Warning: Mild Spoilers Follow
What do you do when a fourth installment in your hit franchise becomes too cost-prohibitive to make, thanks to the need to renegotiate the salaries of your stars, all of whom will want a bigger piece of the action? You spin off the most popular character into his own movie, of course. Which brings us to X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Actually, this is not a bad idea. Whether in comics or on the screen, Wolverine has always been the most beloved of X-Men, so he seems like a natural for the solo treatment. The movie is something of a mixed bag, though, with certain things being really strong and other things being disappointing. On the Marvel Comics movie scale, Wolverine is leagues better than Elektra and Ghost Rider but not the slam-dunk that Iron Man or the first two X-Men pictures were.
A short prologue draws its inspiration from the outstanding "Origin" comic series from several years ago. Set in the 1860's, a young boy named Logan discovers that both he and his brother Victor (the eventual Sabretooth) have mutant genes that give them unusual powers. The opening credit sequence - which is terrific, by the way - takes us through the years as Logan a.k.a. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Victor (Liev Schreiber) fight in various wars, from the Civil War through Vietnam and beyond. At the end of the montage, we learn that their mutant powers have been discovered by Col. William Stryker (Danny Huston). The military honcho recruits them for a top-secret team dedicated, allegedly, to protecting America's best interests around the world. Logan grows tired of the abuses he sees under Stryker's command, deciding one day to walk off and live his life in peace.
He hides out in Canada, works as a lumberjack, and finds true love in the form of a local named Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins). Victor, angry that his brother left the program (among other things), manages to track him down, killing Kayla in the process. Hell-bent on revenge, Logan accepts an offer from Stryker to be a human guinea pig in an experiment known as Weapon X. A substance called adamantium, which makes him indestructible, is fused to his skeleton. He then sets out to kill Victor, only to discover a trail of betrayal along the way. His journey also finds him encountering other mutants, such as Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) and Blob (Kevin Durand).
X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a movie that's really more about the "hows" than the "whys." We find out how Logan turned into Wolverine, but the story glosses over issues such as why he and Victor have such a strained relationship. Or why he and Kayla fell in love. Cursory explanations are given, of course, without ever going into anything beyond surface detail. The choice to relegate these things to the background is odd, for two reasons. One, so much of the plot revolves around Wolverine hating Victor and wanting to avenge the death of his "true love." And two, superhero movies like Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight have proven that audiences actually like complex emotional arcs in their superhero stories. I think that Wolverine would have benefited overall from delving into the personal side of the mutants a little more than it does.
All this really means is that this particular film is not a classic in the genre. It is, however, a decent amount of fun. The stuff that Wolverine gets right, it gets very right. I think a lot of people, no matter how much they enjoyed the three X-Men pictures, clamored to see more Wolverine. Here, we get almost two full hours of him, with Hugh Jackman again doing a superb job in the role. Jackman has become a major star since first achieving recognition in the original X-Men. That stardom is amazingly not distracting; watching him now, we still see the character and not the actor. He's just as badass as ever.
The action scenes are pretty fantastic too. Director Gavin Hood (Rendition) largely avoids the typical action director's mistake of cutting so fast that you can barely tell what's going on. Most of Hood's fight sequences are quite well-staged. I loved the showdown between Wolverine on a motorcycle and another mutant in a helicopter. (The way he takes out the copter's blades is…well, geek-tastic.) You also get a chilling sequence in which Logan is physically transformed into Wolverine via an eerie, needle-filled contraption, and a climactic three-way mutant fight atop a nuclear reactor. If the details of Logan's backstory are sometimes skimmed over, the movie at least delivers plenty of bang for your buck in the action department.
There are many little touches that also satisfy, from moments of humor to cameos from some of the other famous X-Men. On balance, there's enough here to make X-Men Origins: Wolverine worth seeing. As a longtime fan of the comics, the character, the first three films, and Marvel in general, enough of Wolverine worked for me that I have no qualms about recommending it. I only have to add one caveat: After stuff like Iron Man and The Dark Knight proved that superhero movies can contain genuine storytelling artistry, I'm slightly disappointed that this one didn't really try.
( out of four)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, and some partial nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.
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