One of pop culture’s most enduring and popular superheroes, Wolverine is also one of the most overexposed. Even ignoring the half dozen or so teams he’s on in the pages of multiple Marvel comics, he’s been the focal point for practically every X-men film, even making a scene-stealing cameo in X-men: First Class when that storyline has absolutely nothing to do with him. But his first solo adventure, 2009’s disastrous X-men Origins: Wolverine, practically wrote off the entire franchise and had even the staunchest fan of Marvel’s merry mutants not really caring if the clawed one ever showed his sideburns. And as The Wolverine has developed over the last few years, it does seem that the hope for director James Mangold and returning star Hugh Jackman is to make amends for the last film by giving us the Logan we’ve all been waiting for.
It’s too low of a set bar to say that The Wolverine is far and away superior to the last film. What Mangold has done, quite cleverly, is give us a superhero movie that isn’t really a superhero movie, and is all the better for it. Wolverine is the perfect character for such a film, one that combines elements of film noir, Japanese samurai epics, and American westerns to make for one of the most unique comic book films ever made. Certainly it’s far more ambitious and simply better than something like Iron Man 3, and is considerably more focused than Man of Steel. That’s not to say it isn’t without a share of troubling issues, but so much about The Wolverine is a refreshing break from the norm that it’s safe to call it the best superhero movie of the summer.
Bold words? Maybe, and admittedly this writer is an unabashed X-men fanboy, but one has to appreciate a film that is concerned with taking us into the soul of the hero, rather than piling on more destruction and bigger explosions. In fact, the film begins rather quietly in 1945 Nagasaki, as we see a pre-Adamantium Logan trapped in an underground prison by his Japanese captors. An atomic bomb is dropped, and ever the hero, Logan puts his mutant healing powers to the test by protecting a young soldier named Yashida. In keeping with Japanese codes of honor, Yashida vows to one day repay this life debt, although Logan being Logan, he’d rather just be left alone.
The samurai code of honor, known as “bushido”, is a constant theme throughout, and we see how it motivates Logan even when he doesn’t realize it. Fast forwarding to the present, Logan is a broken man, still suffering from the events of X-men: The Last Stand and the death of Jean Grey (an awkward return by Famke Janssen), who continues to haunt his memories. Essentially immortal due to his mutant powers, Logan has seen everyone he loves die, and has decided to retreat from the world and live in the Yukon wilderness. But the honorable heart of a hero never really goes away, and as Logan deals with an unruly hunter with no respect for the animal lives he takes, we learn more about him in five minutes than most movies can do in two hours. It’s the first time we’ve seen him as more than just the angry X-man with the unbreakable bones, feral attitude, and razor sharp claws. Without Professor Xavier to guide him, he’s a ronin, a wandering samurai in need of a new fight. Fortunately, it isn’t long before he finds one to sink his claws into.
A mysterious offer comes in the form of Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a crimson-haired ninja who could easily be mistaken for a J-pop starlet. The man Logan saved in Japan has amassed an incredible fortune, but as he lay on his deathbed, he wishes to finally repay the debt he owes. Recognizing that Logan no longer wishes to live forever, Yashida offers to remove his healing powers once and for all, allowing the X-man to finally die. As Logan grapples with the idea of death for the first time, he’s swept up into a deadly game of intrigue involving Yashida’s granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), the criminal Yakuza, and what must be thousands of ninja. In the comics, ninja are basically cannon fodder ripped to shreds without a moment’s notice. But mostly everything about The Wolverine is taken seriously, and that includes the threat the ninja represent, especially when the numbers are in their favor, which is always. An encounter with the venomous Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) slows Logan’s mutant powers, making him more vulnerable than ever, although true to form, it doesn’t really stop him from plunging headlong into danger. We’ve never really been given a reason to worry about Logan coming through unscathed, it’s one of the dramatic drawbacks of his power, but there are times where the odds seem insurmountable.
Personal touches aside, the pace is a little uneven and the tone somewhat confusing as Mangold mixes in some spotty CGI for the biggest action pieces. A slightly ridiculous but still thrilling battle atop a speeding bullet train is a definite highlight, but when giant robotic samurai enter in the picture later on it runs counter to the intimate story we’d been engrossed by for so long. It’s almost as if someone figured the film was just a little too quiet, too personal, and that there needed to be some big cinematic sizzle because, at the end of the day, this is still just another summer blockbuster. Whatever the reason behind it, the tightly-wound foundation that had been set up is done severe damage by a convoluted and silly finale that would have been better suited as a deleted scene from X-men Origins: Wolverine.
Utilizing an international cast of Japanese and Korean actors, the performances are superb and aided by a script that gives everyone a very clear motivation. The best by far is Rila Fukushima as Yukio, who could have been written off as just a typical sidekick character, but proves to a strong-willed and forceful figure more than capable of holding her own. With her unique look and acrobatic fighting style, she strikes an impressive image, but the script by Scott Frank and Mark Bomback does a good job of giving her character depth. From Kitty Pryde to Jubilee to Rogue, Logan has always taken a mentorship role with the younger X-Women, but we see that Yukio is in every way his equal. Hopefully this won’t be the last time we see them together on the big screen because the chemistry between Jackman and Fukushima is perfect.
But of course this is Hugh Jackman’s show, and it’s amazing to think at one point people used to complain that he wasn’t the right guy to play Wolverine. It’s now difficult to imagine anybody other than him, and it’s safe to say that he’s right up there with Robert Downey Jr. in defining a superhero immeasurably. The thing about Jackman is that he’s such a gregarious and loudly charismatic guy, whereas Logan is quiet, angry, and exudes a basic animal magnetism. Jackman’s also kept himself in impeccable shape, even as he hints at growing too old to suit up for the role. He’s more physical than ever this time around, so he’s got a few more years left in him for sure.
Technically, Mangold makes the best possible use of the Japanese setting. In particular he seems interested in capturing the architectural and cultural divide between old world Japan and the technologically advanced cityscapes of Tokyo. It makes for a truly distinct atmosphere, and gives the film a look unlike any we’ve seen in other superhero movies.
If there’s something to take away from The Wolverine, it’s that Logan can be every bit as interesting as Superman, Batman, Iron Man, or any of the other big screen heavy-hitters. While it may not be the summer’s biggest comic book film, The Wolverine has more heart and soul than the lot of them, and proves that the X-men franchise is alive and well.