THE WOLVERINE– 3 STARS
Until Marvel Studios re-wrote the cinematic blueprint from 2008 to 2012 for creating a team-up film (The Avengers) of multiple characters by making each individual origin stories first in their own solo films, the history of movie spin-offs has been a mixed bag. For the uninformed, the “spin-off” is a different category of movie sequel. They take a main character or side character from one movie and give them their own story in an follow-up film, sometimes directly connected to the first effort and sometimes not at all. More often than not, they are weak past-tense efforts that cannot capitalize on intial success and squeak by on someone else’s coattails.
For every semi-decent U.S. Marshals that follows The Fugitive, the star-making Scorpion King rewinding The Mummy Returns, the expanded Machete from Planet Terror, and a Puss in Boots that springboards from Shrek 2, you’ve got a dumpster full of Catwoman, Supergirl, Elektra, Get Him to the Greek, Hannibal Rising, A Shot in the Dark, and Evan Almighty. The crappy bad ideas outnumber the good ideas. We’ve also recently witnessed a major franchise, The Fast and the Furious, course-correct itself from multiple inferior sequels/spin-offs by circling back and merging them together for a big team-up of their own. The progression of Fast Five, Fast and Furious 6, and the upcoming seventh film next summer has saved the day. That’s where we currently stand with the X-Men franchise that started in 2000 with Bryan Singer’s series opener. 20th Century Fox is trying to pull off the same merging that saved The Fast and the Furious.
After the initial sequels ran out of gas in 2006 with Brett Ratner’s shoddy and damaging X-Men: Last Stand, a movie that killed off Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Cyclops (James Marsden), and, worst of all, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), the studio decided to give Stewart’s Professor X, Ian McKellan’s Magneto, and Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, their own origin story solo spin-offs as a way to deepen what they started and salvage the franchise. The flagship superstar of the comics and screen, James “Logan” Howlett, aka Wolverine, got the first crack with 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a much-maligned attempt at a back story that teeters on the dumpster list of spin-offs spelled out earlier. Even though it made enough money to earn a sequel, fanboys and critics alike rejected it. With that iffy fallout, the planned solo projects for Professor X and Magneto were reworked as 2011’s X-Men: First Class, a rebooted 1960’s-set new origin for the whole franchise, starring James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as younger versions of Xavier and Magneto. To the surprise of many, that revised back story was a big hit and earned its own sequel coming next year.
The “catch” of X-Men: First Class‘s slate-wiping success was the mystery of what to do with Wolverine. Even coming off of 2009’s critical flop, Hugh Jackman, now an Academy Award nominee and international superstar, is, without a doubt, the one name the franchise has that could still put butts in seats on name recognition alone. With a reworked origin around him, where does he now fit? Where and how do you connect the most popular character of the initial failure to the swelling promise of the resurrected franchise you want to build? It was cute and clever to give Jackman his F-word-nailing cameo in X-Men: First Class, but now they have a second chance to capitalize.
That’s the challenge set before this new Jackman-centered spin-off, simply titled The Wolverine. It has the task of of cleaning up some of the mess from X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine while being the first bridge between the old franchise and the refashioned new one that takes center stage next summer with X-Men: Days of Future Past. If you haven’t heard, that 2014 blockbuster-to-be brings back original director Bryan Singer and will use time travel to merge the old Stewart/McKellen history with the new McAvoy/Fassbender work, all with Hugh Jackman still smack dab in the middle.
That’s some ambitious stuff and, in a way, almost too much to ask one film like The Wolverine to do. However, you can’t fault Hugh Jackman and the X-Men franchise puppeteers for trying. The Wolverine is a tangent standalone story that follows up one of the two post-credit teases that came out of X-Men: Origins Wolverine. While current box office poison Ryan Reynolds is going to have to keep waiting to get a Deadpool movie off the ground (he’ll be waiting a while), this film showcases Logan’s storied history in Japan that is loosely based off a much-loved four-issue 1982 comic mini-series by writer Chris Claremont and artist Frank Miller (300, Sin City). This is the movie we should have gotten four years ago. It’s far from a perfect movie, but far from a bad one as well.
The film itself is set a few years after the cataclysmic events of X-Men: Last Stand. We meet a hermit Logan living in the woods of northern Canada trying to drink and live his sorrows away alone. He awakens frequently from dreams and nightmares of his deceased love Jean Grey (an extended return cameo for Famke Janssen), who awaits Logan to join her in death. In tangling with some drunk local hunters at a bar, Logan is located by a woman named Yukio (fashion model and actress Rila Fukushima), a skilled mutant assassin with the clairvoyance to see people’s deaths. She’s been looking for the “Wolverine” on behalf of her caretaker and mentor, a dying Tokyo billionaire technology magnate named Yashida (Push‘s Haruhiko Yamanouchi).
Nearly seventy years earlier, while a Japanese prisoner during World War II, Logan saved young Yashida’s life from the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki (a thrilling little sequence). Yashida has summoned Logan to his deathbed in an effort to repay the favor. With the help of a mutant oncologist (Russian actress Svetlana Khodchenkova of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Yashida seeks to extend his life and has been long fascinated with Logan’s healing factor. Logan refuses Yashida’s offer to remove his mutant immortality and transfer it to himself, allowing Logan the “honorable death” he seeks.
