A Universal Theory of Bad Movies: X-Men Origins: Wolverine


Last week we introduced a universal theory of bad movies stating that all that divides a regular movie from a bad movie is three or four notable flaws. We called these story tumors based on the way they inhibit and feed off the story in unhealthy ways. Next we looked at our first example, The Matrix Reloaded, and saw how the theory played out.

Today we’ll look at our second bad movie, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Widely considered the one of the worst X-Men movies, Wolverine was both panned by the critics and the core fans for whom the movie was intended. Why so much hate for this prequel to a popular trilogy?

As I finished rewatching the film this weekend I quickly came to realize two things about Wolverine’s first solo outing:

1) It’s not that bad. I actually kinda like it.
2) It doesn’t fit my theory of bad movies at all.

We’re only on our second movie and already my story tumor theory is starting to break down. Let’s figure out why.

No Story Tumors in the First Half?

Oddly enough, the first entire hour of the movie is pretty solid. There’s nothing overtly bad or out of place. We learn some things about Logan’s history, how he killed his father, how he fought in every war ever alongside his brother Victor, and how he joined an elite government op under the command of Major Stryker.

I can’t really think of anything resembling a story tumor except for Kayla’s cheesy story about the two lovers, the moon and the wolverine. And that only lasts for a minute or two. There may be some slightly disagreeable things like the mutant who controls light bulbs and Sabretooth’s changed backstory, but nothing too cringeworthy as we saw in The Matrix Reloaded.

In fact, there are some pretty good scenes:

  • Logan fighting in historical battles
  • Logan going on missions with team of brand new mutants
  • Logan facing off against Victor
  • Logan test-driving his brand new adamantium claws
  • Logan taking down Agent Zero’s helicopter

Almost every scene in the first half the movie is either positive or neutral, with nothing resembling the fabled story tumor. This may throw a wrench in my theory but that still doesn’t explain why so many people left their first viewing with such a bad taste in their mouths. The real reason is a little more subtle but not too hard to explain.

The Tumor Begins to Grow

Wolverine begins to falter in the second half, but the problems start off small. The first indication that things go awry is right after Logan discovers that Stryker is behind Victor’s murders and was using the new adamantium skeleton to weaponize him. One of the first thing does is go to visit John Wraith, whose mutant power is to teleport without painting himself blue. This begins a process of mutant cameos that will stretch out for the rest of the film.

Story Tumor #1: More Cameos!

Our first real cameo is Dukes aka the Blob, a famously obese mutant from the comics. It comes in the form of a tonally problematic boxing scene. At this point Wolverine is now a revenge flick and I’m pretty sure this boxing scene is supposed to provide comic relief. Considering that we’ve already seen several mutant deaths and we are about to get a lot more, it feels off. Plus, the Blob is about to get killed off in a few minutes anyway.

The Blob’s information to a gambling Cajun named Gambit, a famous mutant anti-hero from the comics. Gambit blasts Logan through a wall, interrupts his fight with Victor, and then flies him to Stryker’s mysterious hideout. A fan favorite character, Gambit’s minor role is more a tease than anything else. But more cameos are needed!

Next we see a young Scott Summers struggling to fit in at high school. But before we can feel bad for his undeserved detention, he is knocked unconscious and shipped off to Stryker’s prison. But hey look, it’s Cyclops!

At the end of the film we get even more cameos. There’s a strange CGI version of Professor X. There’s a character who shares the same powers as Emma Frost but has a different name. And there’s a mysterious character that becomes his very own story tumor.

None of these little scenes is a story tumor in and of itself, but together they ultimately form five or six unnecessary cameos. And for whatever reason, there’s nothing fans hate more than fan service.

The Climax: Three Story Tumors in One

It’s hard to differentiate the issues in the final act of the movie because they come rapidly and are interspersed with one another. The climax is really a combination of three smaller story tumors all mashed together.

Story Tumor #2: History in the Making?

It’s always a dangerous thing to tie the actions of clearly fictional beings like mutants to historical events like the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster. X-Men: First Class manages to pull this off with the Cuban Missile Crisis but only because we are so invested in the relationship between Xavier and Magneto that we don’t really care.

