"X-Men Origins: Wolverine," which hits theaters on Friday (May 1), is the sort of movie that's likely to prompt heated debates. Unfortunately, they aren't the sort of debates 20th Century Fox is really hoping for.

For example:

When it comes to squandering the good faith left by Bryan Singer's first two "X-Men" movies, is "Wolverine" better or worse than Brett Ratner's mindless-and-souless "X-Men: The Last Stand"? 

Or:

When it comes to unnecessary spinoffs of characters from comic book movies, is "Wolverine" better or worse than, say, "Elektra" or "Catwoman"? 

When these are the questions you're scratching in your notebook, there's a tendency to willingly damn with faint praise.

[Review after the break...]

So guess what? "Wolverine" absolutely better than "Elektra" or "Catwoman." 

Aren't you relieved?

I'm not sure, though, that I'm willing to commit to a preference over "The Last Stand," which has Ellen Page's Kitty Pryde and Vinnie Jones' Juggernaut going for it, if nothing else.

"X-Men Origins: Wolverine" suffers from slack storytelling and lazy filmmaking and it actually becomes increasingly less inspired as it moves along.

In the first three "X-Men" movies, we knew Jackman's Wolverine/Logan as an growly amnesiac with claws of adamantium and a penchant for cigars. As the movies progressed and the love triangle with Jean Grey and Cyclopes advanced, he became less of a wolverine and more of a dyspeptic kitten. "Wolverine," as a prequel, is about reclaiming the character fans of the comic loved. Of course, that dark anti-hero isn't the sort of character a studio would build a $100-million-plus summer movie around, so just because we learn the tortured secrets of Wolverine's past doesn't mean he's actually recovered his edge.

The movie starts promisingly with a flashback to 1845, where we meet a young Logan as he learns of his mutant gifts in horrifying fashion and goes on the run with brother Victor. The opening credits, far-and-away my favorite part of the movie, follows Logan and Victor's 100+ year odyssey through American history, as increasingly bloodthirsty mercenaries in all of the nation's wars. Stylish and perfectly cut to Harry Gregson-Williams' score, the opening credits, with their revisionist take on on the past, will likely remind more than a few viewers of the opening credits for "Watchmen" (also the best part of that movie). 

The early character sketching is also "Watchmen"-esque, as Logan remains a noble soldier, never giving in to his inner beast, but Victor (Liev Schreiber) becomes increasingly contemptuous of the less powerful humans, taking a path to crazed megalomania that's plenty Comedian-esque.

Victor and Logan are scooped up by Danny Huston's Colonel Stryker and recruited to join a special forces team of gifted individuals including human lightbulb Bradley (Dominic Monaghan), blathering sword-wielder Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) and several other mutants or probable-mutants. When things go too far on one African mission, Logan sets out on his own, only to be dragged back in six years later when the unhinged Victor tracks him down in brutal fashion.

Scripted by David Benioff and Skip Woods, "Wolverine" suffers from the familiar prequel problem where we know the eventual fate of several characters, setting up a series of anti-climaxes. The writers have been given carte blanche to pretty much discard most accepted comic mythology for these characters, but if we saw Sabretooth and Stryker in the franchise's earlier movies, the chances of their dying are low. You can predict, then, that in order to attempt a satisfying climax, a random adversary will have to be introduced out of left field, in this case the bioengineered Weapon XI, brought into the movie toward the end, as if viewers are going to care whether Wolverine can stop him or not. Narratively, it rings hollow.

The investment in the movie is in showing viewers the things Wolverine didn't remember about his past, but with all of the newly introduced characters and forgettable set-pieces, this isn't the complicated psychological portrait of the character that Jackman may have hoped for. It adds little to the Logan knowing that something bad is pretty much destined to happen to anybody Wolverine gets close to. The result is that Jackman has to alternate between being grief-stricken and bent-on-revenge and being iconically cool and spitting out one-liners and walking away from fireballs. The attempts at character-grounding are at odds with director Gavin Hood's cartoony compositions and staging, producing an overall movie that often feels like somebody thought they were making "The Dark Knight" and ended up with "Batman and Robin" instead.

