Wednesday, May 6, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Originally published at InReviewOnline

X-Men Origins: Wolverine,
the opening salvo in 2009's battle for our expendable income, is both straightforward and efficient. Gone are the cunning stratagems and clever ambushes of yesterday's wars. Modern entertainment warfare, relying on technological superiority, is an all-out assault on our senses, hypnotizing us with an orgasmic array of carnage, sex, and spectacle. Our minds vainly struggle to process the avalanche of sensory data, leaving us few reserves for our intellectual and emotional counter-assaults.

The film begins with a short, confusing, overly melodramatic prelude, in which the young child Logan (that's Wolverine's real name for the uninitiated) impales his friend's father (who's actually his real father) in a fit of animal rage after realizing his real father (who's actually his fake father) died at his friend's father's hands. Confused? Don't worry, all that really matters is that we learn that his friend, Victor Creed (better known in the X-Men Universe as Sabretooth, Wolverine's arch-nemesis) is actually Logan's brother, thus paving the way for the familiar dialectic between sibling bonds and moral imperatives.

Immediately after the prelude, we witness the film's greatest cinematic achievement: the opening credits. No, I'm not joking. In the space of these credits, we watch the two brothers transform physically, emotionally, and psychologically as they fight their way through every major American war from the Civil War all the way to Vietnam. As each war grows more destructive, so do Victor's actions, culminating in an attempted rape scene in a Vietnamese village, with Logan torn between saving Victor from himself and protecting Victor from the criminal consequences of his actions. Few films have so efficiently charted a character's moral degradation, or so effectively set up the primary narrative dynamic.

Unfortunately, the film that follows fails to capitalize on this achievement; it proceeds more like a desperate race to the finish, and one that (perhaps intentionally) leaves us few chances for reflection. Characters rapidly grace the screen, slicing their way through the film, and exiting stage right just in time for the next characters to make their raucous entrance. We bounce back and forth between sets, locations. At the end, we're sweaty, out of breath, and a little light-headed (ironically, not unlike the film's protagonist). Even if we enjoyed the experience, we may not entirely remember it.

Though X-Men Origins: Wolverine can't measure up to some of the more admirable recent comic book adaptations like Spiderman, Iron Man, and Batman Begins, it also mercifully avoids any of the arrogant pretensions of one of it's more recent co-conspirators, Watchmen. And if its tragic, gritty tone may occasionally wobble, we can at least be thankful that the film never for a second pretends to be anything more than it is. Had it foolishly attempted to elevate itself from the ranks of frivolous diversion, we would have undoubtedly grown painfully aware of the lack of depth, narrative coherence, or witty repartee that a higher-caliber comic book film demands. We can endlessly debate the merits of escapist cinema, but there's no debating the inherent flaws of mindless entertainment that masquerades as real cinema.

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