In the crowded pantheon of comic-book-derived movie-franchise superheroes, Wolverine, as embodied by the muscular Australian song-and-dance man Hugh Jackman, always seemed kind of special. A grouchy, sensitive loner with retractable metal claws and apparently unretractable facial hair, Wolverine brooded and growled through the first three “X-Men” pictures, helping to supply them (or at least the first two) with welcome grace notes of rough humor and macho pathos. And now “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” with its ungainly, geeky title and its relatively trim (under-two-hour) running time, helps explain just what makes this guy so intriguing and unusual.
This will not come as news to fans of the Marvel series from which this film, directed by Gavin Hood (“Rendition,” “Tsotsi”), with a screenplay by David Benioff and Skip Woods, has been adapted. Still, Wolverine’s nationality does, in the present context, raise some puzzling questions. What is he doing fighting in the American Civil War? Why does he talk like a Queens longshoreman who spent his childhood summers in Indiana?
Also: did you know he had a brother? Victor Creed, better known (though not in this movie) as Sabretooth, the venerable Marvel super villain who at one point was thought to be Wolverine’s father, is actually his sibling. We learn this thanks to a confusing pre-credit sequence, in which a paternity mix-up back in 1845 results in two deaths and further puzzling questions, like how did the paternity get mixed up in the first place? But this is a PG-13 movie, and therefore not inclined to dwell on icky matters of reproduction when there is wholesome bloodshed to pursue.
So Wolverine, still known as James Logan, his claws still ordinary bone rather than high-tech adamantium, spends the credit sequence fighting in a bunch of wars (and not in the uniform of his native land) alongside Victor. Victor’s claws sprout from his fingernails, rather than emerging from between his knuckles, and he is played by Liev Schreiber, who really did once live in Canada, and whose role here is not unlike the one he had in Edward Zwick’s “Defiance.” This time he is a rampaging mutant rather than a Jewish partisan, but in both cases he is the angrier, rougher member of a pair of brawling brothers.
And Mr. Schreiber, sporting fangs as well as mutton chops, gives the movie a surly kick, even though the digital effects that produce his leaping, animal-like movements look pretty crummy. The explosions and landscapes have a bit more eye appeal, but even the show stopping visual flights (including a climactic battle at Three Mile Island and a brawl on the streets of New Orleans) have a rushed, rote feel about them. What’s worse, the outsize emotions that give any decent superhero epic its adolescent, pop-operatic gravity are diminished by the sheer hectic confusion of the storytelling.
Victor and James (technically, he becomes Wolverine only after the adamantium implants) are comrades, then mortal enemies, then comrades again. After a falling-out in Vietnam, James retires to the Canadian Rockies, where a native legend he hears from his girlfriend, Kayla (Lynn Collins), inspires his eventual nickname. But first a lot of his former mutant comrades wind up dead, a development that unhappily, if coincidentally, echoes the recent, by now almost forgotten, “Watchmen” movie.
“Wolverine” is shorter and less pretentious than “Watchmen,” but almost programmatically unmemorable, a hodge-podge of loose ends, wild inconsistencies and stale genre conventions. Vengeance is the default motive for most of the mayhem that is perpetrated, and for good measure there is a military-scientific government conspiracy overseen by a reptilian bad guy (the excellent Danny Huston).
A flotilla of secondary characters parades through the scenery, mostly mutants with various powers and questionable franchise-enhancing capabilities. Ryan Reynolds, Taylor Kitsch and Will.i.am show up and do what they can, but prove hopelessly unable to compensate for the absence of, say, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin or Ian McKellen.
“X-Men Origins: Wolverine” will most likely manage to cash in on the popularity of the earlier episodes, but it is the latest evidence that the superhero movie is suffering from serious imaginative fatigue. A twist at the end that gives poor Wolverine a bad case of amnesia, turning him into a kind of Jason Bourne with sideburns, is a virtual admission that nothing terribly interesting has been learned about the character. He forgets his origins before the movie devoted to their exposition is even over. Hopefully, audiences won’t have the same reaction.