Film Review: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Last year's 'Iron Man' leads to this year's adamantium man: The first spin-off of the 'X-Men' movies has heart, action and Shakespearean-style tragedy, and uncompromisingly plays for keeps.

Superhero movies, like comedies, need the equivalent of "the Lubitsch touch"—that indefinable something that keeps what's magical from looking silly or self-conscious. This is particularly relevant given the last two comics films: The Spirit (2008), a train wreck destined for midnight-movie double features with Showgirls (1995), and Watchmen (2009), an estimable and ambitious film that proved "too serious" for audiences. Fortunately, this first spin-off of the X-Men movie franchise, reprising Hugh Jackman as the mutant Wolverine, has that touch. Like Iron Man (2008), X-Men Origins: Wolverine brings A-game actors to an audience-pleasing actioner that doesn't pander.

So did Christopher Nolan's fine 2005 and 2008 Batman films, and it's true that Wolverine and Batman share a mood fans term "grim ’n’ gritty." But the roots of the archetypal superhero Batman rest in pulp fiction, and so his movies are more melodrama than drama. Wolverine's roots, conversely, are the hybridized cuttings of Jack Kirby action and larger-than-life themes crossed with Stan Lee characterization and romance-comics soap opera. Batman arose from the self-righteous, lonesome likes of The Shadow. Wolverine arose from the tortured, family-seeking likes of Spider-Man or The Thing—torn between duty and despair, and always, always, giving away their hearts to women idealized in their minds.

A woman, indeed, is the impetus for Wolverine getting all revenge-y and embracing his inner animal. Following an 1845 opening and a generations-spanning credits sequence not unlike Watchmen's Citizen Kane of credits, we find that that half-brothers James Howlett (Hugh Jackman) and Victor Creed (Liev Schreiber) are mutants with a feral nature and claws. A "healing factor" renders them ageless (though the term itself, common in comics, is never used; neither is Creed's nom de supervillain, Sabretooth).

Plucking them out of the Vietnam War circa 1973, Major William Stryker (Danny Huston) recruits the two for a U.S. government black-ops team seeking the ore from which they'll derive a new, indestructible metal called adamantium. Victor embraces the sanctioned savagery of the group, which includes the preternatural swordfighter Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds); the superhumanly accurate and acrobatic marksman Agent Zero (Daniel Henney); the teleporter John Wraith (rapper; electricity manipulator Bradley (Dominic Monaghan); and super-strong Fred Dukes (Kevin Durand), but James, soon sickened by it, walks off.

Nobody, natch, walks off this kind of team, and years later, James, now a lumberjack called Logan, finds his idyllic existence with Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins) shattered. Seeking vengeance on Victor, he allows now-Colonel Stryker to experiment on him, bonding his bones to adamantium. Choosing the codename Wolverine, based on something Kayla had said, he escapes a double-cross that ultimately leads to Shakespearean consequences.
Other mutants in the film include Remy Lebeau, a.k.a. Gambit (Taylor Kitsch), and teenage Scott Summers (Tim Pocock), the future X-Men leader Cyclops. A digitally youthful Patrick Stewart has an uncredited cameo as Professor Xavier.

The story offers a wealth of small surprises, even to those well-versed in the mythos, and plays surprisingly for keeps—people you've grown to care about die, and that includes mutants played by opening-credit stars. Visually, the film is all spectacular mist and mountain, and director Gavin Hood, who comes out of small, intense dramas such as the Oscar-winning Tsotsi (2005), concentrates as much on character and relationships as he does on the occasional swooping, God's-eye view of heightened reality. And unlike Michael Bay with Transformers, say, he can direct fights you can follow.