X-Men Origins: Wolverine (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Though it may be hard to believe, it's been 20 years since we redefined the superhero movie. Tim Burton's Batman was risky at the time — minus the primary colors of Superman and the biff-pow-blammo campiness of the Batman television series. But we welcomed a costumed hero that showed a darker side.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine arrives at an interesting moment in comic-book blockbuster history. The Dark Knight last year raised the stakes with its quagmire of moral complexity, and the filmmakers here seem to be trying to learn some of its lessons. But after 107 minutes, it doesn't appear that they learned enough.
Screenwriters David Benioff and Skip Woods take us to 1845 Canada, where two brothers with strange healing abilities — and extra-sharp retractable extremities — flee for their lives. For the next 100-plus years, James (Hugh Jackman) and Victor (Liev Schreiber) make use of their near-immortality, eventually landing in a secret force of mutants led by Col. William Stryker (Danny Huston). But James rebels and flees to Canada, where — re-dubbing himself Logan — he tries to live a normal life with a woman named Kayla (Lynn Collins). "Tries," of course, being the operative word.
Much of the rest is a straightforward revenge story, as Logan eventually consents to the experimental operation that will turn him into Wolverine. That's where director Gavin Hood wants to anchor the emotional hook, and he spends time establishing the relationship between Logan and Kayla to that end. They cuddle, they kiss, they tell myth-stories, all preparing us for the moment when Kayla is sacrificed.
Only it never quite connects. No matter how much Jackman snarls, Logan never seems genuinely tormented in his grief. And it points out a unique challenge in this performance: Even though Jackman has played Wolverine in three X-Men features, this character isn't the same guy. While Hood occasionally wants him to play the same cynical wise-cracker, we're mostly watching someone with a completely different psychological makeup.
Jackman might have succeeded had the film really committed to diving into its hero's animal nature, and the collision between his morality and that of Victor. Instead, it also wants to wallow in geek-gasm moments for its primary fan base. That means piling on the cameo appearances by familiar names from Marvel Comics like Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), Gambit (Taylor Kitsch), Blob (Kevin Durand) and a host of youngster mutants, including Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tim Pocock). The action kicks into high gear often enough, but it's so overstuffed that too little of it matters.
And that's where Wolverine misses the point of harder-edged fare. The Dark Knight didn't work because it was dark; it worked because it was focused on the character dilemmas that made the story matter. The furious, claw-slashing violence here doesn't add up to a truly gripping story, because it keeps zipping between locations and adding new characters.
It's a clever touch to set the climax at Three Mile Island, the upshot being that the 1979 meltdown story might have been a cover for mutant mayhem. If Wolverine had been the kind of movie where clever was the order of the day, it might have been a perfect cherry on top. Instead, it goes for the darkness without providing the emotion. The Dark Knight's Joker asked, "Why so serious?" I'm not convinced the filmmakers here know the answer.