Wolverine: There Ain't No Sanity Claws

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As a boy, he was James Howlett: little howler, or wolf boy — names are destiny in superhero stories. As a man, James, alias Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine, has a gigantic torso and bulging veins; he might be a late-'90s home-run hitter after a visit to BALCO. And since he's Hugh Jackman, he's blessed with the winsome stare of a beautiful boy who mistakenly thinks he's done wrong. Anyway, he looks great for someone who's about 160 years old.

He's also carrying a ton of psychic baggage. Back in 1845 he killed his father with fingernails that sprouted into steel claws when he became enraged. And if he doesn't know, then we do, that he already starred in three X-Men movies dating back to 2000. So Logan/James/Wolverine/Hugh is both nine years older than he was at the beginning of the series, but also 20 to 50 to 100 years younger. Superhero mythologies can be so complicated, only a lonely comic-book-reading kid could make sense of it all. (Are graphic novels Hollywood's new gold mine?)

The appeal of so many of the fables Stan Lee and his colleagues have spun out for Marvel Comics is their confirmation of what any young reader may have thought about himself as his body changes and his mind reels: I'm a freak. To this Lee adds the fantasy: But your weirdness is a sign of preternatural abilities; you're odd because you're a hero. Spider-Man emits goo from his fingers, and he can fly. The Hulk gets mad and becomes bigger and stronger. Wolverine's Dragon Lady fingernails make him the toughest guy on the block. It's the outsider's ultimate dream. Use what's different, the Marvel gurus teach their readers, and you could get your own comic-book franchise.

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X-Men Origins: Wolverine is an O.K., not great, Marvel movie that tells the early story of the prime X-Man, and attempts to make it climax in a perfect coupling with the start of the known trilogy. In doing so, the film tears off a bit more than it can devour. The whole enterprise now spans a century and a half, runs backward and forward in time and expands the number of characters in the mythology, so they'll get their own prequels and sequels.

Marvel, you see, is working on another Origins take, Magneto, about the early lives of Eric Lensherr (who in the trilogy was played as a middle-aged man by Ian McKellen) and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart, who makes a guest appearance here). It's not surprising, then, that the movie has the harried feel of a personnel officer with too many people to manage, too many plates to keep spinning. Wolverine lacks the simple narrative drive and character pizzazz of Iron Man, the Marvel movie that launched last year's summer blockbuster season.

It's 1845, and James and his elder half-brother Victor (Liev Schreiber) are fleeing the Northwest Territories, itching for a fight. Canada has plenty of brawling hockey players but not nearly enough bloody conflicts, so the lads head to the Lower 48 to fight in the Civil War, both World Wars and Vietnam. Logan can channel his aggressions into wartime heroism; Victor just likes killing and maiming people. It's a little twist on the role of the stern, violent brother Schreiber played in Defiance a few months back, except this time he's got fangs and great big claws and his enemies aren't Nazis but anyone weaker than he — which is just about everyone, possibly including his baby sib. (Hollywood sequels: everything old is gold again)

Every action movie needs an evil overseer to harness, exploit and misuse the hero's reckless powers. In Wolverine it's a U.S. Army colonel, Stryker (Danny Huston), who recruits the Howlett boys for his top-secret platoon of misfits, each with a special skill. The dirty half-dozen includes, to ID them by their nicknames, Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), Gambit (Taylor Kitsch), Agent Zero (Daniel Henney), Bolt (Dominic Monaghan) and the Blob (Kevin Durand). Logan, sensing Stryker's evil-genius motives, is reluctant to join the gang. "Your country needs you," Stryker pleads, to which Logan replies, "I'm Canadian." A misfit again.

Going AWOL from the team, Logan returns to his roots and becomes a Canadian lumberjack with an indigenous girlfriend (the beguiling Lynn Collins, who has played Ophelia and Juliet and knows how to telegraph troubled love). He should know he cannot escape his roiled physical and psychological destiny; there ain't no sanity claws. Soon he's drawn back into the orbit of Stryker, whose plan is to pour adamantium into Logan's system, giving our boy the power to fight and destroy his murderous bro. "We're going to make you indestructible," Stryker says in one of his many generic Dr. Frankenstein lines. "But first we have to destroy you." And then they have to face him off against a newer, nastier mutant: Reynolds, now retooled into a true Frankenstein monster.

Written by novelist David Benioff and Skip Woods, Wolverine was directed by Gavin Hood, a South African who earlier made two exercises in political solemnity, Tsotsi and Rendition. The new movie has a sharper look and a smarter film sense, because Hood is surrounded by the sort of artist-technicians who can lend cinematic swank to almost any action picture. But that's now par for the course, and Wolverine doesn't rise above the level of familiar competence.

What holds it together is Jackman, an actor who suggests the decency that is meant to be at the core of his character. As Logan struggles to tame his Hulk-like temper, so Jackman works to fit his friendly, temperate persona into the action-film superhero mold. The Australian star, who first came to prominence in a London revival of Oklahoma, just is not a natural glowerer. His benign showmanship hints that what Wolverine is likely to explode into at any moment is not a homicidal rage but a rendition of "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'!"

Which could cue a new Hollywood hybrid: Wolverine: The Musical, anyone?

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