X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a film with more entertainment value in its opening 6 minutes than Catwoman has in its entire 104. But neither is without its flaws, and claws.
Imagine the pitch. Joe Screenwriter gives it from one end of a long polished table while Mr. Greenlight listens from the other side. “Check this out – graphic artist Patience Phillips (Halle Berry) is pretty pretty but shy, shy, shy. No matter. After discovering that her employer’s new line of facial cream has the potential to rejuvenate, then horribly disfigure its users, she is killed killed killed. But there’s more. She’s not dead. No, she’s brought back to life by a magical spotted Mau, a feline harnassing the powers of the Egyptian goddess Bast! Now as Catwoman, she will strut the highwire of life, exhorting sexual power while fighting to stop her company’s owner’s wife (Sharon Stone), whose skin has become tough as Texas from using so much dang cream, from pedaling her poison cosmetic to pharmacies everywhere! And her boyfriend’s a hunky cop.”
I only wish I were joking. In the almost words of Forrest Gump, “Catwoman is like a box of litter. Once you get into it, it’s amazing how much crap there is.” Now, I know there’s a fanbase out there, a contingent that loved the film and loved Halle Berry in it. There are even those who believe that Berry was the deserved choice for the upcoming Christopher Nolan film, The Dark Knight Rises (Anne Hathaway will play Catwoman). To these good folk I impart another quote, from a far better film featuring a whip. “Indiana, let it go.” Fill in your own name for Indiana.
I won’t go into the many lives of Catwoman. Any character with this much history (she first appeared in Batman #1, 1940) is bound to have purr-mutations. Over the years, Selina Kyle (a.k.a., Catwoman) has at different times been a flight attendant, the wife of Bruce Wayne, and a prostitute. As a comic book character, she’s lived nine lives and then some. Today however, the character is probably best connected to two actresses in two very different films, Michelle Pfieffer in Batman Returns and Halle Berry in Pitof’s 2004 stinker, Catwoman. For reasons I don’t fully understand and will simply call “Hollywood,” the latter was made apart from the Batman franchise. There is no sign nor smell of The World’s Greatest Detective in it. In retrospect, this is good. The movie often looks and sounds more like a Beyonce video than a bona-fide superhero film, and as enticing as a bare-backed Berry may be to some viewers, it’s hard to sit through Catwoman without wondering whether those responsible really cared at all about their pet.
The basics are there of course. We learn the whats and hows of Patience becoming Catwoman (bears a likeness to Batman Returns), see the evolution of her costume and whip and witness the challenges that come with juggling dual identities, but these are a given for this kind of film. What else? What does this version of Catwoman have to offer? Nothing as fresh or dangerous as the Pfieffer character or as seductive as the TV villainess played by Julie Newmar. No, this Catwoman is, in a word, stunned. And the film communicates as if we were too. Consider Patience’s first several days as this newly liberated libidinal creation. She sleeps on a shelf, hisses at a dog and gobbles up tuna 8 tins at a time. “Something really really weird is happening to me,” she confesses to a friend while balancing atop her furniture. Yes, yes it is. There are worse offenses, most involving Patience’s cavalier way of using her abilities in broad daylight and without a mask (during the Ferris Wheel accident for one) or her boyfriend Tom Lone’s (Benjamin Bratt) feather-brained policing skills. Midway through the film, Lone comes in possession of two near-identical samples of handwriting (both of the same word, in fact), one from Patience and the other written by Catwoman after a jewel heist. He is rightly suspicious, and should be. But watch the sudden turn-around when a hand-writing analyst finds a minute difference between the two. Lone is only cop in cinema who doesn’t go with his gut. But, you may ask, isn’t Patience a beautiful woman and Catwoman a known feline fatale? Aren’t you underestimating her powers of seduction here? Doesn’t matter. This is but one of many chickenheaded moments in a film that plays like backyard theater.
