Film Review – The Wolverine
Okay, let’s get the most pressing question you have out of the way: The Wolverine is better than X-Men Origins: Wolverine. That’s not a high bar to aim for, but it is the bare minimum one can hope for when going into the latest X-Men universe film.
The Wolverine is a more somber and serious affair than many of the current superhero movies. During the pre-credits sequence, we get a flashback to Logan as a P.U.Watts. helping one of his captors survive the bombing of Nagasaki during WWII. This is a moving preamble that grounds the film with some emotional heft. As the tale in proper begins, Logan is living as a hermit in Alaska, still reeling over the guilt associated with what went down with Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) in X-Men: The Last Stand. He still dreams of her every night and wakes up in cold sweats. He has no plans to rejoin society at all. But when spunky pink-haired Yukio (Rila Fukushima) shows up telling our hero that his old friend from the war wants to say goodbye to him before dying, a trip to Japan sets off a story of familial intrigue. It seems that Logan’s old friend Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), who has built himself an empire, is on his deathbed, and offering to cure Logan of his immortality. Wolverine refuses, Yashida dies soon after, and his offspring are vying for control of the company. Wolverine becomes the ersatz protector of Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), whom the Yakuza is trying to kill. An attempted kidnapping at the funeral leads to an extended chase scene, with Logan taking out scores of hit men with the assistance of a mysterious archer (Will Yun Lee of TV’s Hawaii Five-O reboot). Over the course of the film, there will be a fight on top of a bullet train, Logan falling for Mariko, fights with ninjas, and a duel with a giant metallic samurai.
Hugh Jackman is always watchable as Wolverine. This is his signature role, and he’s able to wear it like a second skin at this point. In this film he has a lot of time to brood and look great with his shirt off. The supporting actors are quite good here as well. Whether it’s Okamoto as Mariko trying to hide a family secret or her father feeling slighted over control of the company, they all convey a sense that there are real stakes here. It’s good to see a superhero movie where the characters actually care about the outcome.
The action as staged by director James Mangold is thrilling and surprisingly controlled, especially when compared to some of the other fare we’ve gotten this summer. The camera actually stays still on occasion so you can see what’s going on. The duel on top of the bullet train is a particular standout. Though it may invite comparisons to a similar duel in the first Mission: Impossible movie, this time around we have a much more super-powered version, with Wolverine using his claws to his advantage. The camera operators in Man of Steel and Pacific Rim look like they have ADD by comparison. Also, due to a villain named Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), Wolverine’s healing factor is muted for the most part. This creates higher stakes for him, because his injuries actually impact him. When someone is always indestructible, it’s hard to worry about their fate. They’re always going to survive. But with his power diminished, there is some real peril involved. That’s smart for getting the audience to care about the action.
Incidentally, there is absolutely no reason why this movie is in 3D. On rare occasions something pops out of the screen, but especially because this movie takes its time setting everything up with a lot of dialogue scenes, there is really nothing added by wearing those dark glasses. This film looks to not have been shot with 3D in mind, so there’s really no point.
In the X-Men canon, this film fits somewhere in the middle. I didn’t truly hate X-Men Origins: Wolverine. I didn’t love it, either, but it’s not the colossal turd of, say, The Phantom Menace or Superman IV or some other very questionable genre fare. I actually liked it better than X-Men: The Last Stand. That’s the worst of the X-Men films. On the other hand, this probably isn’t as good as X-Men: First Class or the first X-Men film. And it definitely doesn’t touch X-2, which is among the best that superhero movies have to offer. It feels like The Wolverine lands in the Star Trek III spot in this franchise. Both films concern the main character’s having to deal with the death of a loved one. Neither one will usually be named as a fan favorite, but each is respectable nonetheless.
The Wolverine is loosely based on the famous comic book limited series by Frank Miller and Chris Claremont. That series defined the character and acted as a catalyst for Wolverine’s popularity. His time in Japan made Logan cool and deadly. It also gave him a soul. However, Wolverine shares a problem with The Punisher in being translated to film. In the comics, both characters became fan favorites because they were the only “heroes” willing to kill. They enjoyed being deadly and being the best at it. So when contrasted with goody-goody characters like Superman and Spiderman, they come off as unique. Meanwhile, the movies are filled with gruff male characters who take deadly revenge. That’s why The Punisher has such a checkered past on screen with so many crappy film adaptations: there’s nothing special about a killer seeking revenge. He just comes off as a guy with a big gun. Yawn. Wolverine can suffer some of that same fate if not handled right. Yes, the claws are unique. But again, a tough-guy loner who begrudgingly helps those around him is pretty pedestrian stuff in movieland. Fortunately, we have the charming Jackman to help sell it.
Yes, The Wolverine may feel too long. Yes, we may all be at our saturation point with superhero movies. Yes, we’ve seen ninjas, Yakuza, and sword fights a hundred times before. And yes, the film probably takes itself overly seriously. But this is still an engaging entry in the mutant corner of the Marvel film universe. It’s nice to see some action scenes where you can actually understand what is going on for once. Also, seeing a tentpole summer movie feature this many non-white faces in strong lead roles is a refreshing change. And stay through the end credits for one of the better filmic Easter eggs you’re likely to see.