Sideburns of Steel

Wolverine is a long movie.


They say that the beginning of summer has something to do with the tilting of the Earth’s axis toward the sun, but everyone knows that the season really begins with the tilting of moviegoers’ eyeballs toward screens filled with moody comic-book heroes and Harley–Davidsons bursting from exploding barns and mutants battling atop nuclear reactors. The cinematic summer of 2009 officially begins May 1 with X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Fox), the fourth installment of the X-Men franchise. Unlike the solstice on June 21, watching this movie only feels like the longest day of the year.

I’d like to kick off the season by stating that in ‘09, I’ll be holding comic-book-based blockbusters to a more robust standard. No more prescreening visits to fanboy Web sites to brush up on characters’ back stories and “deep mythology.” From now on, even Part 4 of a series will have to stand on its own as a film and make some small degree of narrative sense. For an “origins” movie, Wolverine seems oddly unconcerned with chronicling the emergence of its hero’s powers. So I’ll follow suit and take only a vague stab at summarizing the murky doings on-screen: One night in 1845, a Canadian boy named James Logan discovers that, due to an unexplained genetic mutation, his knuckles contain footlong claws that emerge only when he’s angry. After the obligatory Oedipal reveal (in which a lucky bit player gets to utter the line, “He wasn’t your father … son” before expiring beneath Jimmy’s claws), James and his older brother, Victor, grow up to be played by Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber, both bemuscled and luxuriantly sideburned.

In a well-crafted if ponderous title sequence, these two feral, remorseless, and apparently immortal brothers are seen fighting side by side in every American conflict from the Civil War to Vietnam. When their special powers are discovered in ‘Nam, the boys are sought out by Col. Stryker (Danny Huston), who’s organizing a Dirty Dozen-style team of mutant mercenaries for international no-good-doing. Jimmy, fed up with the team’s atrocities, defects to lead a simpler life as a country lumberjack, shacking up (in an actual shack) with the fetching Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins). But it won’t be long until Jimmy’s mutant past disrupts this idyll. After Victor savagely attacks Kayla (he’s now an evil brother), an enraged Jimmy agrees to Stryker’s plan to inject his skeleton with the super-mineral adamantium, turning his already-deadly retractable claws from keratin into shimmering steel.

The first time Jackman appeared shirtless, about 15 minutes into the movie, his absurdly pneumatic chest garnered one of the few laughs at the screening that I attended. I can understand why—there’s something ridiculous about the very being of Hugh Jackman, with his flaring nostrils and almost equine handsomeness. His best roles are the ones that harness that silliness, but even as a dour action hero, Jackman has enough charisma to emerge with his dignity intact. Liev Schreiber pulls out a few too many stops as the obscurely motivated Victor/Sabretooth, but you have to feel for the guy: From Shakespeare in the Park to this? And Lynn Collins made a lovely Portia opposite Al Pacino’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, but as Wolverine’s schoolteacher girlfriend, the quality of her mercy is a bit strained.

Even by the standard of a fourth-in-a-series summer blockbuster, Wolverine, the first X-Men movie directed by Gavin Hood ( Rendition), is remarkably lame. At least three of its images are clichéd enough to have already been parodied on The Simpsons: the hero silhouetted against the sunset as he carries his girl to safety; the aforementioned climactic showdown on top of a nuclear reactor (unfortunately, unlike Homer, no character here is wearing a muumuu); and the hero shouting “Nooooo!” over his beloved’s body as the camera pulls up to the heavens. Unfortunately, by movie’s end, it’s not clear if either the girl or the franchise has been definitively laid to rest.

Slate V: The critics on X-Men Origins: Wolverine and other new movies