Dreary, disappointing prequel arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray this week.
Since his introduction as an adversary for the Incredible Hulk thirty-five years ago, the Marvel Comics character Wolverine has come to symbolize a particular type of comics storytelling. Far from the gifted aliens, self-improving millionaires or brilliant scientists who traditionally make up the bulk of comics’ protagonists, the mutant known simply as “Logan” had powers thrust upon him not once but twice. Born a mutant and later subjected to military experiments that enhanced his natural abilities even further, his adventures are violent, uncomplicated, and thick on the spy/military tropes found in drugstore paperbacks and B-movie combat actioners.
Wolverine as a superhero is not a genius, not a strategist and not even much of a thinker, really. He’s a brute force of nature with no end of machismo, a lowbrow hero for our ever-increasingly lowbrow culture. So if X-Men Origins: Wolverine is not an especially well-thought movie, if it places its expensive emphasis on action over clarity of plot and characterization, then in a shabby sense it’s true to its subject. Does that make it a good movie? No, though its range of flaws makes it a bad one.
Directed by Gavin Hood (Rendition), the film opens with a visually and narratively murky prologue that shows Logan (Hugh Jackman) as a young boy escaping the murder of a man who may be his father. He’s abetted by his playmate Victor (Liev Shreiber), who also may or may not be his brother. Possessed of special healing powers that make them both more or less immortal, the two go on to serve in every major conflict of the next 130 years, depicted as a thrilling opening credits montage that has the pair laying waste to enemy soldiers from several armies (They always pick the right side to join.) In time they’re recruited into a special military unit composed of mutant soldiers whose leader, Colonel Stryker (Danny Huston), encourages their growing bloodlust. Logan quits the group when their – and Victor’s especially – savagery pushes him to his ethical threshold.
Jump ahead six years – David Benioff and Skip Woods’ script lets its chronology all over the place - and Logan has found solitidue in a new life working in Canada’s logging industry while romancing a local school teacher (Lynn Collins). But her apparent murder at Victor’s hands drives Logan back into Stryker’s influence. Offered the chance to have all memory of his dead love erased, he volunteers for an experiment to coat his bones with a special alien metal called “adamantium” that will make him virtually indestructible. Once so empowred, the rest of the film finds Logan getting revenge against Victor and Stryker, and liberating Stryker’s gulag of mutant prisoners on Three Mile Island.
Perhaps part of the problem is the murky structure of their source material. As their most popular character, Marvel has revised and re-imagined their hero’s origin story multiple times over the years, the better with which to entice audiences into buying “now it can be told…” comic “events.” Possibly as a consequence, Benioff (Troy) and Woods (Swordfish) have a lot of complicated and tangled back story to address while keeping the action moving. But like the recent Watchmen, their screenplay puts spectcle above narrative, so that fight scenes (or, more frequently, Victor’s cruel execution of his targets) are constant and prolonged. That’s at least true enough to the genre: the basics of the superhero story has always boiled down to “come for the action, stay for the pathos.” Comic books are by design a visual medium, and character depth is actually a fairly recent development in their history.
Still, for an action movie the special effects should be better – really, they have to be for the film to be worth the audience’s time and money. And for a film both prefacing and expanding on the already profitable X-Men movie franchise (composed so far of two good movies by Bryan Singer and one terrible one by Brett Ratner), they should be better still. Instead, the fight sequences – and there are many - are redundant and blurred, with CGI that’s convincing only about half the time. It’s hard not to think that with such an expansive cast, many of whom also have super powers, the money was spread too thin. A scene in which Logan toys with his new metal claws while at a bathroom counter is especially unconvincing. Most unconvincing, given the carnage, is the lack of blood onscreen, obviously removed for the sake of that crucial PG-13 rating.
Making his fourth screen appearance as the hirsute Logan, Jackman is serviceable as always, but he’s seldom given anything to do except respond to events surrounding him. For an action hero he’s curiously passive until circumstances demand his attention. He’s also never entirely sympathetic as a character, as there’s no explanation for why he fought in so many wars or why he feels repulsed by his “brother’s” violence in the first place. After 150 or so years together, you’d think he’d know his constant companion better. Jackman is also given to striking dubious poses before running at his enemies, throwing his arms and legs into weird Tai Chi-like contortions that often look mannered.
Shreiber, playing the borderline feral Victor as a method exercise in animal snarl and pent-up menace, nevertheless shows again why he’s among the most underrated American actors working right now. Ryan Reynold’s (Definitely, Maybe) charm is underused as the wisecracking ninja Wade, while the normally wooden Kevin Durand (3:10 To Yuma) is effective buried beneath layers of fat suit padding as The Blob. Collins (True Blood) as Logan’s doomed love Kayla Silverfox does the best she can with a stock role that begs for further development. Despite an intermittent gumbo drawl, Taylor Kitsch (Friday Night Lights) overachieves as the fan favorite mutant Gambit, a character whose appearance in a Bourbon Street nightclub is one of the film’s few truly suspenseful moments.
It’s no coincidence the film appears on home video so quickly. Debuting at the top of the box office with a strong $87 million opening weekend, it nevertheless sank quickly thereafter as comics fans gave only lukewarm response. And no wonder. Wolverine is not a good film, but more significantly it is not a good film even for the kind of movie it is. Logan may not be a genius, but his long-awaited solo feature shouldn’t be so dumb.
(Note: A previous version of this review appeared for the film’s theatrical release.)