Wolverine: Back to the future

X-Men Origins: Wolverine is the latest blockbuster to revisit the birth of a superhero. Tim Walker explores the unstoppable rise of the prequel

The comprehensively entitled X-Men Origins: Wolverine tells the story of a mutant boy born with a dangerous-looking set of retractable claws and formidable sideburns, who accidentally kills his father, runs away with his evil brother, grows up to look a lot like Hugh Jackman, and finally joins the X-Men.

The film's journey to the screen has become almost as troubled as the fictional beginnings of its title character. A month prior to its release this week, a rough cut was leaked onto the internet and swiftly became the most pirated film ever, attracting around 100,000 downloads in its first 24 hours online. It's yet to be seen whether the leak will be a blow to its box office, or an unexpected publicity coup: 2008's most illegally downloaded film, The Dark Knight, was also the year's biggest moneyspinner.

But if the outcome of this particular origins tale remains in doubt, then the narratives of today's cinema provide us with plenty of fixed and familiar backstories, including the one contained in the Wolverine film itself. The appeal of the new X-Men prequel lies not in a surprise ending – we already know the great things that Jackman's hirsute superhuman will go on to, just as we knew the future for Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, or for young Vito Corleone in The Godfather: Part II.

No: the joy of the origins tale is, perversely, precisely in the audience's foreknowledge of the characters' fate, and in their discovery of how it came about. Why else would Titanic make $1.8bn at the box office, when everyone already knew that the ship was going to sink? For an origins tale to really succeed, it needs its subject to be an established feature of the collective cultural consciousness. Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe, for example, are currently shooting their contribution to the countless film and television versions of the Robin Hood tale. And the new Star Trek film has 716 television episodes and 10 previous films already acting as promotional material.

Meanwhile, the Terminator franchise has been teasing us with notions of fate and foreknowledge ever since 1984. This year, the fourth film in the series, Terminator: Salvation, will take us back to the future from which Arnold Schwarzenegger's original robot assassin was sent. It is, in its own roundabout way, an origins tale, too. There's an undeniable thrill in watching the young Captain Kirk, the young Wolverine or the young John Connor, and knowing (better than they do) that the fate of their starship, their fellow mutants, or the entire human race will soon be in their hands.

"Star Trek is particularly clever," says Andrew Collins, Star Trek fan and film critic. "They're keeping old fans like me, who have fond memories of the first series on telly, happy. But [the director] J J Abrams has put the clock right back to re-tell the story with a young, pretty cast to appeal to a new generation as well. The pitch meeting must have gone very well; you just say it's Star Trek, with younger actors. That's instantly commercial."

There are plenty of cynical, commercial reasons to make a prequel like Terminator: Salvation, or to reboot a brand like Star Trek with a much younger, prettier cast. As a rule, the second film in a popular franchise does better at the box office than its predecessor, because it offers a cinema audience the security of a recognised brand.

But sequels also tend to dilute the quality of the originals: for every The Empire Strikes Back, there are two Batman and Robins. Recently, however (Star Wars episodes one to three aside), origins prequels have started to come up trumps with critics as well as studio accountants. There's something satisfying about lending implausible heroes authenticity by explaining how they came to exist. This was the plan for Batman and Bond, in Batman Begins (2005) and Casino Royale (2006), which gave their gadget-laden, violence-prone protagonists both motivations and means.

In a sense, the filmmakers disregarded much of what had gone before and rebuilt their characters anew. It was almost as if Sean Connery's Cold War Bond and George Clooney's high-camp Batman had never happened at all. Yet without the Martini jokes, Casino Royale would only have been half the film it was.

Film-goers are just starting to get used to this manipulation of their favourite myths, but it's something that comic-book readers have long tolerated. "Comic writers and publishers tend to re-invent characters' origins regularly," says James Simpson, deputy head of comics at London's Forbidden Planet store. "Spiderman has had so many origins re-tellings, I've lost count."

Now that Marvel Comics has its own movie studio, we can reasonably expect to see more such origins tales on screen. One of Marvel Studios' first projects was last year's The Incredible Hulk, a reboot of the recent origins film Hulk (2003). There's also talk of a film version of The Avengers, a Marvel title about a team of superheroes including the Hulk and Iron Man. Robert Downey Jr, now filming Iron Man 2, has already supposedly signed up for the Avengers film, which is currently slated for 2012. Wolverine, too, was a member of the Avengers in print, though Jackman has yet to be linked to the project.

"As a comic-book fan you come to expect these things," says Simpson. "DC Comics do the same: their "Justice League" includes Batman, Superman, Wonderwoman and Green Lantern. It's just assumed that they'll meet up and team up. It's not frowned upon. But it's something that movie audiences haven't quite got used to yet."

Such are the luxuries of controlling your own fantasy world. DC currently keeps tabs on 52 parallel DC "universes", each containing their own supermen and wonderwomen. Not everything is possible, however. "Captain Kirk died at the end of Generations [the 7th Star Trek film]," says Collins, "but William Shatner still wanted to be in the new film. They said, 'You can't, you're dead', and he said, 'Well, I'm alive in the novels' – there's a parallel universe of Star Trek novels where he's still alive. In fantasy you could, quite frankly, throw the rule book out the window if you wanted, but there are certain rules that people still like to stick by."

'X-Men Origins: Wolverine' is out today

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