Unlike First Class, the historical setting of Three Mile Island doesn’t showcase Logan’s ability to intervene positively in history to avert disaster. He actually causes it. Placing Logan’s final battle on top the rim of a nuclear reactor doesn’t come off as awesome. It just looks silly. Did I mention Logan blocks lasers with his claws?

Story Tumor #3: Deadpool

Perhaps the most talked about flaw of Wolverine is the sorry mishandling of yes, another fan favorite, Deadpool. His mouth is literally sewn up, his body infused with the powers (DNA?) of every mutant ever, and he has adamantium swords protruding from his wrists. More importantly, he looks like a zombie not a supercool sassy rogue.

I bet if you just removed this one single story tumor, people would have overlooked a lot of the other issues in the movie. But I think Deadpool is too close to fan’s heart to forgive this brutal butchery. It makes no sense to take the movie’s real antagonist, whose relationship with Logan is supposed to provide the emotional core of the film, and make him help at the last minute. Victor should have been the final boss but instead we get the total desecration of Deadpool and a few parting words on brotherhood.

Story Tumor #4: Anti-Climatic Ending

A downer ending is not necessarily a bad thing, but if you are going to put one in a summer blockbuster you better know what you’re doing. The ending however has two problems that ultimately leave it unsatisfying for many viewers:

A) Undead Girl Is Dead

Kayla Silverfox comes back from the dead, apologizes for betraying Logan, then dies again. Very sad. This means Logan (and the audience) gets to watch her die twice. In general we only like to watch people die if they are really evil or if somehow their death is going to be super meaningful. However this happens neither time because…

B) Adamantium Amnesia Bullets

Now there is nothing inherently wrong with indestructible bullets that erase your memory. It’s actually a cool concept. But it’s not cool for an ending. Why? Because it means that Wolverine just forgot the entire movie. The last thing you want to impress upon the audience is that your story is not worth the main character remembering.

Amnesia is hard plot device to use correctly. The Bourne Identity pulls it off because the amnesia happens at the very beginning, as most good amnesia stories try to do. Memento places it at the end but it resonates with meaning because Shelby intentionally decides he would rather unknowingly live a lie than remember the truth.

Sure, it’s tragic that Logan doesn’t recognize Kayla’s corpse but what does it tell us about Logan as a human being? He’s doomed to have bad things happen to him? He’s an animal after all?

The Real Problem with X-Men Origins: Wolverine

At first glance it looked like my theory wasn’t going to hold up. But I think it does if just barely. The notable flaws just didn’t show up until the last thirty minutes or so. Ultimately I think people left the theater talking about three or four things:

  • shallow pointless cameos
  • alternate history of Three Mile Island
  • Deadpool
  • the meaningless ending

It’s curious why all these problems manifested themselves at the end and soon it becomes clear why. The story tumors all arrive at the end because they are the inevitable symptoms of an even bigger problem: prequelitis.

This movie wasn’t trying to be its own movie. It was trying to explain stuff that didn’t need explaining:

  • This is how Wolverine got his metal claws.
  • This is where Wolverine got his sweet leather jacket.
  • This is how Wolverine lost all his memories and became a jerk.
  • This is why Wolverine and Sabretooth hate each other so much.
  • This is why Cyclops hates Wolverine so much, you know, cause Logan saved him from a lifetime of excruciating torture and genetic experimentation.

As I mentioned in my villain article, you never want to show the full backstory for a villain because it diminishes their aura of dangerosity. It’s the same for a hardcore and belligerent beast like Wolverine. When you explain how he got there it explains away the magic of the whole magic trick.

As I said in the beginning, I do like X-Men Origins: Wolverine but I also think it has a bad case of prequelitis that lead to some poor decisions especially in the ending. It may not be an inspired movie, but it’s definitely worth watching sometime.

Next up we’ll take a look at another so-called bad movie The Phantom Menace.


4 thoughts on “A Universal Theory of Bad Movies: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

  1. Agree with you on most every point, except I would add another gripe to the list that did occur in the first hour of the film. That was how the story seemed to rush super-fast from one set-piece to the next. In other words, I thought the film was paced WAY too quickly, and didn’t allow the audience a chance to catch their breath at any point.

  2. Its the Deadpool thing for me! A complete waste of not only a cool character but Ryan Reynolds who does a good job of representing Deadpool in the first half of the movie. There is a lot to like about the film but wasting Deadpool leaves a massively bitter taste in the mouth.

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