Upon the release of X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009, I mentioned one of the great questions when it comes to reviewing comic book movies — do you base the review on the content of the film itself, in a vacuum, with no context? Or do you talk about whether or not it’s a successful adaptation of the source material. It’s a question that’s getting murkier and murkier as we progress, especially in the wake of a film like X-Men: First Class, a solid effort that completely abandoned comic book canon. And now we come to The Wolverine, a solo story about our man Logan (Hugh Jackman), the adamantium-clawed mutant who is still seeking to find his place in the world, and another entry in the increasingly confusing mutant saga.
In The Wolverine, we open with a stunning scene of Logan as a POW in a Japanese prison camp near Nagasaki just before the U.S. dropped the “Fat Man” atomic bomb, where Logan rescues and then (rather improbably) protects a Japanese soldier from the blast. Cut to present day, where after the events of the much-reviled X-Men: The Last Stand , he’s living once again in the Canadian wilderness as a lonely, heavily bearded recluse. He is tracked down by the quirky-yet-deadly Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a clairvoyant mutant with wicked gift for swordsmanship, tasked with bringing him to Japan so that Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), the now-old and dying man that he once saved, can thank him and grant him one final gift.
It’s once we’re transported to Japan that the film really begins to flex its muscles and attempt to break the mold that has been set by the past mutant saga films. The Wolverine focuses less on the ongoing war between mankind and its new evolutionary competition and more on the subtle war that Logan is fighting with himself. The “gift” that Yashida wants to give him is to actually somehow take away his regenerative powers (or “healing factor”) and transfer it to himself, leaving Logan a normal, vulnerable, mortal man who will now age and feel like any other. The catch is, of course, that Yashida’s intentions may be less than pure, and these complications are compounded by the power plays of those around him, including his granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), her slimy fiance Noburo (Brian Tee), and Harada’s son Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada). Each of them has their own agenda as they wrestle for power and status amidst the giant corporate empire that Harada has built over the decades, and each has their own unique stake in both Harada’s and Logan’s fates.
As a result, you’ll find yourself absorbed in a superhero film that’s frequently decidedly un-superheroish. There are no uniforms, no super groups, and other than some awkwardly-handled dream sequences featuring Logan’s former crush Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), little connection at all to the older films. The advantage to this is that it allows Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay to often truly feel like its own entity, its own story that instead of being forced to conform to the pre-established world, simply uses it as a loose framework to tell its own story. It’s vaguely reminiscent of Iron Man 3 in that it’s an independent tale working within its universe but without the need to cling to it for support. The question is whether or not that tactic works in the film’s favor, or if it disconnects itself too much from its roots. And, of course, there are other questions to be asked — is it a solid continuation of the character’s arc that’s now been set in motion — in some fashion or another, for better or worse — in his five prior movies? Is it faithful to the comic book? And most elementary — is it a good movie?
We’ll start with the good news: The Wolverine is hands down, unquestionably better than Origins, as faint praise as that may be to some. It’s a far smarter picture, with loftier intentions and a good deal more thought put into it. It also doesn’t absolutely destroy both the chronology and the canon set up in both the comic books and the preceding X-Men movies as its predecessor did so wantonly. Instead, it’s a nicely encapsulated one-shot with no greater ramifications in the mutant universe. This may well be the best way to go about making a film where one character branches off from a larger group — especially since the X-Men films operate in the reverse of the Avengers films, telling the group origin first and then doing the solo projects.
Perhaps McQuarrie’s (and director James Mangold’s) best decision was to draw inspiration from Chris Claremont’s fantastic early run of the Wolverine comic book series and take him to a completely foreign place. The Japanese setting works to the film’s advantage, creating a strange and confusing new environment for Logan that he has to struggle to navigate through and creating a reliance on his two allies, Yukio and Mariko. The themes of honor, fidelity, and family are strong and boldly dictate the actions of the major players, even the more sinister ones. Strong performances from the cast help deliver the film’s message with a resounding clarity, and as a result, you find that often, the film actually seems smart, something that is occasionally in short supply in this universe. Jackman continues to pretty much own the character, even though he’s (disappointingly but understandably) decidedly less feral and vicious than the comic inspiration. He’s an old, tired soul trapped in the ageless body built for death and mayhem, whose gifts have been honed to make him, as the saying goes, the best at what he does.
The downside is that despite the new setting and all of the social, cultural, and political nuances that it entails, there’s an aggravating familiarity to the film. For confounding and often frustrating reasons, McQuarrie’s screenplay once again treads the same tired ground that has been visited in so many iterations in the previous films — even the lousy ones. Once again the central plot device is the loss of superpowers. Once again, Logan is obsessed with a woman that he cannot or should not be interested in, whether it’s the spectral image of Jean or the gentle charm of Mariko. And once more, a crucial plot element revolves around the fictional element adamantium. This recycling of ideas has grown tiresome by this point, and even a fresh new locale cannot help avoid the fact that we’re simply playing the same tapes over again.
Story-wise, the film works quite well for its first half, particularly Logan’s interactions with the dangerous and spunky Yukio, which was the most engaging of the film’s relationships (mostly due to a terrific performance by Fukushima). The action sequences were particularly impressive, especially a harrowing and brilliantly shot battle that starts at a funeral procession, moves across the city, and culminates atop a bullet train moving at terrifying speeds. Yet Logan’s eventual relationship with Mariko felt forced and rushed, and one grows tired of the “beauty who soothes the savage beast” trope (especially because this iteration of Wolverine isn’t particularly savage, but rather just angry and maudlin). More interesting were the villains — while the character felt puzzlingly out of place and could have been removed entirely without anyone noticing, credit is due to Svetlana Khodchenkova for her venomous portrayal of the sinister doctor who is pursuing her own dark agenda. The greater disappointment was wasting the talents of Will Yun Lee in a thankless and generic role as her bewitched henchman.
Ultimately, The Wolverine is a decent enough movie, but lacked the strength that I would have expected from the parts it’s made up from. The performances are solid, but the dialogue is often clunky and predictable. The action starts off with some stupendously exciting sequences, yet the final battle is cluttered, clumsily rendered, and rife with lazy plot holes and inconsistencies that are too overt to be ignored (not to mention a clumsy, horrendously and unnecessarily stupid depiction of the classic, much-loved Silver Samurai character). Logan is once again reduced to a dark character who is tamed by a gentle beauty, and yet that darkness is never really explored, and instead the focus is on him trying to be a better man. The problem, at least for the comic book fan, is that that self-doubt is played out with far too much hand-wringing and angst for a character so renowned for toughness and self-confidence. There is a lot that you will truly enjoy about The Wolverine — the settings, the gorgeous cinematography, some excellent fight choreography, and an intensity that was sorely lacking from the first one. Yet despite all of that, there’s still a strange hollowness to the film that, coupled with the repetitive nature of its plot devices, ends up dulling the overall experience.