kills Kayla, and Wolverine is super mad about it, finding Stryker and agreeing to undergo a procedure to make him indestructible. Well, more indestructible since he’s already survived gunshots and even a cannonball to the chest.
This is where the movie goes from curious to kind of just stupid. The procedure puts adamantium throughout Wolverine’s body, transforming his bone claws into the shiny metal ones we all know and love. Fine enough comic book logic. And then, as soon as it’s done, Stryker orders that Wolverine’s memory be erased. I mean, I can understand his motivation if the objective is to just have a weapon, but that’s apparently not it from what comes later. I guess they have technology to wipe out memories? Sure, whatever. But the sudden change from Wolverine being all in on the procedure to go after his brother to needing to kill everyone around him because of questionable reasoning on Stryker wanting to wipe Wolverine’s memory is unclear at best and random at worst.
Wolverine finds his way out, shacks up for a night with a kindly old couple who give them some of their son’s old clothes (whether the son is dead or has just left home as an adult is unclear, though it could have provided some interesting subtext). These scenes are nice (aside from the super dodgy claw CGI that gets rightfully mocked to this day), but, again, it’s too short, cut down because the movie needs to get to its next action scene where now Stryker’s objective is to kill the unkillable weapon that Stryker himself just created. Again, this feels completely random. And then the action beats are free of any sense of known physics that makes everything fly around like a cartoon. This stuff is embarrassingly bad.
Remember all the mutants from the team at the beginning? Yeah, me neither, but Wolverine goes to find the ones still living in order to try and figure out where Stryker’s base is so that he can wreck terrible vengeance upon him. They point him to, ugh, another mutant. You’d think that a basic storyteller would set up this secondary mutant that’s going to tag along with Wolverine in the third act all the way back in the first, but no, Gambit gets introduced at about the halfway point. We lose all of the mutants introduced in the first act except Wade, who ends up the final boss of the video game, I mean movie, and we pick up a brand new one halfway through. That makes no narrative structural sense whatsoever.
The final reveals of the third act are thin. Kayla comes back, having faked her death because Stryker has her sister in custody (along with a bunch of other mutants), and he was using their powers to create the perfect weapon, Weapon XI, who was Wade. Again, this was obviously in progress when Stryker gave Wolverine the adamantium claws, so…what was the point of that? I suppose it could have something to do with using Wolverine as a test subject to make sure that the healing powers would be able to recover from the procedure, but then why wipe Wolverine’s memories when he’s under water instead of something like killing him by cutting off his air? I don’t know. Whatever.
Wolverine and Victor end up joining together because they’re brothers against Weapon XI. The action scene is a bit better than the stupid helicopter nonsense from after the farm, and then the movie ends when Wolverine gets shot in the head by Stryker with adamantium bullets that makes him forget everything in his life up to that moment. There’s tragedy in this line of events, a man cut off from his past, unable to die, and with incredible powers he doesn’t understand, but the movie treats it like just another event in a series of unrelated events. This was the key to making this prequel work: as a tragedy of a man who loses everything and doesn’t even realize what he’s lost, not an action spectacle of random events that make little to no sense.
I imagine there’s a workprint where more of the connective tissue is there, making the overall flow of the picture work better. However, I don’t think there’s any amount of editing that could have saved it. The story is too poorly structured, the action too disconnected from the story, and most of the characters too little used.
For all that movie’s problems, I still kind of feel bad for not liking it. As opposed to Brett Ratner in The Last Stand, Gavin Hood can frame a shot well, and he does it consistently throughout the film. Interesting compositions are apparent from beginning to end. There’s even very high quality effects shots, especially near the end, with wonderful senses of framing about them that get completely overshadowed by the clownish claws and cartoon physics. Hugh Jackman gives a dedicated performance as Wolverine, but he’s just lost in the story. I like Liev Schrieber as Victor as well. Danny Huston is fine as Stryker, and the rest of the cast exists.
It’s not a good film. I wanted it to be an okay film, but it’s not even that.