Current Revisions By David Ayer
June 1, 2006
Reviewed By Rich Drees
With the rise in overall quality in comic book-to-film adaptations, studios have started to give more careful thought towards the longevity of their franchises. The idea of careful consideration as to how the movies will evolve over the course of several films is beginning to take hold among the brass at several studios. However, there are a few studios that seem more interested in just slapping something on to the screens in hopes of a quick, short-term profit, without consideration of any long-term life for the property.
Unfortunately, if the June 1, 2006 draft of X-Men Origins: Wolverine is any indication, Twentieth Century Fox’s treatment of the X-Men franchise falls into the latter of the two categories.
Although it did well at the box office, 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand took a drubbing from both critics and hard core fans of the comic book franchise. The roots of that film’s problems can clearly be traced back to two root causes- shifts in the creative personnel working behind the scenes and perhaps more than a little bit of ego.
When X-Men franchise launcher Bryan Singer departing the series after the second installment, X-Men United, for a shot at re-launching the Superman franchise for Warner Brothers, studio Twentieth Century Fox stood unwavering in their demand that their movie be finished in time to beat Singer’s into theaters in the summer of 2006. However, a number of factors conspired to make the film look like the rush job it was. Among those factors include the fact that Fox demanded to make an unrealistic release date with an unpolished script and that a number of directors rotated through the project during the film’s preproduction phase before the decidedly not-even-adequate Brett Ratner took the helm just days before filming began.
Following the mixed reaction to X-Men: The Last Stand, Twentieth Century Fox brass found themselves trying to figure out how to continue the franchise in such a way as to win back fans alienated by the last film. But rather than trying to fix any of the mistakes made at a studio level which artistically sunk The Last Stand, Fox has instead decided to spinoff the franchise’s two most popular characters into their own films. Although developed simultaneously but by separate writers, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, featuring the clawed anti-hero known only as Logan, beat out a similar script looking at the early days of the franchise’s chief villain, Magneto, in the race to get in front of the cameras.
When we first meet Logan, played superbly by Hugh Jackman, in the premier X-Men film, he is an amnesiac, his past a blank slate. Over the course of the first two X-Men films, he slowly learned who he was- a mutant whose healing power allowed him to survive the experimentation that was performed on him as part of the top secret Weapon X program designed to turn Logan into a killing machine. What X-Men Origins: Wolverine hopes to do is to fill in the fine detail of that background.
Unfortunately, both conceptually and in execution, the screenplay for this new story is nothing more than a fool’s errand of a project. For a franchise that launched with such promise before stumbling, X-Men Origins: Wolverine does not represent a return to the first two film’s strong, thematic-driven storytelling. The script draft in revue is rife with problems, from the nitpicky to the nearly insurmountable.
The script opens with Logan living a secluded life in a log cabin deep in the woods with his lover Kayla Silverfox. Nightly, he is plagued by nightmares of his youth when his mutation, three razor sharp claws that would emerge from both hands, first emerged. He is also trying to forget his time in the military, working in a black ops assassination unit headed by Col. Stryker.
Logan’s solitude is broken by the arrival of Stryker and Agent Zero, a killer with whom Logan served. Stryker wants his help in tracking down Victor Creed, whom comic fans will recognize as the evil mutant known as Sabertooth. Creed is a serial killer whose target is mutants, a plotline that should be familiar to fans of the first season of television’s Heroes. At first Logan refuses, but after Kayla is murdered by Creed, he acquiesces.
Taken by Stryker to a top secret underground military base at Alkali Lake, Logan is subjected to an experimental process that fuses the unbreakable metal adamantium to his bones. Combined with his claws and ability to heal nearly instantaneously, Stryker hopes to make Logan into a living weapon. Although he instantaneously heals himself during the process, the intense pain temporarily drives Logan insane and in a feral state he breaks free of the military base. Stryker orders Agent Zero to follow and capture Logan.
After fleeing through the woods, Logan regains his sanity and takes refuge at the home of a kindly, elderly couple. Agent Zero arrives soon afterwards and kills the couple, but fails to capture Logan. Against orders, Agent Zero pursues Logan, and after a knock-down fight, is killed when Logan plunges his claws through his heart.
