X-Men Origins: Wolverine. There's something threatening in that overdetermined title, don't you think? Just Wolverine would be a perfectly competent title, especially matched with a poster of Hugh Jackman's be-sideburned face. Or if we must have something that lines up with the other films on the shelf, X-Men: Wolverine would surely have sufficed. But this is to be a special case of an X-Men film, for it is an X-Men Origin, and that nasty little "s" is all the proof we need that somebody at Fox or Marvel Studios has plans for at least a few other X-Men to Originate as well (and indeed, there are perpetual rumors about First Class, the story of how Professor X gathered together the first generation of X-Men, and Magneto, which a friend of mine marvelously derides as "Schindler's List with mutants").

If Wolverine is anything to go on, those future Origin stories shan't really be worth the effort. Though the film is certainly better than the terrible pre-release buzz would have you believe - for one thing, it is undeniably not as shitty as 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand - it doesn't do much to stand out from the summer blockbuster crowd.

I'll say this much for the executives who greenlit the picture: if there simply had to be a prequel to the X-Men trilogy (also including 2000's X-Men and 2003's X2) there probably could not have been a better choice to anchor it than Jackman's Wolverine, one of most popular and best-characterised of all the many figures in the franchise, and just about the only character with enough unexplained backstory to support a whole origin story all by his lonesome. Although "by his lonesome" isn't entirely accurate, given how many previously unfilmed members of the Marvel Universe pop up here and there throughout, not usually in especially elegant ways.

Oh, hell, what am I saying? Nothing about Wolverine is especially elegant. The film's story begins in Canada in 1840, when Lil' Wolverine, AKA James Howlett and his half-brother Lil' Sabretooth, AKA Victor Creed (who will be played by Liev Schreiber as a grown-up) learn that they are not like other children, being invulnerable and having an animal's skill in hunting and running. Over the next several decades, as depicted in a credit-sequence montage that is without doubt the most stylishly exciting part of the whole movie, the two brothers fight in just about every war they can find, until they are executed in Vietnam for killing a superior officer. That leads to a meeting with U.S Army Col. William Stryker (Danny Huston), who offers them each a spot on his special new task force made up of other mutants, but this doesn't last for all that long with James, who runs off into the Canadian wilderness, where he lives in peace for six years, until Stryker finds him, a very pissed-off Sabretooth also finds him, and James, living under the name Logan, is thrust into an adventure movie plot involving something something a giant facility where mutants are imprisoned.

The plot is boilerplate. There's not really any other word for it. Wolverine wanders from one place to another, meets a character who all the Marvel fanboys cheer for, some kind of action sequence occurs, and Wolverine wanders to another place. In the meantime, he mulls over the nature of his relationship with the wicked Sabretooth, always fighting the pull to become a violent killer himself, and generally feeling lost in the world, especially after his half-brother kills his girlfriend, Kayla (Lynn Collins). Part of me wants to be grateful that Wolverine is so low-key, for a summer comic book adaptation: it takes place mostly in natural settings, and when it does move to the more traditional villainous fortress, it's a ratty industrial space; the story is kept at a very personal level, always about Wolverine's desire for revenge and safety, never about a plot to destroy the whole world; the drama is mostly focused on the moral questions in Wolverine's mind. This seems like a strange kind of praise, but Wolverine is a most subdued summer movie, not a downer but simply quiet and minor, and as such it's a nice change from it cousins, all bombastic and noisy and full of shiny CGI - though there is a CGI climax here, it's not as shrill as, say, having a mutant move the Golden Gate Bridge through the air.

That said, just because something is low-key and simple does not mean that it is those things and well-done. As directed by Gavin Hood, a journeyman director best known for the bland Oscar-winning foreign film Tsotsi, Wolverine is so minor as to lack any energy whatever. "Drowsy" you might say, but that doesn't nearly cover it: this is drowsy that it's already asleep. At this writing it hasn't been 24 hours since I saw the movie, and already I find that parts of it are slipping from memory, largely because there's so little "there" there. The closest thing there is to energy usually comes in a negative way, things that look too stupid for live-action cinema and are thus completely goofy, such as the sight of Sabretooth running about on all fours.

If the film has one thing in its favor, it would have the be the unusually strong cast. Jackman, an underrated actor, has long since perfected his take on Wolverine, and it is pleasing to see him in the role once again; and of course it should hardly be a surprise that Schreiber makes for a fun and genuinely threatening villain. And then there are the many faces around the edges who are mostly competent and sometimes quite appealing: Huston, certainly, who five years ago never seemed like he'd be one of our great character actors, and yet has become as reliable a stablising figure as you'll see. In a tiny role as Wade Wilson (who in the grand tradition of superhero movies, turns into another person, and everyone who has read the comics knows who this person is, and yet the movie tries to make it a big climactic surprise), Ryan Reynolds continues his shocking transtion from unbearable douche to pleasantly sardonic supporting player - though I'll be last in line if the Deadpool movie actually gets made [edited: many years later: and it was made, and in fact I was pretty close to the last one to see it]. Taylor Kitsch, as Gambit (whose presentation in the movie is mostly nonsensical, though I suppose it's cool if you're one of those people who really likes Gambit), and Daniel Henney, as Agent Zero, are a sort of second tier, good but not fantastic in underwritten parts, leaving a whole lot of people, a couple of whom are famous, lost in cameos or just not good enough to stand out.

This is the third summer in a row that the first film out of the gate has been a Marvel adaptation: in 2007 there was the okay Spider-Man 3, last year the wonderfully fun Iron Man, and now an insubstantial bit of not much, that's still dimly entertaining enough that calling it "bad" would be an abuse of that word. Wolverine is about as white-bread as summer movies get, not very bright and not very fun; but nor will it lessen your life to get dragged along to see it. Take Jackman and Schreiber out of the equation, and all you have is a small number of adequate setpieces and a lot of filler, but as it stands it's kind of sleepily acceptable.

Reviews in this series
X-Men: The Last Stand (Ratner, 2006)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Hood, 2009)
X-Men: First Class (Vaughn, 2011)
The Wolverine (Mangold, 2013)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (Singer, 2014)
Deadpool (Miller, 2016)
X-Men: Apocalypse (Singer, 2016)
Logan (Mangold, 2017)
Deadpool 2 (Leitch, 2018)
Dark Phoenix (Kinberg, 2019)
The New Mutants (Boone, 2020)

Other films in this series, yet to be reviewed
X-Men (Singer, 2000)
X2 (Singer, 2003)