When a film is in trouble, there are telltale warning signs before it's even been released. There are last minute reshoots of key scenes, re-recording of dialogue, and editing of established sequences. You'll often see no or late viewings to critics, too, and in Wolverine's case, one can even argue that the early leak of a working cut was a brilliant piece of guerrilla marketing and research.
So, the question is... where does that leave the film on release?
Let's be honest up front - it's not nearly as good as X-Men 2. And, before you panic, it's not nearly as bad as X-Men 3 - thank the Gods! But that leaves it sitting in difficult territory alongside the first film in the series, a good enough exploration of characters that we know and love, but lacking in the heart and soul that made the second film such a great piece of storytelling.
However, you can also see the film that it could have been, and I get the feeling that the re-shoots and last minute work have actually saved the film, rather than presaged a clawed and savage disaster.
There's a lot of ground to cover in this film, and without giving too much away to neophytes or those wishing to avoid spoilers, we get to see Wolverine's life from a young age up to his recruitment by Colonel Stryker. And that's just the first ten minutes! It's a brash move, fitting in so much, and for some the brief glimpses of Civil War Wolverine or Wolverine storming the beaches on D-Day will be just that - all too brief! But it serves its purpose, and echoes the line from the first X-Men film:
"He has uncharted regenerative capabilities, enabling him to heal rapidly. It also makes his age impossible to determine. He could very well be older than you, Professor."
It also, for the comic book fans, ties in to the characters established origin story. Wolverine has indeed been around for some time.
Following the credits the film travels at break neck pace from mutant to mutant, introducing the likes of Deadpool, Agent Zero, The Blob and more. It's at once exhilarating and annoying, as we never really get to know any of them, apart from Dominic Monaghan's Bolt, who gets a bit more screen time and, consequently, a bit more pathos. It's also about then that we get intimations of the main plot of the film, as Stryker starts building the pieces for his Weapon program.
Gavin Hood directs with workmanlike skill, but it's in the quieter moments where you feel the lack of Bryan Singer's more humanist touch. There's no real central relationship for the film to hang off - Wolverine and Sabretooth don't have a bond, so much as they represent the two sides of controlling one's inner beast. Certainly, there's no set up to match the triangle between Cyclops, Jean Grey and Wolverine that anchored X-Men 2 so solidly. It's that lack which is almost what hurts the film the most, but the real issue is simple.
We know how it ends.
It's the same issue that hampered the Star Wars prequels - we know Darth turns. In that instance, if we could have been made to care about Anakin, the movies would have made for grand Shakespearean tragedy. Similarly, we never quite get close enough to Wolverine to care that he's about to lose everything he knows. Hugh Jackman is still a superlative casting choice, but the overwhelming feeling is that without the pathos of Wolverine's quest to discover his past, the character lacks a certain depth.
Our final niggle is that the film is simply too bloodless. In aiming for a PG-13 rating the film loses a lot; whenever Wolverine stabs someone with his bared claws and they appear bloodless moments later, it's hard not to feel robbed.
Still, it's a romp of a film, with some great set piece action scenes, some brilliant makeup effects (trust me, The Blob is... ew!), and fine performances from Jackman, Danny Huston as Stryker (played so well by Brian Cox in the second film), and especially Liev Schrieber as Sabretooth, who's psychopathy and menace is a pleasure to watch. And I must admit a soft spot for Ryan Reynolds' Deadpool, who is wonderfully snarky.
Looking back over this review, I feel I'm sounding harsher than I'd like. The movie does suffer in comparison to other great Marvel efforts - and those comparisons are impossible to avoid - but it is an enjoyable film nonetheless. In many ways it's not Wolverine's origin story that matters, but rather the overall place the film has in X-Men's tapestry - we learn so much more about mutants and the plots against them: the clash that the first two films set up so well and that the third squandered forever.
So it's worth seeing, without doubt, but go in without too many expectations. At the very least, Wolverine puts the X-Men franchise back on track. Hopefully Magneto's origin story can bring back the human element that Wolverine lacks.