“The Wolverine” slashes through the problems that plagued its predecessor, but unlike its titular hero, it does not come out unscathed.
Logan (aka Wolverine) journeys to Japan to say goodbye to a dying friend, who claims he can make him mortal, but Logan refuses. Later, when protecting the friend’s daughter from the Yakuza, he discovers he has somehow lost his healing factor.
Wolverine has been a staple of Marvel Comics for several decades and a cash cow for the “X-Men” film franchise. He has appeared in every film—including a silly continuity-breaking cameo in “X-Men: First Class”—which has made him old hat. The X-Men have had many good characters in their comics, yet the films keep bringing this brooding anti-hero back. Wolverine always seemed to do the same things in all his film appearances. He pined after fellow X-Man Jean Grey or started fights because he was nigh invincible. He was becoming a bore.
“The Wolverine” begins by doing something new: it takes his invincibility away. Wolverine is forced to deal with the physical consequences of every fight. This compounds the grief he feels over killing Jean Grey in “X-Men: The Last Stand” when she became the Phoenix (by the way, Famke Janssen reprises the role in several dream scenes). He believes he has nothing to live for. His dying friend described him as a ronin, which is a samurai without a master. When the film focuses on this, it feels fresh. But predictably (and too soon), Wolverine’s powers are restored so he can march into the villain’s stronghold like the unstoppable tank he is and slaughters all the henchmen. In the film’s defense, Wolverine is pitted against a worthy adversary during the climax, despite having his powers restored.
Predictability is the name of the game for much of the script. Many viewers will probably call the plot points and revelations well in advance. This does not always hurt the film, but it seems part and parcel with Wolverine stories.
James Mangold, whose previous directorial credits include the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line” and the remake of “3:10 to Yuma,” keeps the film’s pace steady though not brisk. The set pieces for the action sequences are run of the mill, except for a few like a harrowing fight on the roof of the bullet train that makes the subway fight in “Spider-Man 2” look like a walk in the park. The violence is frequent and brutal, often pushing the boundary of the PG-13 rating. This is not a superhero film to take young kids to see.
Setting the film in Tokyo not only explores new parts of Wolverine’s comic book story, it adds freshness to the film. It makes Logan a bit of a fish-out-of-water, adding a bit of frustration to his already dire situation. This also adds a little much-needed humor for such a dark and violent film.
Like the previous X-Men films, “The Wolverine” features many characters from the source material but takes liberties with them. The film is based primarily on the 1982 six-issue miniseries Wolverine written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by Frank Miller. Yukio, a ninja, appears in the film, but her appearance is drastically different. Played by Japanese actress Rila Fukushima, who has a small and oddly shaped face, she has fire-engine red hair and the mutant ability to see others’ deaths. (SPOILER WARNING) The film’s big villain, Silver Samurai, is not a mutant but a man in an Iron Man-esque suit-of-armor. (SPOILERS END) However, it is Viper (aka Madam Hydra), who undergoes the most changes. While in the comics she was a highly trained HYDRA operative (and who usually battled the Avengers), here she is a reptilian mutant who is immune to poisons and spits burning venom on victims. Not only that, but in a move that comes out of nowhere, she once cheats death by shedding her skin like a snake. It seems the screenwriters decided to take her name literally, creating a character who probably should have been an original creation.
As can be seen, like a few superhero films before it, “The Wolverine” suffers from a slight case of villain overload. Ultimately, there are three. Thankfully, it juggles these multiple antagonists better than “Spider-Man 3,” but not with the precision of “Batman Begins.”
(SPOILER WARNING) Marvel fans will be delighted by two surprise cameos. During what may be the best the post-credits stinger in a Marvel film to date, both Magneto and Prof. X—played by Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, respectively—appear. Magneto has regained his powers and Prof. X is somehow alive. They meet Logan at an airport and tell him “dark forces are coming.” Most likely, this is a set-up for next summer’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” If it is, the stage has been set for an exciting and intriguing superhero film. (SPOILERS END)
While it is certainly superior to 2009’s disappointing “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” this film still misses its full potential. It begins with a fresh premise but quickly reverts to formula two-thirds of the way in. Regardless, it is a good rebound for Marvel after the buzzkill that was “Iron Man 3.”