If last summer taught us anything, it was that comic-book movies can encompass the ridiculous, the sublime and everything in between. Sure, some naysayers still refuse to take seriously any film where the protagonist has superpowers and an epithet for a name. But they may eventually go the way of those who insisted that a great Western or a great horror film was an oxymoron.
That said, X-Men Origins: Wolverine marks a return to the summer tradition of the just-plain-dumb superhero movie. It plays out like the most expensive DVD special featurette ever made, delving into the backstory of a protagonist whose origins were already pretty well explained by previous films. Legions of supporting characters pop up and vanish, presumably as shout-outs to fans of the X-Men comics, but a reason to care never materializes.
In the first three X-Men films, Wolverine was the mysterious bad boy of the mutant ensemble, the man with a Dark Past who routinely lost his shirt and got young girls' hearts a-hopping. The problem is, Hugh Jackman's rendition of the brooding Byronic act only works in small doses. Now that he has an entire movie to rage at the heavens and utter lines such as "Where I'm going, there is no redemption," it's more obvious that exuding animalistic menace isn't his thing. Every time he scowls really hard (most shots), he looks like he might rather be singing and dancing at the Kodak Theatre.
So, just what makes Wolverine so pissed off all the time? The film begins way back in the 1840s, when, we learn, the dude first popped his superhuman bone claws after he accidentally killed his own daddy. This prelude is so rushed that it seems like a pure concession to comic-book canon. But then writers David Benioff and Skip Woods revise that canon by making their hero's half-brother grow up into the likewise manicure-needy Sabretooth (Liev Schreiber), Wolverine's enduring but unrelated rival in the Marvel universe.
Not that it matters. Check the Wikipedia entry for any long-running comic-book character, and you'll find dozens of alternate origin stories and reinterpretations. What does matter is that the film's new Cain-and-Abel dynamic isn't dynamic. In a well-crafted credit sequence, we watch the two clawed Canadian brothers fight side by side in every modern conflict from the Civil War to Vietnam. The last is too much for Schreiber's character, who soaks up the general decadence and becomes a raping, murdering sociopath. (If you watched Watchmen, you've already seen this part.)
What he never becomes is interesting. Schreiber has the acting chops and charisma to do a villainous turn like Alan Rickman's in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. But not with a script where his motivation boils down to playground logic: "You're totally lame, so I'm gonna impale you with my claws."
Having noted that they can't be killed by normal means, the sinister Col. William Stryker (Danny Huston) recruits the brothers for a mutant task force. A blur of mad-scientist experiments, superfluous cameos and fight scenes follows, from which a few break-out stars emerge. One is the majestic "Canadian" landscape (actually various parts Down Under), pictorially shot by director Gavin Hood. Another is Ryan Reynolds, who savors the one-liners in his all-too-brief role as the mouthy mercenary Deadpool. Taylor Kitsch and Dominic Monaghan add color to the proceedings as mutants with human quirks, but their characters are so superfluous to the action that they seem to have been inserted merely to keep X-Men experts alert.
Right now, superhero movies have evolved to a point where filmmakers often opt to cram in maximum trivia to appeal to the hard-core fan base, while appeasing clueless casual viewers with bone-crunching fights and explosions. It's nice to see the long-maligned comic-book nerds wielding serious demographic clout. But the "something for everyone" strategy barely worked for Watchmen, which had a strong source plot, and it doesn't work at all for Wolverine, which doesn't. Not all moviegoers know or care who Professor X or Gambit is, but everyone appreciates a good story well told. Let's hope the summer's next blockbuster has one.