As the tri-clawed, super-healing mutant superhero Wolverine, Hugh Jackman cuts an impressive figure. With his strapping physique and bushy chest, his practiced grimace and wooly chops, his mysteriously furrowed brow and peaked waves of Revlon hair, he resembles a successful DNA crossbreed between a wild wolf and an underwear model. Jackman embodies the rough, rakish physical essence of the comic-book hero to the point that they're indistinguishable: When you see him in another film, it's tough to remind yourself that, no, it's not Wolverine moonlighting as a movie star, but a singing, dancing Australian who happens to be the spitting image of Wolverine.
Yet while Jackman's physical characterization of Wolverine is unimpeachably credible, the question remains: What lies behind his shaggy mug? Sadly, if X-Men Origins: Wolverine is any indication, not much. The film, a prequel to the popular X-Men trilogy focusing on the beginnings of the title character, escorts viewers through an extended lifetime of loss, grief, anger, and conflict, but struggles to make any of it meaningful.
Screenwriters David Benioff and Skip Woods move from Wolverine's youth in the middle of the 19th century (his healing powers slow the aging process) to the recent past where, after fighting in every major American war, both he and his brother, another fanged mutant known as Sabretooth, end up in a special military unit for gifted mutants. There is the unstoppable Blob (Kevin Durand), the crack-shot Agent Zero (Daniel Henney), the sword-wielding Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), the teleporting John Wraith (singer Will.i.am), and the diminutive Bolt (former hobbit Dominic Monaghan). They're led by the nefarious Col. William Stryker (Danny Huston) into battle against a Nigerian warlord, allowing each a neat demonstration of his powers.
But things go violently wrong, and Wolverine quits, disappearing to the mountains of Canada to pursue a simple life as a lumberjack with a schoolteacher girlfriend named Kayla. It seems like a pleasant enough arrangement. He cuts down logs all day and comes home to find her wearing only his flannel. But when she's murdered, Wolverine reluctantly agrees to submit to a painful experiment that Stryker claims will give him the means to get revenge.
As superhero origins go, it's not terribly sophisticated, mostly rehashing many well-worn funny-book clichés. He may say he's a lumberjack and he's okay, but that's just what he wants people to think. As is so often the case with superheroes, his story involves the tragic death of a parent-figure and the resultant pangs of guilt and righteous anger. But Wolverine, perhaps to beef up his tough-guy bona fides, faces this anguish not once but three times: first, as a boy in 1845 Canada, when he believes his father to have been murdered; second, when he lashes out and kills the man he believes responsible, only to find out that it was actually the second man who was his real father; and finally, in the present, when he escapes a military testing facility and is briefly adopted by a set of surrogate parents until they, too, are murdered before his eyes. The point of these repeated episodes of parental death? One can only speculate, but if a single parental death worked for both Batman and Spider-Man—and by "worked," I most certainly mean "set box office records"—why shouldn't three times work even better for poor Wolverine?
Anyone reasonably well-versed in comic-book lore will instantly recognize the classic "superhero model" of self-discovery: Watch your parents die, find a mission in life, learn about yourself! Yet this hirsute hero seems oddly unaffected by the trail of symbolic patricide left in his wake. The film barely achieves the psychological depth of your average professional wrestling match. People live, people die, people yawn—and for the duration of this film, there's hardly a difference.
Perhaps the movie would have benefited by borrowing a bit from the world of pro-wrestling. In the original X-Men film, Sabretooth was a gruff, oversized thug played by wrestler Tyler Mane. Here the character, who tears through his enemies with grimy, saw-like fingernails, is played by a slinky, sneering Live Schrieber. Their rivalry is a classic catfight, and the claws are always out—quite literally. It's true, of course, that Schreiber can act and Mane cannot. But what this film needs is not acting so much as someone to flip it upside down and pound some sense into it.
What we get instead is fluff and filler—undercooked action scenes, pointless supporting characters, and thoughtless setpieces. There's a slapdash finale at Three Mile Island, referred to ominously as "the island" for most of the film, as if the characters might at any time crossover into the current season of Lost. When they finally reach the nuclear disaster site, you wonder if there's going to be a full-fledged movie meltdown, though nothing so catastrophic happens. Like the facility, the movie is empty, seemingly abandoned by its creators once they realized it was such a disaster.
Indeed, the entire production seems to stem from the flimsy notion that it might be neat to make a film about Wolverine's early days. In one telling scene, our hero is told that the best way to elicit information from an angry, uncooperative Blob might be to take him on in a boxing match. Wolverine raises a furry eyebrow and responds with understandable skepticism: "This is your idea of an idea?" It's the film's only clever line. If the filmmakers had been around when I walked out of the theater, I might have asked them the same thing.
Peter Suderman blogs at theamericanscene.com.