Movie Review: 'X-Men Origins: Wolverine' -- A Hero's Tale With a Fatal Claw

Hugh Jackman stars in this new chapter in the X-Men series, which focuses on Wolverine's evolution through the mutant Weapon X program. Video by 20th Century Fox
By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 1, 2009

Unless you actually care that Sabretooth is Wolverine's brother -- not his father! -- you probably won't care that much about "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." Except, of course, for the explosions, the mutants, the claws, the noise, the guns, the samurai swords and the title's chilling suggestion that an "Origins" film could be in the works for every extant X-Man and -Woman. Consider the consequences; buy your ticket accordingly.

If "Wolverine" suggests anything, it's that living, breathing people in big-budget mainstream movies are rapidly becoming obsolete. We're almost there. Hugh Jackman might be the contractual star of this Marvel Comics-inspired production, which explores (creates) the history of one of Marvel's most popular and conflicted heroes. But technology gives the movie what it has. And what it has is all the humanity of a $150 million video game.

If that's your thing, go for it: The fanboys will no doubt flock to see how the most famous Canadian superhero's back story is turned into exploding celluloid (and proceed to trash it before the credits have rolled). But for those without a deep emotional attachment to the razor-clawed Wolverine, it's hard to understand what the draw might be.

But there is a story. It begins in 1845, in darkest Canada's Northwest Territories, where young brothers James and Victor (Troye Sivan and Michael-James Olsen) are just growing into their mutant powers -- fever is part of the process, apparently, and young James is suffering. When an intruder forces his way into the home and commits an act of violence, the no-longer-ailing boy manifests the first signs of Wolverine-dom, flashing claws from between his knuckles, impaling the killer and letting loose the first of many howls that will echo down through history (and the movie).

The Civil War, World Wars I and II, Korea, Vietnam -- James (Jackman) and Victor (Liev Schreiber) fight together through all of them, rarely being wounded, recovering instantly from the injuries they do suffer and vanquishing the bad guys of the moment. In the flashes we get from each war, Victor is always the more sadistic of the two -- he's one twisted unkillable dude, actually -- and James, a.k.a. Logan, constantly has to rein him in. You can see where this is going: Conflict. Nothing but conflict. It's always the same: Guys have superpowers. You think they'd be happy. But no. Conflict. All the time, conflict.

"Wolverine" is full of angst, and yet has had virtually all the soul wrung out of it in an effort to create a live-action cartoon. But cartoons are rarely so unwieldy, or force a director -- in this case, the largely unsung Gavin Hood -- to juggle so much impossible plotline.

Victor and James are recruited by the mysterious, governmental William Stryker (Danny Huston) to join a Dirty Dozen-style team of . . . what are they, exactly? Super-mercenaries? We don't know. Nor do we know why, once the group breaks up, Victor starts killing all its old members. Or why in God's name he would kill Logan's girlfriend, Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins), with whom Wolverine has been living on a mountaintop in the Canadian Rockies, minding his own business. Or why mutant children are being kidnapped to an island off the coast of insanity. Or what Stryker is after.

It all comes out eventually. But a character's motivation is a lot less effective, dramatically speaking, when it's delivered at the tail end of the movie.

There are those for whom all of "Wolverine" will make sense. Like "Watchmen," the year's previous comic-book sensation (sort of), "Wolverine" has a clubinesss about it, a sense that there are insiders and outsiders, and only the hippest Wolveriners will get the jokes.

But unlike "Watchmen," there's also an anti-humanity to "Wolverine." Its hero's tag line -- "I'm the best there is at what I do, but what I do isn't very nice" -- might well be applied to Hollywood: When human beings start to seem like intrusions into the pyrotechnical computer imagery, then the movies have become something implicitly unwelcoming, and something other than cinema.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (107 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for violence, intense action and fleeting nudity.

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