Neither of Hood's first two films -- the Oscar-winning "Tsotsi" and the justifiable mocked "Rendition" -- was all that subtle, but both movies had a tangible specificity in terms of time and space. "Wolverine," in contrast, is frustratingly blurry and ill-defined on every level.

If you do the math, "Wolverine" is a period piece of some sort, but fighting out what year it takes place is an exercise in futility. Nothing from the fashions to the technology to the soundtrack gives any indication of when things are taking place, though it seems to be sometime in the late 1970s? Maybe? 

For two movies, Singer made sure that "X-Men" was about something, even if it was just a superficial allegory about differences of all kinds. They were set in a contemporary world and there were contemporary underpinnings that gave the story a relevance that was central to the popularity of the comic franchise. Ratner disposed of most of that meaning and Hood doesn't even try, a surprise from a director with a tendency toward preachiness.

"Wolverine" also isn't really set anywhere. New Zealand stands in for Canada, Africa, New Orleans and Three Mile Island, but there are only one or two scenes that don't feel like they could have been set on any available soundstage, a fact cinematographer Donald McAlpine is unable to disguise.

So "Wolverine" doesn't have any "Where" or "When" and other than a few characters, it doesn't have much of a "Who," despite an assortment of new attempted character. Jackman is fine, but he's insubstantial opposite Schreiber, whose cocky malevolence dominates every scene. Houston's Styker has been given half-a-sentence of motivation, but he's a one-dimensional Dr. Frankenstein figure. 

Of the fresh faces, good luck remembering any of them and don't expect any of them to get spin-offs of their own. Remember the clarity with which Singer and Ratner delineated the powers of every new mutant? I do. Viewers won't be able to tell you what, exactly, Daniel Henney's Agent Zero, Kevin Durand's Fred J. Dukes or Will.i.am's Wraith can do. Reynolds' Wilson seems to have quick wrists, which may or may not be a mutant power, but that's all we see. A slew of even less-defined characters appear toward the end, though several are younger versions of people we'd met before.

I defy anybody watching this movie to tell me what Gambit can or can't do, though thanks to the charisma of Tim Riggins... errr... "Taylor Kitsch," it's at least fun watching him do it. Or did I only enjoy watching Gambit because he was played by San Antonio State's new running back recruit? Kitsch provides a measure of cool, but his attempts at a Louisiana accent come and go.

I have my comic book interests, but I'm not going to get worked up about the way Gambit and Deadpool were treated here. I'll leave those complaints for the dedicated fans. I only know that "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" is hollow storytelling that lacks the firepower to compensate.

That is, finally, the worst thing about "Wolverine." The movie looks expensive, but the special effects are absolutely dreadful. We're nine years past the first "X-Men" movie and computer-driven effects have only improved, so how is it possible that Wolverine's metallic claws looked worse in this movie than in the 2000 original? Because they do. The fights between Wolverine and Victor are supposed to be these epic clashes of the titans, but they're just blurring CG blobs flying at each other and springing around like they're weightless. The movie's ultimate action scene is all lackluster choreography in a virtual environment that looks like it was barely textured.

Because visual effects are cumulative it's the rare sequel that doesn't find a way to equal or improve on its predecessors, but "Wolverine" is a major step back from the Singer and Ratner movies. 

If we were coming off a spring of small-scale movies and disappointing box office, I can see how audiences would be relieved to embrace the popcorn-ready excess of "Wolverine," ignoring its overall shoddiness. Instead, it was a spring of record box office, featuring movies several movies capable of outdoing "Wolverine" in both stunts and effects. With "Star Trek" and "Terminator Salvation" just weeks away, "Wolverine" will be forgotten before those debates I mentioned at the start are resolved.

 

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