Comic Book Movies: The Beginning is the End is the Beginning

The phrase “you never get a second chance to make a first impression” isn’t just ad copy for Head and Shoulders anymore … apparently it’s the mantra of comic book adaptations, too! Watching X-Men Origins: Wolverine over the weekend, we couldn’t help but notice that the most exciting, creative and downright awesome part of the entire film was the opening credits. Director Gavin Hood (clearly overwhelmed) uses the titles to go on a travelogue of American conflict, as Wolverine and his half-brother Sabertooth fight in everything from the Civil War through Vietnam. It’s a great sequence, one that establishes the duality of Wolverine: He’s a killing machine who isn’t sure if he wants to be a killing machine. That the rest of the film fails to procure as much existential strife, however, comes as no surprise; X-Men Origins: Wolverine is just the latest comic-book film to treat its titles like a miniature movie, albeit one infinitely better than what follows.

To pinpoint when this phenomenon started, we’d have to head all the way back to the summer of 2004, when Spider-Man 2—the Godfather Part II of comic-book adaptations—managed to squeeze the entire first movie into a sequence of paneled illustrations. The trick worked because it was original and inclusive—if you hadn’t seen the first Spider-Man, you were all caught up by the time the sequel started in earnest—but also because Spider-Man 2 happens to be a great movie. Last summer’s forgotten The Incredible Hulk (we doubt even star Ed Norton remembers this film existed) wasn’t so lucky, despite using a similar tactic for its main titles. And, of course, the pièce de résistance in this movement occurred just this past March in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen. While the movie wound up being entirely mediocre, the opening credits sequence—a five-minute scrapbook of the original graphic novel by way of James Ellroy and scored with Bob Dylan—ranks as one of the best moments of the entire year, and likely still will by the time 2009 draws to a close.

And that brings us back to X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Like Watchmen on a smaller scale, the opening credits get you prepared for something fantastic, but the movie never delivers. It seems that comic-book films have increasingly become something akin to pop albums—top heavy with hits—and the hits are getting smaller. Call us picky, but we expect a bit more from our superheroes than having them reduced to the celluloid version of a Lady Gaga album. As witnessed by the opening credits, these directors clearly have talent—why not use it for all two hours of running time?