I know it seems unbelievable in 2019, with the Avengers dominating every part of the box office and cultural landscape, but superhero movies used to often, well, suck. They sucked so much. They sucked almost as much as they didn’t suck, and they were even better at sucking than regular sucky movies. Maybe it was the childhood nostalgia setting up a bigger disappointment, or the material being handled by committee instead of by people who actually care about these stories, or maybe it was just big studios using character rights like they were toy ads, but they pumped out crap like it was going out of style. Marvel Studios and its vast universe of interconnected films were still in their infancy when one of the most notorious disasters of this era was attempted: X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
I know everyone thinks this movie is garbage, and I guess it is. They managed to completely fuck up everything about a Wolverine movie that might have been good, wrapped it all in shaky CGI and muddled direction, and ended a run of X-Men universe movies before they even began. I have a special place in my heart for this train wreck of a film, though, because I spent a week of frigid overnights on a college campus in Vancouver as a Production Assistant on Wolverine. I spent it watching the superheroes of my childhood run and fight, climb tall buildings and dodge bullets. I was cold all the time, yelled at constantly, and rained and snowed on with no escape. It was truly wretched work. It was also amazing. Here are some of the things I remember:
- Something you should know about a big studio film like this; if the actors don’t absolutely need to be on set, they won’t be. Nearly every day I was surrounded by people who looked like the actors I idolized until I got up close, and then they looked like high-end cosplayers. But the stunt team was incredible, and much more approachable than A-list Hollywood stars. I spent a couple of hours on and off talking shop in the craft services tent with the Blob’s stunt double, who then he went out onto the set and punched a giant army tank until it exploded in a thirty-foot fireball. I only found out later that the incredibly friendly and chatty bodybuilder was Kane Hodder, the original Jason Vorhees.
- One of the only actors on set almost every day was Daniel Henney, the Korean American actor playing Agent Zero. He seemed pretty chill, and I thought it was kind of cool of him to show up when the big stars were letting the stunt doubles do the grunt work. He spent hours one night going over and over one simple shot, running up to the camera endlessly just so they could get coverage from every angle to make the VFX easier. So sometime near midnight when a couple of Korean students asked me, timidly, if Daniel Henney was really here, I said yes, and even mentioned where his trailer was. I thought he would get a kick out of a couple of fans looking for autographs after being overshadowed by the bigger names in the film. When 200 young Asian fans flooded the outskirts of our set looking for photos and cheering, I was informed that Mr. Henney was basically the Korean equivalent of Brad Pitt. Oops.
- There was a props tent on set near the monitors. One night, when the important people were clustered on the other side of the grounds discussing some setup, I wandered over to the tent and slipped inside. It was just a couple of folding tables arranged on the concrete under a single hanging work light, but what was on the tables was worth potentially getting fired for being there. Wade Wilson’s katanas. Agent Zero’s Desert Eagles. And on the farthest table, shined up like a new car, Wolverine’s claws. I reached out, running my hand along the blades, and felt like I was touching the Ark of the Covenant. I thought about getting my roommate to leave his post and take a picture of me wearing them, but my flip phone was dead. Honestly, I thought about stuffing them into my backpack and making a run for it. But I just looked at them for a while, remembering all the days as a kid I stuck pencils between my fingers and snarled ‘bub’ in the mirror. Then I left the tent and resumed smoking cigarettes and telling passing students that, no, Hugh Jackman was not here.
- Even though parts of this film were shot in Australia, New Zealand, and Asia, they decided to shoot a scene, one that took place in Africa, in Vancouver, during the coldest February in the city’s history. So it was a shock to only the stupidest people on set when it started snowing one evening close to midnight, shutting down production until the weather could return to a more Saharan vibe. After a good amount of snow accumulated on the gravel they had trucked in for the terrorist compound set, someone in an expensive North Face jacket angrily grabbed me, shoved a shop broom into my hands, and said ‘sweep it up’. I looked to my boss, and he sort of shrugged in an ‘it’s a living!’ way like that dinosaur garbage disposal on The Flintstones. So I spent about fifteen minutes attempting to sweep snow off gravel while it continued to snow all around me until whoever it was that demanded the sweeping forgot who I was and where we were and wandered off to seal Deadpool’s lips together with his Producer’s Guild card or something. Here was my first big lesson that people in power are usually there for one of two reasons: good ideas or failing upward. This wasn’t really a great anecdote, I just wanted to say fuck that guy.
- Stunt people do the hardest work in film, full stop. Very little about training, certification, or safety protocols can protect your spine or your knees after a certain age, and these big superhero movies look as good as they do to the credit of stunt performers. They’re also some of the coolest people you’ll meet on a set because their skills truly aren’t transferable and they really are there because they love film. The two dozen or so black stunt performers playing the African militants shot the shit with all of us lowly PA’s all night, showed us their insane guns, told stories about other big sets they were on going back to the first Rambo movie. When I remember this film, I remember the people literally risking their lives to make it a bit better.
I had moved to Vancouver to become an actor, and that hadn’t worked out at all. I had been unemployed, in debt, briefly homeless, and had begged my way onto film sets as crew just so I could get closer to what I wanted to do, only to see what a cynical mess most of these things are. It was depressing, honestly. But something about the experience on this particular set stuck with me, and with other people too. Ryan Reynolds was so angry about how badly they had fucked up Deadpool that he campaigned for almost a decade to make the movie his way. Jackman was so pissed off he pushed for the Wolverine movies to move in a direction more in line with the character, which eventually led to Logan. This film became shorthand for studio greed failing to see the forest for the trees, and lead to studios like Marvel seeking out filmmakers who actually had a passion for these characters. And, though it took me another ten years hacking away and a few films and tv shows that I was actually in, I realized that making movies kind of sucks. Some people enjoy it or can do it well enough to ignore how much it sucks, but I can’t. So I have a begrudging respect for anyone who makes a film, even if it turns into a complete disaster as this one did. I mean, I got to watch Liev Schreiber climb a building, Will.I.Am was there for some reason, and I smoked too many cigarettes while watching things blow up. And if anyone asks I have no idea what happened to that set of claws, I think Hugh Jackman took them home, he was looking shifty.