We all say that we go into summer movies for the explosions, the fight scenes, and the chance to turn our brains off while gazing at chiseled biceps. But X-Men Origins: Wolverine is proof that we don't really mean it. For a summer movie to achieve that popcorn-munching high, there's got to be some level of attention to narrative coherence, character arcs, and all that hoity-toity stuff that you think just comes in the Oscar bait movies. An Oscar-winner himself (for Best Foreign Language Film Tsotsi), Gavin Hood acquits himself well with the action sequences but leaves the story burnt up somewhere in the multiple explosions. If you think all you need to enjoy a superhero film is some well-directed action, try suffering through Wolverine and Sabretooth's endless, pointless attempts to beat each other up.
You see, in case you're not all that familiar with Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, obviously), he and his half-brother Sabretooth (a snarky but one-note Liev Schreiber) are both invincible. They were born in the 19th century in Canada but stopped aging in their 30s for some reason, fought for America in all the major wars for some other reason, and survive everything from executions to giant logs rolling on their heads. They make an odd pair of vigilantes for a while until getting picked up by Stryker (Danny Huston), a covert government guy who is rounding up mutants to go on all sorts of secret missions in third-world countries.
To its credit, the script by David Benioff and Skip Woods doesn't linger too long on the typical origin story development, but neither does it bother to explain much to newcomers. Within 10 minutes we've seen Wolverine and Sabretooth tossed in with a new group of mutants, but we don't understand why they're unsurprised to meet all these guys, or why they're willing to follow Stryker when they seem perfectly happy beating up Nazis and Russkies. Among their new crew are much-hyped characters like Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), Frederick Dukes (Kevin Durand) and John Wraith (Will.i.Am), but don't get too attached to them. About 10 minutes later Wolverine gets ahold of his moral conscience and abandons ship, heading off to spend five years living in the Canadian Rockies with a hot teacher (Lynn Collins) and his sideburns.
The real story actually gets going in a way not unlike Watchmen-- Sabretooth is killing off the old members of the mutant gang, and when he gets Wolvy's girlfriend, Stryker enlists him to seek revenge. Injecting Wolverine's already-invincible body with adamantium for some reason, Stryker makes him an even greater killing machine-- and then immediately commences to try to kill him when Wolverine gets wise to Stryker's evil, genetic-tinkering plan. The fight scene that ensues, which involves Wolverine single-handedly taking down a helicopter, is admittedly awesome to watch, but makes no sense within the story. Not only is Stryker trying to kill the creature he just created at great expense, but he sends his right-hand man to kill him, knowing fully well that bullets made of adamantium are all that can take down Wolverine.
Unfortunately that's only the first of many irrelevant fight scenes, from a boxing match that Wolverine must have with The Blob for no real reason, to a battle royale in a New Orleans alley against Gambit (Taylor Kitsch), a fellow mutant who's actually on the same side. Then of course there are the three or so confrontations between Wolverine and Sabretooth, which all begin with the brothers galloping toward one another, claws bared, and end with both of them walking away. The basic formula gets a nice twist in the grand finale, when Wolverine discovers Stryker's genetic mutation factory and we get the much-anticipated appearance of Deadpool. But nothing in this movie ever deals with immortal characters in a meaningful, interesting way, and no amount of fight choreography can lend the scenes genuine tension.
Jackman, who has enough charisma to actually be a successful Oscar host, is hamstrung by his snarling and sulky character, while Schreiber just vacillates between sassy one-liners and open-mouthed rage. Ryan Reynolds lights up the whole thing with his early appearance as Wade, but the story loses him early on, and the less said about his final act return, the better. Kitsch, terrible Cajun accent aside, makes you wish for more Gambit, but all the other mutants amount to no more than cameos. There's no such thing as too much Hugh Jackman, but he could have done everyone a favor by ceding the screen once in a while and giving the other characters the attention they deserve.
Wolverine is a bad, maybe even terrible movie, but it's also entertaining in its own dumb way. A lot of credit goes to Jackman, but also to Hood, who puts clear effort into staging the action scenes, maybe to compensate for the CGI budget and the ludicrous script. Go for Jackman's biceps and the promise of explosions; stay to laugh at the most ridiculous lines and the increasingly implausible fight scenes. But if you stick around for the hyped secret scene, beware of the Patrick Stewart cameo that comes before it-- the most terrifying use of the Benjamin Button effect in film history. You've been warned.