The movie is called X-Men Origins: Wolverine. So before I launch into my review in earnest, a primer on its titular mutant's ... origin.
It's 1845. James Howlett, a sickly adolescent, burns with fever as his birth father assaults his mother and brutally kills his stepfather. Overtaken with rage, bony claws sprout from James' forearms for the very first time, and the boy reflexively buries them in the interloper's torso.
"What are you?" gasps his horrified mother.
Older brother Victor Creed (who sports weaponized fingernails and preternatural dexterity) drags James into the surrounding forest to evade capture. And their life on the lam morphs into a century-spanning odyssey of combat as the feral, fast-healing mutant siblings unleash their bloodlust on the battlefields of America's Civil War, World Wars I and II, and Vietnam.
But by this point we've barely moved past the opening credits.
Victor's murder of an officer in Vietnam earns an execution that doesn't, um, take. And a certain Maj. William Stryker sees opportunity in the event. "I know how special you are," Stryker tells the jailed brothers as he invites them to join his covert ops team. Stryker's requirements for his mutant strike force are as clear as his goals are murky: a willingness to kill and an aversion to asking questions.
When Stryker commands his troops to wipe out an innocent African village, however, James (who's adopted the name Logan) balks and prevents his bloodthirsty brother from finishing the job. Logan, Victor and Stryker part ways, and the man who will one day be known as Wolverine renounces his violent past.
Time check: We're only 20 minutes into the film. So, obviously, the story doesn't end there. The meat of it follows:
For a time, Logan finds happiness as a lumberjack in a remote corner of British Columbia. And he falls in love with a schoolteacher named Kayla Silverfox. Then Stryker reemerges with news that someone is murdering the mutant members of his former team.
But it's Kayla who soon winds up dead. And the claw marks that strake her car leave no doubt regarding her executioner's identity: Victor Creed. "Why?" Logan asks. "You didn't call. You didn't write," his big brother says. "How else was I supposed to get your attention?"
The ensuing melee leaves both men bloodied but Logan bested by his beastly brother.
Only now is he willing to submit to Stryker's offer to "give you the tools to defeat him": bones and claws fused with an impenetrable alloy known as adamantium.
The brothers' relationship wasn't always marked by rancor. When Victor and James escape into the forest as teens, Victor tells his younger sibling, "We're brothers, Jimmy, and brothers protect each other." Victor's lust for violence eventually drives a wedge into that loyalty. But at a crucial moment, Victor saves Logan from almost certain death, joking darkly, "Nobody kills you but me."
A recurring theme explores whether anyone can renounce some part of their nature. Both Victor and Stryker believe that the animalistic urge toward violence is inborn, something that cannot be repudiated. "Are you tired of denying your true nature?" Stryker asks the men when he first meets them. Victor's response sounds similar when Logan urges him not to kill a village full of innocent people. "Who do you think we are?" Victor asks. "This is what we do." Logan's reply: "I'm done."
Though Logan gives in to his rage at times, he ultimately chooses to believe that he can be something other than an animal or a killer. And when he's at risk of capitulating to that dark nature, Kayla reminds him that he can choose to be something better. An old man Logan meets also plays a role in helping him see that he doesn't have to be held captive by his violent nature.
As the intricate plot unfolds, it becomes apparent that Stryker is hunting mutants, imprisoning them and performing experiments on them. Apparently driven by the misguided notion that such work benefits society as a whole, he uses what he learns to create a super-mutant that's designed to do his evil bidding. And he suggests that because Victor and Logan are "freaks of nature," normal morality doesn't apply to them. None of that is positive. But Stryker is so obviously the villain here that pretty much everything he does is presented as the wrong thing to do.
Wolverine's confrontation of Stryker involves freeing the captive mutants. And as is usually the case in the superhero genre, various mutants act as heroes as they put their lives on the line to rescue and save others.
Kayla tells Logan a story presumably drawn from Canada's native population that personifies the moon and talks about how it once had a lover but no longer does. The story repeatedly mentions mythological beings in the spirit world.
Logan reconnects with a former teammate who hints at eternal consequences for their brutal past.
Unmarried, Logan and Kayla live together. A lingering shot shows Logan shirtless. In the same scene, Kayla wears one of his flannels (her bare legs are briefly seen), and it's implied the couple has just gotten out of bed. After a nightmare in which Logan's claws engage, we see Kayla wrapped in a sheet, shoulders (and claw marks on her arms) visible. Another shot pictures her in a revealing nightgown of sorts as she climbs suggestively onto Logan's lap.
After his adamantium procedure, Logan erupts from a tank of water and escapes the facility—nude. From three or four angles, the camera spies his backside and flank as he flees and plunges into a waterfall. Shortly thereafter, Logan (still naked) hides in a barn. A farmer finds him and offers him a coat, saying, "Cover that up. Don't want you giving the old lady a heart attack."
