After sitting through the origins of Batman and Superman too many times in movies, it's refreshing to find one superhero whose beginnings actually surprise.
Maybe not, if you're an avid reader of Marvel Comics and know exactly how the temperamental mutant Wolverine earned his adamantium claws. I'm not, although I thoroughly enjoyed the allegorical X-Men trilogy spawning the spinoff, X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
Casual admirers like me are who Marvel and Twentieth Century Fox need to impress. Fanboyz (and girlz, considering Hugh Jackman's sex appeal) have the numbers to make Wolverine an opening weekend hit. Whether it reaches The Dark Knight's height or Superman Returns nadir of pop culture relevance depends on whether it entertains moviegoers with no stake in the movie besides the ticket price.
On that count, Gavin Hood's prequel to the X-Men trilogy mostly succeeds. The action is fast and brutally furious, just a few gallons of fake blood shy of Watchmen's visceral punch. Wolverine's backstory, although steeped in the usual revenge motive, contains enough interpersonal twists to make the violence more than just payback. The screenplay slyly drops in younger versions of mutants we've met, laying the groundwork for further origins flicks.
Yet there's also a sense of repetition creeping in around the one-hour mark, when the slice-and-dice showdowns between Wolverine and his half brother-nemesis Sabretooth (an effectively mean Liev Schreiber) begin looking and ending alike. That's when Hood and screenwriters David Benioff and Skip Woods begin padding the movie with threads for future films to follow.
Yes, I'd like to learn more about mutants, especially the cocky Cajun Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) and his deadly card tricks, and the gap between Professor X's cameo and the previous trilogy. But the teases to these potential movies that Hood slaps together in the third act frustrate and distract from the mayhem at hand.
Jackman handles the action with primal authority, a tightly wound ball of hatred exploding in paroxysms of violence. He tosses off threats and wisecracks with aplomb. Jackman overplays the sentimental side of Wolverine on occasion, abruptly going soft when confronted with deception, as if anything else could be expected by a freak of nature and science like himself. Schreiber's Sabretooth is a ruthless counterbalance the movie could use more.
Little of that matters when the claws come out. Wolverine is a solid start to the ever-lengthening summer movie season, when all that matters is the bang and the bucks paid for it.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.