The fourth film in the X-Men film series, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is to the first two X-Men movies what Beneath the Planet of the Apes is to the original Planet of the Apes: It will be of interest to people fascinated by the series' overarching storyline — or, more likely, character cosmology — but it lacks the wit or resonance to deserve a wider appeal.
The most malleable of comic-book film franchises, the X-Men series takes Marvel Comics' fables of adolescent evolution and gives the recurring theme of alienation a wider social dimension. These stories of mutants struggling for acceptance and self-worth reference — sometimes explicitly — human rights struggles from the Holocaust to the civil rights movement to the coming-out dilemmas of homosexuals. And, at its best, the X-Men series has done so with an unusual degree of imagination and humor. But Wolverine — which focuses on the titular loner character — retreats from these strengths.
This fourth installment of the series is meant to function both as a prequel and a stand-alone story. The Wolverine character (played again by Aussie actor Hugh Jackman) is the most mysterious and popular character in the X-Men universe, and his storyline here connects directly to the series-best X2, which itself hinted at the details of Wolverine's origin.
The film opens in the wilds of Canada circa 1845, as young Wolverine-to-be James Logan, in a moment of extreme stress, finds claws growing out of his knuckles. Fleeing a bloody confrontation at their family home, James and older brother Victor flee into the woods and south to America, into opening credits that depict the two brothers (now played by Jackman and Liev Schreiber) fighting — ageless and ferocious — in every battle from the Civil War to Vietnam.
It turns out that Victor — later to be dubbed Sabre-tooth — has a mutation similar to his brother: quick-healing, slow-aging, extreme strength and agility, and fingernails that sprout into deadly claws. But he's got a darker nature. When they are recruited into a secret military run by the malevolent Colonel Stryker (Danny Huston), Victor thrives on the bad deeds they are asked to do. The more decent James does not.
The James-Victor conflict should be at the center of the film, but Wolverine adds too many subplots and characters (introducing something like a dozen new mutants along with a younger version of Scott "Cyclops" Summers). Despite casting a top-notch actor in Schreiber, the film underexplains Victor (why is he so different from James? what motivates him?) and then shuttles him aside for a more flashy but ultimately less interesting villain in a climactic battle atop a nuclear reactor.
Wolverine is cluttered with characters, confusing motivations, and overheated yet mundane action sequences — including the indulgence of such action-flick clichés as a hero walking away as explosions erupt in the background and the bird's-eye shot of an anguished protagonist screaming to the heavens. The sheer volume of X-Men micronalia will be gripping to committed fans, but as a stand-alone film, Wolverine desperately needs a simpler narrative drive and more of the small-scale human-interest moments that have animated this series at its best.
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