What do you do when your superhero franchise has no future? You reverse time's arrow and plunder the past. After two strong, Bryan-Singer-directed outings, the original X-Men trilogy wheezed to a grim, dispirited conclusion in 2006 with the Brett-Ratner-helmed X-Men: The Last Stand--a lurching wreck of a movie that should have added $5 million to Singer's subsequent asking price. So, having hit a wall going forward, the franchise has turned back. The exhaustingly titled X-Men Origins: Wolverine is in theory the first of several prequels, with a Magneto movie planned, as well as something called X-Men: First Class, an exploration of the adolescence of our mutant friends. And then, who knows? X-Men: Day Care? X-Men: My Body is Changing?
For its part, Wolverine is neither as resonant as the first two X-Men movies nor as ramshackle as the third. Capably but uninspiringly directed by Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, Rendition), it's an adequate action movie, but one that lacks the moral and emotional bottom-notes to be anything more.
The story begins, in the usual superhero fashion, with the death of a parent. It's Canada,
1845, and a young boy named James is about to learn a Terrible Family
Secret. Confessions are made, blood is shed, and soon James (later to be
known as Logan
and later still as Wolverine) and his half-brother Victor (later to be
known as Sabretooth) find themselves on their own. The two boys grow
into mutton-chopped manhood (now played by Hugh Jackman and Liev
Schreiber, respectively) and discover that they are, for all practical
purposes, immortal. This is especially good news given that James and
Victor's primary diversion is soldiering. A catchy, Watchmen-esque credit sequence follows them from the Civil War through a pair of World Wars to Vietnam,
where in art as in life, things go all to hell, and Victor, who has
always been a little overenthusiastic about the taking of life, gets
carried away and kills a superior officer. (Yes, in Wolverine as in last year's Defiance, Schreiber is pigeonholed into the role of more-violent-and-headstrong-
James and Victor are placed before a firing squad and, when its leaden rebukes fail to carry them to the other side, are given a choice by one Colonel William Stryker (Danny Huston, playing a younger version of Brian Cox's X2 character): Rot in jail forever, or join a secret team with "special privileges." This being a fairly easy choice, the brothers quickly find themselves members of a group of super-powered government agents existing somewhere on the historic-alphabetic spectrum between G-Men and X-Men. But here again, the work soon proves too messy for James's ever-more-tender disposition, and he quits to become a lumberjack and live in a remote mountaintop cabin with a kind and beautiful schoolteacher (Lynn Collins), who tells him a Native American story about how the wolverine and the moon were once lovers, but a trickster took her away. (This is called foreshadowing.) Out here in the gorgeous wilderness we also learn that James's combination of vivid nightmares and retractable claws can make for extremely awkward nocturnal erections.
Victor eventually finds him, of course, as does Stryker. There are reversals and counter-reversals, double- and triple-crosses, truck and motorcycle and helicopter crashes, and enough Jackmanian shirtlessness that any so inclined could produce a detailed topographical map of the lats, pecs, delts, and various outcroppings of muscle that have not yet been named. (If Jackman's bath scene in Australia was a carnal amuse-bouche, here he offers the all-you-can-eat beefcake buffet.) What Wolverine fails to do, however, is give us any real reason to care about the unfolding events. Though Jackman is capable, as always, in the title role, there's no real weight to his travails, which play more as exposition than tragedy. And while Schreiber has feral fun as Victor, his is an inherently limited performance.
The whole thing concludes, typically enough, with a Final Showdown in which a surfeit of mutants show up to fight, flee, and flip allegiances. The problem here of course--in addition to any creeping fatigue with the film, the X-Men, and superhero cinema in general--is that, thanks to the earlier movies, we already know how it will end: Wolverine's primary antagonists will survive, as will Wolverine himself, though in the latter case, having had his memory wiped clean of nearly everything that transpired throughout the course of the film. It may take a couple of hours, but ultimately you're likely to feel much the same way.
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.