X-Men Origins: Wolverine is what happens when a studio finds itself in the position of reverse-engineering a sequel to a franchise dense with characters and plot twists. This prequel to the X-Men movies feels as if it has been written backwards from a commandment to leave the existing storyline undisturbed — not quite Gaspar Noe’s Wolverine, but close — and can’t even manage that. Wolverine feels small, looks cheap and entertains primarily through jokes that must be unintentional. Considering the talent involved, it’s a fiasco.

Wolverine was always better off without a past. The 1982 Frank Miller mini-series and brief glimpses into his history (like the revelation that he was around during WWII) were engaging teases; in a continuity that grandly embraced tangled soap-opera timelines, Wolverine was one character where we were given license to imagine an origin.

Ironically, the backstory presented here in a brief look into the character’s boyhood was worked up by Marvel to beat the Fox movie franchise to the punch, but the film goes one step further by reducing the story to little more than a slideshow. The bottom line is that two young half-brother mutants, Jimmy Howlett and Victor Creed, go on the run together, fighting back to back in wars from the American Revolutionary through and past World War II.

Howlett, blessed with the dumb bone claws that were added to the character during the mid-’90s nadir of mainstream comics, is the future Wolverine. Creed (Liev Schreiber, trying valiantly to retain his dignity) is to become Sabretooth, eventually played by Tyler Mane in the X-Men films.

(At some point in the movie, people start calling Jimmy Howlett ‘Logan’, though some characters have no way to know that he’s adopted the name. It’s the least dumb of the movie’s many dumb points.)

The brothers are recruited into a mutant commando unit led by William Stryker. (Danny Huston, doing away with much of the verve and all of the Southern accent Brian Cox brought to the role in X2.) Most of the team isn’t given the courtesy of a proper introduction. Those unfamiliar with the last fifteen years of Marvel comics will know Agent Zero as “Asian Guy With Guns”, will.i.am’s John Wraith as “will.i.am in a Cowboy Hat”, and Dominic Monaghan as “That Guy From Lord of the Rings Who Would Be A Great Roommate Because He’d Keep The Electric Bill Down”.

Another team member, Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), is allowed to fire off a few cutesy, forgettable jokes before the movie forgets him for two acts. Eventually Wilson comes back with a bunch of plasticine smeared on his face and giant blades crammed up his forearms (which he can still somehow bend) under the name Deadpool. Augmented with a bunch of other powers, including the eyebeams of Cyclops, he’s Stryker’s attempt to finally kill Wolverine and the movie’s attempt to make audiences forget that we already saw a Wolverine-a-like villain in X2.

(The only character in Stryker’s team worth remembering, in fact, is The Blob, as played by Kevin Durand. He’s got more personality than any other version of the character I’ve seen, and is among the film’s very few bright spots.)

I’ve left out a lot of filler plot because, frankly, it’s barely worth the recap. ’90s irritation Gambit (Taylor Kitch, graced with more screen presence than most of the cast combined) is brought into the story, though not to any significant effect. It’s transparent fan service, insuring only that running time that might have been used to actually tell a story is wasted on another pointless action sequence. One in which Wolverine quickly slices up a fire escape to bring Gambit down to his level, no less.

As the prologue flows into the real story right around the Veitnam War, those keeping track will understand (if the ‘prequel’ status hadn’t already hammered it home) that this film is set in the ’70s. Wolverine, I can virtually guarantee, is the least convincing period film you’ll see. Ever. Robin Hood, Man In Tights is a better period film. So is Death Bed.

Most of the time, even when the action moves to Three Mile Island (therefore implying that the infamous 1979 meltdown was actually cover for a big mutant fight) the film seems to completely forget that it’s meant to take place any time other than now. The blind eye to period accuracy may be meant to help us overlook large story inconsistencies, like the fact that this movie makes Cyclops forty-some years old in X-Men, or that the base in which Logan becomes Wolverine can evidently move around rural Canada like the castle in Krull.

The only consistently appropriate period aspect of the film is the effects, which might have been created on an early mainframe that stored data on reel to reel magnetic tape. I’m more forgiving than most when it comes to effects quality; as long as the idea is there, and interesting, I’ll buy it. But Wolverine is a movie that exists only to provide effects and action, and Sabretooth’s leaping looks like an animatic for Nightcrawler’s movement in X2, explosions are composited into shots with all the fidelity a trial copy of AfterEffects can provide (routine shots even display shoddy work: look at those digital Rocky Mountains!) and Wolverine’s claws, especially in the bathroom comedy sequence, don’t look quite as good as ones seen in fan films on YouTube.

(That’s right: bathroom comedy sequence. After escaping Stryker’s program, Wolverine is so surprised by his new claws that he slices up Ma and Pa Kent’s upstairs bathroom. Not a joke.)

Not that any of the action could have lasting impact. As Sabretooth and Wolverine become enemies, their fights are necessarily bloodless. Both have to be ready to appear in the first X-Men film. That still leaves a lot of room to conjure up interesting action, which this movie never does. Furthermore, Logan seems to be completely invulnerable to physical damage even before he gets his metal skeleton, and after the operation his leather jacket also has healing powers.

Of all the film’s sins, the two most egregious come at the end. Patrick Stewart appears, but you might doubt that it’s actually him. (I hope he doubts that it’s him.) Stewart’s digital face is so melty that it might have been de-aged by opening the Ark of the Covenant, while his dialog sounds as if it was assembled and looped in from other movies. But that’s only insulting to Stewart; the rest of us have to accept that Wolverine is primed for his amnesia in Bryan Singer’s X-Men by an adamantium memory bullet. Read that again. Adamantium. Memory. Bullet. You figure Fox has one more of those lying around I might use to help forget this experience? I truly hope so.

1.5 out of 10