Once upon a time supermarkets offered something called the "generic" brand — staple groceries packaged with plain white labels sporting only the product name in thick black font. Not surprisingly, shoppers shunned cans of generic "corn," "beer," and "peaches," no matter how cheap the price. Now, imagine a plain white DVD cover with the title Mid-Budget Superhero Movie. Despite Hugh Jackman's formidable charisma, that is, in a nutshell, X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
Should it underperform, Fox will undoubtedly claim Internet piracy undermined its latest attempt to milk the X-Men gravy train (an unfinished work print did hit the Internet). The truth is, however, The Dark Knight, Watchmen, Hellboy and Iron Man are really to blame. With their postmodern themes, dark ironic tone and eye-popping visuals, these films raised audience expectations. Wolverine, on the other hand, would only induce déjà vu if it weren't so immediately forgettable.
The movie kicks off with an intriguing but ultimately irrelevant opener focusing on Wolverine's childhood before launching into a terrific credit sequence montage, where indestructible Logan and his psychotically feral half-brother Victor, aka Sabretooth (Liev Schreiber), do a headlong tour of duty in the Civil War, WW I, WW II and Vietnam. Unfortunately, their combat experiences deliver them into the hands of a shadowy military squadron known as Team X, which employs mutants for covert government operations. Inevitably, Logan's conscience wins and he decides to leave the violence behind to become a lover and lumberjack. As you might have guessed, the big bad past comes calling and Wolverine is forced to fight against his brother and former Team X pals.
While Wolverine was clearly the coolest of the X-Men characters, it's hardly smart to build a prequel around him since his mysterious background is what made him so appealing in the first place. Stupider still is trading his deadpan charisma and cheeky one-liners for a brooding, "I just want to live in peace" hero who gets reluctantly sucked back into action.
Director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, Rendition) is out of his league as he struggles to find consistent tone (or style) for his comic-book take on Cain and Abel. This may explain reports of studio meddling and extensive re-shoots. The movie sports a few good moments — notably the experiment that gives Wolverine his adamantine skeleton and claws, and an end battle tied into the Three Mile Island crisis — but it's never fun. The pace bounces between thunderous action and ponderous exposition, while the characters and story remain relentlessly glum.
Thematically and structurally the movie is a mess, piling on so many preposterous plot points and so much heavy-handed dialogue ("I should make you pull the trigger but that would make us no better than you") that it doesn't matter how convincing the actors are, they should be handed awards simply for keeping a straight face. And much of the cast is pretty good. Jackman's incredibly chiseled muscles are well matched to his '70s-era Clint Eastwood pose, Schreiber is gleefully sadistic, and Ryan Reynolds and Dominic Monaghan (Lost, Lord Of The Rings) bring something extra to throwaway roles as ill-fated mutants. Even Danny Huston does a fine job as the younger version of Brian Cox's Dr. Frankenstein-meets-Dick Cheney Stryker from X-Men 2. Still, as nefarious as he is, it's hard to take his dumber-than-dirt villain seriously when he decides to mind-wipe Logan after making him invincible.
There's no telling how long it'll take the comic-book genre to burn out — there are plans for many, many superhero flicks — brawny but uninspired fare like Wolverine will hasten its inevitable decline.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.