I didn’t read ‘X-Men’ as a kid (I was more of a ‘Fantastic Four’ nerd myself) so I can only judge this film based on how well it hews to the bible it has already set up in the first three ‘X-Men’ films. By that standard, ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’ succeeds…mostly.
Wolverine is by far one of the more interesting of the first-generation X-Men. He’s cranky; he carries his own moral code around like an invisible cloud often circumventing plans and strategies to do what he believes is right; he’s confident, and he’s practically indestructible. In short, Wolverine is the perfect anti-hero. Unfortunately, ‘Origins’ does little to dig under those surface qualities to show us just how he actually got to be the way he is.
Beginning in 1845 in rural Canada, ‘Origins’ introduces a sibling relationship between Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Sabretooth (Liev Schreiber) and the years of soldiering the two brothers do between the death of their real, shared father and the Vietnam war are told in a visually artful way that tells us next to nothing about their characters. It isn’t until this last war, it seems, when Wolverine has had enough of his brother’s blood lust.
The bulk of the film centers quite rightly on how Wolverine acquired the adamantium, courtesy Col. William Stryker (Danny Houston here; Brian Cox in ‘X2?), adhering to his skeleton and how he lost his memories of a more than 100-year lifespan. The conflict between the human and the animal is expressly spoken of in the story but never really conveyed; it is a foregone conclusion that Wolverine will take Stryker’s offer and that he will continue to struggle with the beast within himself. And therein lies the major problem with this film: Like ‘Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith’ because we know what comes after it the inherent drama of the origin is vastly diminished.
Visually stylish and packed with both action and fight sequences, director Gavin Hood could have cut about 20 minutes in the second act without sacrificing the intricate set-up of Stryker’s betrayal. Too, Hood, on only his third film, makes a couple of rookie mistakes attempting to show us too much in some places and not allowing for enough breathing room in others; Wolverine’s embarrassment at the accidents caused by his brand new adamantium claws is priceless and a too brief bit of humor in a film that otherwise takes itself with the utmost seriousness. And for those who pay attention to such details, it is worth noting that while he is never referred to in ‘Origins’ as Sabretooth it’s likely because producers wasted the character in the first film in the franchise by presenting him as a mute animal barely up to average intelligence which is a clear diversion from Schreiber’s portrayal.
Hugh Jackman shoulders the burden of Wolverine well, delivering with a consistency of performance that should satisfy most casual fans. Let’s just hope that the producers and keepers of the X-Men series are smart enough to make their next move ‘X-Men Origins: Storm’.