When Yashida passes away shortly thereafter, family matters complicate the transfer of his company’s power. Yashida, in his will, intended to pass over his son Shingen (second-billed Hiroyuki Sanada of The Last Samurai and Sunshine) and grant his granddaughter and Shingen’s own daughter, Mariko (Ralph Lauren model Tao Okamoto, in her film debut), control over the company. Seeing a vacuum of power, Yakuza crime operatives strike at Yashida’s funeral with the intention of kidnapping Mariko. Logan, with the help of Harada (Die Another Day villain Will Yun Lee), a Yashida family bodyguard and former lover of Mariko, guides her to safety, but finds out in the melee that he has lost his ability to heal. Hiding out back down south in Nagasaki, Mariko and Logan bond and layers are peeled away, both with Logan’s honorably sad history and Mariko’s overarching family importance. When Mariko is kidnapped again, the now-vulnerable Logan puts himself back in action to rescue her and confront whatever forces are really at work.
I’ll be the first to admit that the plot of all of that described above is a muddled mess as cloudy as a backwoods creek. Comic readers who know their old Wolverine, his clashes with the Silver Samurai (who does appear here), and his parallels with the samurai culture that were gorgeously fleshed out by that old 1982 mini-series are likely going to be very disappointed by this movie’s very modern and cleansed interpretation, crafted by the screenwriting team of Mark Bomback (Jack the Giant Slayer, last year’s awful Total Recall remake) and Scott Frank (Get Shorty, Out of Sight) with an uncredited polish from Bomback’s Jack the Giant Slayer partner and Bryan Singer buddy Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Jack Reacher). It’s not quite an Iron Man 3-level of switcheroo shenanigans, but it’s close to see this story very watered down for the PG-13 superhero and summer crowd.
What I can compliment is that, as weakly trimmed down as it is, there is legitimate effort here to give this chapter of Wolverine’s history some mildly plausible depth, meaning, and purpose, which is more than we can say for 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Where that movie had a feverish pace to pile on incoherent action and introduce way too many characters, this new film keeps things more grounded and introspective than any other of the X-Men franchise films, and that’s high praise. By bringing in Cop Land, 3:10 to Yuma, and Walk the Line director James Mangold and leaving out the globe-trotting scale of the other X-Men films, The Wolverine does its best to cut to the core of what makes their headliner tick. The end result is a surprisingly personal character piece and it works. He softens and internalizes what, in someone else’s hands (yeah, I mean you, Brett Ratner), could have been another overcooked extravaganza of stupidity. Mangold replaced the original hire of Black Swan‘s Darren Aronofsky for the director’s chair. He too, in re-teaming with Jackman from their grossly under-appreciated 2006 film The Fountain, wouldn’t have made a cartoon with this material either, but likely would have made things a little more trippy than we all bargained for. Mangold did enough to pass this torch back to Singer for next summer.
Comic fanboys have to remember that, ever since the first film of the franchise thirteen years ago, this is no longer “their” Wolverine. It’s Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. As unlikely and unknown as he was in 2000 when he landed the part-of-parts, The Wolverine completely cements this character as his now. The actor, soon to be 45 years old this fall, seems to be as ageless as the character and keeps getting more and more ripped to look the part. This comic book character is now seen more as a movie character than a literary one, no matter how much is different, modified, or rewritten from the page to the screen. “Wolverine” be in the first line of Jackman’s obituary someday and probably written on the man’s tombstone as if he played James Bond. The Logan/Wolverine we’ve seen six times now from Hugh keeps getting more and more interesting, despite the crappy movies sometimes behind him. That’s a huge testament to Jackman’s appeal and sheer will to entertain in every way on-screen. He saves The Wolverine and likely will be a big part to saving the entire franchise next summer with X-Men: Days of Future Past. Be sure to stay into the end credits to be teased about that next very challenge.
LESSON #1: LIVING AN IMMORTALITY OF PERPETUAL LOSS— Much like Brad Pitt’s remorseful immortal vampire from Interview with the Vampire, Logan’s advanced healing factor that slows his aging and makes him near impervious to injury, disease, and death has been a bit of a curse for him. He’s had to watch (and sometimes instigate) a great deal of loss and death in his life. The people he gets close to, particularly the women in his life, tend to die around him, leaving him to deal with that loss repeatedly. The death of Jean Grey, something he was forced to perform himself, haunts him strongly in this film.
LESSON #2: A SOLIDER WITHOUT A CAUSE IS EQUAL TO A WARRIOR WITHOUT A MASTER— Though the Claremont/Miller comic mini-series personifies this with far richer detail, Logan is considered by Yashida to be a “ronin,” the Japanese term for a samurai warrior without a master. Similarly, Logan sees himself more as a soldier without a cause to fight for than something akin to a samurai. In his extended life, he has drifted between different cultures, places, and allegiances. As he wrestles with his own mortality, Logan realizes that, like the samurai way, he lives by strong moral code to not kill without a purpose. In many ways, the ronin definition suits Logan well.
LESSON #3: SEEKING AN HONORABLE DEATH— Those first two lessons lead us to here. Between living with repeated loss and being conflicted by the morals that connect him to the causes he has taken up over his long life, Logan constantly wonders what his end purpose will be in the grand scheme of things. A fighter like Logan might play up being out for himself with his cocky exterior, but that’s a shell for the selfless and devoted man he is underneath all of that animalistic rage. As nearly immortal as he is, like any true and tested warrior, Logan seeks an honorable death that gives meaning to his external and internal conflict.