It's nearly meaningless for me to tell you that comic book violence fills Wolverine—without defining it as comic book violence circa 2009. It's pounding, graphic, dark and intense, yet it retains a sanitized, unrealistic feel.
For example, Logan repeatedly impales his brother with his claws. We watch as the adamantium-laced blades slice through Victor's torso, his chest, even his neck. And yet, when Logan pulls them out, they're not dripping with blood. It's the same story when Logan gets run through with a sword. There's not even much blood shown when Logan decapitates an enemy mutant in the finale. (We watch as the head and body plunge separately down a cooling tower shaft.) When Stryker shoots Logan in the head—twice, once at point-blank range—we see remnants of the slug sticking out of his skull. But blood and gore aren't part of the picture.
In fact, just about the only blood in the film involves Kayla's death, where we see her on the ground, her throat wounded, her clothes drenched in red. A bit of blood is visible later when a woman gets shot.
Logan's battles with Victor include not only skewerings, but scores of wince-inducing body blows. Ditto his rumble with the enormous Fred J. Dukes (aka the Blob). Pre-adamantium, Victor shears off all three claws on one of Logan's hands. Adding insult to injury (or just injury to injury), a logging truck dumps its payload onto Logan (with Victor's help). We also watch as large-gauge needles—more like small drill bits, actually—bore into Logan's skull and torso at various points to inject his bones with adamantium.
Elsewhere, Logan makes mincemeat of two Humvees and a helicopter. (Worth noting: In the latter scene, Logan intentionally ignites spilled helicopter fuel by sparking it with his claw, which results in an explosion that kills one of Stryker's henchmen.) Combat montages show soldiers shooting, fighting and falling. Victor's ferocious nature is especially apparent when he turns a large-caliber machine gun on German soldiers in a pillbox during WWII. Stryker's team kills a roomful of men in an assault on a criminal diamond dealer.
And it just keeps coming. Victor snaps a guy's neck. Two elderly people are brutally murdered by Stryker's agents. (They're each shot, and then the building they're in is blown up by rockets.) A mutant infuses playing cards with explosive energy. A laser beam cuts through a school. A tank explodes. Astonishing gunplay echoes scenes from The Matrix. It's implied that a man's heart gets ripped out. A climatic battle involves two mutants fighting a third, destroying a nuclear reactor's cooling tower in the process.
We witness the unveiling of Stryker's latest Frankensteinian creation, Weapon XI. As he's being "created," we see a disturbing image of his face apparently without eyelids, eyeballs bulging wide, mouth stitched shut. In the name of protecting society, Stryker stabs a general who questions his program.
Crude or Profane Language
Wolverine's 30-plus expletives include five s-words and about a dozen misuses of Jesus' or God's names (including three pairings of the latter with "d--n"). Vulgarities include "h---," "d--n," "a--," "a--hole" and "b--ch." Wolverine offers a take on the middle finger by lowering his outside claws in an angry gesture.
Drug and Alcohol Content
James and Victor's birth father is said to be drunk when he attacks their family. Several scenes show Logan chomping on his signature cigar. Victor drinks at a bar. Another mutant drinks at home. Other characters consume alcohol in bars in Las Vegas and New Orleans.
Other Negative Elements
A twist involves an important character betraying another.
Wolverine is one of the edgier characters in the Marvel universe, and his first solo pic reflects that reality. The film lives in the same general territory as the previous X-Men flicks, even as it inexorably amps up the content when it comes to violence and language.
Apparently, we have The Dark Knight to thank for that.
20th Century Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman told Entertainment Weekly, "[X-Men Origins: Wolverine] is very bada--, and we knew it would push the furthest limit of PG-13. But once Dark Knight came out, we saw that there wasn't any level of intensity we couldn't go to."
In the most literal (and probably the most important) sense, Wolverine makes good on Rothman's boast. Whereas The Dark Knight hinted at graphic violence as often as it showed it, this film dispenses with such an approach en route to the proverbial jugular. And so we get multiple impalings courtesy of Wolverine's six sharp claws. Decapitation. A pistol to the head. And the camera rarely pulls away.
In another way, though, the comparison breaks down. Wolverine lacks the philosophical gravitas of previous X-Men films, which often alluded to how we should treat those who are different from us. And never mind asking the weighty ethical questions The Dark Knight tried to raise—some of which made that film feel even darker than it was on the surface. We do get a bit of banter about whether a man can change his nature or not. And that question may spark a few good after-movie discussions. But that's not really what the fourth film in this franchise is about.
No, what we have here is an unpretentious, unapologetic actioner. Whatever messages might get lobbed along the way, they're never much more complex than Wolverine's adamantium-laced claws and his growling credo: "I'm the best at what I do," he tells Kayla, "and what I do isn't very nice."
In the famous words of Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee, "'Nuff said."