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By Film critic
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/30/2009 10:33:29 PM ET 2009-05-01T02:33:29

Prequels often present a challenge by virtue of the fact that we know how they’re going to end. The first “X-Men” movie begins with Wolverine/Logan (Hugh Jackman) having forgotten who he is and what has happened to him. So it’s no spoiler that “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” climaxes with its hero … forgetting who he is and what has happened to him.

The trick is to make the voyage from Point A to the predetermined Point B an interesting one, but that’s not what the makers of “Wolverine” accomplish. Instead, we get something more akin to “Jim Henson’s Mutant Babies,” with some “Highlander” touches thrown in for good measure.

We see young Logan shoot claws out of his knuckles for the first time in 1845, upset over the death of his father. He and his older brother Victor run away and grow up to be Jackman and Liev Schreiber; as the credits roll, we see the brothers fight side by side in the Civil War, World War I, World War II and Vietnam. (What, no Korea?) When a firing squad tries and fails to execute them for killing a superior officer in that latter conflict, the two get an offer they can’t refuse from William Stryker (Danny Huston), who has assembled a strike force of mutants for sensitive military operations.

Logan eventually walks away from the band when Stryker calls for the murder of an entire African village, opting instead to retreat from society as a lumberjack. But when Victor shows up and kills Logan’s girlfriend, Logan seeks vengeance and agrees to be Styker’s “Weapon X,” in which his skeleton and hand-claws will be coated with the indestructible metal adamantium.

Stryker betrays Logan, of course, but this comes as no surprise. For one thing, anyone who remembers Brian Cox’s portrayal of Stryker in “X2” knows that the character is blindly mutant-phobic. And for another, the movie casts Danny Huston, and while he’s a talented actor, you can pretty much bet the rent that he’s going to play the evil bureaucratic guy who will wind up stabbing the hero in the back.

Slideshow: Hugh Jackman It all leads to a showdown on Three Mile Island, where Stryker has been using mutants to steal their powers to put inside Weapon XI, who has been designed as a mutant-killer. Logan and Victor want to decapitate each other — there’s that whole “Highlander” thing, in that it’s the only way either can die — but they’ve also got to stop Stryker’s grand vision of a mutant-free world.

This is one of those movies where the script feels like an afterthought; one imagines a meeting in which it’s decided that they want eight separate shots of Jackman getting mad and showing the veins in his muscly neck, as well as a sequence with Jackman riding a cool vintage motorcycle, and then the writers went off and figured out how to accommodate those requests.

Video: Jackman talks 'Wolverine' Worse, for the kind of movie this is, the effects shots are often messy and unfinished-looking. (And yes, I saw “Wolverine” on a screen and not in the widely distributed illegal internet download.) In a scene where Logan takes on a helicopter and two Hummers, there are sequences of an airborne Jackman that are so clearly composited and clumsily executed that it’s almost jolting. To say nothing of the cameo appearance by an “X-Men” fixture who has been so badly “reverse-aged” via CG that he looks rubbery.

Fans of the comics will enjoy the fact that the onscreen X-universe has been significantly broadened in this movie with the introduction of Gambit and Deadpool, among others, alongside glimpses of a young Cyclops. (Sharp-eyed viewers will also catch lots of other mutant youngsters from the comics being held prisoner in Stryker’s concentration camp.)

If you were expecting some new twists on the popular Wolverine character, however, David Benioff and Skip Woods’ script doesn’t offer much beyond uninteresting plot beats of the “they keep dragging me back in” school. And while Jackman’s certainly a magnetic performer, the movie doesn’t give him much to play.

The first two “X-Men” features still rank among the best of the superhero movies, but after “The Last Stand” and now “Wolverine,” this is a franchise in decline. Come back to the Charles Xavier School for Gifted Children, Bryan Singer, Bryan Singer.

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