Big comic book and scifi movie extravaganzas can make big points about society, sometimes even catching the zeitgeist, as we saw with 2008's The Dark Knight. The X-Men series has been at the forefront of this, exploring the changing nature of humanity, our relationship with technology, and the concept of otherness in a mass society. And doing it amidst unique powers, cool tech, and some bracing action.
Unfortunately, most of that which intrigues one intellectually and moves one emotionally is missing in the fourth entry in the franchise, X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
It's not a bad movie. (And it does provide an amusing explanation for one of the most famous events of the 1970s.) In fact, it is shaping up as a big hit. It's a pretty good action flick, but the movie lacks the intellectual depth and soul frequently found in the X-Men series. I was entertained. But it's going to fall far short measured against the Star Trek and Terminator movies coming later this month in the cultural significance sweepstakes.
The basic plot seems borrowed, at least in part, from Arnold Schwarzenegger's 1985 action vehicle, Commando. Somebody is killing members of Wolverine's old special ops team, and his old commanding officer visits him to discuss it. Bad things ensue.
Like the reboot of Batman, this picture is an origin story. But it explains, well, nothing, before jumping into the action.
The very game Hugh Jackman, who's obviously been doing a lot of serious bodybuilding work, is quite good as usual. And you meet a lot of mutants along the way, some of whom later become part of the X-Men. There are a lot of female mutants, naturally, but the comic book series was geared to young males. One of the mutants, whose power is teleportation, is played in big movie debut by will.i.am, the Black Eyed Peas frontman perhaps best known for his star-studded musical tribute to Barack Obama. No Barack moments here.
But aside from showing off their cool powers, the movie does absolutely nothing with the deeper questions of what is causing such extreme mutations and how the development of these powers impacts the mutants' lives.
Wolverine, a berserker warrior with claws and incredible healing powers, seems to settle into civilian life with nary a glitch, even though -- for reasons never explained -- he fought in every American war from the Civil War on.
Since I knew the movie lacked the depth of the others in the series, I decided to relax and enjoy it as a superhero action movie. But I'm already forgetting it. What I found worst about the movie is that the big surprise twist is totally unbelievable.
Incidentally, the movie isn't actually over when the credits roll. There's not one but two sneak endings after the credits start rolling.
Nevertheless, it's unfortunate that the movie doesn't do what at least the first two films in the series -- the third picture was something of a mess -- did well.
As genre fiction often does, comic book and scifi films have frequently gotten into major social and political themes. The X-Men series has been a leader in this.
Perhaps the problem was the choice of character for the origin story.
Wolverine has always been the most popular of the X-Men characters. He was introduced in the comic book world in the early 1970s, as a seething, resentful anti-hero type typical of the era.
In the comics, Wolverine is a runt, a five foot, three inch package of big trouble.
In the movies, he's played by Jackman, a foot taller, so suave a figure that he hosted this year's Academy Awards.
But, though I enjoy his wisecracks, Jackman's Wolverine has never been one of my favorite X-"Men." I've always preferred Prof X, Professor Xavier, a powerful telepath and the leader of the X-Men, played by Patrick Stewart. (Who's also Captain Jean Luc Picard in Star Trek.) And Jean Grey, another powerful telepath, with hidden telekinetic powers, played by Famke Janssen.
Since they're the brains of the outfit, exploring their backgrounds seems much more interesting.
But Hollywood doesn't generally build big summer blockbusters around older intellectual guys or women, even beautiful women. Which also explains why we don't have X-Men Origins: Mystique, delving into the background of the shapeshifting mutant played by the fabulous Rebecca Romijn. Who was mostly nude, in blue body paint, in not one, or two, but three mainstream blockbusters. Which was amazing.
It's too bad this X-Men picture is such a straight-out actioner. With our first black president, same-sex marriage coming to the fore, technology more and more intrusive in our lives, shifting relations with the rest of the world, this is an even better moment to look at change and reaction through the prism of the X-Men universe.
But not this time.