Smelling a Rat

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The Wolverine's decomposition of a summer blockbuster

As I sat down at the AMC Empire cinema in Times Square for that evening's all-media screening, I could smell a dead rat--and then The Wolverine confirmed it. It wasn't the first time that an all-media screening took place in that filthy, Crossroads-of-Consumerism flea pit (very recently a woman stood up at an AMC Empire screening and screamed about a rodent that jumped into the seat next to her). Such are the conditions forced upon reviewers as they're herded into what the media enthusiastically refers to as "summer blockbusters" like The Wolverine.

It has become standard to submit reviewers and non-professional bloggers to the same nighttime screening schedule as public consumers. Publicists originally justified this practice as establishing the proper atmosphere for enjoying audience-friendly genres (comedies and action films) as if a critic could not laugh or be thrilled without a mob's encouragement. Thanks to the Internet, the mob now includes the burgeoning ranks of media shills.

That self-justified publicist's rationale is disrespectful to professional reviewers yet the rationale has become self-fulfilling: One has to be intimidated into feeling thrilled at a movie as mediocre as The Wolverine, another Marvel Comics spin-off. The stench of rotting vermin, or an unwelcome visit by a scuttling critter is a new kind of 3D FX, more effective than anything that occurs in James Mangold's uninspired staging.

Mangold (Knight and Day, 3:10 to Yuma) has become a studio hack, guaranteed not to challenge or innovate any costly production and just bring it in on schedule and on budget. He approaches this comic-book franchise film like it was a James Bond assignment: The Wolverine's story, bringing Logan/Wolverine, the immortal superhero with adamantium blade growing from his knuckles, out of self-imposed exile to the present day where he reunites with a man (Hiroyuki Sanada) whose life he saved in WWII, feels like the umpteenth entry in an indistinguishable chain.

The series of violent set pieces in a northwest hunter's bar, a Tokyo lair, a highway, in a futuristic lab with a venomous Viper Woman or with various yakuza and ninjas, is like a tourist's checklist of the usual action-movie-blockbuster locales. (Oddest scene has Wolverine strung like a marionette to wires shot by ninja-archers.) Even yeoman Hugh Jackman does his mutton-chop fretting and body-builder calisthenics with a tour guide's dutifulness. The Wolverine's visions of his late wife (Famka Jenssen) suggests the death wish and existential anguish of a totally different kind of movie--as does his Oriental flirtations with two Japanese women (Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima). Mangold should have retitled this hodge-podge should Pacific Rimming.

Summer blockbusters this formulaic--predictable and forgettable--offer a decomposition and deconstruction of film industry thinking. It's why adults opt out of going to see more of the same and only kids and fanboys think these Marvel flicks have anything to do with myth, culture or pleasure. The whole situation (from unendurable theatrical venues to boring narratives) is a Hollywood disease--and it stinks.

Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair

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