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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine: A Review

The new Wolverine movie is dividing opinions even as it rakes in tens of millions of dollars day by day, and obviously makes the fans happy. The critical reviews may be bad to mixed, but the word-of-mouth is very different. Go out into the wilds of the blogosphere and you'll find plenty of over-the-top glorying and raving (much of this from female science fiction fans expressing their admiration for Hugh Jackman's muscled and much-revealed body).

I went along yesterday, and I was moved and entertained, though with some reservations. First, though, let's remember that this is, as the title tells us, a movie about the origin of Wolverine, and indeed of the X-Men. It assumes some familiarity with the X-Men franchise - particularly the trilogy of movies, but some knowledge of the original comics helps - and especially with the character of Wolverine. The main lines of narrative in major action-adventure franchises such as X-Men have taken on some of the characteristics of myth in Classical times: already known to the audience, to a greater or lesser extent, and open to continual reflection and reinterpretation. The interest in a movie such as Wolverine is not so much in "What will happen?", though of course there has to be enough of that to maintain narrative tension, as in "How will they interpret the character and mythos of Wolverine?" Anyone who goes along without a fair bit of prior familiarity with the mythos, and particularly Wolverine's character, will probably miss much of the point.

At that level - as an origins story - the movie succeeds. It portrays the creation of an anti-hero, a powerful, violent man, who, nonetheless, acts in humanity's interests. It traces the forces, internal and external, that shape his destiny, and the main interest is in the balance of those forces as he does, well, questionable things, while maintaining sufficient sense of decency to draw back from the worst. James Logan's path through life is dark and destructive. He is something more than human, and he struggles to fit into human society in any role other than that of a savage mercenary. He is hunted by those who fear him, and manipulated by those who believe they can. Out of all this emerges the character we already know: hurt, tormented, prone to rage, but still with that streak of basic decency.

The movie succeeds because it shows an understanding of all this. It moves us to identify with a character in the process of formation, even though, as Roger Ebert has complained, this character is (almost) physically invulnerable.

All that said, there were points when Wolverine seemed to flag. After a glorious first half, it loses its way. The suspense level drops when Logan is transformed into an even more powerful, seemingly unstoppable and invincible, killing machine. For a while there, I was more worried for his enemies than for Wolverine himself, as nothing seemed capable of surviving encounters with him. Once a hero seems like that, it does become easy to lose sympathy - traditional sound plotting demands some kind of danger (physical, moral, emotional, or whatever) to the characters we identify with, and concern about how, if at all, they'll survive against the odds. For some time in the second half, a sense of moral danger to Wolvie's essential goodness and decency wasn't enough. He appeared set to resolve his problems simply by destroying whatever stood in his path.

After some time, though, the narrative recovers. New plot twists are introduced, and the suspense is ramped up once more, though never (I thought) to quite the level of the first half. Things do not go all Wolverine's way, not by any means, and the ending is more sombre than triumphant. Some of this is very strong, but, taken as a whole, Wolverine is just not as tight as it could have been.

Despite that, the nay-sayers are, indeed, missing the point. All of the movies associated with X-Men are risky. How could they not be? After all, the underlying idea of genetic mutations that create superhuman, almost godlike, powers is silly, if you think about it scientifically. The characters are compelling and often ambiguous, but seldom nuanced. The schemes adopted by the bad guys are complicated and bizarre, typically involving nutty pseudoscientific gadgets. Somehow, we must be coaxed to accept all of this as real, while going further and involving ourselves emotionally in the external and internal struggles. Somehow, we must be brought to accept this as epic, or even as tragedy, rather than experiencing it as farce.

As a comic-book franchise, X-Men has been hugely successful. Translating what has been so powerful and attractive about it to the more literal medium of the big screen is a risky undertaking, and any one of the movies could have fallen flat, cheapened the material, or seemed merely risible. So far, none of that has happened: the X-Men mythos has been tranferred to cinema in a way that retains its essence and sustains its implausible plausibility, no matter what details have been rethought or re-mixed (and there are many).

There are more movies to come in the larger franchise, including a spin-off for Deadpool (who is actually a conflation of two characters from the comics) and, potentially best or worst of all, an origin story for the vastly powerful and strangely noble arch-villain, Magneto. How can they pull that one off, if they can't employ the huge Shakespearian voice and charismatic on-screen presence of Sir Ian McKellen because someone younger is needed?

Following Hollywood's efforts with the X-Men is like watching performers on a tightrope - it's thrilling and dangerous, no one has fallen off yet, and we want to see more, but there's always the possibility that the next bit will be a disaster.

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