Hugh Jackman, X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Credit: James Fisher

So, the makers of the industrial-strength franchise extender X-Men Origins: Wolverine have now revealed the psychological roots of the famous ”berserker rage” that has caused the title’s angry Marvel superhero to bare his adamantium claws in three previous X-Men movies. The question is, was anyone wondering? Or are you, like me, content enough to admire the cool, crazy talents of a society of freaks and geeks who find comfort in pooling their misunderstood powers? To put it another way: Is it possible to make a movie about a superhero these days without injecting scenes of dreary superambivalence between expensive action sequences? (Batman, Spider-Man, and the Hulk? Big brooders.) Or is blessed freedom from neurosis granted only to villains? (The Joker? A fun guy.)

The questions arise as Wolverine launches a new X-Men franchise based on origin myths that will allow for a pageant of younger stars. In the case of the superhero born James Howlett (known off duty as Logan, and boasting the Sexiest Man Alive beauty of entertainer Hugh Jackman), traumatic past experiences include a fatal misunderstanding back in 1845 with a sinister-looking man the young Wolverine-to-be couldn’t have known at the time was his real father. (The lad also couldn’t have known he’d grow up to sport a Paulie Walnuts hairdo.)

Likewise, there’s emotional fallout from more than a century of love/hate between James/Logan/Wolverine and his lithe, fiery, and similarly clawed older brother, Victor (Liev Schreiber). During their long years on the run together, smacking down anyone who stood in their way, the mutant siblings fought side by side in the Civil War, two World Wars, and the Vietnam War, all in a matter of some 20 minutes of screen time. (Victor, whose own talons are extensions of his hobo fingernails, also goes by the name of Sabretooth, for self-explanatory dental reasons.) The experience of all that fighting turned Logan into something of a pacifist, or at least an Age of Psychotherapy introvert who wants to gain control of his own animal nature. In contrast, Victor has no such niggles about the thrill of destructive instincts. No wonder Schreiber provides the most unfettered pleasure in this guilt-racked action pic. (No wonder, too, that Jackman, in his capacity as producer, tapped South African filmmaker Gavin Hood to direct, after Hood’s previous morality tales Tsotsi and Rendition.)

You’d think all this would be enough shrinkwrapped backstory since the movie still needs space to introduce other, newer mutants for their moments in the spotlight. (Ryan Reynolds has fun as the adversary who later comes to be known as Deadpool; Friday Night Lights‘ Taylor Kitsch gives an inkling of the charms he might display in a future episode as Gambit; Black Eyed Peas frontman makes an appealing feature-film debut as John Wraith, a dude with a gift for now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t.) But lest the ladies feel alienated by all the masculine conflict, the movie adds lover’s grief as an additional motive for moodiness. And so we learn that Logan’s bliss was interrupted at the happiest time in his life, when he was living simply as a hunky, often shirtless, law-abiding lumberjack in the Canadian Rockies, nesting with with his dishy schoolteacher girlfriend, Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins). After someone targets Kayla as a way of getting to her beau, Wolvie yowls luxuriously and flashes his erect talons. Why, ye gods of superhero comic books, is someone out to get him? And who’s to blame?

Wolverine climaxes in a pileup of explosions, complicated stunts, violent man-on-man fights, and hints, especially if you stay until the end of the credits, at sequels and spin-offs — each fancy sequence simultaneously lacking both weight and lightness: The effect-laden showdowns feel more dutiful than daring, and the rare moments of fun are parceled out frugally, like precious nuggets of adamantium. Meanwhile, buff and bronzed as an Oscar statuette, Jackman works the picture like a trouper. Heroes and villains clash, then rise up to clash again, just because that’s what X-Men do. The truth is, it doesn’t matter Y. C+

X-Men Origins: Wolverine
  • Movie
  • 108 minutes