Ryan Reynolds is returning to the comic book genre next week, which has prompted me to look back at some of his previous efforts. We begin with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, by David Benioff and Skip Woods. After the success of the X-Men trilogy, 20th Century Fox decided to continue the franchise by producing a film which starred a specific mutant, but was still recognisably part of the franchise. Which means that, in the end, nobody is quite able to tell if X-Men Origins: Wolverine is actually X-Men Origins feat. Wolverine or Wolverine in “X-Men Origins”.
I’d argue that X-Men Origins: Wolverine is both of those things, which is why the narrative is such a mess. No mistake – in a spin-off focused on James “Wolverine” Howlett, we also see Victor “Sabretooth” Creed (from X-Men, by David Hayter, Tom DeSanto and Bryan Singer), John Wraith, Kayla Silverfox, Fred “Blob” Dukes, Chris “Bolt” Bradley, David “Agent Zero” North, Wade “Deadpool” Wilson (Reynolds), Scott “Cyclops” Summers (from X-Men, X2 by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris and X-Men: The Last Stand by Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn), Emma Silverfox and Charles “Professor X” Xavier (from X-Men, X2 and X-Men: The Last Stand). So that’s ten other mutants who appear in Howlett’s origin story. Hence calling it X-Men Origins: Wolverine, rather than Wolverine Origins or just Wolverine.
How can such a situation exist? Well, the truth about X-Men as a concept is that the characters only work when they’re together. That was the whole point of X-Men when they were created – to be a team, rather than just individual heroes. So as soon as one’s given the spotlight, and the others relegated to a supporting cast, they become another generic character.
The mutant abilities are only used as plot devices, it’s the relationships that matter. So the first mistake of X-Men Origins: Wolverine is in its approach, because it forgot the heart of the franchise that had even made it possible. The Critics Consensus shown on Rotten Tomatoes’ X-Men: The Last Stand page declares
X-Men: The Last Stand provides plenty of mutant action for fans of the franchise, even if it does so at the expense of its predecessors’ deeper character moments.
What happened to X-Men: The Last Stand? Well, X-Men and X2 were directed by Singer, who departed X-Men: The Last Stand to direct Superman Returns, and Rotten Tomatoes’ Critics Consensus says:
Bryan Singer’s reverent and visually decadent adaptation gives the Man of Steel welcome emotional complexity. The result: a satisfying stick-to-your-ribs adaptation.
Singer’s not just been praised as an emotive X-Men director, but as an emotive direct overall. To say that the reception to his two X-Men films at that point had only increased their reception, it’s not irrelevant that the following two X-Men films had decreased their reception. Singer’s absence from X-Men was noticeable, and it gave us X-Men Origins: Wolverine. But what exactly is wrong with it?
Well… it’s the extreme of what’s wrong with all prequels: X-Men established perfectly well that Howlett can’t remember his early life. And that’s all we needed to know for X-Men to be a well-told story. But X-Men Origins: Wolverine decides to reveal what happened anyway, despite the story being written around the inevitable crux of Howlett inevitably forgetting it all. Therefore, I’m inclined to ask – why does it matter?
The reason we started where we did with Howlett in X-Men is because it’s what we needed to know for the story to work. Any information before that, therefore, is something that was irrelevant to the story, so will be impossible to justify including. X-Men Origins: Wolverine feels like a footnote in a character history, the unimportant details of a biography that was excised and placed into its own film just because the information was there. It’s like one, long deleted scene that was deleted for a reason.