X-Men Origins comes in noticeably better shape, though being the fourth film in the X-Men series also means its cigar-chomping anti-hero has had more time to stretch. The prologue gives us our first taste of the future X-Man’s beginnings. In it, we learn that Logan was a child of mid-19th century Canada and a family of some wealth. His childhood is pared down to one moment, which is probably a sign of its importance, but the situation is markedly incomplete (and hereafter unexplained). All the same, a family tragedy culminates with Logan sprouting claws of bone, unwittingly killing his own father and running away with his older brother, Victor. What follows is an eye-opening bit of filmmaking. Under the opening credits, Logan (Hugh Jackman) and Victor (Liev Schreiber) fight side-by-side over the span of a century. From the American Revolution into the trenches of the Great War and beyond, their lives are chronicled in minutes and only in scenes of battle. Not exactly revealing, character wise, but there’s no doubt what these two are capable of or for how long.
The movie’s intention is to explain Logan’s transformation into the Wolverine we first meet in Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000). In body, this happens mid-way through X-Men Origins when he undergoes an experimental process to strengthen his skeleton. Until then, he is just Logan, a mutant with supra-human speed and strength and the ability to heal from any type of physical injury; the Man of Steel with body hair. Victor has similar regenerative powers, which we’re shown early on during a scene in Vietnam. After viciously killing a superior, both he and Logan are sentenced to death by firing squad. They survive without a scratch. Victor is a stronger version of Logan but with deadly claws for fingernails and hardly a moral bone in his body. Another Catwoman? Not quite. While she walks the line between criminal and vigilante, Victor kills simply because he can. This is a dark character. Logan does not live by quite the same animalistic code. To big brother’s disapproval, he leaves to start a new life in northern Canada, a country that embraces serenity like a warm bucket of maple syrup (I’m Canadian, I can say that). Victor comes a-calling in time.
X-Men Origins is not a great film but it does more or less fulfill the promise made in its title, to explain how Wolverine came to be. Striker (Danny Huston) is the man responsible, a U.S. Colonel bent on creating his own mutant Frankenstein, with a mish-mash of powers. He even has his own laboratory, government funded of course. But as the Striker storyline was already partly covered in X-Men 2, the film needs a more novel motor to drive it. The brother story seems the first, best choice. As much as Striker’s Weapon X experiment is responsible for Logan’s adamantiam bones, his long relationship with Victor must account for more. The attempt is there, and Schreiber up to the role, but Victor’s kinship with Logan is reduced to growls and a series of fraternal brawls, decent action but fueled with nothing more than the all-too-familiar, “You can’t escape what you are!” or something Rocky-ish. This is probably a film that certain fans can get thick into though. There are a few new mutants on board this time around, plucked straight from the pages of Marvel, notably the Blob and Gambit (John Carter‘s Taylor Kitsch), a Cajun gambler who can literally deal his way through a brick wall. Cool but hollow entertainment.
To possess superpowers… It’s something we might fantasize about in a traffic jam or when looking down from a tall building. “What if….?” we might say, and then fake a cough because we actually said it aloud. I think the best of these films respect our fantasies at their core and present their visions in a way where we can imagine ourselves in it. If the story is purposefully camp, so be it. There’s an audience for that. But if not, make an attempt to consider the viewer, my wish at least. Superman (1978), Batman Begins, Spider-Man 2 and The Crow do this well, even Kick Ass for a certain demographic. X-Men Origins does too. The film is darker in tone than any X-Men before or since and allows Jackman to go deeper into his character, to both animal and humanistic extremes. There is no doubt as to his screen presence. Even when the story lapses into the predictacular, Jackman is an actor who can draw eyes like a magnet.
But Catwoman? No. We begin to suspect a juvenile experience when we hear Patience’s opening narration, “It all started on the day that I died.” I feel for Halle Berry, a good actress now saddled with a film that many consider terrible and that some go so far as to call one of the worst films in history. It’s hard to say. This is a decision for seasoned critics and hardened criminals to make. At least Berry had a sense of humor about it all. How many actresses go to the bother of picking up their Razzie in person? Of course, she brought Oscar for moral support.
And the “winner” is: X-Men Origins: Wolverine…big time.