You have to feel sorry for the X-Men franchise. It was once the standard bearer for comic book movies, a monopoly it managed to hold onto until Christopher Nolan and a certain Dark Knight raised and reset the bar substantially higher. Now, the mutant movie series is little more than a fading memory, a reminder of when Hollywood hoped to find a way to translate favorite graphic novels into massive motion picture successes. Oddly enough, Fox may have discovered the secret to staying relevant in a post-Batman reboot era -- and the answer is Hugh Jackman. Capable of carrying even the most mediocre effort, he singlehandedly makes X-Men Origins: Wolverine an excellent start to the summer 2009 season.
As a young boy, James Howlett (Jackman) was sickly. Doted on by his doctor father, a tragedy sends him out into the world alone -- alone, that is except for his half-brother Victor (Liev Schrieber). After surviving several wars together, the boys meet up with military man William Stryker (Danny Huston) and along with a group of fellow mutants, they search the globe for an elusive metal derived from a meteorite. When Howlett, now renamed Logan, sees the atrocities committed in pursuit of said goal, he walks away. Six years later, Stryker and Victor come calling, wanting their former ally to participate in an experiment. Fusing his frame with an experimental alloy, Logan becomes Wolverine. Unfortunately, he soon after finds himself a pawn in a much larger crusade against his kind, with his murderous sibling front and center. Article continues below
Except for the last act appearance of a rather uninspired Weapon XI, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is an excellent example of its type. It features the undeniable talents of its "too good to be true" lead actor, and fleshes out his frequently topless physique with all manner of interesting individual diversions. This is first and foremost a character study, albeit it one with killer action sequences and a real sense of scope. What new director Gavin Hood gives this fourth film in the franchise that both Bryan Singer and part-three replacement Brett Ratner missed is the concept of scope. By focusing on only a select group of mutants and not worrying if everyone gets their oh-so-sacred screen time, a sense of depth and detail is created. We learn more about these particular people than the participants in any other X-Men movie.
That doesn't mean Wolverine is all touchy-feely emotions and gloomy self-absorption. The stuntwork here is impressive, though the CGI occasionally shows through, and when pushed into questions of plausibility, Hood goes for the cheap laugh (an old lady's nonchalant comment as a nude Jackman scrambles across the road and into her barn). With the introduction of favored icons from the comics that really don't pay off (including a hilarious looking Blob and that unfathomable fan favorite, Gambit) and a last act confrontation that's more special effects than satisfying, this is not a perfect film. But when you look back at all the previous installments in the franchise, this one soars straight to the top.
Certainly there will be purists who balk at how Hood and his screenwriters mangle and manipulate the mythology, and any ending which leaves several characters unexplained and unaccounted for can't really seal the full entertainment deal. But thanks to Jackman, and an equally enigmatic turn by Schreiber, X-Men Origins: Wolverine suggests that not all back stories undermine the original material's effectiveness. In fact, this is a clear case where history does a better job with a well-known persona than the films that were supposed to establish him in the first place.