Logan sets out to track Creed down, heading to Las Vegas to meet with another of his old army unit, Wraith. Wraith informs Logan that Stryker’s experiments are part of a program known as Weapon X, which is a precursor to another project called the Eleven. Logan’s next stop is a small town in Iowa and Fred J. Dukes, the overweight mutant known as the Blob, who points him in the direction of Superior, a mutants-only bar in New Orleans. In New Orleans, Logan is told that Creed is actually taking orders from Stryker.
Heading back to Alkali Lake, Logan infiltrates the base with the help of a sympathetic scientist. When he discovers that the Eleven is a project to create an army of mutant clones with which to use as weapons to kill the world’s emerging mutant population. Logan sets out to destroy the clones and the base.
Wolverine takes place an indeterminate number of years before the trilogy of X-Men films. The existence of mutants seems pretty well to be public knowledge. The fact that Creed’s victims are all mutants is a major point in the news coverage we see on televisions. We also see signs that mutants are already being forced into their own social class, one that is already being discriminated against. Yet the first X-Men film showed the public as only just becoming aware of the emerging mutant population in its midst. Not even many mutants themselves knew the cause of their condition. It would seem that we are to believe that the entire world suffered an amnesia similar to Logan’s between the end of Wolverine and the beginning of X-Men.
Although the screenplay does heighten the public’s awareness of the growing mutant population, it does nothing to explore the idea. In both the early comic series and the original X-Men films, the idea of mutants being a minority discriminated against by “normal” humans was played for all its allegorical worth. At worse, it is just a background detail in the script; at best, it is an excuse to set a scene in a mutants-only bar, allowing the make up-effects people to run wild.
But the most glaring problem with the screenplay, and by extension the entire idea of doing a film that explores Logan’s early days, is that ultimately the story will have to arrive at an endpoint already known by the audience. We already know that Logan will survive his fight with Stryker, albeit with a loss of memory. No real tension there. We know that Stryker will survive too, to bedevil Logan in X-Men 2. In fact, in that film Stryker makes an argument that Logan was a different person before his memory was erased, although there doesn’t seem to be much difference in how the character is written here and in the X-Men films. There is the small irony that the film opens with Logan unable to forget his past and closes with him unable to remember it, but it is not a strong enough peg on which to hang the entire film.
In X-Men 2, Logan ultimately rejects his lost past, and his search for it, electing to continue in the new life he has built for himself. But where this new film could explore Logan’s early character, and perhaps lay hints to the man he will become in the X-Men films, it instead is more interested in pushing him through a rather standard plot designed merely to get him to the point where his memories are erased. Everything else is filler, and rather uninteresting filler at that.
The mistake made here is in not realizing that strict biographical information is not necessarily the same thing as exploring a character’s motivations and drives. Such character examination was done well in the first two X-Men films, but once those mysteries had been solved for Logan, his character stagnated in the third film. Nothing, though, is gained for the character of Logan in this script. Any pain he goes through, any growth or movement towards a better self-awareness is negated at the end of the movie by the predestined memory wipe. There is no real pathos or sense of loss for Logan either, as we, the audience, already know that everything will work for him in the X-Men films.
What’s more is the fact that we have already seen the character of Logan go through a similar version of his character arc here that he does in the first two X-Men films. The basic premise is the same- Logan is seeking to be a better man than he has been in the past. Each time he must face down the specter of that past in the form of Col. Stryker in a showdown at the military base at Alkali Lake. In the X-Men films, Logan slowly discovers that his past doesn’t matter. This is a lesson that should have been taken to heart by the people responsible for this new film.
Logan’s character is not the only one to go unexplored, however. Stryker’s backstory as detailed in X-Men 2 is only given the briefest of mentions here, with no real details at all. As what happened to his wife and son is the source of his hatred towards mutants and what drives Stryker’s every action, it should really have been expounded upon to allow this movie to stand on its own. Lacking it, Stryker comes off as a rather characterless puppet, manipulated by the screenwriter to do whatever the plot needs him to do to goad all the appropriate characters to their predetermined end points.
Despite all the criticism, as well as the rumors of friction between director Gavin Hood and the studio brass, I am not about the write off the upcoming film completely. It seems that the script has undergone further revisions before production on the film started. Production photos and the film’s first trailer suggest that there has been some development of Logan and Creed’s mutual past in the military. The fan favorite villain Deadshot has also been added to the cast list.
However, unless some major reworking was done to the screenplay’s overall structure, I don’t see this film having much of a chance to reverse the creative downward trend that Fox’s X-Men franchise started with X-Men: The Last Stand.